Sunday, February 19, 2017

Red Door: "Tokens of Affection"

Topher Payne won the Osborn Award for a promising new playwright a few years back and has since become one of the most popular and prolific Atlanta-based writers. His affectionate romantic comedy Tokens of Affection [2011] has just finished its sold out all-too-short-one-weekend run at The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

Directed by Kathryn Adams Wood, a uniformly strong ensemble of six actors get more comfortable with Payne's snappy dialogue and contagiously rib-tickling situations as the performance progresses.

Most of the action takes place in and around the bohemian [i.e. "messy"] Manhattan apartment of Charlie Garrett [Alex Eberhart] who is struggling under a deadline to animate sea-turtles for a computer game he is constructing. His continually interrupted by phone calls from his sister Claire [Charity Smith], complaining that their neat-freak mother Jackie [Ms. Wood] has come to stay with her, having walked out on their father Frank [David Allen] and wants a divorce because he doesn't bring her flowers. -- "Mr. Fix-it" Frank meanwhile has arrived at Charlie's, suitcase in hand, with a far-fetched reason for his visit.

The adult children feel ambushed, and not comprehending why Jackie would suddenly ask for a divorce after 37 years of marriage, they want nothing more than to have their parents reconcile, leaving them to resume their normal lives.

Charlie's needy but supportive neighbor Rita [Elizabeth Roughton], a former actress and possibly romantic interest for Charlie, becomes a not-too-welcome distraction to Frank, and Claire's husband Bruce Burnham [Timothy Hereford] always identifies himself on the phone to Charlie by stating his full name (a running joke that audiences anticipate with glee) wants his mother-in-law out of his house because she has taken it over completely.

Playwright Payne deliberately keeps Jackie off-stage for a long time, while her assorted attributes are delineated by other characters in great detail; when she does finally appear, Ms. Wood displays all the passive-aggressive behaviors and martyred posturing that audiences expect.

For all of the melodramatic exaggerations he invents, the author has crafted characters and situations everyone can recognize, and the Red Door company take on his heightened insightfully witty dialogue with a remarkable vigor. -- As each character recognizes the building absurdity of their situations and admits a need for attention and a wish for happiness, they also discover that love is expressed in a variety of ways, and that they are best expressed in the "little things" that matter a lot more than major events.

Faulkner: "Fools"

Neil Simon is one of the most prolific living American playwrights whose witty comedies regularly appear on Broadway and in theatres around the world. Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Brighton Beach Memoirs are among the best known pieces; yet there are a number of lesser known works that also contain his signature verbal dexterity and clever situations -- Fools [1981] is one of these that is currently on offer at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Directed by Jason Clark South on Matt Dickson's flexibly moveable stage, the 10-member ensemble acting company make the most of Simon's one joke script: everyone in a remote Ukranian village except their new schoolmaster Leon Tolchinsky [Hunter Lee Smith] have been cursed with "stupidity" for the last 200 years; and once it is established that they take everything literally, can't add or subtract or even sit down without difficulty, don't know their own names, and have to be reminded that something happened just seconds ago, the conceit wears thin and the jokes are anticipated before they are spoken.

Once Leon meets his pupil Sophia Zubritsky [Emily McAliley] and falls instantly in love with her, he determined to break the curse by educating her and marrying her  within 24-hours or have to leave the town or become "stupid" like the rest of them. -- Sophia's parents, Dr. Zubritsky [Morgan Baker] and his wife Lenya [Catherine Allbritton], are all in favor of the match, but, like all the townspeople, are too "stupid" to help in any meaningful way; and marriage to Count Gregor [Ian Bruce looking like Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula and who comes twice a day to propose to Sophia] could also break the curse.

Much of the fun in this production comes from the commitment the actors give to their "stupid" characters; though they are not formally educated, they do show a remarkable ability to make a lot of sense. And the close family relationships and concern for the improvement of the town by removing the curse show them to be smart in other ways.

