Sunday, May 5, 2019

ASF Fellows: "Winnie-the-Pooh"

On their penultimate day on Saturday, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Fellows Company presented a delightful production of the A. A. Milne classic Winnie-the-Pooh in a musical adaptation (first seen at ASF about a decade ago) by Le Clanche du Rand, with music by Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by Milne, Kristin Sergel, and Ms. du Rand.

Milne's original 1926 stories are telegraphed into a 60-minute entertainment that is a treat for both the intended children's audiences and the adults who accompany them. -- With its coloring-book set by Charles Eddie Moncrief III and inventive costumes by Jeffrey Todhunter, it pleases the eye as it tells the tale of Christopher Robin [Dane McMichael] and his treasured companion Pooh [Tyshon Boone] as they engage in a number of adventures and misadventures with Rabbit [Katrina Clark], Eeyore [Chris Marth], Piglet [Sigrid Wise], Owl [Tony Pellegrino], Kanga [Eduardo Ruiz] and Roo [Toree Alexandre]. Take your pick on a favorite character; there's enough in each one to beguile anyone.

AUM faculty member Neil David Seibel directs this ensemble with keen attention to character, movement, inventive staging, and the thematic lessons that people of all ages can agree on. -- The action moves swiftly from moment to moment interspersed with songs mostly from the original text; accompanied by Mr. McMichael on the guitar, and occasionally half-spoken/half-sung, the simple tunes are in keeping with Milne's simple messages.

Never out of fashion, Milne's overriding theme of getting along with one another couldn't be more important than today. We watch in childlike wonder how the characters learn to accept strangers who are different from themselves, how to rely on friends in times of need, how to admit when we are wrong or fearful and to apologize (and to move forward when apologies are accepted), and how the least among us ought to be respected.

Though some of the intimate connection between actor and audience was challenged by the play's being staged in the large Festival theatre, this Winnie-the-Pooh preserved the author's intentions and charmed the enthusiastically responsive audience.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

WOBT: "Pride and Prejudice"

The Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is playing to enthusiastic full houses with their pleasant  production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Adapted by Jane Kendall from Austen's 1813 romantic novel, this version is true to its major plot elements, and director Pamela Trammell keeps her acting company focused on storytelling and character relationships for the two hours running time.

As one of the world's literary masterpieces, and with many stage and film adaptations to secure its popularity, Pride and Prejudice is familiar territory. We are taken to early Nineteenth Century England, where melodramatic Mrs. Bennet [Catherine Barlow] is most concerned with finding good husbands for her five daughters, especially since Mr. Bennet's [Will Skelton] inheritance can't be passed on to them; his cousin Mr. Collins [Michael Mims] would take over the estate on Bennet's death.

With the arrival of wealthy and charming Charles Bingley [David Shelnutt] and his sister Caroline [Emma Crockett] to the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet schemes to make a match with eldest daughter Jane [Sarah Staton]. Accompanying Bingley is the moody and aloof Mr. Darcy [Josh Williams], who immediately seems to insult the Bennets, much to the ire of second daughter, feisty Elizabeth [Lauren Norris]. -- And the younger daughters: bookish Mary [Kenna Shields] remains aloof, and giddy Catherine [Rebecca Schannep] and Lydia [Cadence Potter] are more concerned with parties and soldiers in uniform, particularly the dashing Mr. Wickham [Josiah Lamb] who isn't what he seems.

When Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins's marriage proposal, he turns to Charlotte Lucas [Ameila Robbins] whose mother Lady Lucas [Diane Garfield] is a social climbing gossip.

Many misunderstandings and confusions about people's intentions ensue, and messages are delivered by household servant Hill [Abigail Bonebrake]; but the result is well known, and as "opposites attract", it is clear that Elizabeth and Darcy will be together by the end, despite the interference of Lady Catherine de Bourgh [Pamela Barnes],  as will Bingley and Jane.

