Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: ‘Angels in America’ superior theatre at Chatham Playhouse

Scott Tyler and Rich Colonna

The award winning community theatre group, the Chatham Players has kicked-off its 92nd season with Tony Kushner’s powerful drama about the the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's  “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.” 

“Angels" is set in 1985 when the horror of the incurable AIDS disease was spreading across America killing mostly young gay men. Many in the government, including the Republican President Ronald Reagan, were reluctant to act or even acknowledge that there was a plague in the land.

Eight years later (1993) a monumental play debuted on Broadway documenting the helplessness and fear that was part of that epidemic. "Angels" was awarded the Tony Award for Best Play. It was made into an HBO film and mini-series in 2003 with Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep. The movie, presented in two three-hour parts (Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika), was the most watched television movie in 2003 and won both the Golden Globe and Emmy for best Miniseries Award for Best Play. 

Now today, twenty years later, the play remains a powerful and important reminder of the 1980's horror, however today's gay world is far different...obviously more open with widespread acceptance in most areas of society. The advances in medicine and treatment are giving people almost normal lives. Same-sex marriage, for example, unthinkable just a few years ago, is gaining widespread acceptance. Because of these tremendous advances, the play's emotional impact, understandably, is somewhat diminished.  It might be borderline 'grim', but "Angels" is still a fascinating, thought-provoking, beautifully conceived play that in the hands of director Bob Pridham and a truly remarkable cast provides us with a positive, memorable theater experience.

“Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches”  tells three intertwined tales over the course of three-hours (including two intermissions). Each one can be described as dark, moving and heartbreaking. Plot one covers the relationship with two young gay men (Salvador Navarro as Louis Ironson and Gus Ibranyi as Prior Walter) who have been together for four years. When Prior contracts AIDS, Louis flees not able to face the slow death of his partner.

The second involves one of the most influential lawyers of the period, and a closeted gay, Roy Cohn (Richard Colonna). Cohn was chief counsel to the controversial Senator Joseph McCarthy. He gained national notoriety when he participated at McCarthy's side in the infamous nationally televised "Army-McCarthy Hearings." ​ When Cohn is diagnosed with AIDS he insists his disease is liver cancer in order to preserve his reputation. ​A dramatic highlight is in his death bed scene ​when​ the ghost of the convicted and executed Russian spy Ethel Rosenberg sings him a Yiddish lullaby.

The third tale ​is about a young married Mormon couple living in Brooklyn, Harper and Joe Pitt. Harper (Morgan Vasquez) is ​a ​neurotic living on Valium-induced hallucinations. Joe Pitt (Scott Tyler) is a government attorney who likes long walks in the park...yes, he's a closeted gay. He not only struggles with his sexual identity and the failing relationship with his wife​,​ he also faces another moral dilemma when his mentor Roy Cohn, charged with illegal activity, attempts to place Pitt with the Justice Department in Washington in order to help Cohn fight his Federal criminal charges from inside. 

The magic at the Chatham Playhouse is particularly in the excellence of the performances. Director Pridham, with casting support from Leslie Reagoso, has assembled an outstanding cast of actors (once again blurring the line between professional and community theatre actors).

Pridham's "Angels" is an impressive, quality production with a cast that could hold their own with any Equity company.  Richard Colonna, in particular, is ​superb​ as Roy Cohn. He captures perfectly the arrogance of a man used to having his own way in all matters specially political. Scott Tyler excels as Joe Pitt; Morgan Vasquez is fine as Harper Pitt the conflicted Mormon; Gus Ibranyi, a long way from his Bob Cratchit in last year’s A Christmas Carol, makes the tragic Prior Walter so very real you can almost feel his pain; Sal Navarro, excellent in Chatham's Fantasticks as El Gallo, delivers another pro level performance as Louis Ironson.

The terrific supporting cast, each doubles several roles, includes: Doug McLaughlin, with a nice turn as Prior's friend and nurse Belize; Rosemary Wall is Hannah Pitt, Joe's mother who is in need of a GPS and Ethel Rosenberg;  John Saul is the Rabbi; Chip Prestera as Henry; and making a "wow" entrance Sarah Pharaon as The Angel.

Director Bob Pridham ​and his ​creative team ​deserve a special​ round of applause for the impressive staging that greatly enhances the production. The team includes: Producer Andrea Sickler; Stage Manager Allie Warshaw; Scenic Designer Chris Furlong; Scenic Painting Andrea and Dean Sickler; Costume Designer Bev Wand; Lighting Designer Richard Hennessy; Sound Designer Joe DeVico; Casting and Production Coordinator Leslie Reagoso.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  October 11, 2013

You have until October 26th to see the Chatham Players' “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.” 

Remaining performance dates are October 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 8 PM and October 20 at 3 PM. All performances are at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 North Passaic Avenue, in Chatham, New Jersey.  Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for youth/senior.

Tickets can be purchased at the Box Office or Online. To access the theater’s online ticketing service, simply go to  The service is available 24 hours a day, and tickets can be purchased online up until three hours prior to curtain on the day of a performance.  Chatham Playhouse’s box office accepts phone reservations  (973) 635-7363.  

Director's Note:
"Angels In America: Millennium Approaches is a vast, challenging, tumultuous play, yet it is acidly precise in documenting those moments of fear and denial that invaded the lives of gay and straight people when AIDS appeared -- the helplessness, the dread, the political ineptitude and the looming deconstruction of a bright future so many of us had rushed to embrace." (excerpt)
Bob Pridham

Photo: Scott Tyler and Richard Colonna (by Howard Fisher)

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with the review. I'm so glad that the Chatham Players chose to perform this play. It's a reminder to to everyone that hiv/aids is still relevant twenty plus years later. I would encourage those who haven't seen this adaptation of this ground-breaking play to go and see it...and bring someone with with you.