Connecticut Sees Plethora of Personnel Changes... New Laurents One-Act at New Jersey's George St.... St. Louis Black Rep Kicks Off 'Blue Season'...

Connecticut

The game in Connecticut theatre these days is musical chairs. Out are Kathleen DeMeo, for 23 years the communications director of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and Robert Wildman, for seven years the managing director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs. Both are casualties of statewide budget cuts, with Wildman quoted as wishing "to pursue new opportunities."

The changeovers are ironic, since Governor John Rowland has just been designated recipient of this year's prestigious Connecticut Critics Circle Tom Killen Memorial Award. Rowland was recognized more because of his ability to fund infrastructures (to the tune of $80 million since he took office in 1995) than individuals.

With Rowland's backing, such venues as Bridgeport's Playhouse on the Green, Wallingford's Oakdale, the Westport Country Playhouse, and Hartford's Bushnell have received support. He has also raised the stakes on arts education. Of course, cutting personnel asks the question, "Who's going to administer these programs?"

Ousted from his position as artistic director of Playhouse on the Green is Christian Saint-Girard after two disastrous productions (Arsenic and Old Lace and Babes in Toyland). Currently playing is Sleuth (through March 2), with Keir Dullea and Benim Foster, directed by Terence Lamude.

Also leaving the Playhouse is General Manager Larry Frenock, who moves to the same job at the Stamford Theatre Works, replacing Patrick D. Shea. STW's most recent production was A Lesson Before Dying (closed Feb. 16), directed by Patricia R. Floyd.

At Hartford Stage, Jean Stapleton withdrew from her role as Mrs. Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (Feb. 20-March 23) for undisclosed reasons. Her replacement is Dee Maaske, who played the same part at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Hartford just ended a one-note, stolid, stilted production of Sophocles' Electra (closed Feb. 9), directed by Jonathan Wilson. At New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, Ruben Santiago-Hudson recreated his emotionally satisfying Lackawanna Blues (closed Feb. 9), while Mia Farrow and Molly Ringwald appeared in a workshop of James Lapine's new play, Fran's Bed (Feb. 7, 8, 9).

Stamford's Rich Forum, usually a presenting house, recently mounted an in-the-round production of Stephen Belber's Tape (closed Jan. 30) that came across as trivial and juvenile.

David A. Rosenberg

New Jersey

Both Paper Mill Playhouse and the Two River Theatre Company took Black History Month to heart with productions of one-name plays with music, Blue and Spunk, respectively. Ironically, Spunk first was produced at Crossroads, now a struggling African-American theatre whose future remains uncertain.

In Blue, Leslie Uggams stars as the shopaholic, snooty Peggy Clark living in 1970s South Carolina. Her heart may belong to her successful undertaker husband, Sam Jr. (Willie C. Carpenter), but her soul belongs to blues singer Blue Williams (Michael McElroy). She "plays" his records incessantly, and when she does, Williams appears from just about anywhere on stage to sing. It is a nice touch in this two-acter smoothly directed by Sheldon Epps.

Seen through the eyes of youngest son Reuben (Jovun Fox is young Reuben and Jacques C. Smith the adult version), the show keeps us laughing and guessing until a dark family secret is revealed in Act II. Nearly stealing the show are Felicia Wilson as LaTonya Dinkins, a brash, crass teenage girlfriend of older son Sam Clark III (Chris Butler), who shares a love of Blue Williams' music with Peggy, and Amentha Dymally as Tillie Clark, the family's matriarch, who says the darnedest things.

Spunk featured a strong cast: Byron Easley, April Armstrong, Charles Wallace, Gayle Turner, and Alvin Keith, in three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted for the stage by George C. Wolfe. As Guitar Man, Ayodele Maakheru supplied the music for "Sweat," "The Guilded Six-Bits," and the very well done "Story in Harlem Slang." Director Saundra McClain nicely staged the piece that, ultimately, leaves white audiences with some insight into black cultural history. But as a theatre piece, it left me wanting more context.