There is a lot of silliness at hand, but behind it are some important lessons in human behavior. "Love" is an unknown to the town, but Leon shows them the way; family and a citizenry concerned for the well-being of the town say a lot about the basic needs of everyone. -- And when the townspeople are told that they have been brainwashed into believing they all inherited their "stupidity" and that "you are only 'stupid' if you believe it", the curse is broken: basic Psychology 101.

This is Neil Simon in a minor key; but even in a minor key, there is a lot to enjoy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ASF Interns: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"

Greta Lambert [The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Director of Education and Outreach, and highly respected actor whose every appearance there is an event in itself] has done it again: for the seventh year in a row, she and the "ASF Bringing the Bard to Life" touring company enliven a Shakespeare play in an abbreviated text to introduce the Bard to high school students around the South and dispel the myth that Shakespeare is hard to understand. -- This year's offering is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, considered by many scholars to be his earliest play, a comedy that germinates many themes, characters, and plot elements that are developed in his later writing.

The current Acting Interns [last seen on their own in September in Charlotte's Web] are an energetic and inventive ensemble who engage their audiences with clear storytelling, precise articulation of Shakespeare's verse, occasional audience involvement, and expert comic timing.

All this is made possible by Ms. Lambert's adept and masterful editing of Shakespeare's script that retains all its essential  elements while tweaking its themes and characters into a 1960s setting, along with many anachronistic references and songs that fit the play's intentions and encourage contemporary audiences to connect with the on-stage action. -- Robert F. Wolin's clever set [moveable parts with gloriously rendered painted scenes], and Elizabeth Novak's inventive period costumes, create a stunning visual impact.

The performance lasts less than 90-minutes, and half of the eight member acting company play multiple roles apiece [their quick costume changes disguise the actors so well that one would think there are many more actors filling the roles]; with full commitment to each impersonation and technical skills to match, we simply enjoy the ride.

When Valentine [Andre Revels] heads to Milan, he asks his best friend Proteus [Justy Kosek] to go along; but Proteus is reluctant because he is in love with Julia [Kate Owens]. This young couple exchange rings and profess their undying love when Proteus' father insists he should be with his best friend in Milan. -- Meanwhile, Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia [Ann Flanigan], the daughter of the Duke of Milan [Joe O'Malley] who wants her to marry Thurio [Joshua Sottile], a rich fop, and locks her away in a tower to keep Valentine at bay. -- When Proteus arrives, he immediately falls for Sylvia and plans to win her away from much for the undying love he professed for Julia and the friendship he held for Valentine.

Back in Verona, Julia plans to go to Milan disguised as a boy, to surprise Proteus; but when she gets there, she discovers Proteus serenading Sylvia [who, by the way, rejects him], and offers to be his servant. -- There is a convoluted plot where the rings they had exchanged are forced upon Proteus, Valentine's capture by outlaws, and a reunion where everyone is reunited. -- Oh, yes, there's a wacky clown called Launce [Javon Q. Minter] and his dog Crab [Tirosh Schneider] who threaten to steal the show on their every appearance.

So many comic conventions are shown in their infancy in Two Gents: a woman disguised as a man who serves him while in disguise, the excessively melodramatic adolescent behavior of romantic teenagers, lovers' inconstancy, an exchange of letters into unintended hands, and a conflict between love and friendship...all of which are resolved by not always credible means.

But, the youthful vivacity of the ASF Intern troupe goes a long way into making these conventions palatable. -- Their complete conviction in telling Shakespeare's story makes for a delightful and sometimes thoughtful entertainment.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Ring of Fire"

It hardly matters whether or not you're a fan of the music of Johnny Cash when you witness the wealth of talent on the Wetumpka Depot stage in their production of Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash. -- The vitality of the ensemble cast and their abundant musical talents in singing and playing an array of musical instruments, keep this celebration of the man and his music in high gear for almost two hours.

