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ON CT & NY THEATRE

By Marlene S. Gaylinn CT Critics Circle / ctcritics.org “GREASE” and the Frivolous, Fifties Summer Theatre of New Canaan Currently rocking the stage under the allweather tent is Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s (STONC) revival of the original production of “Grease,” a high school musical about teenagers during the 1950’s. The awardwinning show, with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, played on Broadway for about seven years during the 1970’s. It was also made into a film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Considering how often the stage show has been revived and the movie has been featured on TV, it’s hard to find someone who has not seen some version of “Grease” or participated in it during high school. You may be surprised to learn that STONC’s Artistic Director, Melody Libonati, who performed in the original, Broadway show, directs a version of “Grease” that is slightly different than the usual revivals. As she states in her program notes, her goal was to “… direct the show as I remember the original production and its original intentions.” She gives credit to Tom Moore and Pat Birch, the original director and choreographer for their research into the period and “… hopes to capture with honesty, the exuberance of the 50’s.” Talking from this writer’s personal experience, Libonati succeeded quite nicely. August/2013 economy quickly rose, and average folks were beginning to afford the luxuries that the 1939 N.Y. World’s Fair had predicted. High school kids felt safe and secure and were still doing their parents’ “Lindy” and the slow “Fox Trot.” By the time the 50’s rolled in, a new group of kids, untouched by the horrors of war, entered high school. Not much interested in politics or news about the far away Korean War, teenagers tuned into the new “Rock and Roll” craze. They enjoyed group dances like the “Twist” and the childlike “Bunny Hop,” and developed a separate culture from their parents. The trend spread like an epidemic, and “Grease’s” Rydell High School was a typical example of most public high schools during that period. As depicted in the “Pajama Party” scene and the song, “Freddie My Love,” “Marty,” wrapped in the Kimono that her overseas, marine boyfriend sent, seems not very concerned about him. Uppermost in the teenage mind was gaining social acceptance, being popular with the opposite sex, and finding ways to have fun. Drugs had not yet taken hold but there was smoking and drinking among the “fast crowd.” Whether you lived in the city or the suburbs, the ultimate joy was owning an old, fixable car (like Greased Lightnin”) or knowing someone that had one. As a result of the unique 50’s, American teenagers were probably the most fun-loving, naïve generation in our history. STONC’s production of “Grease” differs in its scene sequences. It opens with a class reunion and “… three cheers for Rydell High School

For the benefit of the younger crowd, a little history may be in order here: Some of our older senior citizens were fortunate to have attended high school during a rare, carefree period between wars. World War II ended in 1945, the

rather than the usual duet, “Summer Nights” which focuses attention on gang-member “Danny” (Christian Libonati), and the naïve “Sandy” (Sharon Malane). The couple met during school vacation and reminisces about their wonderful summer and attraction towards each other. When they bump into each other again at school, misunderstandings and jealous discord among their friends ensue. Aside from several sub-plots, teenagers during the ‘50’s are essentially what this show is about. Christian Libonati sings, acts, and adapts the appropriate hip grinding and swagger of the period. We especially enjoyed his exaggerated, greasy, hair combing and other 50’s mannerisms. Don’t miss his dramatic final stance – it resembles John Travolta’s “Stayin’ Alive” pose. Sharon Malane, who played the head nurse in STONC’s last show, “South Pacific,” is a fine Sandy with a sweet voice to match. Her lament, “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” is as smooth and delicious as custard on a cone. We have a typical, baby-doll, pajama party scene with “Freddy My Love,” sung by a longing, Elysia Jordan. There’s some horsing around with “Kenickie’s” (Dan Farber) old car, “Greased Lightnin’, plus ” a little “Mooning” fun between Jennifer Ambler and Matt Spano (a rambunctious scene that’s often left out). Teenage insecurity, intrigue and insult takes place at the “High School Hop” when cheerleader “Patty” (Grace Hardin) becomes an annoying, subject of embarrassment to Danny and the aggressive, heavy-set “Cha-Cha” (Jenni Joefree) pushes her way towards him like a giant, yellow school-bus. There are a couple of “Pink Ladies” who have personal troubles of their own which prompts the song sequence “Beauty School Dropout.” This scene is very amusingly performed by Sarah Mullis as “Frenchy” and the heavenly beauty parlor girls, while Adam Hill takes the spotlight as the marvelous, “Teen Angel.” “There are Worse Things I could Do” is an emotional highlight offered by a knocked up knock out Pink Lady, Cristina Farruggia, who gives one of the best “Rizzo” performances

we’ve seen. Additional scenes resolve everyone’s conflicts and result in the group Finale, “We Go Together.” The word “Togetherness” should be highlighted because the emphasis of the show seems to be on a group of teenagers during this unique period of time – not its individual characters. Side Notes: Costume Designer, Sarah Cogan, and Set Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, certainly did their research. In fact, when Sandy came onstage in a green, one-piece gym suit that featured short shorts, chuckles were emitted by audience women who probably recalled how they despised the ugly outfits they had to wear in high school. These obnoxious gym suits had finally changed from the unbecoming bloomers (everyone hiked up the elastic bottoms anyway) to the sexier shorts. Only clever, women designers would pick that funny detail up – possibly from the same Year Book that the class photos decorating the stage came from. After STONC’s official opening night, something very special occurred when several original cast members were called up to the stage and told anecdotes about their personal experiences with the show. We learned that the original production was quite raunchy and the performers had to know two versions. The cleaned up version was “…fit for Queen Elizabeth when she viewed it.” However, when touring the Bible belt, and the cast was suddenly required to switch from the original script they were accustomed to -- you can imagine the amusing mistakes that occurred after you’ve seen the show. Relating those details here and now would be giving away some surprises. You will certainly enjoy “Grease” and the authentic spirit of the frivolous fifties offered by Summer Theatre of New Canaan. Parental guidance may be warranted for pre-teens. Plays to August 11 203 966-4634