The ensemble handle their roles with conviction and admirable English accents; lovely period costumes by Dani Porter and her team enhance their behaviors and provide an appropriate look to the surroundings. And though some blocking upstaged important action and the pace needed some variety, and it sugar-coated the relationship between Lydia and Mr. Wickham, this production of Pride and Prejudice is an endearing romantic foray into the Nineteenth Century. Well done.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Millbrook: "Independence Day at Happy Meadows"

Laura King's sillier-by-the-moment Independence Day at Happy Meadows is playing in Millbrook, garnering plenty of laughs for its six character ensemble in a 90-minute romp. Though it could benefit from additional energetic movement, the posturing of the four geriatric women living in Happy Meadows retirement home manage to keep the action moving at a good pace.

Beset by the tedium of the retirement home, and face to face daily with recognizable personality syndromes marking advanced age, Holly [Angie Mitchell] gets a message from her ten-year-old grandson asking her to visit him on the Fourth of July; though it seems impossible, Holly and her cohorts -- spunky and outspoken Betty [Carol Majors], wheelchair bound "forgetful" Shirley [Ginger Collum], and overly polite Mary [Nancy Power] -- plan to breakout of the "home", basing their plan on the movie "The Great Escape".

Of course, there are obstacles to their plan, the most difficult is in the person of Nancy [Rae Ann Collier], the nasty and devious nurse/director of Happy Meadows, who is expecting an inspector that day who she is out to impress with the perfection of her establishment, no matter how it is actually run.

When delivery man and Nancy's sometime lover Gus [John Collier] arrives with food for a picnic Nancy has planned to influence the inspector, he gets caught up in the ladies' escape plot.

Well, there is a lot of confusion, fireworks, a can of corn, a length of rope, and other incredible comic bits that punctuate the on-stage antics; and the time passes quickly. -- The acting company [their various eccentricities and personality quirks notwithstanding] are both familiar and sympathetic. We recognize them and enjoy being in their company.

Scene changes need to be quicker to keep audience attention, but as a happy ending guarantees a temporary independence for the women, and the dialogue and characterizations so spot on, the evening spent in their company is a good one.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Wetumpka Depot: "Bright Star"

In a busy week for River Region theatres, the Wetumpka Depot opened a buoyant Bluegrass musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; under the direction of Kristy Meanor and musical direction of Randy Foster, Bright Star has a cast of 19 and a terrific 7-piece orchestra (some of whom are in the cast) who transport audiences to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1945, and with flashback sequences to 1923.

Alice Murphy [Adrian Lee Borden] intrigues us at the start with "If You Knew My Story", leading to a saga of love and loss, forgiveness and reconciliation.

It's 1945 when Billy Cane [Brandtley McDonald] returns from serving in World War II to his home in the mountains where his childhood friend and would-be sweetheart Margo Crawford [Brittney Johnston] has edited several stories he has sent her and encourages him to publish them ("Bright Star"). -- He goes to Asheville where he meets Alice, the editor of The Asheville Southern Journal, who eventually gives him a chance to find his own voice as a writer. -- Reminiscing on her younger days, the play flashes back to 1923, where a budding romance between her younger self and Jimmy Ray [Alex Freeman] is thwarted by his tyrannical father Mayor Dobbs [Scott Page] who will do anything to stop their romance ("A Man's Gotta Do"), especially when Alice becomes pregnant and the Mayor forbids their marriage and insists she put her baby up for adoption.

Complications ensue as the two stories get more and more intertwined. Over the two acts, secrets are kept for good or ill, loyalties are tested, atrocities are revealed; yet love will ultimately reconcile the central characters.

Production values are all top notch:  Ms. Meanor's composite rustic set,  Cherry Jones's lovely period costumes, and Matthew Oliver's striking wigs are enhanced by Tom Salter's effectively atmospheric lighting and Jackson Dean's evocative sound design.

But it is the acting and music that carries the day. Each of the likable principal and supporting actors is gifted with a strong singing voice that interprets the lyrics and carries without amplification; and they make us care about their individual concerns. The ensemble actors in supporting roles embellish the story with important plot details and help develop the major characters' relationships. And even Mr. Page's portrayal of the heinous Mayor is admirable as the one man we are supposed to despise.

Mr. Foster's admirable on-stage orchestra playing an assortment of traditional Bluegrass instruments carries the action from moment to moment with ballads, rousing dance numbers effectively choreographed by Daniel Harms, anthems, plaintive reminiscences, and hopeful winsomeness with instrumentation that supports the actors and augments their behavior and relationships.

