Monday, May 18, 2015

Millbrook" "The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns"

With a couple of dozen popular songs from the 1950s and 1960s arranged by Michael Borth linking its meager script together, Roger Bean's The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns is a diverting nostalgic pastiche now playing in Millbrook.

Its compliment of four of Millbrook's experienced actors -- Kaitlin LeMaster, Grace Moore, Lauren Norris, Taylor Trucks -- directed by A. John Collier, test their strong singing voices for close to two hours of almost non-stop vocals, a challenge to even the most experienced of singers, that this ensemble does with credit as they portray the quartet of "song-leaders" from fictitious Springfield High School as they prepare for graduation day.

Mr. Bean has created a small cottage industry out of the "Wonderettes", this being one of two sequels to the original, relying on the "more-is-better" philosophy, but struggles to make the magic happen beyond the first act. -- The title ...Caps and Gowns is misleading, since only Act I has to do with the standard end of high school rituals, and Act II is set some years later at the wedding of one of them to a former teacher -- a preposterous scenario that shows the foursome stuck in the same stereotypical adolescent behavior exhibited in Act I.

Sad, really, since the ensemble shows a lot of talent that has no where to go in the second act. This is demonstrated in unfortunately undisciplined behavior and dropped energy that are needed to sustain them beyond the first act.

They are at their collective best when singing [which fortunately is most of the stage time], complemented by color-coordinated costumes and Daniel Harms' period-style choreography, and with only an occasional hint of irony in sending up the 1950s and 1960s attitudes expressed in the lyrics.

The 50s naivete comes across in "At the Hop", "Rock Around the Clock", "Dedicated to the One I Love", and "Graduation Day", and the more liberal attitudes of the 60s are apparent in "Don't Mess With Bill", "Good Lovin'". and "The Look of Love" -- and each member of the quarter has moments to showcase her individual talent.

For additional nostalgia , get to the theatre early for an ice cream social; it should get audiences in the mood for this gentle trip to simpler times.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Red Door: "Conecuh People"

After several years' hiatus, Conecuh People, Ty Adams' stage version of Wade Hall's autobiographical book of the same name, is once again on stage at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. -- Directed this time by Kathryn Adams Wood, and with a complement of some 25 local actors, it is a nostalgic reminiscence of hard working salt of the earth rural Alabamians through the eyes of the character of Mr. Hall, played here by a trio of actors -- "today's" older narrator [Craig Stricklin], the boy [Sam Miller], and the young man [[Tyson Hall, who is actually the great nephew of the author he portrays].

Played in front of a tin roofed country house porch, and with a number of moveable set pieces, the action unfolds by shifting time periods between the 1940s and 1950s with commentary from the present day, recounting two events that shaped Wade Hall's life -- one good and one bad -- and we are introduced to a myriad of relatives and local characters who impacted the boy and the young man. -- Their homespun advice that urges him on to college, the army, and a teaching career comes at a cost as he is wrenched from the care of his grandmother as a young boy. But he learns valuable lessons along the way.

Interspersed with songs that often support the action, though occasionally seem out of place, and accompanied by Jane Padgett's solo keyboard, there are a number of excellent vocalists in the cast.

The play's episodic structure calls out for greater variety of pace and energy expressed in this current production to make up for the non-dramatic narrative sections, but the ensemble of actors put on a pretty good show.

The women in Mr. Hall's life have the greatest impact, with individual actors of note: Juanita Smith as his African American surrogate mother whose strong singing voice and sincere request for Wade to find out her birthday so that on her death she can accurately be remembered are rendered in one of the play's most sensitive and credible scenes.; Janet Wilkerson as the snuff dipping Elma Lee Hall is confident and funny; Belinda Barto plays Velma Rotten Driggers, a well-intentioned sort whose energy gives a spark to a scene where she makes him late for class.

But the focus is mostly on Wade himself, and each of the aforementioned actors compliments the others in developing the one central character we come to care about.

