Monday, January 26, 2015

ASF Interns: "Alice in Wonderland"

For just over an hour, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Intern Acting Company transports Alice [Jessica G. Smith] and audiences of all ages down a rabbit hole in director Nancy Rominger's magically whimsical production of Jean Erickson's adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic Alice in Wonderland.

The script is faithful to its source, and this production is enhanced by Pamela Scofield's inventive and colorful costumes, and James Wolk's masterful scenic design.

When Alice wanders off from a picnic school-lesson led by her prim and proper sister Edith [Betsey Helmer], her dizzying tailspin (adroitly staged by this eight member ensemble -- most of whom play multiple roles), lands her in a place where animals, plants, a deck of cards, and chess pieces test her logical and imaginative mind as she tries to get back home.

Bewildered though she might be by the literal-mindedness of the inhabitants of this "Wonderland", she is also intrigued by all things strange and wonderful -- as we are as we follow her on her adventures. As  Alice says, things get "curiouser and curiouser".

All the major episodes of Carroll's book are presented here: Alice's growing smaller and taller in her attempt to fit through a tiny door in order to follow the White Rabbit [Patrick Burr] who is always late and insists on calling her Maryann. -- Alice meets the Caterpillar [S. Lewis Feemster] who tells her to stop whining and get on with it; then it's on to the Duchess [Metushaleme Dary], who has a moral for everything, and the Cook [Ms. Helmer again], who puts too much pepper in the soup, and where the White Rabbit delivers an invitation to play croquet with the Queen.

Various meetings with the Cheshire Cat [also Mr. Feemster manipulating a glorious puppet that continuously has him changing shape] test Alice's patience and knowledge.

The Mad Hatter's [Jonathan Weber] tea party with the March Hare [Cory Lawson] and Dormouse [Mike Petrie, Jr.] gets maddeningly outrageous. Their antics keep the pace moving swiftly.

And on to croquet (using flamingoes to hit hedgehogs through arches formed by playing cards) with the Knave [Mr. Petrie], King [Mr. Lawson] and Queen of Hearts [Ms. Helmer] whose "off with their heads" is a common refrain whenever she doesn't immediately get what she wants.

Alice eventually confronts the Queen's authority, and there is a frantic -- if prolonged -- chase sequence in searching out the culprit who stole the Queen's tarts.

The best of children's theatre assumes the youngsters in the audience will get engaged with the on-stage action -- and they certainly do here with both prompted and unsolicited responses and plenty of laughs as Alice's adventures get more and more confused.

And there are sufficient lessons for children and adults to absorb: to be curious about the world can result in knowledge and understanding of it, be truthful, power and money don't guarantee happiness, and when Edith finds her asleep on her return to the "real" world, Alice declares that "there should always be time to wonder...good advice.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

ASF: "Always, Patsy Cline"

Always, Patsy Cline has been on the boards since 1988, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is currently presenting its third iteration of it in the "STAGES St. Louis" production of this ever popular show. Audiences are again eating it up, and with good reason.

Based on the true story of the unlikely friendship between the iconic country singer Patsy Cline [Jacqueline Petroccia] and Louise Segar [Zoe Vonder Haar], a fan who befriended her when she was performing at the Empire Ballroom in Houston, TX, Ted Swindley's play is deftly directed by Michael Hamilton who guides his gifted cast through two acts and twenty-seven songs in a heart-felt Valentine to one of the greats of American song. -- The two hour playing time goes by in a flash as we are engaged and entertained throughout.

James Wolk's set -- a wide expanse of Louise's kitchen and sitting room with period linoleum floor and period patterned wallpaper -- transforms to The Grand Ole Opry, a television program, the Empire Ballroom and other venues; plus it contains a kitchen stove that becomes a jukebox on cue. -- Lou Bird's picture perfect costumes replicate several outfits any Patsy Cline fan would recognize.

But front and center in this production are the story of Patsy and Louise's friendship...and the music.

Ms. Vonder Haar is an able narrator and participant in the story. She inhabits the role of Louise with comfort in all her quirks so we never doubt the admiration she has for Patsy; and while she directly addresses the audience, encouraging our participation, her unabashed shoot-from-the-hip style is so engaging that we willingly go along for the ride. And we see how Patsy succumbs to her down-home Texas charm and compassion for a fellow human being who responds to kindness freely given.