George Street Playhouse's Double Play, a bill of two one-acts—"The 75th" by Israel Horovitz and "The Vibrator" by Arthur Laurents—was directed by David Saint and featured the excellent talents of Elizabeth Wilson and Tom Aldredge.

Horovitz's piece about the only two alumni attending their 75th high school reunion is a rich portrait of two people who feel as if they are meeting for the first time and don't want to say goodbye. We know a lot about them, much of it poignant. "The Vibrator," about a retired couple living in a gated community in Florida, is a one-note piece about sex. Viagra has revitalized the Lustgartens' (get it?) marriage, but they are surrounded by people who don't do "it" as often, and at least one uses a vibrator that Mr. Lustgarten found on the street during his morning jog. The legendary Laurents needs to do some work on this one.

Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

St. Louis

Rolling into the new year, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brought Michael Frayn's Copenhagen to local audiences, and the St. Louis Black Repertory Company opened its 26th year, subtitled "The Blue Season," with Sandra Reaves-Phillips' one-woman show, The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz. Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the company, advised, "Think blue for the music that threads its way through all of these plays and speaks to the joys and pain of life."

Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Rep, staged Copenhagen in a simple, almost stark manner, and the three performers, Rep vets Anderson Matthews and Carol Schultz and newcomer Andrew Long, picked up in elegant style on the nuances and political levels in Frayn's drama.

The Rep's Studio Theatre season continued with The Drawer Boy (closed Feb. 9), with Susan Gregg, associate artistic director, staging the Michael Healey play with a cast that included Walter Charles, Matthew Cody, and Charles H. Hyman.

Reaves-Phillips worked the Black Rep audience like a gospel preacher as she sang and talked of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Mahalia Jackson. Neal Tate served as musical director as Reaves-Phillips commented on the late, great singers and then sang a couple of their favorite songs. The company's spring schedule continues with Bridgette Wimberly's Saint Lucy's Eyes, Feb. 7-March 2; It Ain't Nothing but the Blues, March 14-April 13; Trick the Devil, April 25-May 18; and Rajendra Maharaj's adaptation of Damn Yankees into a Negro League fantasy, May 30-June 28.

The Vagina Monologues came back to town as a joint production of the Rep and the Fox Theatre, performed at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. Margot Kidder led the way, with Amy J. Carle and Starla Benford in support.

After the success of the three-week run of The Producers, the Fox Theatre staged Stomp (Jan. 3-5) and Blast! (Feb. 4-9). Another appearance of Les Misérables is on from Feb. 18-23.

Joe Pollack

North Carolina

In Chapel Hill, PlayMakers Repertory Company offered a finely honed production of Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends (closed Feb. 9). Under the directorial hand of Drew Barr, the exploration of friendship and marriage provided both sly humor and a bit of disturbing insight into the fragile nature of relationships between spouses and between friends. The cast of Kenneth P. Strong, Tandy Cronyn, Jessica K. Peterson, and Ray Dooley worked well as an ensemble. The only serious trouble lies in the script. The opening flashback segment that starts the overly talkative second act provides no new insights and disturbs the basic structural fabric of the play. A little surgery would seem appropriate.

Sanford's Temple Theatre made a rare but welcome foray into the treasury of standard American drama with its production of John Steinbeck's wistful tale of friendship, Of Mice and Men (closed Feb. 9). In an interesting tradeoff, the play was directed by Jerome Davis, artistic director for Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre Company, and Temple's counterpart, Jerry Sipp, portrayed the leading role of George. Temple newcomer David Dossey played the pathetic man-child, Lennie. Others in the cast included Jim Fleming, Martin Thompson, Thomas Edward Dalton, Micah Cover, and William G. Stutts.

In Durham, Manbites Dog Theater offered The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute (closed Feb. 16). The play, which asks the intriguing question, "What if you could change anything about the person you love?," was directed by Jay O'Berski and featured Blaine Barbee, Vince Eisenson, Daniel Smith, and Meghan Valerio.