Above all, the lessons we and Wade learn from ordinary people very much like ourselves -- the bonds of family, a regard for one's fellow man, the value of hard work, respect for the past, and a recognition that no matter how far we remove ourselves from where we were raised, home will always be a place of solace -- all these are what leaves the larger impact.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

ASF Interns: "As You Like It"

One of the most anticipated productions of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's season is the Intern Company's annual abbreviated Shakespeare that tours to schools throughout the Southeast before an all-too-short run in the Octagon Theatre. -- Under Greta Lambert's expert editing [indeed, entire scenes and several characters are expunged], the texts retain the essentials of plot, character, and theme, and as their director she capitalizes on her eight member ensemble's talents and enthusiasm to demonstrate Shakespeare's relevance to contemporary life.

This year's exciting journey is As You Like It, one of the Bard's most consistently popular comedies. In a mere hour and a half, we have two sets of feuding brothers, a masterfully choreographed wrestling match [the fight consultant is Cory Lawson, one of the Intern actors], delightfully romantic adolescent lovers, a witty fool, gender switching disguises, a melancholy philosopher, and silly rustics brought to life by a group of actors who play multiple roles with the mere change of a hat or a coat -- and since much of this comedy relies on characters in disguise, this company's adroitness in switching roles is so fluid that you'd swear there were more than eight of them.

Two pair of feuding brothers set the action in motion. Duke Frederick has banished his elder brother Duke Senior [both are played convincingly by Jonathan Weber], but has allowed his niece Rosalind [Betsy Helmer] to remain at court as a companion to his own daughter Celia [Jessica G. Smith]. At a David and Goliath wrestling match between Charles the Wrestler [Cory Lawson] and the underdog Orlando [Patrick Burr], Rosalind and Orlando fall in love-at-first-sight without expressing their mutual fervor. A fine chemistry here. -- When both Rosalind and Orlando are banished [he by his brother Oliver [Mike Petrie, Jr.] and she by her uncle], they each flee to the Forest of Arden.

Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Ganymede, and Celia accompanies her in the guise of Aliena, Ganymede's poor sister; they are accompanied by the Fool Touchstone [S. Lewis Feemster], and Orlando takes with him the aged Adam [also Mr. Feemster], and spends his time composing amateurish poems praising Rosalind which he hangs on every available tree in the forest.. -- Inevitably, they meet up in the pastoral setting of the Forest where Duke Senior has established himself along with several Foresters and the melancholy Jaques [Cory Lawson in a merrier than anticipated role, but whose "All the world's a stage" speech still hits home].

The element of disguise garners much of the laughter of this production. Having found Orlando's poems, Rosalind as "Ganymede" helps the awkward and unsuspecting Orlando woo "Rosalind" by having him practice on "Ganymede", but to further complicate matters, a local swain named Silvius [Jonathan Weber again gets our sympathy] is helplessly in love with shepherdess Phebe who rejects his attempts to win her; Phebe [a feisty Metushaleme Dary] falls in love with "Ganymede" when "he" castigates her for her abusive treatment of poor Silvius. -- And Touchstone falls for the goatherd Audrey [Mr. Petrie in an outrageous impersonation  complete with a beard that belies "her" sex].

So there is a lot to resolve by the end, and as this is a comedy, all will be settled with weddings and celebratory dancing.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Member of the Wedding"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse continues its 2015 season with director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Georgia novelist and playwright Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. More than the simple coming-of-age story of 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams [Rita Pearson-Daley], McCullers investigates race relations, the impact of war on everyday people, and the need for love and belonging in a bewildering society.

Set in the Summer in the mid-1940s [the kitchen and backyard of Frankie's house is given an authentic if Spartan look by Layne Holley and Joe Collins] and populated chiefly by Frankie, her family's "colored" maid Berenice Sadie Brown [Yvette Jones-Smedley], and her younger cousin John Henry West [Charlie Hill], the action takes place in just a few days as preparations are being made for the wedding of Frankie's brother Jarvis [Kodi Robertson] to Janice [Bailey Johnson].

Very much an outsider who senses the lack of warmth of her widowed father Mr. Addams [Buddy Rousso] and resents the exclusion of the neighborhood children, Frankie wants adventure in her life and determines to escape the boredom at home by accompanying Jarvis and Janice on their honeymoon.

Mr. Thornton has cast veteran and neophyte actors from around the Montgomery community, including several school and university students, to create an ensemble to bring to life these complex characters. And while the supporting roles including John Henry's mother Mrs. West [Sarah Worley], Berenice's current boyfriend T. T. Williams [Greg Faulkner] and his "no-account" friend and Berenice's relative Honey Camden Brown [Jeffrey Sean Lewis] provide some insights into social and political issues of the day, the focus is largely on the threesome -- Frankie, Berenice, John Henry -- and the production is at its best when they talk, argue, play cards, and share meals in the kitchen.

