Sunday, November 15, 2015

Millbrook: "Miracle on 34th Street"

A medley of Christmas songs greets the audience at the Millbrook Commnity Players' production of Miracle on 34th Street, the heartwarming chestnut of a play based on the 1947 film of the same name.

Though performances are a bit early on the calendar [this show closes before Thanksgiving, the day on which the action of the play begins and on which the Macy's Department Store's annual famous parade officially ushers in the Christmas season], director Stephanie McGuire's cast of twenty-two actors valiantly charms audiences with nostalgic reminiscences of times past, and gentle reminders that kindness, decency, and "believing in something when common sense says not to" can defeat the overblown hype and crass commercialism that threaten to ruin the Christmas season.

The opening night performance ran at a slow pace and a long two-plus hours that could be trimmed with more efficient scene changes and consistent energy from the cast. But this familiar tale is given an infectious merriment by its central character Kris Kringle [Sam Wallace], and its tried-and-true lessons that deserve attention.

Just as the big parade is about to start, Macy's "Santa" shows up drunk, and kindly retirement home resident Kris Kringle is conscripted as a substitute by Doris Walker [Karla McGhee], and winds up as the best department store Santa Claus ever. -- Mr. Wallace inhabits the role so completely, that it comes as no surprise that he convinces almost everyone he is the real thing. He's a "jolly old elf" who gradually convinces Doris's daughter Susan [Jaycee Parker is making her mark as an actress here] who has been taught by her mother that Santa is a myth.

There are the nay-sayers, of course, chief among them Dr. Leslie Sawyer [Shea Jackson], who crusades  to have Kris committed to a psychiatric institution by unmasking him as an insane and violent fraud. Ms. Jackson doubles [as most of the cast do] as a Bag Lady; her disguise renders her almost unrecognizable...fine work here.

There's also a love story: lawyer Fred Gayley [Michael Snead] is a neighbor in love with Doris, who, when he accepts Kris's court case endears himself to Doris and simultaneously helps Susan discover her imagination and belief in Santa Claus, thus winning Doris's heart.

We all know how it ends -- Fred wins the court case and Kris is named the one true Santa Claus, Doris and Fred are planning their marriage, Susan gets her Christmas present wish for a father and a new house...and audiences are warmed by the good will of Miracle on 34th Street.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

AUM: "Helvetica"

On a rainy Saturday evening when major football rivalries were being contested in both Auburn and Tuscaloosa, and when the performance was temporarily suspended when a fire alarm prompted Theatre AUM to clear the building, a small but undeterred audience was treated to an excellent production of Helvetica by Chicago-based playwright Will Coleman.

Winner of the Southeastern Theatre Conference's prestigious 2015 "Charles M. Getchell New Play Award", Helvetica's numerous episodes recount the title character's life as tracked by the three actresses depicting her -- at age eight [Past Helvetica: Danielle Phillips] when her mother died, as a grown woman [Present Helvetica: Amber Baldwin] on the day her husband leaves her, and in old age [Future Helvetica: Tara Fenn] on the day she dies. -- And Theatre AUM has the opportunity of putting its own stamp on a play that has of yet no conventional ways of staging and interpreting it.

Mike Winkelman's simple flexible scenic design allows the frequent time shifts to segue smoothly, and is accommodated by the narrator of Helvetica's story: a stuffed bear named Myron [Kodi Robertson] whose infectious innocence and knowing manner tempers the non-dramatic narrative sections. A kind of "Pooh-bear" confidante and adventuring accomplice who was Helvetica's "friend at first sight", Mr. Robertson inhabits the role so completely and credibly, that we trust him immediately to tell the story fairly.

At an uninterrupted 90-minutes, director Neil David Seibel's talented 12-member ensemble turn in truthful depictions of an array of characters who inform Helvetica's complicated life: parents [Kerry Jackson and Blaire Casey] who love and protect her despite having problems of their own, and from whom she learns to trust her imagination and yet remain a realist; a husband [Jay Russell] who seems at first to be an ideal match, but who can't grasp Helvetica's independence as she becomes a successful author of children's stories; a fan who becomes an unlike;y colleague [Samantha Blakely] who illustrates her books; her publishing agent [Grayson Dobbs] who encourages her to write again after a long dry period; a cancer patient [Haeley DePace] who is sympathetic to Helvetica's situation; her doctor [Intisar Seraaj-Sabree] who comforts her in her anticipated surgery; and an animal shelter worker [Cathy Ranieri] whose practicality is worthy of emulation.

