Ivoryton Playhouse rocks with laughter throughout the World Premiere of Mike Reiss’ “I Hate Musicals: The Musical.”
By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle
For a unique one-of-a-kind offering at the Ivoryton Playhouse in rural Connecticut, popular television writer and producer Mike Reiss (The Simpsons) has created a wacky story of a depressed down-on-his luck comedy writer trapped in the rubble of an LA earthquake. His life plays out before his eyes in the form of a musical — and the cranky guy hates musicals! It runs through October 15. Hurry. Don’t miss it.
I Hate Musicals: The Musical is chock full of Broadway and movie song parodies, some original music composed by Walter Murphy, a song about the Pope written by Christopher Howatt, and more pages of popular culture references than can be jammed into a barrel of monkeys. The laughs are so many and so fast that you might want to think about seeing the show twice to get it all.
With six brilliant actors and a stunningly talented musician playing everyone from Sigmund Freud to Satan, Moses, and Jesus to Lee the Hollywood agent, this mad romp mocks and exploits stereotypical characters and Broadway shows. Lampooned are Jews, Catholics, gays, Hispanics, Sondheim, Hamilton and the Hollywood elite – all with hilarious results. Even the thin-skinned will be able to laugh at themselves as this insane story unfolds. The play has a limited run through October 15th, so see it before it’s snatched up by a smart Broadway producer.
Leading the cast as Alvin the whiney out-of-work comedy writer is Stephen Wallem*, a SAG Award-nominated actor best known as Thor Lundgren for seven seasons on the Emmy-winning Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.” This delightful actor/singer has a huge voice which fills the theater, and he’s literally “trapped” onstage for the entire 90-minute run (without intermission) of this wild ride. His dialogue is fast and furious, and his timing to get the most out of each laugh-line is impeccable.
Returning to the Playhouse for another of his signature mad character roles is R. Bruce Connelly* as Lee the bumbling agent. Having seen consummate professional Bruce in so many Ivoryton productions, he never fails to give a memorable comedic performance, and, as usual, he’s a delight to laugh at, and with, in this show.
Will Clark makes his Ivoryton Playhouse debut with his portrayal as Jesus a laugh riot of comedy perfection. It’s probably accurate to say that even priests and nuns who visit this show will roar at the irreverent antics of Mr. Clark’s riotous turn as The King of The Jews.
Tall and pale and young and lovely Sam Given* is truly over-the-top in his multiple roles – as a clueless security guard; as Sigmund Freud; and as one of the most blatantly stereotypical screaming gay characters ever to grace any stage, anywhere. Sam’s energy is boundless, he can float like a butterfly, do a mean split, and he can out-tinker Tinker Bell. And, since this is a musical of sorts, he does have a high-note to deliver during the finale that will shatter your eyeglasses.
Handsome Ryan Knowles* has one of the most gorgeous bass-baritone voices in showbiz, and it certainly brings chills up the spine as he wickedly romps onstage as Satan. With Ryan’s brilliantly satanic performance, one might think that going to Hell wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Amanda Huxtable* is a quadruple delight in every one of the parts that she plays in this Mike Reiss nuthouse of a show. From the sarcastic TV exec Diane to the Bronx version of the Virgin Mary, Amanda never disappoints, and her characterizations are so brilliantly executed that it’s hard to believe that there is only one actress on stage and not four! Brava, Amanda.
Musical Director and Vocal Arranger Mike Morris usually unseen (with his orchestra hidden under the stage), is marvelously funny as the onstage piano player whose virtuosity is only matched by his quick wit. Mike is just as comfortable, it seems, as an actor as he is as a classic-level musician. This time, he is sans orchestra, with only his piano to make terrific music.
We can only surmise that Director James Valletti had a great time working with this boffo play and cast. The zaniness that reigns supreme can only come to fruition when such a fine director and gifted actors are in sync. In I Hate Musicals: The Musical, the synchronization is flawless.
Choreographer Schuyler Beeman has once again put on his “funny hat” in creating all-out-crazy movement and dance for this production. Ivoryton audiences will remember his acting chops in a brilliant portrayal as Carmen Ghia in The Producers a few seasons ago. Schuyler knows just how to create the steps and motions that add oomph to each scene.
Each spoken word and quick lyric is fully understood thanks to Tate R. Burmeister’s sound design, and the sound effects combined with Marcus Abbott’s lighting help create a couple of edge-of-your-seat California earthquakes.
Dan Nischan’s set is simple and highly effective. The office walls (broken by the earthquake) on either side of the stage are effectively used throughout, and the Hollywood sign in the sweeping hills outside the TV executive’s office is executed with a combination of part realism, part fantasy. Hooray for Hollywood.
Elizabeth Cipollina no doubt had great fun creating the costumes and wigs for this non-stop carnival of a show. Her blonde-floozy wig and tight tight dress for Ms. Huxtable makes the Kardashians look like boys in comparison, and when she dresses Sam Given in Joseph’s technicolor dream coat it is a kaleidoscope in fabric. Bruce Connelly’s Hawaiian shirt, we believe, came from his own wardrobe.
A big shout out to an unsung hero of theater – the stage manager. James Joseph Clark* returns to Ivoryton once again to make sure that each prop in in its right place, each actor is nearly sober before an entrance, and that playwright Mike Riess’ real Emmy Award has been replaced by a cardboard replica prior to its being thrust into the backside of one of the actors.
Ivoryton audiences turned out in droves in June 2013 to see Mike Reiss’s hilarious play, I’M CONNECTICUT, which was a huge popular and critical success. He later scored again with COMEDY IS HARD in September of 2014 with Micky Dolan and Joyce DeWitt. After seeing this latest offering, we can’t help but believe that this will live long and be well.
As the legendary Mickey Rooney once screamed from his balcony seat after seeing a particularly good theatrical performance “If you don’t like this, you don’t like show-business!” We feel the same sentiment about “I Hate Musicals: The Musical.” You gotta love it!
Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Until Oct. 15.
Tickets are $50 for adults, $45 for seniors, $22 for students and $17 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton. *denotes member of Actors Equity.