Monday, August 8, 2016

Red Door: "Last Train to Nibroc"

Arguably one of its most polished productions, Arlene Hutton's charming Last Train to Nibroc is ending its all too short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With a cast of two excellent actors, the simplest of set designs (a series of benches that suggest the play's three locations), an evocative musical and sound underscoring, and sensitive direction by Fiona Macleod, Last Train to Nibroc is one part of a trilogy exploring the relationship between May [Eve Harmon] and Raleigh [Joseph Crawford] -- this one recounting their first chance meeting on a cross-country train and its aftermath against a backdrop of World War II and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans at home.

May, an aspiring missionary, is on her way home to Corbin, KY after breaking up with her fiance in Los Angeles. She is reading Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a book with significant Christian themes. Raleigh, a soldier honorably discharged after being diagnosed with epilepsy, is an aspiring writer on his way to New York to fulfill his dreams, though filled with self-doubt and guilt for "deserting" his fellow soldiers. When Raleigh takes the only seat available next to her, he tells her that the bodies of two recently deceased writers he admires [F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West -- of rather different leanings than Douglas], are traveling in the baggage car on their train. Quick to judge others on perceived moral lapses, May is uncomfortable with Raleigh's progressive ideas.

Two unlikely souls, one might think, but as their conversations gradually reveal a lot more than the biographical details of their lives [he is also a Kentuckian who lives in a nearby town to hers], each one's defenses drop and the awkward beginning peels away layers of beliefs, doubts, and fears that most people can identify with, creating an intimacy between them and with the audience.

In their three meetings over a three-year period, we witness the growing comfort that May and Raleigh experience. In performance, Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford, guided by Ms. Macleod's assured direction, depict May's and Raleigh's journey, demonstrate confidence, show subtle and natural vocal shifts and inflections, deliver well-crafted overlapping dialogue, exhibit physical comfort and varied pacing without sentimentalizing a simple boy-meets-girl scenario. They simply let the audience into their lives.

It helps that Ms. Hutton's script doesn't pander to eccentric Southern stereotypes, but shows two real characters as they discover the joys, frustrations, humor, and compromise of being in love with the right person.

Two quibbles with an otherwise flawless production: 1) having an intermission in a tightly crafted 90-minute play breaks the audience's connection with the characters whose lives they have invested in, and 2) though there are a few times in the play when May and Raleigh almost kiss, at the end it doesn't happen and though they anticipate a kiss at the end, the audience justifiably feels cheated.

Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford have played these characters in See Rock City at the Red Door; if they choose to produce the third in the trilogy -- Gulf View Drive -- it would be a feather in their cap to get these two fine actors to reprise the roles once again.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

ASF: Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

With temperatures in the high 90s, and the school year about to start, what better way to spend an afternoon or evening than at the final performances of Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its extended run has been selling out, and audiences have been cheering during curtain calls...with good reason: it is a charming lavish production suitable for all ages.

First performed at ASF ten years ago, Disney's Beauty and the Beast has lost none of its appeal; and with several actors reprising their roles, there is also a bit of nostalgia in the air.

Based on a 1740 tale by French novelist Villeneuve, the story has been revised, updated, set to music and dance, made into several films, and has variant stage versions, the Disney product being arguably the most successful. -- With a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and with ASF's production design team transforming the Festival stage into a fairy tale kingdom, this is a show that is bound to please.

A spell being cast on a haughty Prince, turning him into a Beast (and all his domestic servants into household objects and cutlery) until a woman comes along who can love him before a single rose loses all its petals, sets the action going. -- With the Beast [Alexander Mendoza] holed up in his castle and getting increasingly cruel, we are introduced to Belle [Stephanie Rothenberg], the local "beauty" who is perceived as odd by the townfolk because she reads books and isn't interested in the strapping narcissistic heartthrob Gaston [Bryant Martin]. She and her eccentric inventor father Maurice [a sympathetic James Bowen] become objects of derision in the town, and when Maurice takes refuge in the Beast's castle after being attacked by wolves, Belle frees him by exchanging her own captivity for his, setting in motion a relationship that grows from mistrust to understanding -- and eventually love -- between Beauty and the Beast.

