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Husband and Wife Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, John Glover and More Head to New Jersey Rep

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Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker

New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway in Long Branch, brings a starry cast for  the premiere of Fern Hill by Michael Tucker (L.A. Law, Radio Days), from August 9 through September 9, 2018.

Director Nadia Tass and playwright Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker

The play stars stars Jill Eikenberry (L.A. Law, Moonchildren)

Jill Eikenberry

Jill Eikenberry

John Glover (Smallville, Waiting for Godot)

John Glover

John Glover

Dee Hoty (Bright Star, Mamma Mia!)

Dee Hoty

Dee Hoty

Jodi Long (Sullivan and Son, The Hot Chick, Splash)

Jodi Long

Jodi Long

Tom McGowan(Frasier, Wicked, Chicago)

Tom McGowan

Tom McGowan

and David Rasche (Speed-the-Plow, Veep, Burn After Reading).

David Rasche

David Rasche

Fern Hill is helmed by Australian director, Nadia Tass.

Nadia Tass,Michael Tucker

Director Nadia Tass and playwright Michael Tucker

Three couples in their golden years are gathered at Sunny and Jer’s farmhouse to celebrate milestone birthdays that span three decades. The foundation of their long friendship is honesty and support – as well as a commitment to the enjoyment of food, wine, and laughter. They’re so close that Sunny suggests they all move in together – to live and work and assist one another as they grow older. Their companionship is put to the test, however, when a marital betrayal is discovered. The bonds of loyalty and truth are explored in this mature comedy.

David Rasche, Jill Eikenberry

David Rasche, Jill Eikenberry

Tickets are $50 (opening night with reception $60; premium seating + $5). All tickets may be subject to a service charge. Annual subscriptions are $225 per person. For tickets or additional information call 732-229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org.

The cast

Fern Hill

Fern Hill

Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long, Tom McGowan, Jill Eikenberry, David Rasche

Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long, Tom McGowan, Jill Eikenberry, David Rasche

Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long, Tom McGowan, Jill Eikenberry, David Rasche

Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long, Tom McGowan, Jill Eikenberry, David Rasche

Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long

Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long

Dee Hoty

Dee Hoty

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker

David Rasche

David Rasche

Tom McGowan, John Glover

Tom McGowan, John Glover

Tom McGowan, John Glover

Tom McGowan, John Glover

Jodi Long

Jodi Long

Jill Eikenberry, Dee Hoty, Jodi Long

Jill Eikenberry, Dee Hoty, Jodi Long

Nadia Tass

Nadia Tass

Out of Town

Monty Python’s Spamalot Finds its Grail Hilariously at the Stratford Festival 2023

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Always look on the bright side of life“, that’s what they sing, so enthusiastically to all of us, with automatic head-bobbings from one joyous side to another in happy unison, and inside Stratford Festival‘s magnificent production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, there really is no other way to go. It’s deliciously fun and utterly ridiculous, as any Monty Python engagement should ultimately be, with stellar comedic performances riding in most delightfully to the sound of coconut shells banging together with determination by those that follow. Within seconds, after our surprising side trip to Finland, all hesitations are entirely washed away by the utter skillful hilarity of all involved. Purposefully directed with sharp clever focus by Lezlie Wade (La Jolla/Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar), the quest for extreme merriment is “steady and over we go” inside the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario as it is achieved wholeheartedly at every turn of phrase. And that is something no “doubting Dennis” will argue about.

From left – Aidan DeSalaiz, Liam Tobin, Jonathan Goad, Eddie Glen, Aaron Krohn and Josh Doig in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Ripped expertly off from the motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail“, this stunningly funny staging of the Broadway stage musical that in 2005 received 14 Tony Award nominations, winning in three categories, including Best Musical, finds its grail time and time again, delivering forth joke after silly joke with an expertise that is golden and holy. With a score by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, and lyrics and book by Idle, this superb parody of epic proportions is completely entertaining and non-stop irreverent, in the best of all possible ways. Playing parody with Arthurian legend, Spamalot leads itself in at the instruction of the Historian, played to perfection by Henry Firmston (Stratford’s Chicago). It’s all about the tale of King Arthur, hilariously well portrayed by Jonathan Goad (Stratford’s To Kill a Mockingbird) and his trusting right-hand coconut-wielding sound man, Patsy, awesomely embodied by Eddie Glen (MTC’s The 39 Steps), by his side. They are out on an expedition, searching for and trying to recruit a knightly army of men to serve and follow him. That is once we get our location settings all in order.

