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.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Millbrook: "Route 66"

It's time to "get your kicks" on Route 66, the Roger Bean musical revue now showing in Millbrook under A. John Collier's direction and finely rendered scenic design. -- Little more than a compilation of 30+ songs from the 1950s and 1960s, its premise is a cross-country road trip along the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.

With a talented cast of four -- Jody Dow, Tina Hosey, Michael Snead, Pat VanCor -- who perform in solos and in various combinations, the trip and their songs are connected by an assortment of period radio advertisements for Chevrolets, "a little dab 'l do ya" Brylcreem hair-gel for men, "let Hertz put you in the driver's seat", Firestone tires "where the rubber hits the road", Delco batteries, and Uniflo motor oil among them: a nostalgic treat for audience members of a certain age.

Some of the better moments in this pleasant two act show are: a sensitive version of "Mother Road", clever novelty numbers "Beep-Beep" and "Long Tall Texan", a hilarious "Rolaids, Doan's Pills, and Preparation-H", the touching "Oklahoma Hills", and popular foot-stompin' renditions of "Fun-Fun-Fun" and "I Get Around".

While a few of the pieces are performed with solo acoustic guitar accompaniment, the ensemble sings mainly to an over-amplified pre-recorded soundtrack that unfortunately distorts much of their sound. And the static-filled radio advertisements are also disarmingly loud, making the words almost unintelligible.

All in all, though, Route 66 is a diverting entertainment. Thrown in with the ticket price is a Southern style dinner catered by Felicia Swanner of Swanner's Catering, making an evening out complete.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Love. Loss, and What I Wore"

Love, Loss, and What I Wore, the Nora and Delia Ephron stage adaptation of Ilene Beckerman's best selling book, is playing at the Wetumpka Depot with a different all-women's cast on each of its three weekend run. So, though Cast #1's turn has ended, there's still time to see other groups of River Region and beyond actresses take to the boards in this charming, funny, poignant, and occasionally irreverent take on women's obsession with clothes and the memories they associate about life and death, and relationships of all sorts.

Staged as readings [the six member cast are lined up on high stools with scripts on lecterns in front of them, and with several dresses displayed behind them], director Kim Mason takes audiences on an uninterrupted 90-minute ride into the hearts and minds of an eclectic ensemble as they dissect siblings, mothers, and grandmothers, current and ex-husbands, changes of fashion, and signal moments of growing up and getting older -- all through the lens of their collective association with clothes.

Each of the women here -- Elizabeth Bowles, Sharon DeMuth, Kristy Meanor, Katie Svela-Crews, Lizzy Woodall, Susan Woody -- has moments that bring her individual personality to the fore, but it is their combined sense of comradeship in shared experiences that provides a comfort level that connects actor and audience. -- And, they are all good storytellers.

Whether the subject is prom dresses or wedding gowns or bras, boots or shoes or bathrobes, sibling rivalries or motherly advice, philandering husbands or their own sexual dalliances, breast cancer or rape or the untimely death of a family member, these women and their stories effortlessly keep our attention.

And oh, by the way, this isn't merely a play for women; the men in the house on Saturday night "got it": the serious and lighthearted moments alike; "I have nothing to wear" from a closet full of clothes, the "Does this make me look fat?" refrain, and the never-ending battle of finding anything in a cluttered purse, resonate with men and woman alike.

Lots of laughs, a few tears, and an overall confident cast make Love, Loss, and What I Wore a delight.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

WOBT: "Godspell"

Rarely off the boards at schools and community theatres since its 1971 Off-Broadway premiere, the John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell is being given a three-weekend run at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Directed by Jason Morgan, with an eleven-member cast of veterans and newcomers, the revised in 2012 version's earnestness in its many teaching moments drawn mostly from St. Matthew's Gospel give audiences ample opportunities to reflect on personal beliefs and behaviors as well as to study the avowed Christian stances taken by many of 2015's public officials.

The litany of over a dozen parable messages -- "those who are humbled shall be exalted", "turn the other cheek", "walk in someone else's shoes", "one can't be a servant to two masters", "let him who is without sin cast the first stone", et al. -- are told in a variety of musical styles as Jesus [Hunter Lee Smith] conscripts his Apostles, a rag-tag bunch who, on opening night, exhibited some individual strengths in characterization [Paul Neace in the double role of John the Baptist and Judas], singing [Jailyn Ausborn and Alicia Ruth Jackson], tap dance [Daniel Harms], mime [Merelee Robinson], and stage presence [D'Andre Massey], but who [with Lucie Chesser, Olivia Johnston, Danielle Phillips, and Jillian Rabb] never quite congeal into a unified ensemble.