Featured servants have a lot to do with softening the Beast's behavior and bringing the couple together, as their fate is linked to his. Head butler, now clock Cogsworth [Rodney Clark], along with candelabra Lumiere [Billy Sharpe], teapot Mrs. Potts [Barbara Broughton] and her teacup son Chip [Gavin Campbell], feather duster Babette [Erin Chupinsky] and wardrobe Madame de la Grand Bouche [Fredena J. Williams], join forces to bring this about. Together, this ensemble keeps the show's magic alive.

Director Geoffrey Sherman and Musical Director Joel Jones keep the action moving on Paul Wonsek's stunning magical set, as the company of additional ensemble actors in Susan Branch Towne's inventive fairy tale costumes play an assortment of townspeople, wolves, kitchen utensils, gargoyles, and flowers. Paul Hebron makes his mark, both as the compassionate Bookseller and the contrastingly sinister Monsieur D'Arque who plots with Gaston to declare Maurice insane. -- Production numbers in praise of "Gaston", led by his comic foil Le Fou [Henry Hodges is a delightful clown], and welcoming Belle to the castle in "Be Our Guest", led by Lumiere, and the optimistic "Human Again" as the servants anticipate the spell's being broken, are show stoppers.

But, it is the relationship between Belle and the Beast that takes center stage. Ms. Rothenberg's portrayal makes Belle a modern woman who is devoted to her father, has a mind of her own and won't tolerate rude behavior either from Mr. Martin's swaggering Gaston or Mr. Mendoza's rough and demanding Beast. -- Though the Beast has been under a spell for a long time, Belle casts her own spell on him through her goodness and ability to see beyond the surface of his ugliness to the inherent goodness within.

The singing is uniformly excellent from the company, as well as from the principal actors, whether Mr. Martin's baritone that matches Gaston's powerful characterization, or Mr. Mendoza's gruff Beast whose inner temperament is displayed in the introspective "How Long Must This Go On?" and "If I Can't Have Her", or Ms. Rothenberg's clear soprano in virtually all her numbers. And, Ms. Broughton's title number "Beauty and the Beast" is confident and touching.

In all, the ASF production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast has audiences in its thrall; thoroughly entertaining, it is an enchanting Summertime delight.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Millbrook: "Anne of Green Gables"

Anne of Green Gables, a play based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved 1908 novel about an orphaned girl whose intelligence, independence, and imagination help transform a small rural portion of Canada's Prince Edward Island, has finished its run by the Millbrook Community Players.

John Chain directed seventeen actors through the play's numerous scenes over two acts that recount Anne Shirley's [Lily Hillman] arrival at the farmstead of middle-aged brother and sister Mathew (sic) [Michael Snead] and Marilla [Sarah Missildine] who were expecting to adopt a boy from a Nova Scotia orphanage to help them on their farm. Through a mix-up, the orphanage sent a girl, and they reluctantly agree to let Anne stay on a trial basis that somehow lasts for years.

There is an instant kinship between Anne and Mathew, as he responds to her spunkiness and allows himself to indulge her whims, whereas Marilla's insistence on a kind of Puritan upbringing is tested at all turns by Anne's unpredictable personality and behavior.

These relationships develop over time, and Marilla gradually softens her stance; and along with an instant friendship between Anne and schoolmate Diana [Amber Gay], these are some of the strongest scenes in the Millbrook production.

A litany of familiar character types is present as well, among them a gossiping neighbor Rachel [Emily Burdick] whose constant refrain, "If you want my opinion, which I'm sure you don't", prefaces most of her appearances and garners expected laughs; a stern school teacher Mr. Phillips [Greg Fanning] is contrasted with a compassionate teacher Miss Stacy [Jennifer Gay] who mentors Anne to excel at her studies and win a place for further education; and a local school boy Gilbert [Micah Holley] who is both a scholarly rival and a reluctant romantic interest for Anne.

Ms. Hillman and Ms. Amber Gay give credibility to the bond between young girls; Mr. Holley's adolescent teasing of Anne for her red hair and freckles mostly disguises the respect he has for her that comes out only towards the end of the play; Ms. Jennifer Gay's portrayal of the encouragement for Anne's development is sincere; Ms. Missildine's gradual adapting to Anne's challenges and her acceptance and love of the young girl in her charge are subtle and truthful; and the comfort between Ms. Hillman and Mr. Snead is evidenced from the start of their relationship and is the most convincing in this show.