Their friendship story is interspersed with a catalogue of Patsy Cline's repertoire: "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Sweet Dreams", "Crazy", and "Faded Love" among them. When Ms. Petroccia opens up at the top of the show with "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round", we need no more convincing that we're in for a powerhouse performance. Ms. Petroccia has a strong voice and an ability to sell a ballad, novelty number, or foot-stompin' honky-tonk, complete with a 'catch' in her voice that replicates Patsy Cline's vocal style.

Musical Director Joel Jones and his six piece Bodacious Bobcats Band provide spot-on interpretations of the songs, some back-up singing, and a bit of witty repartee with the actresses; they become another character in the story.

The play is part biography, part reminiscence, part concert, and always a tribute to a country music star who died tragically in a plane crash in 1963. It seems pretty clear that Ms. Petroccia and Ms. Vonden Haar are enjoying themselves. The chemistry between them is infectious, the music is brilliant, and the audience benefits from it.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza"

The Wetumpka Depot Players are ringing in the Christmas Season with their comic (mostly) pastiche called Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza, and those tacky sweaters we've all come to cringe and laugh at are much in evidence both on stage and in the audience.

In about an hour and a half, the cast of seven mix traditional Christmas Carols with holiday novelty songs, children's letters to Santa, bits of witty banter concerning that eponymous fruitcake, comments about the commercialization of Christmas, little-known historical facts [Did you know, for example, that in 1836 Alabama was the first State to make Christmas a legal holiday?], Christmas traditions around the world, touching personal reminiscences, Southern versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before  Christmas", and several needful reminders of the true focus and significance of Christ's birth...a lot to pack into ninety minutes.

Written and directed by Tom Salter, and with seasoned Depot regulars sharing his stage, the informality of this production is so comfortable it's as if we've been invited into someone's home for -- well, fruitcake and eggnog...and healthy doses of Christmas cheer.

The ensemble -- Jennifer Habercorn, Cheryl Jones, Kim Mason, Cindy Veasey, Jeff Langham, David Woodall, and Mr. Salter -- are gracious and talented folks so much like all of us that we willingly go along for the ride. They clearly enjoy one another's company, and we do too; and so we willingly forgive the occasional missed cue, static moment, or vocal hiccup. In fact, these make it even more fun.

At a time when the calendar is getting more and more hectic and stressful as it gets us closer to December 25th, the infectious good spirits of the Depot Company provide a welcome relaxed atmosphere, a warmth of heart, and a celebration of family and good will of the Christmas Season.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play"

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

Christmas Eve 1946; Studio-A of radio station WTCP in Manhattan, NY -- and time for the "Playhouse of the Air" presentation of It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play. The actors gather on a cold night, the Stage Manager is in his booth, and the Foley artist [Sound Effects man] has his props all set. Add a pianist and a vocal trio, and The Cloverdale Playhouse's hour-and-forty-minute presentation is underway.

Joe Landry's adaptation of the 1946 classic film, a favorite of multitudes, re-tells the familiar story of George Bailey, a man whose dreams of leaving small-town Bedford Falls to accomplish "something big -- something important" are continually being thwarted or put aside as he helps others in need till he gets to a point of despair and considers suicide, believing that an insurance policy makes him "worth more dead than alive". -- His reclamation is aided by an Angel Second-Class named Clarence, who shows him how different the world would be had George never been born, and that the regard that others have for him demonstrates that he "really had a wonderful life", and emerges through love of family, sticking to his principles, and generosity towards his neighbors as "the richest man in town".

Director Greg Thornton's complement of five actors (many of them seasoned theatre artists, and almost all of whom are gracing The Cloverdale Playhouse stage for the first time) each play multiple roles, bringing to life the citizenry of Bedford Falls by assuming individualized voices for each one; to their credit and versatility, each character emerges fully recognizable. -- Even the WTCP Radio Singers [Sarah McWilliams, Kat Taylor, Toni Wood] are given personalities that help get us in the Christmas spirit as they sing carols to Marilyn Swears's expert piano accompaniment; and the "commercials" they sing for hair cream and soap are done with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.

The central characters -- George [Morgan Baker], his wife Mary [Alicia Ruth Jackson], the nasty money-grubbing Mr. Potter [Paul Nease], small town girl Violet [Barbara Smith], and of course the Angel Clarence [Patrick Hale] -- give appropriate nods to their film counterparts without attempting strict imitations.