Jonathan Goad (centre) as King Arthur with (from left) Anthony MacPherson, Jason Sermonia, McKinley Knucle, and Devon Michael Brown in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Now that we find ourselves (correctly) in dreary dark England, with penitent monks bashing themselves on the head to the beat of some drum, King Arthur hooves his way before us with his trusted sound man behind him, mimicking him to perfection. How do we know he’s the King? Well, “he hasn’t got shit all over him” is about the best response one could have, as the two go door to door trying to form a troupe of knights to sit at the round table in Camelot (and I must add, after watching the most recent revival of Camelot at the Lincoln Center Theatre a few months ago, this is the one I’d most like to hang out it, in spades). And as they say, whatever happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot.

Slowly but surely, they gather together this band of merry ridiculous men; Sir Robin, portrayed with song and dance in his heart by Trevor Patt (TIP’s Jersey Boys); Sir Lancelot, played tremendously (and violently) well by Aaron Krohn (Broadway’s The Lehman Trilogy); Sir Bedevere, cagedly portrayed with glee by Aidan DeSalaiz (Winter Garden’s Into the Woods); and Sir Dennis Galahad, beautifully embodied by the beautifully coifed (and very funny) Liam Tobin (Broadway’s The Book of Mormon). Even if his politically radical mother, Mrs. Galahad (DeSalaiz) is against it from the get-go. She states, most wisely, that they all must deny any king who has not been elected by the people, and therefore, Arthur has no legitimate right to rule over them. Well said. But it doesn’t really matter in the end. Just ask that Lady in the Lake, played magnificently by the oh-so-talented Jennifer Rider-Shaw (Stratford’s Chicago). She has another plan floating within her.

Sir Robin and Sir Lancelot need to navigate the Not Dead Yet Fred (Firmston) and his lively riotous number, “He Is Not Dead Yet.” Gloriously grand. But it’s Sir Galahad (and his mother) that needs to be convinced by the mighty charms and voice of the Lady of the Lake who has to prove to them that the story of Excalibur is real and true. Cheered on by the “Laker Girls Cheer“, she turns Dennis into the dashingly handsome Sir Galahad and together, they sing the most generic (and wonderfully long) Broadway love song, “The Song That Goes Like This“, complete with a falling chandelier and swampy boat ride in order to win out the day. With a grand fling of his locks, he happily joins Sir Robin and Sir Lancelot, and together with cagey Sir Bedevere and the “aptly named” Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Show (Knuckle), they all set off for Camelot and the adventurous quest that leads them through this ridiculously funny skit-filled show.

Liam Tobin (left) as Sir Dennis Galahad and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Lady of the Lake with members of the company in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

If it isn’t some sentries debating whether or not one or two swallows are needed to successfully carry a coconut to this non-tropical land, or being taunted by a few lewd French soldiers high up on a wall that even an empty rabbit won’t remedy, it’s some singing and flying nuns and monks dancing the mamba that keep delivering the laughs time and time again. It’s brilliantly funny, and superbly choreographed, thanks to the work of Jesse Robb (Ogunquit’s Ragtime) and the fabulously talented ensemble. It gives and it gives in abundance, just like Rider-Shaw who keeps reappearing to remind us all of her glory. “Whatever Happened to My Part?” is the question she asks, and I couldn’t agree more because every time she steps on that stage, she brightens the moment with her wit and voice (Sweet aside, I was lucky enough to be in the Broadway audience for the first show after the 2005 Tony Awards and joined in with the standing ovation for Sara Ramirez, who just two nights prior had won the Tony Award for her portrayal of the Lady of the Lake. It was a glorious moment, one that I won’t forget.)

This “All for One” mentality wins big on a stage perfectly constructed by designer David Boechler (Stratford’s Chicago) with solid lighting by Renée Brode (Stratford’s Patience), spot-on projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis (Broadway’s Dr. Zhivago), and exacting sound by emily c. porter (Stratford’s Little Women). It shifts, shuffles, and presents found shrubbery with pizzazz throughout with some pretty magnificently funny and entertaining numbers, deftly presented by music director Laura Burton (Stratford’s You Can’t Stop the Beat), that zing and sing with exacting precision. There are some Broadway hopes that rely on finding some specifics, but one of the funniest bits revolves around Sir Lancelot who receives a stabbing letter from what he assumes to be a young damsel in distress. But it turns out, he is actually an effeminate young man by the name Prince Herbert, wonderfully portrayed by Josh Doig (Theatre Aquarius’ Hairspray) whose brutish father, the King of Swamp Castle (Tobin), is forcing him into an arranged marriage. And, even more horribly, refuses to let the boy sing and dance to his heart’s content.