Though the play runs long due to constant blackouts between every scene, and due to a steady but slow pace, Anne of Green Gables remains a heart-warming story that tells of the better nature of humankind from which we can all take example.

Faulkner: "Oklahoma"

"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", the opening number of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 multi-award winning musical Oklahoma!, establishes Blake Mitchell as a rising talent in the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre production.

With his boyish good looks, an engaging smile, an aw-shucks attitude matching his strong singing voice, an ability to deliver old-fashioned dialogue credibly, and to connect truthfully with virtually all the ensemble actors and generously share the stage with them, keeps audiences riveted to his character Curly in his innocent attempts to woo the beautiful but aloof Laurey [Hanah Darrough] away from rival suitor Judd [Joshua S. Fullman] against a 1906 backdrop of the Oklahoma Territory on the brink of Statehood.

Statehood is brought up a few times in the script, but doesn't hold a prominent position for our interests; rather, a lighthearted (everything's up to date in) "Kansas City" shows the advances of a growing urban era against the unsophisticated rural landscape; and a perennial feud between "The Farmer and the Cowman" insists in an upbeat way that they actually can be friends. Even the Persian (cf. Iranian) peddler Ali Hakem [Tony Davison] is accepted by the community, if only as an intriguing outsider and not a threat to the community.

So, it is the love stories that are projected front and center. Curly and Laurey are the "innocents" here, as they deny their obvious attraction to each other in "People Will Say We're in Love", Mr. Mitchell's braggadocio countered by Ms. Darrough's naive posturing. Laurey's Aunt Eller [Rhonda Cattley] is the stalwart voice of reason here, as she gently advises them to come to grips with their romance.

In contrast, Will Parker [Hunter Lee Smith] and Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd] are more comic and worldly, though similarly confused by their emotions. Mr. Smith shows Will's ineptitude in holding on to the $50 that he needs to win the hand of Ado Annie and get the approval of her gun-toting father Andrew [Michael DiLaura], and Ms. Rikerd delights in the contradictions of commitment in "I Cain't Say No"; but together, the ultimatum of "All Er Nuthin" sets them on the right track.

The love stories come to a head at the local picnic where the men bid on picnic hampers to win a date with the women who made them. When Judd outbids Curly -- after their rivalry is made more potent when Curly visits Judd's room and attempts to change him in "Poor Judd is Daid" -- the fight is on to the finish, with catastrophic results that are saved in a quick "trial" that clears Curly of murder and allows his marriage to Laurey to bring a happy ending.

As one of the earliest American musicals to fully integrate song lyrics into plot and character development, and to fuse dance as another integral element of the overall design, director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears guide their 31-member ensemble through their paces. Ever cognizant of serving the community, and offering opportunities to many of its constituencies, it is a mixed-bag of talent on stage, with principal roles going to veteran actors, and minor roles in the ensemble filled out be younger less-experienced players.

For an old fashioned plot, delightful characters, iconic music, and a touch of nostalgia, Oklahoma! is a fine Summer offering from Faulkner.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Calendar Girls"

Calendar Girls (2008), Tim Firth's comedy based on actual events in the small town of Knapely in Yorkshire, England in 1999, is ending its sold-out run at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre.

Stephen Dubberley directs his twelve ensemble actors -- a mix of Depot veterans and newcomers -- who tell the story of a group of W.I. [Women's Institute] ladies who try to raise money for a new settee for the waiting room at the local cancer ward following the death of one of their members' husbands. -- While they are accustomed to traditional fund-raising scenarios, this time they agree to pose nude (but tastefully topless) for a calendar, a guise that signals hesitation from some, rejection from others, a few misunderstandings and jealousies, and plenty of good natured laughs from the audience.

Annie [Teri Sweeney] and Chris [Eleanor Davis] are best friends, and their husbands John [Bill Nowell] and Rod [Lee Bridges] are attentive in the women's W. I. activities; Marie [Gayle Lees Sandlin] is the overbearing president of the group who insists on continuing a series of banal and uninteresting monthly presentations that the others are eager to postpone or cancel, never forgetting their mantra "enlightenment, fun, and friendship" that s supposed to keep the bond among them strong.

The rest of the group -- Jesse [Hazel Jones], Cora [Brooke Killen Poague], Celia [Cindy Smith], Elaine [Katie Therkelsen], Ruth [Marcella Willis], Brenda and Lady Cravenshire [MariahRiley] -- comprise an eclectic mix of familiar character types.