Layne Holley's neutral scenic design replicates a 1940s radio station studio's details, one that puts us as the "On the Air" audience who are meant to respond to a flashing "Applause" sign on cue. -- Using period-looking stand microphones (equipped with an echo device for the "heavenly" sequences), a scattering of chairs, a piano, and tables in full view loaded with sound effects devices that invite our full participation in the story as Foley Artist Joe Collins deftly anticipates the sounds needed, with Stage Manager Jonathan Adam Davilla's assistance. Though we might want to watch their every move, if we close our eyes on occasion, the effect is excellent.

Eleanor K. Davis's period costumes (and the women's hair styles) lend authenticity to the proceedings, and add a bit of humor to the visual impact.

It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play is a pretty straightforward re-telling of the film, with little attempt to develop relationships among the actors in the radio station studio playing the roles, even though each one has a distinct personality. -- So, while we are impressed by the versatility of the ensemble's talents, the story's timeless messages are the main focus, and come through loud and clear: ordinary people's lives have value far beyond the reaches of mere economic worth, dreams and goals are sometimes fulfilled in unexpected ways, kindness and generosity to others are often their own reward. Things to keep in mind throughout the year. -- And, oh yes, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Faulkner: "I Love a Piano"

What's not to like? In a play (more like a revue, in fact) that showcases sixty of America's foremost songwriters' tunes [he composed about 1500 of them in a musical career covering over half a century] audiences are invited to sing along to their favorites in Faulkner University's witty and tuneful production of Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano.

With a three-piece pit band that sometimes sounds like a lot more instruments or allows a simple piano accompaniment, director Angela Dickson fluidly guides her multi-talented eight-member ensemble through this catalogue of Berlin's repertoire from 1910 Tin Pan Alley through the late 1950s, dazzling us with multiple costume changes for each period.

The conceit of saving an old piano from the junk heap links the two acts' ten scenes through the Twentieth Century via Berlin's iconic music.

Matt Dickson's black-and-white Art Deco set is complimented by simple tracking set pieces and a large upstage screen with period looking black and white projections including a grainy video featuring Blake Williams as a Simon Legree villain. -- Though the lighting often leaves the actors' faces in shadow, the result is mostly bright and cheerful, with occasional detours to more serious matters.

But the play, devised by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkley is, after all, about the music, and Ms. Dickson never loses track of it as the songs evoke simpler past times at signal moments in American history.

Mr. Berlin could be sentimental and romantic ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "The Best Things Happen When You Dance"), comical ("We're a Couple of Swells" and "Anything You Can Do"), showy ("There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"), and unabashedly patriotic ("God Bless America") as he celebrated his adopted country over a lifetime that spanned a century.

So many of his songs have become a part of America's shared experience through the many films and Broadway musicals he composed, for example: Top Hat, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, White Christmas; and some of their most familiar song and dance numbers are replicated here.

And the ensemble -- Jesse Alston, Courtney Curenton, Matt Dickson, Brittney Johnston, Brandtley McDonald, Blake Mitchell, Trey Ousley, Emily Woodring -- come through with charm and finesse, clearly enjoying themselves and delivering Berlin's lyrics with verve and understanding. Each is afforded individual moments to shine, and the ensemble comfort and support for one another is top notch. Solid performances by all.

Red Door: "Always, Patsy Cline"

There's another weekend to see Always, Patsy Cline at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs -- if tickets are available, that is. It has been playing to packed houses.

Director William Harper's lively production of Ted Swindley's 1990 play has audiences applauding in recognition of many of Ms. Cline's hit tunes -- "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Crazy" among them -- and enthusiastically cheering Lisa Norton in the title role (double-cast with Tina Hosey on alternate nights), and Janet Wilkerson as Louise Seger, her unlikely friend and narrator of the story who met her at a Texas honky tonk and struck up an instant friendship.

The on-stage six-piece "Bodacious Bobcats Band" is, in a word terrific, providing both authentic renditions of the production's twenty-seven songs, and excellent support for Ms. Norton's ample voice. They overpower her at times when she sings in her lower register, but the balance is much better when she opens up in full voice.