As any great knight would do, Lancelot saves the young man, and then delivers a heartfelt speech about honoring his son’s gentle sensitivity. In return, Lancelot is outed as a homosexual, naturally, and the cast gyrates forward into a big wild disco dance number in celebration and acceptance of it all, and the fun we are having. “His Name Is Lancelot” is the Pride Month anthem of the show, and setting the puppet-controlled killer rabbit aside, this number, and Monty Python’s Spamalot as a whole, plays proud and hilarious to the end, thanks to its ridiculous roots and its perfect placement. After pondering the final stoney clue, with Arthur admitting that they’re all “a bit stumped“, God points it all out, rewarding the holder with a small trophy and a Polaroid photo. The grail is found, finally, and the marriage mamba can begin. We all rise in celebration, and join in with the welcomed repeat of the glorious “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” feeling completely entertained, overjoyed, and emptied of every laugh one could possibly have had inside their happy head.

From top to bottom – Aaron Krohn as The French Taunter, Anthony MacPherson as French Guard, Jason Sermonia as French Guard, and McKinley Knuckle as French Guard in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Stratford Festival’s King Lear 2023 Struggles in the Controlled Column of Rain

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It smells of mortality,” this King Lear, as the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums parade us into the opening night of the Stratford Festival in beautiful Stratford, Ontario. I must admit freely that I was thrilled. To be invited to all the openings of this world-renowned Festival is a dream, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Yet, I also couldn’t help but contemplate that moment in 2018, when, after watching The Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear at BAM, I surprised myself by thinking that I wasn’t quite sure I wanted another Lear viewing for some time coming. Don’t get me wrong. I love the play, with all its rich unfolding divisions around love, blindness, sanity, and a certain kind of madness that lies awaiting deep inside the sharp illumination of darkness and ego. Yet, this Shakespearian contemplation written with all the complexities of love, duty, and deceit intermingled is not my favorite of the bunch (honestly, I think that might be Macbeth). But it certainly isn’t my least favored either.

Yet after seeing that RSC production at BAM, which starred the incomparable Sir Antony Sher, I watched in awe as it dragged itself forward like an old Cleopatrian relic, spreading itself out slowly and ceremoniously in a way that made me slouch in my seat wishing for bed. That King never fully emotionally engaged, even with the hard-at-work Sher, one of Britain’s most esteemed classical actors, giving it his all. He enthrallingly stated in the program that once you play Lear, there’s really “nowhere else to go, Shakespeare-wise“. The part is a virtuoso solitary climb; a battle against time and importance; a “shouting at, arguing with, a storm.” And what could be better than that? It’s the ultimate human duel with the force of nature and existence, crackling with lighting and fury (as it should be). So it’s no wonder that I found myself, once again, ready and willing to engage, with this text and the trauma that is at the heart of this family breakdown.

Michael Blake (left) as Edmund and André Sills as Edgar in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

My fingers were crossed, as the trumpets signaled us all to our seats. They beaconed us most impatiently, ushering us into the dynamic and expansive Stratford Festival‘s 2023 season with ceremonial aplomb, and I couldn’t be happier. This was the first opening of the season, and the energy of the event was electric, just as it was within those first few moments of this King Lear, with Gloucester, played captivatingly by Anthony Santiago (Citadel’s Of Mice and Men), talking uncomfortably to those men nearby about women and sex; as well as legitimacy and illegitimacy, in such degrading and callous terms. I couldn’t help but squirm inside the deafness of his speech, especially as he boasts about it all in front of his “bastard” son, Edmund, played anti-heroically by the wonderfully charming and talented Michael Blake (Arts Club’s Topdog/Underdog). No wonder Edmund has become the man he shows himself to be; to his father, and to his half-brother, Edger, played touchingly by André Sills (Stratford’s Coriolanus).

With utter diligent determination, this epic “crawl towards death” digs itself into the stark walled stage with clarity and the love of Shakespearean text. Designed with unique and compelling lines and lit boundaries by Judith Bowden (Shaw’s Desire Under the Elms), the impact from that first scene registers undeniably strong, brilliantly illuminated by sharp shards of light designed most impressively by Chris Malkowski (Shaw’s Chitra). It gives structure and significance to the geometric lines of space and power, never letting us disengage from the sanity and insanity of the form and the falling from start to finish. It truly is a brilliantly constructed visual, not exactly matched by the characters in its midst.

