Sunday, October 12, 2014

Faulkner: "Man of LaMancha"

The multiple award-winning musical Man of La Mancha (1965) is being given a solid production at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre under Jason Clark South's direction.

Using Matt Dickson's flexible cave-like prison set's assorted playing levels, ramps, steps, openings, and drawbridge to good advantage, Mr. South's talented ensemble of 17 actors fill the stage portraying some 42 characters among them with simple costume adjustments and mannerisms to differentiate each role.

Add Marilyn Swears on piano and Mark Benson on percussion to expertly accompany the high quality singing voices of the ensemble, and the tale of Miguel de Cervantes' iconic "Don Quixote" comes to life for two-and-a-half hours on the Faulkner stage.

While Dale Wasserman's script, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, does not pretend to be utterly faithful to the complexities of Cervantes' 17th Century picaresque novel, it does capture its source's essential spirit, if not the full bite of its satire. -- Wasserman's conceit is to have Cervantes [Terry Brown] brought to prison facing charges of the Spanish Inquisition, where, as an entertainment to plead his case among the prisoners as a kind of warm-up to the actual trial, he conscripts the inmates to play the roles of his tale, while he himself inhabits the central character of Don Quixote de la Mancha on his quest as a knight errant to change the harshness of the real world and restore chivalry and goodness to "Impossible Dream", perhaps.

Accompanied by his ever faithful servant Sancho Panza [Brandtley McDonald], and instantly besotted by a kitchen-wench/whore Aldonza [Jesse Alston] -- a woman he idealizes as Dulcinea, in his mind the fair lady to whom the knight offers service -- Quixote's vivid imagination that borders madness at times, transforms the banal and ugly world into a romanticized idealization of it. -- His confusion of truth and fiction is questioned by the Governor/Innkeeper [Blake Williams] among others, much to his consternation.

Man of La Mancha is enhanced by its musical score, with a number of now famous songs: the entire Ensemble shines in a few of them, but it is in individual voices that both the music and lyrics both punctuate or comment on the action and demonstrate the many talents in Faulkner's cast. Antonia [Emily Woodring], the Housekeeper [Rhonda Cattley], and the Padre [Morgan Baker] compliment one another in "I'm Only thinking of Him"; and Mr. Baker's solo "To Each His Dulcinea" showcases his supple voice. Mr. McDonald's strong voice and fully committed characterizations make him one to watch whenever he holds forth in such numbers as "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip".

Ms. Alston's Aldonza/Dulcinea is thoroughly convincing, as she reluctantly portrays the difficult transition from kitchen wench to heroine; we feel her frustrations in her attempts to understand Quixote's fixations that are so contrary to the reality: "It's All the Same", "What Does He Want of Me?", "Aldonza", and her eloquently simple acceptance of his esteem in "Dulcinea" carry the audience on her journey with complete credibility.

And, fittingly, Mr. Brown's engagement in the roles of Cervantes/Quixote are served up with aplomb. His powerful baritone is in good form in the taxing songs "Dulcinea" and "The Impossible Dream", but more importantly, his credibility as both the confident author and the naively idealistic knight and his generosity in sharing the stage with other actors, garners him well-deserved "bravos" from the audience.

There are some hard lessons to be learned here: Quixote's "impossible dream" affords some hope despite the incessant cruelty of the real world around him -- and us. If as Cervantes/Quixote claims that "good always triumphs", the path to goodness has a lot of obstacles along the way. Seeing and experiencing the world as it is -- the polar opposite of Quixote's fantasy -- can drive a person to madness, or perhaps to redemption.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Millbrook: "Harvey"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley, River Region theatre artist.

The Millbrook Community Players are currently staging Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a congenial, well-to-do gentleman who happens to have a six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch rabbit as a best friend. The play's excitement surrounds the fact that Harvey, the anthropomorphic rabbit friend, is invisible to all but Elwood P. Dowd (Roger Humber).

