Sunday, September 17, 2017

Millbrook: "The Diary of Anne Frank"

The Diary of a Young Girl was published in 1947, just two years after its author, the teenaged Anne Frank, died in a concentration camp. Her father Otto was the only member of his Jewish family to survive the Nazi Holocaust; when he returned to the Annex above his former office in Amsterdam where his family and others had spent almost two years hiding from the Nazis with the assistance of Meip Gies and Mr. Kraler, he discovered his daughter's diary and determined to have it published both as a tribute to her and a reminder to the world of the horrors of war and the resilience of its victims.

In 1955, The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett opened on Broadway, receiving a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for "Best Play", as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. -- It is now being presented on stage by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. under the direction of Daniel Harms; and with the current international concern with Neo-Naziism, with aggression against those persons perceived as "other", and with daily newspaper and social media accounts of violent intolerance, its messages are uncomfortably resonant.

The action takes place in the Annex, a claustrophobic space with several levels, all cramped with furniture and made more confining by the eight inhabitants who must step over and around one another and share sleeping quarters that restrict any sense of privacy. They  must be absolutely quiet during the work-day hours, since there are people in the office below them, and any hint of a noise could bring the dreaded soldiers to arrest them and herd them off to a concentration camp. -- They can't cook or use the toilet, must take off their shoes and walk about as little as possible, and talk very little if at all.

So we see them only at night when the all-clear signals have been heard and they can relax a bit and speak and act out their repressed feelings toward the world around them and toward one another. Petty arguments mushroom into full-fledged animosity; territorialism and accusations of perceived preferential treatment are voiced; and the fear of being caught is always at the forefront. -- Yet there is hope, written in Anne's diary, that "in spite of everything, people are truly good at heart". And it is her voice that centers the play: a youthful voice of optimism, a coming of age voice dealing with all the contradictions of adolescence and the discovery of a first-time romance, a kind-hearted voice that can find the means to resolve the issues that confront them in their darkest hours.

Mr. Harms has gathered an ensemble of actors who clearly define their characters and keep audiences concerned for them, though we know from the outset that almost all of them will die. -- Though there are a number of technical items that could be addressed [lighting that casts unfortunate shadows in key locations, late sound and light cues, inconsistency in when everyone should not be wearing shoes, the loud volume of Anne's voice-over readings from her diary that connect the scenes], by and large the production focuses our attention on the characters and themes.

While the ensemble work well together and individually, and Brady Walker as Otto Frank gives a strong and sensitive performance, special notice should be given to Lucy Wilson's credible portrayal of Anne; she nails the character's contradictions and never fails to remain in the moment. Anne's frustrations with her relationship with her mother, her hurt feelings of being compared to her sister, her clear reliance on her father's wisdom and solidity, her refusal to accept the status quo -- all contribute to a fully realized character.

It is through Anne that we learn the horrors of war and Naziism, and through whom we make the connections to our own day.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "I Do! I Do!"

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the team behind the 42-year-long run of The Fantasticks (1960-2002) in New York, had another success in 1966 with a charming musical called I Do! I Do! which is currently on the boards at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre.

Played on a wide set dominated by a large four poster bed, and with some 19 songs in its two acts, I Do! I Do! spins the story of Michael and Agnes from their wedding day and the gift of a pillow embroidered with "God is Love", through the next fifty years; while there are few surprises and a lot of familiar territory in this gentle tale -- awkward first moments, the births of children and the responsibilities that come with them, the "traditional" roles of husbands and wives, events that test a marriage, grandparenthood, and retirement -- director Kristy Meanor and musical director Marilyn Swears have their actors create characters and weave a story as a testament to the bond between people who truly love each other.

Usually played by two actors, Ms. Meanor has chosen to split the roles for the two acts: Morgan Baker and Rebecca Ivey play Michael and Agnes in Act I during the first years of their marriage, while Jeff Langham and Kim Mason take over the roles in Act II from their middle-age to old-age. -- In both Acts, audiences are treated to strong singing and effective aging through modifications of wigs/costumes [well done, Matthew Oliver] and makeup, most of which is done off-stage. Ms. Ivey is particularly impressive in her Act I transformations; and both Mr. Langham's and Ms. Mason's transitions to old age are done in full view allowing us to see them age before our eyes.

Each of the actors is given moments to demonstrate their singing chops. Mr. Baker's rendition of "I Love My Wife" is particularly effective, and Ms. Ivey takes over the stage with "Flaming Agnes" in which she claims her independence; together, their versions of "Love Isn't Everything" and "A Well Known Fact" are delightful.