This production of Bright Star has all the markings of yet another hit for the Wetumpka Depot.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Flyin' West"

The shelf-life of any play is at best uncertain, but it is no surprise that Atlanta based playwright Pearl Cleage's popular 1994 Flyin' West is marking its 25th Anniversary with several productions around the country, the latest of which opened Thursday night at The Cloverdale Playhouse; it was the country's "most produced play" shortly after its composition, and from the resounding reception it received this week, its staying power is secure.

Based on actual events during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, when thousands of former slaves fled the South to settle in Nicodemus, Kansas, Ms. Cleage's play is both a history lesson and an anthem to the stalwart women whose identity and strength of character reflect the Biblical Nicodemus as a model of their rebirth in casting off the bonds of slavery to secure their new-found freedom.

Flyin' West shows four Homesteading women who join forces in their attempts to overcome the social stigma of being both Black and female, with unseen whites buying up the land around them, and racial prejudices within their own family. -- Miss Leah [Georgette Norman] is a feisty matriarchal ex-slave who birthed 15 children who were all sold into slavery, and whose yarns both entertain and instruct. She is in company with three sisters: the eldest, Sophie [Kourtney Ellis] is a determined rifle-toting activist in the movement to keep her family's land secure; middle sister Fannie [Jamila Turner] tries her best to hold the family together despite inner strife, while being courted by the mild-mannered Will [La'Brandon Milbry-Tyer]; and on the arrival of pregnant youngest sister Minnie [Amy May], who makes excuses for her abusively loathsome mulatto husband Frank [Clyde Hancock], family conflicts intertwine with the challenges of surviving in the 1898 Kansas plains.

Mike Winkelman designed a minimalist multi-leveled set surrounded by a painted panorama of the Great Plains that evokes the endless possibilities awaiting a people eager to fulfill the American Dream of "freedom, equality, and opportunity" to be secured through land ownership.

Directed by local actress and director Sarah Adkins, Flyin' West takes on a profound significance for contemporary audiences. Ms. Adkins offers a slow and deliberate pace to target Ms. Cleage's themes with humor and poignancy, and effortlessly skewers the danger and hypocrisy of racist ideas and behavior both within and without the African American community.

The ensemble actors grapple with these themes in consistently nuanced performances that delineate their roles without resorting to stereotype. And there are moments that rivet audience attention because of the actors' credible connections to one another, their respect for Ms. Cleage's words and the powerful ideas they communicate about self-determination, human dignity against the odds, and even some wicked fun at resolving their problems.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

ASF Fellows Touring Company: "As You Like It"

On April 23rd, a balmy evening and the 455th Birthday of William Shakespeare, audience members lounged on blankets and chairs, sipped cool drinks, and nibbled on snacks in the Garden at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival while being entertained by the ASF Fellows Touring Company's abridged version of As You Like It, one of the Bard's most popular plays.

Honed down to a mere 75-minutes, the 8-member acting ensemble gave an energetic and sometimes rambunctious entertainment that is geared to make Shakespeare accessible to young student audiences on their tour; make no mistake, this shortened version appeals to the adults and purists as well because Associate Artistic Director Greta Lambert's assured hand is fully in charge.

Ms. Lambert has been directing these shortened versions for several years, and her signature is all over this production: creative casting of eight actors to cover all the roles, adroit staging, inventive humor, the ability to connect a 400-year-old play to contemporary audiences, and most of all a respect for Shakespeare's words in her finely edited script..

After a brief purposefully written Prologue that introduces the company and the various roles they play, this As You Like It dives right in to a story about love, forgiveness, and justice. Central to the plot is Rosalind [Katrina Clark], who falls in love with Orlando [Tyshon Boone] after he defeats the wrestler Charles [Tony Pelligrino] in front of Duke Frederick [Chris Marth], and his daughter (who is also Rosalind's best friend) Celia [Sigrid Wise]. -- The Duke had usurped and banished his own brother; Orlando's brother Oliver [Eduardo Ruiz] tried to have him killed; the Duke banishes Rosalind, so she disguises herself as a man called Ganymede and together with Celia in the guise of a simple maid Aliena, and the fool Touchstone [Dane McMichael] decides to go to the Forest of Arden, where Orlando has also fled on the advice of LeBeau [Toreee Alexandre], and by coincidence the wronged Duke Senior [also Mr. Marth] also lives in pastoral comfort in company with the melancholy Jaques [Mr. Pellegrino again].