Elwood takes every opportunity to introduce Harvey to everyone he meets, much to the chagrin of his social-climbing sister, Veta Louise, and niece Myrtle Mae (Lavonne Hart and Christina Harvell), who live in Elwood's house and rely on his generosity. In fact, the play opens on Veta Louise using Elwood's stately home to host a lavish society luncheon with the intent of introducing Myrtle Mae as an eligible bachelorette to local society's mothers of eligible sons. When Elwood unexpectedly shows up and begins to introduce Harvey to all Veta Louise's guests, it is the last straw: Veta Louise decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium.

When Elwood and Veta Louise (and, of course, Harvey) arrive at the sanitarium, a comedy of errors ensues. While the orderly Wilson (one of the more natural comedic performances from Greg Fanning) takes Elwood to a treatment room, Dr. Sanderson (Mark McGuire) interviews Veta Louise -- and determines that she is the one who needs help. Now freed, Elwood quickly befriends Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly (Heather Allen) and offers to come back later and take them out for drinks. Elwood departs, leaving his sister in the hands of the sanitarium staff, and Harvey somehow unaccounted for and loose in the hospital.

Fortunately for Veta Louise, the truth comes out and she is released. Meanwhile, Harvey -- who it turns out isn't entirely imaginary, but is an Irish ghost called a pooka -- befriends the hospital's elusive director, who is quite shaken by the encounter. When Elwood shows up to take his new friends out and to look for Harvey, Dr. Sanderson knows exactly how to treat him. He wants to give Elwood an injection that will rid him of the delusion everyone believes him to be under. Veta Louise's cab driver (Randy Burdick brings a delightful deadpan to the role) interrupts and, overhearing, assures Elwood's sister that the treatment will work -- he has driven lots of troubled people to the sanitarium, only to take them back home after treatment has made them a "perfectly normal human being, and you know how awful they are". It's up to Veta Louise to decide whether Elwood should get the treatment or if she'd rather have Elwood as-is, eccentricities and all.

This production features several budding comic character actors: misters Burdick and Fanning, as well as Emily Burdick and Mike DeLaura.

Also among the highlights of the production is the exceptionally well designed and dressed set. Its functional design is well situated within the space and allows the audience to transition quickly and easily between Elwood's home and the doctor's office at the hospital.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "A Higher Place in Heaven"

Georgia playwright Pamela Parker has a small cottage industry surrounding the fictional town of Second Samuel, GA -- Second Samuel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas, and now showing on the Wetumpka Depot stage: a prequel to the other two called A Higher Place in Heaven, showing the boyhood of characters Frisky and U.S., who feature prominently as adults in the other two plays.

Set in the Summer of 1925, it is a gentle coming-of-age story as well as a serious contemplation on race relations told through complex family relationships. Blacks and Whites who grew up together for generations have fixed social "places" that no one seems to question -- they appear to get along, and it is these assumptions that have kept Blacks back with little hope for advancement and allowed Whites to feel superior.

Teenagers: Frisky [Reese Lynch] and Ulysses (known as U.S.) [Matthew Mitchell] are best friends who spend their time fishing or otherwise lazing about, while their Mothers: Miss Madison [Hazel Jones] and her confidante-servant Miss Simpson [Anne-Marie Mitchell] gossip on the porch of "New Hope", the Madison family's old plantation mansion. Their two families have lived there for generations, and Miss Simpson helped bring up the Madison children.

Everything seems normal until Frisky's older lawyer brother, Son [Clint Evans], shows up to give a speech at the dedication of a monument to their grandfather who fought in the Civil War; Son wants to emphasize the "glory" of the war, and his wife Billie Augusta [Madyson Greenwood] tempers his enthusiasm with practical comments.

When Son discovers his Mother's new will which leaves the family home to Miss Simpson, he is outraged that the property will belong to a Black family at Miss Madison's death, and does everything he can to thwart her plan.

The boys -- inseparable playmates on the verge of growing up, and wanting to make something of themselves -- have some plans of their own to both attend Tuskegee Institute (since U.S. can't attend a White university); and when each is faced with decisions, their inner biases come to the fore, and the racial divide and all the assumptions that come along with it demonstrate how complicated an issue it is.

Confronted with Son's question: "Why does the will leave the house to Miss Simpson?", Miss Madison's clear response is that "It's the right thing to do." And her family aren't to be left out; they'll all be taken care of.