Probably the best known song from I Do! I Do! is Act II's  "My Cup Runneth Over", and is given a fine interpretation here. Mr. Langham and Ms. Mason relish their independence from their children in the humorous "When the Kids Get Married". His "The Father of the Bride" tells of every father's reticence in letting go of his daughter and suggests the empty-nest syndrome that everyone fears, and her "What is a Woman" questions her worth outside marriage. But all is forgiven with the exchange of gifts and the realization that "Someone Needs Me".

As they prepare to leave the house they lived in for the past fifty years, they leave the "God is Love" pillow and a bottle of champagne for the new young couple moving in, and audiences are left feeling good to have been in their presence.



Wednesday, September 13, 2017

WOBT: "Deathtrap"

Ira Levin's Deathtrap -- a staple of the thriller-comedy mold -- is playing at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville under Matthew Givens' direction. His cast of five veterans and newcomers maneuver the intricacies of Levin's script with assurance, keeping audiences engaged with its ever-increasing plot twists.

Having has a successful Broadway run in the late 1970s, and a 1982 film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, much of the plot is well-known; so for the sake of those uninitiated, there will be few spoilers here. Suffice it to say that things aren't always what they seem.

Sidney Bruhl [Roy Goldfinger] and his sickly wife Myra [Adria Winlock] live in a comfortable Connecticut retreat where he is trying to re-invigorate a fading career as a writer of smash Broadway thrillers. When a former student sends him a script of a play he calls "Deathtrap", Bruhl is impressed by its quality, and fantasizes that he could steal the script and pass it off as his own, even off-handedly considering killing off the younger man. -- He has an array of weapons hanging on the walls of his study in full view of the audience. And here is the classic Anton Chekhov foreshadowing: "If in the first act you have a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." -- Stay tuned.

Helga ten Dorp [Michon Givens], a psychic who is renting a neighboring house, pays a visit to the Bruhls and instantly senses danger and pain in the house, mentioning specific details that will play out later, and warning them to be careful.

When youthful playwright Clifford Anderson [Woody Joye] arrives on Sidney's invitation ostensibly to fine-tune the play to get it ready for Broadway, they agree to collaborate. -- But murder and deception rule the day with elaborate plot twists that keep us guessing what will happen next.

Bruhl's lawyer Porter Milgrim [West Marcus] voices his suspicions about the close relationship of the two men, and encourages Bruhl to fix his last will and testament before it's too late.

As the men collaborate, they act out various scenes of the script they're working on: the script that replicates the previous action of the very play we are seeing in the theatre, and which bring both plays to their appropriate conclusion.

Suspense is sustained through a tight control on the script by both director and cast. However, there are several lengthy scene breaks that leave the audience in darkness and without any music to underscore and keep them attentive; these lapses make each successive scene a challenge to reconnect. And traditional "stormy night" sequences that depend on dim lights and dark shadows for impact, were so brightly lit that the intended shocking action was disappointing.

Nonetheless, the opening night audience responded with enthusiasm, and the WOBT company should be proud of their accomplishments.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Erma Bombeck's At Wit's End"

Erma Bombeck's "At Wit's End" is an affectionate tribute to the late American humorist currently showing at the Wetumpka Depot. -- In his directing debut, Jeff Langham heads the team behind Alison and Margaret Engel's one-woman show.

Kristy Meanor inhabits the role in an extended monologue that traces the ups and downs of suburban home life that inspired Bombeck and triggered her career as an unlikely journalist -- a career that started small yet mushroomed to a syndicated column in some 900 newspapers, the writing of 15 best selling books, a successful lecture circuit, a stint on ABC's "Good Morning America", and a passionate support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The audience at this brief sold-out run responded enthusiastically to the many quotes from Bombeck's writing that pepper the narrative, and admitted in the post-show talk back that clippings from her newspaper columns often found a place on their refrigerators as reminders of the homespun advice that endeared her to so many for so long.

The set [modified from the Depot's recent production of Southern Fried Funeral] shows the living room, kitchen, and bedroom of Bombeck's home, the place where she did most of her writing on a typewriter atop an ironing board. -- The quirky lighting design often left Ms. Meanor in semi-darkness or shadow that, while intended to focus attention on her, got in the way of clear communication.

Any one-person show is an acting challenge, and Ms. Meanor's veteran instincts kept her portrayal of Ms. Bombeck's cheerful self-effacing attitude at the fore, spinning a positive note even onto such serious issues as cancer, dementia, and the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

The script cleverly interjects Bombeck's epigrams into the narrative, and Ms.Meanor delivers them with expert comic timing and knowing glances that make the audience complicit in her analyses. We are instantly on her side, largely because she says things we would like to have said about our own experiences: how to deal with children ["The favorite child is the one who needs you the most"]; the myth of the perfect suburban housewife ["I never met a woman who would give up lunch for sex"]; the importance of the ERA ["I wrote for me and the rest of the Moms who need recognition"].