Parcelled in that frame, this King Lear is determined, mainly because of the casting of Paul Gross (“Slings and Arrows“; Stratford’s Hamlet) in the title role. He enters strong and vital, powerful and emotionally cut to the bone. He doesn’t look like a man ready to give up his throne, yet for some reason, he has come to this untimely decision, and I couldn’t help but lean in wondering how this will unfold. This becomes the question of the night. How will this Lear develop, giving clarity and a deeper understanding to his untimely rationale of departure and dependence? Will he let us in to see the “Why now?” that is at the heart of his King? With an impressive head of long white hair, Gross finds an engagement inside the text that delivers expressively, but maybe not entirely finding the answer. It’s smart and clear-minded, yet he doesn’t, at least in the beginning, give off an air of being “old before your time“. Yet it’s there, slowly, and with a tense heart-pounding pulse and a clutching of his chest. It lives somewhere in the pained heart; the idea that this man knows a thing or two about mortality and disease, whether conscious or not, and needs something (or someone) else to help him manage, to take hold, without the losing of his regal form, and without having to ask for it directly. Pride is a formulation that doesn’t serve this King well, and arrogance. That we all know.

The historical framework of Gross’s return to Stratford is one for celebration and excitement. And I was totally there for it from the moment I read of his casting. The construction seems sublime and timely as Gross played Hamlet on this very stage back in 2000. That appearance mimicked one of my all-time favorite television shows, the Canadian “Slings and Arrows.” The series unearthed a fascination with and an understanding of the three powerhouse roles for an actor: Hamlet, Macbeth, and, more importantly, King Lear (I would have said ‘male actor’ but I’m hoping that gender specificity is receding somewhat, especially after watching Glenda Jackson give us a Lear to remember). The television show relished over three seasons the idea of exploring the three stages of man, one per season. (If you haven’t seen this brilliant and funny look at art and commerce within the world of Shakespearean Summer Festivals, find it immediately and dig in.) Romeo and Hamlet mark the beginning of engagement, Macbeth takes on the middle years with a conflictual urgency, and King Lear, one of the greatest parts for an older actor, unleashes the madness in the grand finale. It seems Gross has decided to skip the Scottish play and run headlong into the storm that is King Lear. For that, I am intrigued. I couldn’t help but wonder, what does he have in store for us after all these years away.

As directed by Kimberley Rampersad (Shaw’s Man and Superman), the play somehow doesn’t find its way to the emotional core, seeming uncomfortable and surprisingly traditional in its unraveling of the inherent drama. It does hold some intellectual grace, and a great deal of found humor within its delivery, yet it somehow rolls in like a controlled storm without a clear unique fierce vision. Through its epic arc of realization in the face of betrayal, this production somehow struggles to clarify itself, attempting to give a darker meaning to blind needy arrogance and narcissism, yet never really unpacking its true personal ideology. It plays itself so straightforward with a direct clarity of the language, spinning the traditional yarn gracefully, but I wondered where this production’s true underlying vision lies. Or is it blindly wandering through the heath without a strong hand to guide it? I wanted a compelling vantage point to usher us through the known wild storm of Lear and into something fresh and exciting, one that matched the wild inventiveness of the stage and its structural illumination. Yet it feels flat and formulaic, even in its fine standardized telling. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, it played itself out with a textual honoring that unpacks Lear’s slow mental decline well, even inside the youthful appearing body of the old man. But I wanted some contextual understanding that wasn’t so obvious and laid out. Something that made this Learcrackle like the storm that is coming.

Paul Gross as King Lear in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

The strongest symbol of its unfortunate undoing is the visual impact of the storm. Years ago, when I was in my teens, I saw a production of King Lear that helped solidify it as one of my favorite Shakespearian tragedies.  It starred Peter Ustinov standing center stage at the same Festival Theatre (1980, directed by Robin Phillips), with a torrential rain and wind storm blasting him from every direction, almost ripping him apart. It was a powerful moment that stayed with me, but nowhere in this current production did I get the sense that Gross’s Lear could actually be blown to bits. The ‘rain’ did fall down on him, steady and straight, dampening his hair and his spirit, but there was no danger in it. No wind. No uncontrollable gusts. Just a steady stream of ‘rain’ that fell in a controlled small pool of light. Nothing to be afraid of here, I thought.