Director Kim Mason's excellent ensemble cast respect the script's comfortable style, imbuing their characters so naturally that they are completely credible. There is hardly a false note from any of them. (Though Son's capitulation happens a bit too quickly, by that time we are so ensconced in all their lives, that it hardly matters.)

The example of grandfather is the crux of the matter: he treated everyone the same, without regard to race or age or gender or wealth. -- As Billie Augusta says at one point: while good deeds alone will get people into heaven, "...people who take care of our ugly business just because it needs to be done, because its the right thing to do, they're going to get a higher place in heaven." -- And that is what Miss Madison is about, though it takes a long while for her secret motives to be explained.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WOBT: "Bargains"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently performing a 1992 comedy -- Bargains, by Jack Heifner -- that showcases the talents of local actors and is directed by Tina Abate. Best known for his 1976 play Vanities, and also the author of WOBT's 2012 production of Patio/Porch, Heifner gives audiences some clever dialogue and familiar situations, though here its predictable plot, just out-of-date cultural references, and indirect treatment of the topic of homosexuality, make it appear old fashioned. Nonetheless, some strong characterizations enliven Bargains' two acts.

Set somewhere in rural Texas, Bargains opens in a struggling bargain-basement department store on one of its several sidewalk sale days. Three sales clerks bemoan their condition and the store's depleted and out-of-style stock, but receive little sympathy from manager Michael Mead [Adam Hunt], whose brusque and authoritarian manner do little to endear him. -- Each clerk has her issues: Tish [Curtia Torbert] is due to give birth any day and has an out of work husband who may or may not be cheating on her; spinster Sally [Zyna Captain] still lives at home and caters to every whim of her elderly and demanding mother; outspoken and perennially late for work Mildred [Hollie Pursifull] shares a trailer with her gay brother Lothar [Adam Hunt again -- this character appears only in Act II], a color-blind hairdresser who has failed at every career attempt, and whose boyfriend Dennis [Kehinde Batife] is a florist who is allergic to flowers. -- A lot of contrivances that appear forced, and with the sole intent of garnering a few laughs.

Much of their private lives and secret vices are revealed as the store is about to be closed, putting the women out of work with the departure of Mr. Mead. -- Tish goes off to try to save her marriage, and does not appear in Act II; a shame that audiences are not given the pleasure of Ms. Torbert's talents, as she gives the most solid and truthful characterization in this production.

So, Act II picks up a month later outside Mildred's trailer, where Lothar has barricaded himself in after his sister has gone to another hair salon and not to him. -- It is here where Mildred and Sally comfort one another, challenge one another, and become close (if not very credible) allies as plot contrivances mount up to enable a convenient happy ending.

An overlong game of charades, and slow pacing throughout the two acts bring Bargains in at about two hours and twenty minutes. But there are moments that bring giggles and belly laughs. Ms. Pursifull particularly brings conviction to her character's droll pronouncements and sly looks, and has a fine sense of comic timing. And Ms. Captain gets well earned sympathy through honest depictions of her role.

WOBT continues to develop new talents, mixing them with veteran actors whose skills will hopefully rub off.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Red Door: "Promises"

Troy University alumnus Joel Williams's 2010 play Promises is showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. Directed by his Troy classmate, Tom Salter, and with a featured role played by their mentor, former Chair of Theatre at Troy, David Dye, it is a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Williams.

Set in Fontana Lake, North Carolina in 1993 -- with flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) displaced many of the rural inhabitants to build a dam -- Williams invites his audiences into the lives of the local families as they observe "Decoration Day" by visiting the graves of their ancestors and re-telling their stories to keep their memories alive.

Joseph Thompson [Craig Stricklin] attends for his first time to honor a promise made to his mother: one of the many "promises" of the play's title. -- Through the prodding of Liz Andrews [Kim Graham], who befriends the stranger in their midst, Joseph's heritage is gradually revealed in a kind of detective story that slowly discloses details of his life, details that become increasingly more intriguing as we learn the secrets of his birth and upbringing, and the promises of his parents, siblings, and friends.