The one-hour running time is just right. Though we could listen to Ms. Meanor for a longer time, "always leave an audience wanting more" is a sure-fire way to ensure a hit, and Erma Bombeck's "At Wit's End" does just that.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

ASF: Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's "Mary Poppins"

A heaping "spoonful of sugar" is ladled out in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's engaging family entertainment production of Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins, closing this weekend's successful extended run under Geoffrey Sherman's direction.

In reprising the title role, Alice Sherman's voice is in top shape as she confidently leads the large ensemble or delivers solo pieces with seeming ease, but it is her portrayal of Mary -- a no nonsense but craftily likable disciplinarian of Jane [Olivia Laine Scott] and Michael [Noah Henninger], her two rambunctious charges who have successfully sabotaged every other Nanny they've had -- that is especially notable. Her 2014 performance was charming, no doubt; but this time, Mary has taken on more depth in her understanding of the children's needs, her not-quite-romantic relationship with Bert [Bret Shuford], and her support of Winifred Banks' [Jean McCormick] emerging self-awareness as an equal partner with banker husband George [David Schmittou]. In short, this more mature Mary Poppins adds another level to our response to her; she is still charming, but is made an admirable role model.

When the Banks children successfully run off their latest nanny and write their own job description for a successor , Mary Poppins mysteriously arrives on the scene and proceeds to both entertain and discipline them; they can have fun, but must abide by certain rules. -- And while their father measures success as family provider in material terms, he too must learn the value of loving them, the quality that his wife and children all long for, especially young Michael who craves one-on-one father-son time with him.

The household servants -- the not so proficient cook Mrs. Brill [Toni DiBuono], and bumbling but earnest Robertson Ay [Billy Sharpe] -- add some high quality humor to the proceedings; Janelle A. Robinson renders two striking turns as Mrs. Corry and the "holy terror" nanny Miss Andrew. Her "Brimstone and Treacle" is a show-stopper.

When Mr. Banks almost loses his job by deciding to lend money to a "good" man rather than a shyster, he learns the difference between the value of a thing and its worth. When Mrs. Banks comes to his rescue after recognizing her own worth in "Being Mrs. Banks", she finds that the Bank Chairman [Paul Hebron] has already rewarded her husband for making the right choice in the first place.

Though Mary Poppins teaches several lessons to the children and the adults, the Bird Woman in the Park [Barbara Broughton] hits home with her sensitive treatment of "Feed the Birds", showing to one and all that a mere "tuppence a bag" for food for God's smallest creatures is a gift of far greater value. It is the little things -- small gestures that get no notice -- that mean the most. And Mr. Banks' finally flying a kite with his son seals their relationship.

There are quite a few production numbers that garner audience enthusiasm: "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" fit the bill, even in somewhat restrained choreographed staging.

Sets by Peter Hicks are detailed, flexible, and ingenious is differentiating between the natural Edwardian house and the technicolor dream-like quality of the Park; Brenda Van Der Weil creates costumes that also give period detail and fantasy crayola vibrancy.

Mr. Shuford's Bert -- the sometime narrator, sometime magician, sometime cohort of Mary Poppins -- is ever likable as he guides the children and the audience into Mary Poppins' delightful world. -- The lessons they teach are worth remembering; but Mary Poppins can only stay with the Banks family till she is no longer needed, and when they have all learned her lessons, they must be left to carry on without her.

When she leaves -- upraised umbrella carrying her over the heads of the audience -- we are all the better for having spent some time with her. She is, after all, "Practically Perfect".

Friday, August 4, 2017

Millbrook: "The Music Man'

Wow! An 18-piece orchestra led by Ken Lantz, brings a welcome "brass" complement to the Millbrook Community Players' lively nostalgic production of Meredith Wilson's Tony Award-winning The Music Man (1957). -- Set in fictional River City, Iowa in 1912, the play is an unabashedly upbeat look at an idyllic America.

Wilson's story centers on irrepressible flimflam man "Professor" Harold Hill [Brady Walker] and his attempts to con the citizens of River City into investing in instruments and uniforms for a brass band, and thus avoid the horrors of wasting their youth in pool halls, dens of iniquity that can corrupt them. Hill is so adept at his game that almost everyone succumbs. One of his tougher "sells" is with local librarian Marian Paroo [Sarah Missildine], who tries to research Hill's background; and Mayor Shinn [Ron Harris] also has his doubts, while his wife Eulalie [Carol Majors] easily falls under Hill's spell. And Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo [Michon Givens] provides a sincere Irish approval of a match between her daughter and the "Professor".