Indeed, the comfort with each other that these three exhibit gives remarkable credibility to their very ordinary conversations. -- The often married Berenice becomes Frankie's sounding-board and surrogate mother; Ms. Jones-Smedley gives a frank and honest interpretation to the dialogue that makes us feel as Frankie does that she is the most trusted member of the "family" they have created. Young Mr. Hill inhabits John Henry's naively perceptive and uninhibited nature to the fullest. And Ms. Pearson-Daley's Frankie is a constant bundle of contradictions that are completely recognizable adolescent traits. And each of them is somehow yearning for love and acceptance, though they have difficulty in expressing these needs.

As Frankie matures throughout the play's two-and-a-half hours [she doesn't get to go on her brother's honeymoon despite her belief that she would be welcome], she questions Berenice, John Henry, and herself about love and relationships, the racial divide, and the consequences of war, and with Berenice's sage advice begins to move on.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Millbrook: "Ghost of a Chance"

Billed as "a deadly romantic comedy", Ghost of a Chance by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus appears at first to have a lot going for it; but the authors can't seem to settle on what their play is going to be, and switch gears in Act II, much to the detriment of the comedy.

Directed by Susan Chain and staged on John Chain's finely detailed set, it begins as a witty story about Bethany [Heather Allen], a young widow, with fiance Floyd [Miles Joye] in tow, who arrives to sell her deceased husband's hunting lodge before embarking on a second marriage. Accompanied  by her busybody soon-to-be mother-in-law Verna [Pat McClelland], Bethany is shocked when the ghost of her dead husband Chance [Brandon Gonzalez] shows up. -- Get it? Ghost of a Chance!!!

Bethany hires a "medium" named Crystal [Karla McGhee] to exorcise the ghost before Adam [Michael Snead] arrives to purchase the cabin. -- Of course, Chance is visible and audible only to Bethany, setting up a series of clever scenes where dialogue addressed to the unseen Chance is misinterpreted by the other characters.

Though clearly derivative of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, and with references to the delightful film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Act I is full of comic possibilities; but slow pacing and tentative movement make much of it fall flat.

And then, the play changes gears at the end of the first act, with revelations of attempted suicide and terminal diseases. -- Act II then becomes more serious and didactic about love and relationships, making the most of life and the cards we're dealt, business ethics, greed, and the afterlife, driving points home with a preachy quality, and leaving the actors struggling to maintain the play's initial comic impulses.

Energy lapses all too frequently, and in an over two hour playing time, many of the clever lines are hardly audible. -- Too bad, really, since the first act and the combined efforts of the cast make one want to enjoy it more.

AUM: "The Lesson"

In a mere 45-minutes' playing time, Theatre AUM's version of absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson (1950) manages to both entertain and infuriate. Ever cognizant of its educational theatre mission, AUM's Theatre Department regularly offers a wide variety of dramatic styles for local audiences to experience, and for their students to explore beyond the classroom, essentials for a well-rounded education.

Theatre of the Absurd plays are not always easily digestible, as they show a world that defies logic, one which can not be comprehended, leaving mankind to maneuver a world vacant of meaning in seemingly foolish ways. -- So, here is The Lesson, a "comic drama" in which a Pupil [Haeley DePace] comes to the Professor [Allyson Lee] to prepare to take the "complete doctorate" exams. Add in a Maid [Blaire Casey] who serves as a kind of gatekeeper into this hell as well as a conscience for the Professor, and the stage is set.

Simple arithmetic and basic language lessons deteriorate into confrontations on "literal" vs. "theoretical" approaches with their concurrent frustrations that result in deadly violence and the knowledge that this is but one in a long series of similar lessons that will be repeated ad infinitum and with the same results. Reminiscences of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are hard to miss.

Played on Frank Thomas' dark Spartan set [a raked rectangle with walls, doors, and a few sticks of furniture], director Val Winkelman has chosen to emphasize the comic side of Ionesco's "comic drama", and abetted by La'Brandon Tyre's garishly toned clown costumes, guides her all-female cast of three through their paces. -- Curiously and confusingly, some gender-specific references to the professor as "him" or "sir" have been retained, leaving one to wonder how the dynamic between the Professor and the Pupil might have been in Ionesco's original, since virtually no sexual tension between them is evident in this production.