Perhaps because much of the movement was so very casual, and a lot of the dialogue spoken so softly as to throw away important contemporary popular culture references and ideas, the sporadic energetic moments better demonstrated a discipline that made them memorable. -- In addition, several scenes were staged in dark areas of the theatre, so the actors could not be seen clearly.

Godspell has survived for over forty years in great part due to its timeless themes and messages that bear repeating today. Songs like "Prepare Ye" and "Day by Day" have a permanent place in the canon of musical theatre. Hopefully, the next two weekends' performances will achieve the solidity the play deserves.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Smoke on the Mountain"

Smoke on the Mountain, the popular and often produced 1988 Gospel-bluegrass musical, is playing to sold out audiences at the Wetumpka Depot. -- Director Hazel Jones' talented ensemble turns in broadly stereotypical characterizations; but they impress us with their versatility in both singing and playing an assortment of musical instruments, often switching from piano to upright bass to guitar, washboard, spoons, and so on. -- The actors are complemented on stage by Elizabeth Bowles and Donny Tomlin who deftly accompany them on mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and dulcimer among others -- a truly "joyful noise".

The Connie Ray and Alan Bailey story of The Sanders Family's appearance in 1938 at the fictional rural North Carolina Mount Pleasant Baptist Church's "first ever Saturday night singing", mixes familiar songs from The Hymnal with original tunes so like them it is hard to tell the difference.

Pastor Oglethorpe [Jeff Langham] attempts to maintain the traditional purity of his congregation's mission while simultaneously bringing them "into the modern world". -- He invited The Sanders Family who say that "witnessing is the most important part of our mission...and the songs"; but the Pastor isn't prepared for their unabashedly honest and often shocking behavior, and must placate the three ladies sitting judgmentally in The Amen Corner of the church.

And what a group this family is: first on the scene is the bright-eyed and pig-tailed June [Faith Bruner], who doesn't sing, but rather "signs" the lyrics as her testimony -- not the standard ASL by any means, but some outrageous interpretive gestures that Ms. Bruner produces with hilarious dead-pan simplicity.

The other children are twins: petite curly-haired blonde Denise [an effervescent Leanna Wallace] -- "the girl" as she is quick to differentiate from Dennis, "the boy" [Joseph Collins], a mentally challenged [PC] towering figure whose innocence and sincerity are always on display. -- Their rendition of "Christian Cowboy" scandalizes the Pastor when they dance enthusiastically; Ms. Wallace's admitted "lapse of faith" when she ran away to audition for Gone With the Wind is sweetly rendered; and Mr. Collins' "sermonette" when he goes off-script from what his mother penned for him, shows Dennis' natural ability as a preacher.

Mom Vera [Sally Blackwell] and Dad Burl [Lloyd Strickland] are the bedrock of the family. These actors demonstrate such a natural comfort that we are instantly drawn to them. Each provides ample  lessons in compassion and tolerance -- the virtues so often lacking in many professed Christians in the public eye -- and they are also adept at quoting Chapter and Verse in cleverly orchestrated competitive games of one upmanship with Mr. Langham's Pastor.

Jonathan Yarboro plays Burl's brother Stanley, an ex-con who found his way in prison, and is still struggling with the hypocrisy of others. In a finely nuanced performance, Mr. Yarboro's character is the most tolerant and unassuming man whose testimony of prison experience shows the good in even the most hardened individuals.

Through all the testifying and songs, both Pastor Oglethorpe and we are gradually seduced by the honest homespun faith of The Sanders Family. Audiences are leaving the Depot with smiles on their faces from this engaging production. -- If only their "joyful noise" could have a permanent impact.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ASF: Disney's "The Little Mermaid"

Guest Reviewer Layne Holley is a River Region actor and scenic designer.

Audiences of all ages are delighted with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid". Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the musical tells the story of a little mermaid who...Seriously, you know the story, right?

ASF's technical teams are on their game here. Kudos especially to the scenic design and stage crews; these are true treasures in the house of ASF. The set and lighting designs are versatile, easily establishing the mood and sense of place for each scene. They are deceptively simple, but the artisanal and technical prowess are on full display when, for example, Prince Eric's ship makes it's very imposing entrance.

The production features several flying sequences, a few of them stunning, such as Prince Eric's near drowning and rescue by Ariel. His drift toward the bottom of the sea (performed gracefully by Jeff Sears' flying double) and Ariel's rescue (performed with such physicality by Michelle Pruiett's flying double, enhanced by Brenda Van Der Wiel's costuming, that she actually looks like a darting fish) is entrancing.