While Joseph and Liz serve as narrators and commentators (Mr. Stricklin and Ms. Graham give their best to make it dramatically interesting), the flashback sequences provide the dramatic interest and impact. -- Jacob Thompson [Joseph Crawford] fell in love with Leah [Eve Harmon] in high school, and his adolescent promise to love her forever was gently rebuffed by Leah who wanted only to remain friends as she needed to see more of the world and build a career away from the small community that Jacob preferred.

Some time after Leah's departure, Jacob inherited land from Virgil Jenkins [David Dye] and married Rachel [Sarah Smith]. Happy at first, two still-born children strained their relationship; though committed to his marriage, cash-strapped Jacob left town to work for the TVA where by chance he re-met Leah and rekindled their relationship.

With its meandering style and sometimes slow pace, the script could benefit from judicious editing to enhance character relationships and omit lengthy exposition and extraneous characters, thereby giving more focus to the central plot. -- No spoilers here; there are several unexpected events that are not revealed till close to the end.

Mr. Crawford creates a sympathetic character in Jacob. We believe in his essential goodness and the conflicted decisions he makes throughout; and his truthful depiction is simple and straightforward. Ms. Smith's role of Rachel is also an honest portrayal. Ms. Harmon is so natural in the role of Leah, that one is hardly aware of her acting.

Mark Moore in the role of Quill Hopkins -- a perennially drunk aggressor, and a key to the surprise ending -- seems to relish the role; his unsubtle nastiness verges on caricature. And Lonnie Crawford as Jacob's brother Aaron draws our sympathies in a solid performance.

In one of the play's strongest scenes, when Virgil promises his land to Jacob both as a reward for the young man's hard work and for his innate goodness, Mr. Dye provides the most natural performances on stage. The connection between him and Mr. Crawford is so complete and truthful, that the scene and the character of Virgil remain with us till the end.

Promises continues this weekend only at the Red Door.

Friday, August 1, 2014

ASF: "Mary Poppins"

"Look past what you see" is an admonition everyone might benefit from; what is on the surface is only a small portion of what lies beneath -- and Montgomery is being treated to a glorious heart-warming production of Mary Poppins, a musical that charms and transforms its audiences young and old. As Mary Poppins sings of herself in Act I, Director Geoffrey Sherman's production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is "Practically Perfect".

With top-notch production numbers choreographed by Karen Azenberg, an excellent eight-member pit orchestra conducted by Tom Griffin, dazzling sets by Peter Hicks, and exquisite costumes by Brenda Van Der Weil, Mr. Sherman's ensemble cast of triple threat actors-singers-dancers energetically take the Festival stage for two-and-a-half hours of non stop family entertainment.

This is "what we see", but there is a lot more to it. -- The play's pedigree begins with P. L. Travers' stories and continues to the beloved Walt Disney film and the Cameron Macintosh stage musical with a book by Julian Fellowes (of "Downton Abbey" fame); the original musical score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe complete the collaboration that is currently playing an extended run at ASF.

Below the surface shine of this production are a host of elements that might not receive the attention they deserve. -- The aforementioned production qualities [sets and costumes especially] are so integrated into the magic that they seamlessly enhance the story and characters in witty and colorful ways by paying attention to details. Some of the stage transformations are downright stunning, and with an ensemble cast who play gypsies, chimney-sweeps, bank managers, and other Londoners, one might think there are hundreds of them...more magic.

The story s a familiar one: George [David Schmittou] and Winifred [Jean McCormick] Banks -- he a stolid bank manager and she a dutiful Edwardian housewife -- have two children, Jane and Michael [Katie Cobb and Will Chieves on Tuesday night] who have run off several nannies through their pranks; they crave more affection from their parents -- particularly Mr. Banks who is oblivious to their needs -- and when they write a job description for a nanny who will be kind and "fun", Mary Poppins [Alice Sherman] magically shows up and effects the needed changes. -- Yet, not everything is what it seems; you have to look past what you see, and Mary Poppins makes the changes happen with the help of chimney sweep Bert [Bret Shuford] and an assortment of other characters she seems to conjure up with ease.