Anyone who has seen the play or the 1962 film version knows the outcome, but the journey to it is worth the two-and-a-half hours with The Music Man under Angie Mitchell's  adept direction of the 40+ actors in her able cast. -- They're a likable group who bring bright-eyed energy to every moment. Combined with Lantz's steady musical direction and Daniel Grant Harms' peppy choreography, the time goes by quickly.

All this is carried by Wilson's remarkable score -- songs that hearken back to a more innocent era while retaining a freshness that appeals across all social and economic borders. Many of them are indelibly in the canon of great American musical theatre songs: "Trouble", Hill's rapid fire energy driven song to convince the River City folks to invest in a brass band, sets everything in motion, and Mr. Walker commands the stage as he prods them unceasingly; "Good Night My Someone" and "Till There Was You" feature Ms. Missildine's lyrical soprano voice to excellent effect; novelty songs "Pick a Little, Talk a Little" that highlights the choral groups and "Shipoopie" has the charm of Lee Bridges playing Hill's cohort Marcellus Washburn; "Gary, Indiana" affords Marian's young brother Winthrop an opportunity to sing a song with very few "S" sounds so he won't be embarrassed by his lisp; arguably the most popular songs "Lida Rose" by the Barbershop Quartet combined with Marian's "Will I Ever Tell You" steal the audience's collective hearts. Of course, there's the rousing "Seventy-six Trombones" to get everyone's feet tapping.

Spurred on by anvil salesman Charlie Cowell [Tim Griggs] and about to be driven out of town on a rail for failing to uphold his part of the bargain, Hill is saved by the delivery of instruments and uniforms; though the boys are terrible musicians, they look good in the band uniforms, and their parents are so proud of them. And it is clear that Hill and Marian will be a match.

This affectionate production of The Music Man adds a well needed relief from the heat of the Summer and the political issues glaring from daily headlines by reminding us that the values inherent in an  America of not so long ago are still worth the investment.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Southern Fried Funeral"

Another River Region sold-out run just closed at the Wetumpka Depot. Southern Fried Funeral, a genuinely funny if somewhat familiar and derivative comedy, strongly directed by Kim Mason, received a lot of belly-laughs in recognition of the assorted characters' foibles and he play's clever dialogue.

Ms. Mason's 11-member ensemble of Depot veterans and some in their acting debuts, exhibited confidence and clear storytelling for the 2-hour performance. Performed on Kristy Meanor's finely detailed kitchen and dining room set, Southern Fried Funeral takes audiences immediately into familiar territory.

Family and friends of Dewey's [a good man who died in the middle of telling a joke to the local Rotarians], meet at the home of his widow Dorothy [Lynne Taunton] to grieve and sympathize and plan his funeral. But Dorothy has a lot to contend with besides the funeral: her feuding adult daughters -- black sheep Harlene [Catherine Barlow] and stereotypical Southern belle Sammy Jo [Janet Robinson] harbor childhood resentments; Sammy Jo also has some marital issues with her loving and misunderstood husband Beecham [Brad Sinclair]; her "simple" son Dewey, Jr. [Morgan Baker] seems oblivious to his father's death; and her smarmy brother-in-law Uncle Dub [Lloyd Strickland] tries to wrest away her land and home on the day of the funeral.

Add a bevy of neighbors -- toupee wearing Benny Charles [Alan Patrick], slightly dim Fairy June [Judy Savage in an understated pitch-perfect performance], steadfast friend Martha Ann [Susan Montgomery] and her nemesis, the over-zealous Ozetta [Hazel Jones] a pretentious busybody and (as she continually reminds everyone) the Chairwoman of the church's "Sunshine Committee" that plans all funerals according to strict social norms.

And then there's Atticus [Will Webster] a one-time lover of Harlene's and a local lawyer whose skills (shades of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird) will be brought into play to save Dorothy's home and land from the dastardly Uncle Dub.

The director's hand is very clear in this production: Ms. Mason guides her actors to give credible performances without going over the top into broad caricatures. And though there are only a few surprises -- a deftly staged food fight, for example -- the sibling rivalries and humorous takes on familiar "Southern" archetypes, make for a comfortable audience reception.

Beneath the froth of this confection lie some perceptive notions about how some people grieve (anger, denial, etc.), and while Dorothy's outburst when she can no longer take all the mayhem around her is reminiscent of M'Lynn's behavior in Steel Magnolias, it captures the very real limits to which anyone can be subjected under these circumstances.