It has been said that Lear is somewhat of a paradox. He’s known for his wild and windy battles against the storm of dementia, but at the beginning of this tale, he feels technically sane, looking strong and centered in his proud but narcissistic insolence, even as it is clear that the stance is highly misguided. As portrayed by the compelling Gross, his almost youthful arrogance struck true, fortified by an absurd desire to hear only praise and levels of love that makes no sense. His older two “pelican daughters“, portrayed by the stern Shannon Taylor (Crow’s Uncle Vanya) as Goneril, and Déjah Dixon-Green (Grand’s The Penelopiad) as the violent secondary Regan, willing play the insincere game, showering him measurably with adoration that borders on the ridiculous. But Lear doesn’t hear that quality, he only registers the over-wrought deceptive venerations and digs his heels in with delight. The older sisters understand their father’s prideful need for idolatry, and praise him with words that are actually too grand and quite foolish in idea and theme. They stand, without any backstoried clarity (something that I blame on the interesting new play, Queen Goneril after seeing it at Soulpepper. I will always now look for hints and side glances of the problematic familial history, trauma, and the reasonings for these two older sisters’ heartless cruelty. But I wasn’t going to get that here, as the subtext wasn’t available to be seen). They are dolled up in detailed costumes designed confusingly by Michelle Bohn (CSC’s A Four Letter Word) that appear initially as somewhat symbolically bold and classical, yet unfurl and start to feel somewhat weird, haphazard, and unfocused, bringing at least one-time giggles from the audience because of one ‘funny thing happened on the way to the forum’ yellow frock. I just couldn’t understand the choices made in those sisters’ getups, just like I couldn’t fathom some of their overly melodramatic responses.

Standing in the background throughout, struggling in her own way, is the favored daughter, Cordelia, the youngest and most clear-minded, played somewhat flatly and blandly by Tara Sky (Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes), who decidedly fails to play up to the arrogance and desperate needs of her father, the King. It’s an act of bravery, in a way, believing her unquestionable love will be seen, felt, and known by her father, but she is not, finding herself cast off, thrown away, betrayed most callously by her honesty and candor. The tides of joy turn dark, like white fluffy clouds that quickly darken and turn ominous with the changing of the wind. Dementia and madness start to blow in, and we watch as that seed takes hold and twists the King’s form and face into something quite scary, and then sad and despondent. The moment doesn’t actually fully resonate, but as she is packed off to France, we sit wondering what just happened, and why it never felt truly heart-breaking.

The Earl of Kent, played with an undetermined tone of voice and character by David W. Keeley (Stratford’s Coriolanus), attempts to stand up to the King, defending Cordelia’s public declaration of love for her father, but to no avail. He, like her, is not heard through the stubborn barriers that enclose this King. He and Cordelia are chastised and ordered away, and the two elder eager daughters take control of the kingdom, gaining power over all, including their father. Why the King doesn’t recognize Kent when he returns to serve him I can’t say. He has changed nothing about his appearance, yet we are instructed to believe, and so we shall. With some effort.

Paul Gross (centre) as King Lear with members of the company in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

This is not going to end well for the old King, but as he brandishes his bullying privilege over Goneril and her court, we struggle to get under the skin of his or her predicament. Something about that first formulation of banishment and dismissal didn’t register in the way it somehow should have. We must almost instantly align ourselves with the discarded pair, or it seems the reformation doesn’t really stand a chance to fully emotionally engage. Cordelia is scantily only given that initial scene to connect to our collective heart, yet standing there, in her oddly fitted prom dress, our bond with her falls flat at her feet, hobbling the future traumatic undoing mainly because of this detached uneven first engagement.

Something isn’t sitting right, yet we know how this will run its course. We see it from the very beginning, and although King Lear in the hands of director Rampersad hasn’t fully captivated us or made us understand the director’s vantage point, the engaging Gross works hard to create a father and a King that is proud, argumentative, and sharp as a claw. We know, or at leastbelieve that the torturous journey through the wastelands will somehow cake his frame with mud and bruises, but somewhere along the path, we are challenged to see it, even though it never fully formulates itself strongly. His progression to his undoing staggers forward sneakily, with the wonderfully sly Fool, played with clever intuition by Gordon Patrick White (Neptune’s The Devil’s Disciple) delivering the truth through his sharply barbed tongue. It’s a wonderfully detailed deliverance, but I would have favored some more physical affection between the King and his fool, well, from anyone to be honest, as the play fails to touch and be touched with any kindness and connection, even as he derails himself against the approaching storm that never really materializes.

In the first and only subplot to be found in this Shakespearian tragedy, the bastard son Edmund (Blake) is also quite the devious and deceiving child. He orchestrates a well-thought-out and structured plot to forge mistrust between his father, the Earl of Gloucester (Santiago) and his legitimate son, Edgar (Sills). Paralleling the familial betrayal between parent and child, the deceitful Edmund finds a dark sensual stance to play out his cruel plot with ease and a coolness that registers, flying forward with heartless glee. He throws his half-brother underfoot, forcing the man to flee in a confused flurry of accusations, only to find himself later leading his blinded father through the same wasteland of distrust and deceit. Blake’s charming approach to deception is captivatingly engaging, selling the moment, even if initially Sills’ approach to Edgar doesn’t feel fully formed. At least not in those first moments. It deepens as the anguish builds.