Throughout this engaging production, we see how events in childhood inform the adult in all of us, that people often damage those they care for in an attempt to protect one another by avoiding unpleasant topics, and that there is a powerful impact in the various expressions of love for our fellows.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhoiuse: "Dial M for Murder"

Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

The well crafted three-act script of Dial M for Murder is given a fine-tuned interpretation by director Fiona Macleod's veteran ensemble at The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Wrtitten by Frederick Knott, whose Wait Until Dark played at Cloverdale in its 2013 season, this 1952 thriller and his most popularly successful play is not a traditional "whodunnit"; it is clear early on that English ex-professional tennis player Tony Wendice [Stephen Dubberley] is plotting to have his wife murdered. He married Margot [Brittney Herndon] for her money, and after he discovers her brief affair with American tv murder mystery writer Max Halliday [Michael Buchanan], he intends to inherit all of her estate upon her death by blackmailing Captain Lesgate [Matthew Givens], a Cambridge University acquaintance who has had a series of illegal escapades in the intervening 25 years since they were at university, and who like many others "has his price".

When Tony's well-hatched "perfect crime" goes awry, and Margot kills her assailant, it is up to intrepid Inspector Hubbard [Cushing Phillips, III] to unravel the elaborate details (a love letter, blackmail notes, an attache case full of money, a missing handbag, and several latchkeys) to entrap the villain.

Played on Mike Winkelman's detailed set, punctuated with instrumentals of songs popular in the 1950s that also comment on the action ["Stardust", "Ebb Tide", "My Foolish Heart"], and dressed in Danny Davidson's and Mariah Reilly's period character driven costumes, the focus is thereby on old-fashioned storytelling.

Ms. Macleod has confidence in her actors to truthfully communicate Knott's sophisticated language and behavior of mostly upper-middle class Londoners; so, while modern investigative procedures and technology provide shortcuts to the rotary-dialed telephones and gumshoe police procedures in Dial M for Murder, audiences can give over their collective attention to figuring out the contrivances of the plot twists and the characters' motives and relationships.

Ms. Herndon appears as a socially confident woman who loves and trusts her husband, ignorant of his discovery of her affair and of his plans to have her killed; she wants to keep secret her relationship with ex-lover Max, and naively believes that Max and Tony can be friends. When she dispatches her would-be murderer, her character takes on another more layered dimension, and the subtle changes in her relationships with both men bring audiences to her side.

Mr. Buchanan's return to the local stage is most welcome. His natural demeanor and gradual development of trust and mistrust of Margot and Tony has him emerge as quietly heroic.

Mr. Givens brings a credible down-at-heels quality to the blackmailed murderer, and Mr. Phillips gives a mildly "Colombo-esque" delivery of some of the play's most melodramatic dialogue; since the play's ending is determined by the Inspector's deductive abilities, Mr. Phillips' portrayal has audiences always connected to his words and thought processes. With the assistance of officer Thompson [William Flowers, III], an importantly imposing presence to help thwart the crime, Mr. Phillips connects the evidence for us in clear and entertaining ways.

Acting honors here, though, go to Mr. Dubberley's complex depiction of Tony. Villains are often the most enjoyable to watch; we might despise their behavior while admiring their intellect. Mr. Dubberley exudes assurance in his roles of loving husband and trusted friend, while simultaneously plotting the most heinous of crimes without any hint of bad conscience or guilt. Cold and calculating, Mr. Dubberley's Tony is a character we love to hate.

English dialects were a little heavy-handed at times, and scene changes could be tightened up to sustain the suspense, but all-in-all, this production of Dial M for Murder will keep audiences involved and thrilled at following the plot to its deserved outcome.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Tuesdays With Morrie"

Just a week after the triumphant production of Driving Miss Daisy at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Wetumpka Depot Players are presenting Tuesdays With Morrie, another sensitive and  intermissionless 90-minute play about a long-term relationship that develops over time.

Based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Mitch Albom, and co-written for the stage by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, Tuesdays With Morrie shows Brandeis University sociology professor Morrie Schwartz's influence on Mitch, one of his star students. Morrie [Bill Nowell] is nearing death at 78 years of age, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease], and Mitch [Lee Bridges] has become a successful sports journalist some sixteen years after he graduated from Brandeis.

A chance viewing of a television interview with Morrie on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" where he learns of Morrie's disease, Mitch decides to visit his aging mentor, in part out of guilt for not having kept a promise to keep in touch after he took his degree. -- A successful career has not brought him happiness,  so Mitch sets off from Detroit to Boston for a one-time meeting, and winds up visiting for fourteen weekends.