With exaggerated movement and physical reactions, voices that range from naturalistic tones to heightened screeching, and adding contemporary popular culture references to such films as The Princess Bride and Chicago, Ms. Winkelman's ensemble are fully committed to their roles, and clown around with gusto.

But underneath the buffoonery there are serious layers. Especially topical is the commentary on the state of an educational system that gets so bogged down in theory and the need to understand mathematical processes and linguistic subtleties above and beyond rote memory with its simple answers, points out some of the confusion and arguments facing public education today. -- While this almost gets lost amidst the frenetic antics, it is ample reason for Theatre AUM's educational theatre mission to produce a play that still resonates some 65 years after its debut.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Picnic"

In the 1950s, William Inge was one of the most highly regarded American playwrights with a string of Broadway hits (Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs) which not only garnered Oscars and a Pulitzer, but were also made into popular award-winning films.

These well-written plays evoked a middle-America with quintessentially conservative values that had certain rules of behavior that were largely unquestioned, but were soon thereafter seen as outdated. Inge's popularity faded, and he was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. -- Today, however, his hometown of Independence, Kansas hosts its annual "William Inge Theatre Festival", helping to secure his stature in American theatre.

The Wetumpka Depot Players are currently reviving a production of Picnic (first performed at the Depot in 1992, after having achieved immense popularity from the film version starring Kim Novak, William Holden, and Rosalind Russell). Under Tom Salter's sensitive direction, River Region theatregoers are transported to a 1953 late Summer in a small Kansas town whose Labor Day picnic is the most anticipated event of the year, and whose ordinary citizens are easily recognizable.

The action takes place in the adjoining back yards of Mrs. Owens [Kim Mason] and Mrs. Potts [Cheryl Pointer Jones] as preparations are underway for the picnic, and where pretty much everyone has a dream to fulfill.

Mrs. Owens lives vicariously through her two daughters -- Millie [Ashlee Lassiter], an awkward tomboy eager to learn as much as she can, and Madge [Jennifer L. Haberkorn], the pretty one who is tired of the burden of beauty. Each one want to break out of their stereotypical roles, and Madge's wealthy boyfriend Alan [Jay Russell] seems to be an ideal match for her.

Rosemary Sydney [Kristy Meanor] is a spinster schoolteacher who boards with Mrs. Owens and wants desperately to marry her long-time boyfriend Howard Bevans [Lee Bridges], a set-in-his-ways businessman who seems to be afraid of commitment.

When, at the beginning of the play, Mrs. Potts hires handsome stranger Hal [Jerry S. Cappadona] to do some odd jobs at her house, all the women's eyes turn to him with varying degrees of admiration: the mysterious good-looking outsider with a ready smile and disarming demeanor. -- While Mrs. Owens views Hal with suspicion and mistrust, the others (especially Madge) are captivated; when it is disclosed that Alan and Hal were fraternity brothers, and Alan vouches for him, Mrs.Owens' misgivings are eased a little.

Mr. Cappadona's presence is felt even when he is offstage. We wonder if his bragging is truthful or a mere deception. But there is little doubt that Hal's presence has made a difference in everyone's life. His date for the picnic with Millie is doomed when drinking makes people tipsy or sick or uninhibited; and it becomes clearer by the  minute that Madge falls for him.

Ms. Meanor and Mr. Bridges give two remarkable performances as Rosemary and Howard; their true to life confrontation that eventually results in a marriage proposal is both touching and passionate. -- Ms. Mason's depiction of a caring mother who suffocates her children is credible throughout. And the magical chemistry that grows between Ms. Haberkorn and Mr. Cappadona grows from denial to trepidation to complete commitment.

All this allows Inge to explore various themes that resonate today, outside the 1950s setting: unrealistic dreams don't always get resolved the way we want -- in fact, we often have to "make the best out of the hand we're dealt"; social rules may provide a sense of security, but breaking them is often necessary for personal growth and understanding; appearances don't always provide accurate assessments; being pretty can be a curse. -- And the Depot's production of Picnic delivers on all accounts.