Gordon Patrick White (front, left) as Fool and Paul Gross as King Lear with members of the company in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Now both fathers find themselves caught in the storm of misguided betrayal, but both are there, wandering through the wasteland unprotected solely because of their own doing and arrogance, believing in lies and flattery, even when it goes against their better judgment. The Earl of Gloucester has also been dutifully wronged, cut down, and gruesomely gored by the same plot and ploy, but we feel we understand, at least a little, why his illegitimate son would hate him so. (It isn’t so clear why Regan would though.) The destroyed son leading his blind accuser through the wasteland is one of the more fragile and clearly intimate moments of kind compassion seen between child and father. The image elevates the pain that has been forged by the cold-hearted damaged child, Edmund. Is this what happens when mothers are not anywhere to be seen?

It is said that with Lear, you do it big, or go home.  But delivering a revisitation of the compelling tale without a clear answer to the “why now?” question, both in terms of the production and the characterized stepping down of this King Lear, beyond some obviously broad strokes, becomes the central problem and obstacle. Returned from her banishment, Cordelia sits at the bedside of the found mad Lear, his sad confusion registers, but not completely. It’s painful to watch the struggle, as we know what the inability to recognize means, and what is in store for the poor upset former King as he lovingly remembers both his favorite daughter and his loyal Kent. The look is all the more engaging knowing how much he has lost out of pride and fury.

Yet when the King returns with her lifeless body, we are surprisingly not moved. The production didn’t lead us in deep enough to engage with the dark well of tragedy and sense of loss. Gross’s Lear nods himself off into death, unceremoniously, leaving us to wonder where our emotional pain and connection has gone. It’s sad that we aren’t that moved by Rampersad’s King Lear, even though it gives some insight metaphorically to the blind and foolish, especially through its diligent delivery of the text. But as a whole, it failed to sit heavy nor forcible in my heart. No tears of grief came to my eyes when the struck-down King sees the ridiculousness that lived inside his ego, and the destruction it has brought forth. And that’s a shame, as there is something clever inside Gross’s return to the stage, and his interpretation of his damaged and dying King Lear.

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A Dancing Dolly 

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Hello, Dolly! is a 1964 musical with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder revised and retitled The Matchmaker in 1955. The musical follows the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a strong-willed matchmaker, as she travels to Yonkers, New York, to find a match for the miserly “well-known unmarried half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. The show, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion and produced by David Merrick, moved to Broadway in 1964, winning 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. These awards set a record which the play held for 37 years. The show album Hello, Dolly! An Original Cast Recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. There is no denying that Jerry Herman never wrote a bad song and that you will go home singing at least one if not several of these wonderfully tuneful songs.

In this neck of the woods, Stephen Casey is well-known for his high- stepping choreography and in the Act II production of Hello, Dolly!, he does not disappoint. Everyone in this show dances. The dance numbers are many and lengthy. And The Waiters Gallop number at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is especially applause worthy.  The pared down chorus is just as proficient at singing as they are at dancing. And the small stage at Act II is ingeniously used to give an appearance of a much bigger space. Jenny Eisehower is a very lively and likeable Dolly Levi, in contrast to Scott Langdon’s delightfully cantankerous Mr. Vandergelder. Ms. Eisenhower’s statuesque height plays well off the shorter Mr. Langdon.We know she is a woman who is always in control. Elyse Langley displays a mature soprano rendering of “Ribbons Down my Back” as Irene Malloy. Lee Slobotkin is quite endearing as Barnaby Tucker and Jeremy Konopka is a young Tommy Tune with his longer than you can believe it legs.

The costumes by Millie Hiibel were bright and playful and worked in tandem with the simple set design by Dirk Durossette. The score is fully orchestrated though, unfortunately it’s in the “can” which for me takes away from the excitement you get from a live musical.

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the show as much as I would have had the minor characters not been instructed or simply encouraged to mug to the audience. Every time this happened it brought me right out of the show. In 1812’s producton of The Play That Goes Wrong many of the actors were mugging their pants off and playing it over the top — but they were forgiven because they were supposed to be a terrible community theatre company.

And yet, if you like Jerry Herman and a lot of dancing you will enjoy this show and understand why it’s been revived so many times.

Tickets are available online at act2.org, by calling the Act II Box Office at 215-654-0200, or in-person at the Box Office at 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA. The Box Office is open Mon-Sat, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. Student tickets are $15 and group discounts are available.