Pretty much everyone winds up in the forest, and when Orlando is caught pinning love poems to Rosalind on the trees for everyone to see, Ganymede offers to cure Orlando of his lovesickness by "impersonating" Rosalind and having him practice wooing her; and when local shepherd Silvius [Mr. Marth] is rejected by Phebe [Ms. Alexandre], and she falls desperately for Ganymede, and Touchstone falls for the lusty Audrey [Mr. Ruiz in outrageous drag], "Ganymede" tutors them all in the appropriate ways of love and courtship.

A lot to sort out in just 75 minutes, but this extraordinary ensemble of actors is up to the task, keeping plots and subplots clear, delineating each of their several roles so well that audiences could imagine a much larger cast than eight actors, maintaining Shakespeare's wit, while affording the more serious themes to come to the fore, especially Jaques' "Seven ages of man" speech. -- This talented company create a palpable chemistry on stage that infects the audience with a joyful spirit.

It is a comedy, so most everyone is happy at the end: brothers are reunited in harmony, forgiveness is given with dignity, all the couples are united in marriages, and the play ends with singing and dancing.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

ASF: "Into the Breeches"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival just added George Brant's infectiously delightful comedy-drama Into the Breeches into its repertory season. -- Our Town and Romeo and Juliet have been playing for a while, with Steel Magnolias a recent addition. -- Into the Breeches, directed assuredly by Shana Gozansky, has the six "steel magnolias" joined by two men from the Our Town cast, taking the Octagon Stage by storm and earning laugh-out-loud moments, exit applause, tearfully moving episodes, bristling indignation, and a long spontaneous standing ovation.

Set during World War II in Montgomery, AL [the location changes depending on where the play is produced] at the fictitious Oberon Theatre [Scott C. Neale created the evocative set], where Ellsworth Snow [James Judy] threatens to cancel their season of Shakespeare's Henry plays because the men are away at the war. -- Undaunted, Maggie Dalton [Greta Lambert], the wife of the absent artistic director, is determined that "the show must go on" with an all-female cast she promises to recruit and direct. When she conscripts Ellsworth's wife Winifred [Marcy McGuigan], the first battle is won; but there are a lot more obstacles in her way.

Winifred wants to help but is a terrible actor; middle-aged diva Celeste [Allison Briner Dardenne] assumes she will play the lead role of Prince Hal, though she is clearly too-long-in-the-tooth for the part; auditions day supplies only two inexperienced young women -- eager Grace [Sarah Walker Thornton] and timid June [Gracie Winchester], whose husbands are also away fighting; and the group's African American costume designer Ida [Tracy Conyer Lee] and gay stage manager Stuart [Grant Chapman] will eventually complete the rag-tag performance troupe.

The challenges of learning lines and impersonating men, and interpolating Groucho Marx into a characterization of Falstaff [a couple of hilariously funny moments that threatened to stop the show], are balanced by the pathos of the women's concern for their men in battle, and their bonds of inclusiveness in the face of racism and homophobia.

With famous English actress Glenda Jackson currently playing King Lear on Broadway at the age of 82 as a model, there should be no doubt that the women of Into the Breeches are up to the challenge. -- Brant's script affords each character specific moments of attention at which these actors shine, yet no one is the show's star; as the script dictates, we watch them develop acting skills and the self-confidence to make Shakespeare's words resonate both for the 1940s and today.

They are an ensemble of the first order, becoming the "band of brothers" made famous in Henry V's "St. Crispin's Day speech" that was used by Laurence Olivier to raise the spirits of the British during World War II, and rendered here most powerfully. We laugh with them as they learn to trust themselves and one another, we cry with them in their distressful separation from their spouses, we support them in overcoming social prejudices -- in short, we invest in their lives. And they emerge triumphant.

Into the Breeches, with its aforementioned set, stunning costumes by Olivera Gajic, effective wigs by Matthew Reeves Oliver, glorious soundscape of period songs from Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, inspired lighting by Annie Wiegand, and flawless acting, is bright and witty, often boisterously funny, and an ultimately moving piece of theatre that ought to be seen.