As directed by Kristy Meanor on an open stage that uses minimalist set pieces to depict its scenic locations, these two veteran actors create credibly distinct characters in telling Albom's story. -- Morrie's thick Jewish accent and directness in speaking his mind [often in quotable aphorisms that are the gentle teaching moments of the play], and his up-beat demeanor despite the swift progress of ALS, bespeak his compassion for others above his own concerns, and become, in Mr. Nowell's capable portrayal, the triggers for Mitch's reclamation. -- Mr. Bridges shows a range of conflicted attitudes [guilt, angst, indecision] that are influenced and corrected by Morrie's therapeutic advice. The fact that he avoids touchy-feely moments is all the more poignant when he succumbs to tears and an embrace of the old man who is his surrogate father.

In the course of an hour and a half, audiences learn from these two men the value of acceptance, compassion, openness, communication, and love that can bring the happiness we all seek. It might just be "the meaning of life" that Mitch seeks and that Morrie dispenses.

Friday, October 16, 2015

ASF: "Driving Miss Daisy"

It can't get much better than this at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival: a time tested script by Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry, sensitive direction by John Manfredi without a hint of patronizing sentimentality, a design team at their best, and a stellar ensemble of actors, resulting in a provocative and emotionally wrenching iteration of the Pulitzer Prize winning Driving Miss Daisy. -- The standard has been set high as ASF begins its 30th Anniversary Season in Montgomery.

Staged in the Octagon Theatre to capitalize on its intimacy, Driving Miss Daisy succeeds in engaging its audiences from the start and never loosens its gently insistent grip for the 90-minute playing time covering twenty-five years that start during Truman's presidency and end sometime after the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The plot is so well known that there are no surprises in store, though Uhry's deceptively simple script does provide any number of insightful revelations about race relations in a reluctantly changing South, and resonate in 2015 as much as they did at its 1987 debut.

When a 72-year-old wealthy Jewish widow Daisy Wertham [Greta Lambert] wrecks yet another car in her upscale Atlanta neighborhood, her son Boolie [Brik Berkes] hires Hoke Colburn [James Bowen] a 60-year-old "colored man" as her chauffeur. Used to her independence, Daisy resents her son's intrusion in bringing a "stranger" into her household, and refuses to engage with Hoke whom she "mistrusts"; and while she claims to not be prejudiced, she still refers to Hoke as one of "them". -- But the cards are stacked against Daisy as Boolie tells Hoke that Daisy can't fire him because "you'll be working for me."

This unlikely relationship is tracked over the next couple of decades via episodes that demonstrate a gradual mutual respect so that in her old age, Daisy claims "You are my best friend."

The performances in Driving Miss Daisy are completely credible as the characters age twenty-five years, thereby enabling us to invest in their lives and both laugh and cry as they reveal themselves to us in everyday as well as extraordinary situations.

In Mr.Berkes' capable portrayal, Boolie is a caring son who knows well his mother's foibles and how to placate her more modest requests with an off-handed "You're a doodle, Mama", but can be firm in making her journey into old age as comfortable as possible, correcting her when appropriate. And his reticence in attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. event for fear of losing business and being socially ostracized is a difficult decision. -- He learns to trust Hoke sooner than his mother, and their negotiating Hoke's contract is a lesson in understanding.

Mr. Bowen's Hoke [arguably his best performance at ASF] is an instantly likable person who is practiced in negotiating a job, a raise in pay, and relationships with white people by maintaining a pleasant demeanor regardless of the years of inherited prejudice levied against him. Sly as a fox, Mr.Bowen exhibits Hoke's inherent kindness in being ever patient with Daisy's demands and biases while keeping his integrity intact when he refuses her last minute invitation to the MLK event. -- Theirs is a friendship that is powerful in its honesty.

In her thirty years gracing the ASF stage in Montgomery, Greta Lambert has rarely been as luminous as in her depiction of Daisy Wertham. Her exquisitely nuanced performance that shows Daisy's pride and steadfastness, her sense of humor and puzzlement at world affairs, her motherly instincts and her teacher's practicality, and her ability to remain hopeful as she expertly transitions into old age [without make-up enhancements, relying instead on her subtle vocal and physical adjustments], makes her Daisy a master class in acting. -- The relationships with her on-stage counterparts are crafted with such detail that she seems to effortlessly inhabit the role. -- She is able to carry audiences along her journey that enables them to identify with her as she experiences the power of friendship that transforms her.