Hello, Dolly! Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Casey. Running now through June 18, 2023 at Act II Playhouse                                                                     56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA 19002

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The Sound Of Music Celebrates Opening Night at The John W. Engeman Theater

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The John W. Engeman Theater’s production of The Sound Of Music opened last night, Saturday, May 20th. The final collaboration between Rodgers & Hammerstein was destined to become the world’s most beloved musical. Featuring a trove of cherished songs, including “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do Re Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and the title number, “The Sound of Music” has won the hearts of audiences worldwide.

The cast of The Sound of Music

The children of The cast of The Sound of Music

Caitlin Burke

Caitlin Burke

The cast features Caitlin Burke as Mother Abbess(National Tour: The Sound of Music; Regional: Paper Mill Playhouse, McCarter Theater Center, North Shore Music Theatre, Meadow Brook Theatre, New York City Center)

Matthew Bryan Feld

Matthew Bryan Feld

Matthew Bryan Feld as Max Detweiler (Engeman: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; National Tours: Vocalosity; Regional: DCPA, Portland Center Stage, West VA Public Theatre, Derby Dinner Playhouse; TV/Film: “Manifest,” “Power,” “Fashionista”);

Angel Reda

Angel Reda

Angel Reda and Matthew Bryan Feld

Angel Reda as Elsa Schraeder (Broadway: The Cher Show, War Paint, Chicago; National Tours: Chicago, Sweet Charity; Regional: Oriental Theatre/, Goodman Theatre, Goodspeed, Pasadena Playhouse; TV/Film: “Ghost,” “The Undoing,” “Sami,” “Isn’t It Romantic”, “Stepford Wives”)

Tim Rogan

Tim Rogan

Tim Rogan as Captain Von Trapp (Engeman: Thoroughly Modern Millie; National Tours: Camelot, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; Regional: Alliance Theatre, The Muny, Arena Stage, Cape Playhouse; TV/Film: “Physical”, “Blue Bloods”, “The Other Two”, “The Flight Attendant”)

Kayleen Seidl

Tim Rogan, Kayleen Seidl

Kayleen Seidl as Maria Rainer (Off-Broadway: Harmony: A New Musical, Fiddler on the Roof; National Tour: Guys and Dolls; Regional: Westchester Broadway Theatre, Paper Mill Playhouse, Actors’ Playhouse at Miracle Theatre, Heartland Opera Theatre).

Tyler Hechtis 

The Sound Of Music is directed and choreographed by Drew Humphrey (Engeman Theater: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Chorus Line, Singin’ in The Rain, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Guys and Dolls, 42nd Street, and Gypsy)

Mandy Modic and Drew Humphrey

and choreographed by Mandy Modic (Engeman Theater: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; National Tours: 42nd Street; Regional: The Marriott Theater, Drury Lane Theater, Chicago Shakespeare, Paramount Theater, The Wick, Mill Mountain Theater).

Music Director Tom Vendafreddo joins with the band that includes Ben Kiley, Joe Boardman, Jill Boardman, Joel Levy, Bob Dalpiaz, Russell Brown and Jim Waddell

Tom Vendafreddo (Musical Director)

Tyler Hecht and Laura Park

Harrison Drake

Dane Agostinis

Kayla Kennedy

Liam Polani

Gina Naomi Baez

Christopher Morrissey

Finn Brown

Claire Daly

Micaela Maio

Oliver Cirelli

Evelyn Engelmann

Sadie Mathers

Cassidy Gill

Paige Mathers

Layla Turnier

Quinn Oliver Lessing

Quinn Oliver Lessing, Paige Mathers, Liam Polani, Finn Brown, Cassidy Gill, Kayla Kennedy, Laura Park, Layla Turnier, Evelyn Engelmann, Sadie Mathers, Micaela Maio, Claire Daly and Oliver Cirelli

Laura Park

Christopher Isolano

Max Desantis

Iann Allred

Tiffany Furicchia

Nicole Weitzman

Lauren Gobes

Amanda Hunter-Finch

Kayleen Seidl with Evelyn Engelmann, Sadie Mathers, Layla Turnier, Oliver Cirelli, Paige Mathers, Quinn Oliver Lessing, Laura Park and Kayleen Seidl

Finn Brown, Liam Polani, Micaela Maio, Claire Daly, Kayla Kennedy, Cassidy Gill, Laura Park, Kayleen Seidl and Tim Rogan

Mandy Modic (Choreographer/Associate Director), Tim Rogan, Kayleen Seidl, Drew Humphrey (Director) and Tom Vendafreddo (Music Director)

The Cast and Creative Team of The Sound of Music

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Out of Town

The Rage of Narcissus Rages On at Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto

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The music pulls us into the looking glass, just like Narcissus was drawn to the reflective image of himself that would end up being his downfall. It’s a compelling and robust formulation, layering in Greek mythology around a sex-fueled obsession, gifted into a hotel room, not by the goddess of revenge, Nemesis, an aspect of Aphrodite, but by the app called Grindr. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter, known for his beauty, and somewhere, in The Rage of Narcissus, a one-person show written by Sergio Blanco (Darwin’s Leap; Slaughter), the hunter becomes the hunted, or at least that is what we are supposed to initially find ourselves believing.