When John dies and Chris suggests the calendar, the women's bravery as well as friendships are tested, but they go on with the photo shoot with an embarrassed photographer named Lawrence [Tate Pollock] on hand to ensure the photos will look good and not offend even the most staid members of the community. Some of the play's finer comic moments are in this section as the calendar months' decorative touches that hide the women's breasts get increasingly more bizarre; and the women take it in stride and play up the silliness of their escapades in front of the camera. -- Later on, Mr. Pollock plays an outrageously camp television commercial  producer/director who assumes the women will pose completely nude for his camera.

When the calendar becomes more successful than they ever dreamed, it seems to Annie that Chris is more concerned with the fame they receive than the purpose of raising money in tribute to John's memory. -- All things will be sorted out by the end, as friendships are strengthened, misunderstandings are set aright, and there is enough money to build a new wing at the cancer hospital.

The Depot's production runs a long two-hours-and-twenty-minutes, partly due to overlong stretches of exposition that could do with judicious cutting, and also by a rather slow pace for much of the action. And some of the "Britishness" surrounding the W.I. might be lost on an American audience. -- But the characters are of such familiar types that they travel well across the Atlantic, and the acting company are comfortable inhabiting them. -- There are plenty of laughs and a lot of compassion in the lives in front of us on the Depot stage.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

WOBT: "The Curious Savage"

John Patrick's The Curious Savage (1950) at Prattville's "Way Off Broadway Theatre" is an old-fashioned comedy with a serious message or two that still resonate after more than half a century, due largely to director Sam Wallace's talented ensemble's ability to delineate credibly eccentric characters and speak Patrick's witty dialogue with perhaps the best vocal clarity heard recently from the Prattville stage.

Set in "the common room of The Cloisters rest home" [a polite euphemism for an insane asylum], the play is long on exposition but has its pay-offs. -- Wealthy eccentric title character Ethel Savage had lived the traditionally dutiful life of a wife who sacrificed her own wishes to support her husband's, but who always wanted more bohemian experiences. Recently widowed with a $10-million inheritance, she intends to distribute the funds to people who might use it for harmless artistic or altruistic enterprises, much to the dismay of her three greedy and unscrupulous adult stepchildren who do everything in their power to claim the fortune for themselves; and their first step is to have her "committed" [a task much easier in the 1950s than today].

Mrs. Savage [Michon R. Givens] fits right in with the other "guests" at 'The Cloisters' by treating them politely as if their individual foibles are normal; none of them is violent. Clutching a stuffed Teddy Bear, her own idiosyncrasies are accepted by them in turn. -- It is to their credit that all of the actors treat their characters' erratic behavior as if it was the most common thing in the world...and audiences tend to like them. Florence [Abby Brasel] treats a doll as if it was human, being the substitute child she had lost and now grieves; Hannibal [Matthew A. Givens] plays the violin badly, but has an encyclopedic knowledge; Jeffrey [T. J. Maddox] hides an imagined facial scar that represents the guilt he feels for surviving a war which took the lives of many friends; Fairy May [Meghan Yapana Ducote] needs constant confirmation of love from others to give meaning to her life; and Mrs. Paddy [Rae Ann Collier] recites litanies of all the things she hates but is otherwise silent.

When the Savage stepchildren scheme to wrest the millions from Mrs. Savage, they find that she has put all the money into negotiable bonds that she has hidden, but she refuses to say where. As they gang up on her, Titus [Eric Arvidson], a corrupt Senator, Lily Belle [Letha Moore], a spoiled and often married social-climber, and Samuel [John Collier], a ne'er-do-well petulant sort, stoop to threats that the kindly Dr. Emmett [Mike DeLaura] and sympathetic nurse Miss Wilhemina [Tracey Maggard] try their best to keep under professional control.

It seems there is only a small difference between madness and sanity. Patrick's script makes ample use of metaphors that clearly cast these opposites against each other, and moralizes a bit on themes of justice vs. the law, regimented behavior vs. freedom to be foolish, and the distinctions between monetary worth and individual value. The greedy stepchildren vs. the altruistic "guests" at 'The Cloisters'. -- How we treat others is the mark of our own worth.