“LOOT” A Satire on Human Behavior Westport Country Playhouse When Mark Lamos, the Artistic Director of Westport Country Playhouse selected Joe Orton’s “Loot” and wrote his program notes for this season’s presentation, the Travon Martin case had not exploded into a major issue. He probably didn’t realize that current events would soon focus on our own society. The observation that our own laws, initially designed to protect society, are sometimes inappropriate, and that the enforcers of these laws may also be inept, happen to parallel this comedy of bad manners by English playwright, Joe Orton. Ironically, Lamos also didn’t realize that when he noted in the playbill: “…comedy is grounded in pain, fear, and sadness -- when we laugh, we generally laugh at the misfortunes of others” – that his words would unexpectedly backfire when technical difficulties interrupted the first act on Opening Night. Naturally, the audience laughed and applauded as this fellow ran up and down the aisle 3x apologizing for repeated house black outs – and, when the stage lights went on a technician walked in and began checking the props. In any case, these unfortunate incidents set the audience’s mood for this evening’s farce and may have been as amusing as the play. British humor is sometimes as difficult to get used to as the British accent. It may take a little time to figure out what’s considered funny and begin to appreciate the cleverness of the lines. If you are familiar with the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s easier to recognize the silly poking at English society – particularly at how inappropriate people often rise to power. So in “Loot,” which takes place in the 1960’s, we begin with a corpse in a coffin, elderly, rich widower McLeavy, played convincingly by John Horton, and a much younger, conniving nurse, “Fey” – portrayed by a seductive, Liv Rooth. Despite the age difference, Fey takes over the widower’s household and plans to marry her charge before the wife is even buried. She soon discovers that Mcleavy’s son, “Hal” (Devin Norik) and his friend Meadows (Wm. Peden) robbed the bank next to the funeral home and that the pair needs to hide the money quickly. With an eye on the bigger “loot,”

Fey’s marriage motives suddenly change as she immediately helps the robbers. When “Truscott” (David Manis) a bungling detective who holds ridiculous notions of moral ethics and the law arrives, the result is a Monty Python-like effort to hide the corpse, the money and often both at the same time. One of the play’s clever lines concerns a death certificate. When this document is finally offered up, Truscott changes his mind and waves it brusquely away. “Why give the police extra paperwork to file … they don’t read this stuff anyway,” he quips. This sounds familiar to thousands of U.S. veterans waiting for the VA to accurately process their disability claims. Director, David Kennedy, keeps the actors moving frantically. An interesting, interior scene by Andrew Boyce is set at an angle and reflects the play’s unsettling satire. Plays to August 3 203 227-4177

“HELLO DOLLY” Goodspeed Opera House One of the best-loved Jerry Herman musicals, “Hello Dolly,” is currently playing at Goodspeed Opera House to enthusiastic audiences. One of the main reasons for this musical’s popularity is a lively matchmaker called Dolly Levi, played here by Klea Blackhurst. Blackhurst toured the U.S. and London in “Everything that Traffic Will Allow – a cabaret tribute to Ethel Merman. While she studied Merman carefully, the actress expresses her own individuality as she takes her place among the many women that successfully appeared in this title role. Folks may remember Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Bibi Oserwald, Pearl Bailey (who was featured an all-black version) and Ethel Merman who took her final curtain calls in the part that was originally created for her. Yet ironically, of all the stars that played this role, Blackhurst happens to be the closest to the colorful stereotype commonly called an old “yenta” – an enterprising, motherly woman who thinks she is adept in almost everything, meddles into everyone’s business and eagerly gives advice – whether asked for or not.

Except for some minor line stumbling, Blackhurst, who resembles Bette Midler, has a captivating smile. With a twinkle in her eye she livens the show “chutzpah.” Making her intrusive entrance as Dolly, she freely works the audience by distributing a variety of business cards – each one announcing a different expertise. Singing and dancing across the stage, plus negotiating a stairway while dressed in a heavy, full-skirted costume, could present a challenge for anyone. The fact that Blackhurst has a womanly figure and seemed out of breath is an issue that should be dealt with. While Dolly busily matches mates, she cunningly connives to marry “…half a millionaire, Horace Vandergelder,” played by equally entertaining Tony Sheldon -- he won a Tony nomination for his role in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” Ashley Brown, who played Broadway’s “Mary Poppins,” is one of Dolly’s clients, “Irene Malloy.” She sings as beautiful as she looks. Song and dance numbers are numerous and catchy. Among them, “Ribbons Down My Back,” rendered by Brown, reminded us of an old lullaby. Choreographer, Kelli Barclay, recreated the hilarious, precision dance sequence “Waiters’ Galop,” after the original version by Gower Champion. Daniel Goldstein directed, and the lavish, 1890’s costumes were by Wade Laboissonniere. Plays to September 860-873-8668