Burning Coal Theatre Company revived Molière's satire on poetry, Tartuffe (closed Feb. 16), in a new adaptation by Emma Griffin, who also directed. She is the artistic director of New York's acclaimed Obie Award-winning Salt Theater. Liz Beckham and Beth London of New York joined local actors David Henderson, Rick Lonon, George Jack, Bob Barr, Michael O'Foghludha, and Ann Cole.

William Hardy

Arizona

The Arizona theatre season has begun its second half with a blockbuster version of a classic chamber musical, a sold-out presentation of a blockbuster new musical, and a successful production of a three-person dramatic comedy.

During December in Tucson and January in Phoenix, Arizona Theatre Company mounted a no-expense-spared production of The Fantasticks. Save for one gaudy and textually unsupported effect that drew attention away from Matt's big number in the second act, director David Ira Goldstein created the most lavish simple set that completely supported the action, while enhancing the script with an amazing final stage picture. The success could be credited to Mr. Goldstein, musical stager Patricia Wilcox, and musical director Michael Koerner, as well as the strong cast. Mr. Goldstein spared no expense in securing the best designers, musicians, and performers, and the big-budget small musical was the best version I'd ever seen, including the original Off-Broadway production.

Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium became the hot spot in January with a sold-out touring production of The Producers. Not since Phantom set box-office records a few years back had a tour created this much anticipation. The tour delivered an excellent show.

Finally, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company offered an excellent new work: playwright and director James Sherman tilled well-ploughed though still very fertile territory with his latest play, Door to Door. This production, mounted as the first west of the Mississippi, was endearing and professionally handled by director, designers, and the three talented actresses. Ordinarily, allowing the playwright to be director can stunt the process, but Sherman never fell into the traps. Except for some problems early on, where the actresses played at being youthful, there was serious shading and a sense that these performers were allowed to bring their own contributions to the table. Rather than treating his script as precious, Sherman accomplished the difficult task of keeping the playwright away from the director during the rehearsal process, allowing the text to guide rather than dominate the exploration. The result was a confident cast and a natural feel to the piece.

Mark S.P. Turvin

Cleveland

Proof at The Cleveland Play House proved that a near-perfect play coupled with a near-perfect production could equal sellout crowds, despite the sour economy, war clouds, and a beleaguered local theatre scene. Originally scheduled to close Feb. 2, Proof was held over until Feb. 8 because of capacity audience for every performance.

Notwithstanding Michael Ganio's gimmicky and distracting set of fluttering black-and-white notebooks, director Seth Gordon and a quadrant of fine-tuned actors delivered ample justice to the elegant, humane piece, starting with Derdriu Ring as the conflicted daughter and Mike Hartman as the brilliant but unstable father. Completing the equation were Carol Dunne as the officious older sister and Chad Willett as the ambitious boyfriend.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Charles Busch's rollicking hit comedy about what it means to be New York middle-class and middle-aged Jewish, found ample resonance west of the Hudson in the Ohio premiere at Dobama Theatre (closed Feb. 15). Fred Sternfeld ably directed the brazen situational farce, but got mixed results from an uneven ensemble. The two heavyweights were Greg Violand and Laura Perrotta in their respective roles as the egocentric husband and the unexpected visitor.

Veteran Cleveland director Reuben Silver delivered a powerhouse of a production in Cherry Docs by Canadian playwright David Gow at the Halle Theatre of the Jewish Community Center (closed Feb. 2). The hard-hitting drama about a Jewish Legal Aid lawyer who reluctantly defends a neo-Nazi skinhead accused of murder is more a polemic than a play, but spellbinding performances by Joel Hammer as the attorney and Scott Plate as the skinhead gave it dramatic heft.

With such unforgettable songs and lyrics by Cole Porter, including the titular Anything Goes, the wacky depression-era musical comedy with new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman kept its sex appeal in a polished, high-energy production at Great Lakes Theater Festival (closed Feb. 2). This was a co-production with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, both directed by Victoria Bussert. Standouts were Nancy Hess as the ex-evangelist, Hunter Bell as the lovesick stowaway, and especially Steve Routman and his hangdog mug as Public Enemy #13.

Fran Heller