And the WOBT Players invest such honesty in their portrayals, provide audiences with plenty of laughs at the expense of the greedy characters, and earn the applause they receive.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "I Hate Hamlet"

I Hate Hamlet, Paul Rudnick's 1991 comedy, is on the boards at the Wetumpka Depot. Director Tom Salter guides a top-notch veteran acting ensemble who garner abundant laughs through clever characterizations and adept delivery of Rudnick's witty dialogue, and while Thespian cognoscenti might enjoy the numerous theatre and film references, there is a lot in it for everyone to enjoy.

West Coast television star Andrew Rally [Clint Evans] moves to New York to star in a "Shakespeare-in-the-Park" production of Hamlet; his real estate broker and sometime "medium" Felicia Dantine [Kristy Meanor] secures a lease for him in the one-time apartment of iconic 1920s American Shakespearean actor John Barrymore; it is a Gothic pile that still contains much of the furnishings of its former resident.

Though Andrew has misgivings about playing the most challenging role [he is, after all, a mere TV personality, and claims to "hate Hamlet"], his long-time girlfriend Dierdre McDavey [Elizabeth Bowles] is there to urge him on; a would-be actress herself, she is infatuated with the apartment's connection to "the perfect...American tragedian", whose reputation for womanizing and boozing add to his dangerous appeal -- this in spite of the fact that Dierdre has been holding off on a sexual relationship with Andrew until she is sure that everything is right in their relationship.

Joining them is Andrew's agent Lillian Troy [Janie Allred], a Teutonic force to be reckoned with, who claims to have had a romantic fling with Barrymore many years ago.

As Andrew's self-doubt escalates, Felicia conducts a seance, after which the ghost of Barrymore [Stephen Dubberley] arrives to coach Andrew and prepare him to play the Prince of Denmark, and simultaneously to get Deirdre to relent to having sex with Andrew.

When self-obsessed L.A. producer Gary Peter Lefkowits [Lee Bridges] shows up with a "green light" multi-million dollar offer of a television series for Andrew, the plot thickens, and decisions must be made: artistic integrity and little money vs. celebrity stature for doing mediocre TV fare and lots of cash.

Mr. Bridges oozes with a huckster's assurance that can't comprehend that anyone would choose art over money; but he won't be deterred from convincing Andrew to take the TV offer by any means necessary.

Ms. Allred imbues the role of Lillian with sardonic acceptance that signs and omens are everywhere, and that Andrew must pay attention to his fate in playing the role of a lifetime. -- Ms. Meanor again demonstrates a pitch-perfect ability to deliver comic dialogue, and displays a myriad of subtle shifts of vocal energy and timing and movement; she is always surprising us with unexpected but character driven choices.

Ms. Bowles is a revelation in the role of Dierdre, a role so unlike her rendition of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. The vivacity with which she inhabits the absurdity of Dierdre's insistence of maintaining her "virtue", and the uninhibited breathless enthusiasm and excessive gestures she uses in playing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, are so joyfully ridiculous (and credible) that make it a break-out performance.

The key to the plot's resolution depends on Barrymore's ability to convince Andrew to meet the challenge of the role he is about to play with just six weeks' rehearsal time -- and what an uphill battle that proves to be. -- Mr. Evans pulls out all the comic stops as he renders a version of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy with ridiculous preparatory exercises to "get into the part", absurd histrionic flourishes, and "modernizing" the Bard's language to make it accessible to a contemporary audience [Rudnick wrote the play long before the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned 36 playwrights to translate Shakespeare for ostensibly the same reason]. -- But Barrymore won't be put off; and Mr. Dubberley is also up to the challenge. Though he can "posture" and "pose" with the best of them, Mr. Dubberley commands each scene with the assurance of Barrymore's talent and ego. He pushes Mr. Evans to engage with Shakespeare's poetry, and in a finely staged sword-fight choreographed by Parke Fech, to acquire the confidence necessary to both play the role and secure Dierdre's favor in his bed.

The Depot has a first-class entertainment here: a witty script matched by a gifted acting ensemble. But greater attention ought to have been paid to a couple of production values: putting a cheap supermarket brand of champagne on stage next to high end bottles of Scotch and bourbon is glaring; and John Barrymore's Hamlet costume is so well known from vintage photos, that the substantial changes for both Mr. Dubberley's and Mr. Evans' Hamlet costumes won't go unnoticed.