The final scenes showing the impact of her dementia are handled gracefully; as Hoke patiently and with the utmost concern for his friend feeds her a piece of pie, there is hardly a dry eye in the house.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Faulkner: "The Other Side of the Bridge"

The Faulkner University Dinner Theatre is hosting the premiere of an original play entitled The Other Side of the Bridge by director and Faculty member Angela Dickson -- the bridge being the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the events taking place in 1965, and the "other side" being both literal as well as a story that is not part of the common history of the Civil Rights Era.

As a tribute to her father who served as a National Guardsman whose job was to protect the marchers after they had crossed the bridge on their way to Montgomery, Ms. Dickson envisions a Christian white family who, like many others at that time, tried to keep their lives as normal as possible during a turbulent time. From the perspective of the play's narrator [Brittney Johnston] who is the grown up version of one of the children, most of the adults in her play, for better or for worse, "loved us enough to lie to us, or not tell us the whole truth". -- Some subjects were for adults only, and Ms. Dickson's characters -- the father John [Matt Dickson], the mother Millie [Jesse Alston], Trip [George Scrushy and Andi [Mattie Earls] -- debate their allegiances to family and country, and are concerned with the safety of their families; but they do not talk with their children about the racial issues virtually on their doorstep.

On a stormy day, while celebrating their son Dusty's [Kieran Cross] birthday with cake and gifts, John invites a stranded African American threesome to both shelter in their home and join the simple festivities. While Michael [Colby Smith], Jennie [Jocelyn Jointer] and Sarah [Theresa Jett] humbly accept John's hospitality, Uncle Ned [Hunter Lee Smith] objects, saying that his brother is ignoring family in favor of strangers who he despises for the color of their skin.

But John sticks to his principles against Ned's prejudice and emerges heroic in the view of his grown up daughter, the Narrator, who only in retrospect can deal with the public and private events of 1965, since the family had never talked about them,

To add a further moral emphasis to her play, Ms. Dickson has two preachers -- one white [Chris Kelly], one black [Tony Davidson], who serve in neighboring churches and are good friends -- serve as a kind of Chorus, who profess the need for love and compassion in all our lives and at all times in our lives, to give them a solid foundation.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, ones that resonate over time and continue to impact our lives. lessons about loyalty and duty to family and country, lessons about equality and diversity, lessons about love.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

AUM: "Celebrating 40 Years -- Gala"

For the past 40 years, Theatre AUM has been a model for educational theatre, balancing its academic programs with a commitment to producing plays from the breadth of world drama -- classical and modern, tragedies and comedies, straight plays and musicals, old standards and new scripts -- challenging its students and local audiences with its sometimes risky choices and a variety of theatrical styles.

So, its Gala celebration on Saturday night -- Celebrating 40 Years, co-directed by Neil David Seibel, LaBrandon Tyre, Mike Winkelman, and Val Winkelman -- was unsurprising in showcasing its educational theatre mission, while affording the audience a capsule of scenes, monologues, and songs from its 40-year repertoire, and featuring an ensemble of 20+ current students, alumni, faculty, and guest artists, some of whom reprised roles they had appeared in decades earlier.

Celebrating with them in the audience were Guin Nance, former AUM Chancellor who started the theatre program, Bob Gaines, who was Department Chair from 1977-2007, Mary-Lynn Izzo, a former AUM costume designer, Randy Foster, who directed several productions, and Mike Cunliffe, an alumnus whose play Movie Night was excerpted in one of the evening's most memorable performances by Sophomore Kodi Robertson.

In a kind of love-fest between actors and audience, all some of these veterans had to do was take the stage for the audience to enthusiastically welcome them home; and Eleanor Davis [triumphant in a rendering of "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch" from Company], Layne Holley [powerhouse samplings from Godspell and Noises Off], Scott Page [passionate in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat], and Sam Wallace [restrained in singing "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks], did not disappoint.

Each of the selections was done as an "audition piece", with actors introducing themselves and the titles to be performed. And while it is hard to pin down the best of the best, the talents showed a wide variety of offerings. -- It was a treat to see AUM's managing director Katie Pearson share the stage with her daughter Rita Pearson-Daley (a last-minute replacement) as mother and daughter in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. And selections from All in the Timing, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Brigadoon, and Coastal Disturbances demonstrated the range that AUM is noted for.

Even a few theatrical in-jokes punctuated the evening's two acts. Waiting for Godot, Six Characters in Search of an Author, and yelling a single word -- "S-T-E-L-L-A" -- from A Streetcar Named Desire, among them, received appreciative laughs and applause.

It was truly an upbeat celebration, with Theatre AUM proclaiming "this is who we are...this is what we do", with the promise of continuing their traditions. Congratulations.