I is an other,” we are reminded in neon, as the one-man show starts off casually, with Matthew Romantini (Ghostlight’s The Boys in the Band) entering and speaking directly to us. He’s going to tell us a tale, a narrative, that mixes reality and fiction. He isn’t the person standing before us, at least not for the majority of the monologue that isn’t one. He, the actor, is about to transform himself into Sergio, the playwright who is going to, inside his compelling and sometimes difficult text, weave an autofiction around one particular terrifying and disturbing week in Toronto. Sergio, the character who may (or most likely is not) be the same who wrote the script, has arrived at his hotel so that he can give a lecture later that week at the University, all around the idea of Narcissus and the artist. He’s quite a proud creature, rattling off his intellectual successes, well, like a narcissist treating us to a long list of his grand accomplishments. It’s somewhat distancing, yet it is a blurring of self and the other, and once Romantini finally unzips himself and slips into the reflective pool of Sergio, he digs in and meanders around a formulation that is part autobiography and some pretty forceful and harrowing fiction. It’s Greek mythology with blood stains, and a whole lot of graphic sex tales to either engage or distract. Depending on your tolerance.

Matthew Romantini in The Rage of Narcissus. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s a somewhat compelling dynamic, and Romantini delivers an appealing and engaging presence, even when the tale falls victim to far too many banal exchanges, grand gesturing, and circular twisted reflections. Unfolding on a set designed by Renato Baldin (Caminos Festival’s Rocking Futures), alongside art director Marcelo Moura Leite with strong, sometimes overwhelming lighting choices by Brandon Gonçalves (Nightjan’s Back and Forth The Musical) and a clear sound design by Julián Henao, the textual thriller inches forward through a sex-fueled obsession, splattered with mystery and abstractionisms, cut with intellectual curiosities and fabrications.

Looking into the mythology of its namesake, the structuring starts to engage and layer in on its paralleling, just like the myth’s ideas around falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, staring at it until one dies. Yet in Blanco’s rendering the central figure and the other start to seem less real and more hypnotically wrapped up in one another, fantasy, and form. There’s a blending and a blurring of lines and boundaries, playing with the idea of reality and fantasy, and sometimes extreme delirious nightmares. The character of Sergio is enamored, fixated on the utterly handsome and sexy Grindr hookup that takes place that first afternoon, and even though he tries to reject the sexual advances, he can’t seem to shake the hypersexual images and urges that surround and envelop him as the week runs forward. But the blurring compromises the situation, and we are left rolling around in the eroticism and wondering if is it really just a mirroring of a need, foreseeing the obvious outcome, that starts to form like blood stains on the carpet and walls? Or is it a death sentence waiting to be delivered by oneself fulfilling prophecy.

Playing out with a teasing sense of urgency by director Marcio Beauclair (Producer, Director/Adaptation), The Rage of Narcissus finds shared terror in its dismemberment, hinting at darkness while playing with the disorder that sliced with horrific, highly sexualized poetry. It’s super smart and entangling, this formulation, playing with truth and fiction in a way that we get tricked into not seeing the autofiction as it is being played out. It’s disturbing in its rawness and overt narcissism, yet we get caught up in the unraveling and the hypertension of the moment. It digs into the mystery and makes us forget our sense of place and time. He tricks us with his vision of his own sexual sense of self, the character, and the story. It pushes us away, at points, lulling us into not caring, but then forces us back in, playing with the tale within another, and wrapping itself in shifts of light and dark that make us see the distortion rather than the true reflection. It reflects back a vision, one we might not fully enjoy seeing, but it delivers the goods dramatically, almost traumatically, sending you out into the streets wondering and thinking about Greek mythology and the narcissistic world we live in. Take that as a cautionary tale, a story dismembered of truth and packed up in a duffle bag ready to teach by counter-example.

Matthew Romantini in The Rage of Narcissus at Theatre Passe Muraille‘s Backspace May 17-28, 2023. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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