This production is clear and solid; however, there are pervasive weaknesses that keep it from attaining the height of "true spectacular". -- Van Der Wiel's costumes are creative and intricate, with a perfect palette; but there is a certain lack of undulation in Triton's kingdom, especially within the realm of the wicked sea witch Ursula (Donna Migliaccio), and particularly on the person of Ursula, from whom we expect a material roiling of conniving and opportunism.

Overall, this production's pacing feels a fraction of a beat slow, and there is very little of the physical tension and excitement in most of the actors' voices and bodies that are required for work to read from the stage and to drive engagement, especially among the more mature audience members. Seasoned theatre goers will likely appreciate the energy and commitment in the second act number "Positoovity", featuring a chorus of tap-dancing gulls led by Scuttle (Billy Sharpe).

Unfortunately, there is not much more of this number's "positivity" throughout the production except in the performances from veteran actors Rodney Clark (Grimsby) and Kevin Morrow (King Triton). -- Clark and King are committed and active both vocally and physically in every moment they spend on stage, but it accentuates the slow pace and lack of sizzle in other areas.

Personal mic scan only amplify the stage voice; they cannot create the vibrancy and variety that come from actors who push and project their characters into life and up to the balcony. Sharpe, Clark, and Morrow -- who do not back off just because they are miked -- threaten unintentionally to steal the show.

These criticisms aside, there are several moments in the production that are captivating: the aforementioned rescue sequence and "Positoovity", of course, and also the lovely quartet "If Only" that is perfectly staged and beautifully rendered. It is moments such as these, sprinkled throughout, that will have audiences young an old, with all levels of appreciation, enraptured.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

WOBT: "100 Lunches: a gourmet comedy"

Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears have penned a witty comedy now playing under Sam Wallace's steady direction at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville. 100 Lunches: a gourmet comedy has three acts with two intermissions, a few dated 1980s references, and a fairly predictable plot, but Mr. Wallace's solid ensemble cast take the stage with confidence, and deliver an entertaining evening with plenty of laughs.

Mr. Wallace's set design -- the living room of popular and prolific playwright Charleton "Chuck" Reynolds [Matthew Givens], and in Act II, several restaurants -- affords plenty of room and flexibility, and is furnished with an abundance of set-dressings and props made especially for this production (give them a close look during intermission).

At the start, Charleton's latest play has just opened in New York, but its single scathing review from critic Charity Starr [Michon R. Givens] is so upsetting that he vows revenge in front of his teenage son Terry [newcomer Timothy Rotkiewicz] and their housekeeper Mrs. Glinda Bellows [Janie Allred], who delight in inventing scenarios for him to get even. Yolanda Weintraub [AUM theatre major Cathy Ranieri] insinuates herself into Charleton's life in numerous attempts to spark his love interest, and when the critic shows up she perceives an instant rivalry.

But Charity has come to "clear the air" and "ask a favor" -- it seems she has written a play herself and "needs his help with it", claiming that though his characters are "wooden", he writes good plots. -- Sensing an opening for the revenge he seeks, he agrees to tutor her over a series of lunches that she will pay for, and so the scene is set.

Act II takes them to an eclectic assortment of restaurants where they are served by a Waiter [T. J. Maddox who assumes various ethnicities and personalities in a tour de force performance that has audiences anticipating each successive and distinct embodiment]. -- It comes as no surprise to us that Charleton and Charity develop an affection for each other that neither expected at the start; opposites do attract at times.

The tables are turned in the final act when Charity's first play opens in New York, and the critical response is the opposite of what she expected. -- And, as a comedy, there must be a happy ending, no matter how contrived.

As an ensemble company, these actors turn in creditable and credible performances, enhancing naturalistic speech with over-the-top emotional tirades, and delivering the playwrights' witty dialogue confidently. Mr. Rotkiewicz is especially adept at his character's sophisticated-beyond-his-youth dialogue that shows a lot of promise for future productions; and Ms. Allred is commanding in her no nonsense approach. Together, they serve as a kind of Greek Chorus that supplies wit and understanding that the other characters take more time to comprehend.

Ms. Ranieri's characterization of the ever-annoying Yolanda is done with vacuous simplicity that garners plenty of laughs. -- And Mr. Maddox almost steals the show with his depictions of the eclectic Waiters, each of which has instantly recognizable traits that he gives a human touch.

But Mr. and Mrs./Ms. Givens [they are actually husband and wife, appearing on-stage together for the first time] are excellent sparring partners. When sparks fly as they often do, and when smoldering love bursts into flame, they are always believable and funny. Good work here.

Mr. Wallace directs with a confident hand. 100 Lunches moves at a steady pace, allows time for humorous dialogue to be digested, and delivers a satisfying repast for a Summer's evening at the theatre.