Ray Thornton's set: an iconic replication of the Grand Ole Opry that houses the band, a simple kitchen, the suggestion of a nightclub, and an open space, allows for smooth location shifts as the story progresses.

Ms. Wilkerson -- adept as always with comic timing and direct engagement with the audience -- not only narrates the arc of Patsy Cline's career and the two women's friendship, but she also voices several other characters, delightfully characterizing them with broad descriptive gestures.

Between them. Ms. Wilkerson and Ms. Norton establish a comfortable rapport, and when the focus is on Patsy's songs (as it is for most of the play's running time), Ms. Norton gathered momentum after a tentative start to ultimately charm us all.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's magic time again at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Geoffrey Sherman's recently revised adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol comes replete with Paul Wonsek's stunning Victorian Era sets, Elizabeth Novak's lush period costumes, numerous special effects and actual magic tricks on stage, and of course the magic of Dickens's novella showing the reclamation of its protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge [Rodney Clark reprising the role] from a mean-spirited miser to a man who "keeps Christmas in his heart" all year long.

Narrated by Charles Dickens himself [Wynn Harmon, who plays two other roles as well], Mr. Sherman's text preserves much of the book's familiar descriptions and plot elements that transition to dramatized scenes explicating Scrooge's magical overnight journey into his past, present, and future that lead to his final salvation.

Compressed into a mere two hours, director Diana Van Fossen's production never seems rushed, though several entertaining diversions in the script -- Dickens's magic tricks done with aplomb by Mr. Harmon (an accomplished prestidigitator), a "Cat Duet" cunningly executed by Alice Sherman and Betsey Helmer, an extended haggling over Scrooge's belongings by pawnbroker Old Joe [Paul Hopper] and housekeeper Mrs. Dilber [Toni DiBuono] -- leave less time to absorb the strategic moments in Scrooge's life that are presented so quickly that they are hardly noticed.

Yet the magic remains. -- From the onset, it is clear that Mr. Clark's Scrooge is nastier than ever at the beginning ( "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" who dismisses Christmas to one and all as "humbug") and in need of drastic change; and his seven-years dead business partner Jacob Marley pays him a ghostly visit on Christmas Eve. Inexplicably, Marley's voice is heard early on, and a key moment when his face magically appears on Scrooge's door-knocker is so quick that it barely registers; but when he magically arrives in the person of Brik Berkes, the story begins in earnest. Mr. Berkes appears to relish the part as he offers Scrooge a way out through the visitations of three more ghosts.

Together, the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Metushaleme Dary is even-headed and firm] and Christmas Present [James Bowen is grandiloquent and mischievous] help Scrooge in tracking his life from boyhood on: his lonely school days saved through a visit from his sister Fan [Jessica G. Smith] who is the mother of his only nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], to his youthful love for Belle [Alice Sherman] that is doomed by his greed, to the unappreciated beneficence of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig [spirited performances by Mr. Hopper and Ms. DiBuono], and the indomitable spirit of the Cratchit family.

Central to the plot, the Cratchits show by example that generosity of spirit and love of family make them richer than even the wealthiest of men. Scrooge's office clerk Bob [a sensitive Billy Sharpe] and Mrs. Cratchit [Jennifer Barnhart as his no nonsense practical help-mate] are raising a family on Bob's meagre wages. The older children -- Peter [Reese Lynch] and Martha [MaryKathryn Samelson] work to help pay the bills, while the younger ones  -- Belinda [Asia Watson] and crippled Tiny Tim [Charlie Hill] help around the house. And their devotion to one another and their belief in the essential goodness of mankind transcends their poverty and Tiny Tim's deteriorating health.

When the huge and sinister presence of the Ghost of Christmas Future [S. Lewis Feemster's non-speaking part] allows Scrooge to conclude that without a change of heart and behavior his legacy will be worthless, the story comes full circle.

Emerging on Christmas morning a changed man, Mr. Clark's transformation is complete. He has been struggling all the way and now makes amends for years of meanness: he gives money to the poor, accepts at last Fred's dinner invitation, and makes peace with his clerk Bob Cratchit.

It's all over before you know it. Dickens, Mr. Sherman, Ms. Van Fossen and her magical company have brought us magically along to Scrooge's infectious merriment, and to Tiny Tim's innocently perfect "God bless us, every one."