The ASF company have taken full advantage of the strong script to develop truthful characterizations. Though many of them have the stamp of stereotype, the actors provide subtle details that give credibility to them. -- Barbara Tirrell plays both the gypsy Mrs. Corry and the stentorian nanny Miss Andrew (known to everyone as "The Holy Terror") with gusto; both powerful performances, and her rendition of "Brimstone and Treacle" is frighteningly good. Billy Sharpe as Robertson Ay, the meek household servant, and Northbrook, an unassuming man who gets a bank loan because of his good will -- as opposed to the aggressive Von Hussler (Lenny Daniel) -- is underplayed to very subtle effect. Christian Castro as Neleus (the statue that comes to life to the children's delight) keeps the magic intact. Rodney Clark doubles as the Admiral and the tough-minded Bank Manager with clever nuances. And Barbara Broughton shines as Bird Woman who sells crumbs to feed the birds in a touching interpretation of "Tuppence a Bag" makes a powerful statement about simple kindness that is so often trumped by selfishness.

Mr. Shmittou and Ms. McCormick, in roles that have been developed from the original, create convincing characters -- conflicted by their call to duty as parents while staying true to the social norms expected of them -- and emerge as fully realized and sympathetic individuals. And Ms. Cobb and Mr. Chieves are impressive as their children who never flag from being truthful in their roles; well done.

Mr. Shuford's chimney-sweep "Bert" is so genuinely honest and endearing that we instantly feel comfortable with him as our guide to the proceedings. And Ms. Sherman's portrayal of the title character Mary Poppins is "practically perfect" in every sense. She commands the stage with effortless charm, conducts the action at every turn, and sings beautifully. A standout performance.

The big numbers are all dazzling. Whatever your preference, "Chim Chim Cheree", "Let's Go Fly a Kite", "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Anything Can Happen", or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", are bound to enthrall.

And, while Mary Poppins can only stay "as long as necessary", when she does leave after resolving the  family's problems and ensuring that young Michael received his father's love, and we are ensured that other families need her now, we watch her (with a little regret that she can't stay with us any longer) fly out over the audience and on to another challenge.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Millbrook: "Grease"

The closing night's performance of the Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey musical, Grease, by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc., was a sold-out success.

Much to the credit of director John Collier and his 21-member ensemble cast, and to a terrific 6-piece band, the 1950s era musical set in fictional Rydell High School kept its nostalgic focus intact, taking us back to more innocent days of slumber parties, hot rods, and high school dances.

The long running, award winning Broadway production has been a staple on high school and community theatre stages for decades; it is probably most familiar through the film version starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. So it is not surprising that many audience members were softly singing along to "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee", "Shake It/High School Hop", "Greased Lightning", and "Hand Jive" among others.

On the first day of school, newcomer Sandy Dumbrowski [Lauren Norris] tells the "Pink Ladies" about her summer romance, while Danny Zuko [Joe Taylor] recounts his romantic conquest to the guys. Of course, each is singing about the other in "Summer Lovin' " without knowing they are at the same school, and when they meet, Danny takes a "cool/tough" stance that bewilders Sandy -- and there is much to follow before they and several other couples can be reunited by the end.

Other key players are tough-girl Rizzo [Emily Grace Pose], matched with Kenickie [Myles Wolf], each of whom brings a confidence and strong singing voice to their roles. -- Kenzi Meyer is delightful in the role of Frenchie, the "Beauty School Drop-Out", and Joshua Cuevas as Doody, the guitar-playing roustabout has a laid-back comfort in the part.

As Marty, Kaitlin LeMaster uses her impressive singing voice well in "Freddy My Love", and Joshua Bullard as Sonny is easily the most comfortable and easy-to-watch member of the ensemble.

Taylor Trucks is utterly convincing as good-girl Patty, as is Corey Jackson playing the nerdy Eugene. -- And Jody Dow as Teen Angel brings down the house.

Pamela Trammell's schoolmistress Miss Lynch is as uptight as you can get; and Roger Humber as Vince Fontaine is a suitably "dirty old man" making a play for the young high school girls at the dance.

Though there was some occasionally clumsy staging and line delivery, the evening was entertaining and a good antidote to the Summer's heat.