Country, Gospel, Bluegrass, and Spiritual all have their place in Cash's career, and are given plenty of attention in this production: not a biographical story, but one which contains narrative snippets that put the songs in context and showcase the skills of the eight actors and a one person back-up band in the person of Donny Tomlin who effortlessly switches from banjo to mandolin to an assortment of other instruments that accompany the on-stage performers and add substance to their playing and singing.

Gavin Fuller, Rebecca Ivey, Kim Mason, Tom Salter, Cindy Veasey, Jimmy Veasey, Jonathan Yarboro, and Jenny Whisenhunt comprise this multi-talented ensemble. In solo and group numbers, they play guitar, bass, violin, piano, mandolin, ukulele, spoons, washboard, slide whistle, and more while they take audiences on a high powered musical journey.

Equally comfortable in the various musical genres, they bring strong singing voices to the fore and connect truthfully to the lyrics of both serious and humorous novelty pieces. Quieter reflective moments like "I Still Miss Someone" [Ms. Ivey] and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" [Mr. Yarboro] are countered by "While I've Got it on My Mind" [Ms. Whisenhunt and Mr. Yarboro], "Straight As in Love" [Mr. Fuller], "Egg Suckin' Dog" [Mr. Salter and Ms. Veasey] and "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart" [Ms. Mason].

And some of Cash's most iconic songs are given deserved attention: "Daddy Sang Bass" [Mr. Salter, Mr. Fuller, and Company], "Jackson" [Ms. Veasey, Mr. Veasey and Company], "Ring of Fire" [Ms. Whisenhunt and Mr. Yarboro], "I Walk the Line" [Ms. Mason and Mr. Veasey], "Folsom River Blues" [Mr. Veasey, Mr. Salter, and Mr. Yarboro], and Cash's tribute to the downtrodden and overlooked people of this world "Man in Black" [Mr. Veasey].

Director Kristy Meanor moves her actors around a simple open area and platform set to accommodate the 30+ songs that come at us with barely a breath between them. And with stunning wigs by Matthew Oliver, and several costume changes that highlight moments in Cash's long career, the production is as visually appealing as the music is engaging.

Audiences are tapping their collective feet and sometimes singing along to their favorite songs. In a production that emphasizes simple values and abundant faith, Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash serves as a welcome entertainment to lift our spirits.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: The 39 Steps"

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

Back in 1995, when four actors first took the stage to play countless roles in The 39 Steps, who knew it would become so popular? Based on John Buchan's 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film of the same name, Patrick Barlow's 2005 award-winning adaptation is currently opening The Cloverdale Playhouse's 6th Season. -- While Hitchcock took many liberties with Buchan's book, adding a trademark "blonde woman" to the cast of characters and showcasing his recognizable style that mixes suspense with sophisticated humor, Barlow takes it many steps further by turning it into a parody-melodrama.

The convoluted plot revolves around Richard Hannay [Tate Pollock], a man who is "tired of life" but gets drawn into intrigues involving a plot to smuggle military secrets out of Great Britain as World War II threatens, all the while trying to clear himself of a suspicion of murder. His adventures take him from London to Scotland and back again, meeting an assortment of women, music-hall entertainers, farmers, innkeepers, law enforcement officials, etc. all of whom are played by three actors: Sarah Atkins plays most of the women, and two Clowns [Shane Murphy and Cushing Phillips] play the too-many-to-count  catalogue of male and female characters who help or hinder Hannay along the way.

And what a rollicking two-hour trip it is, played on a makeshift Music Hall stage with an array of set pieces, props, and signs that the cast manipulate efficiently [and in some cases with intentional mistakes].

Director Sarah Walker Thornton has an extra-high-energy cast of veteran actors at her disposal, and keeps the action moving at a sometimes frenetic pace while capitalizing on the many gags in Barlow's script that reference several Hitchcock films [Rear Window, North by Northwest,  and The Birds to name a few]. -- Her bare-bones production and the skills of her actors make much of a seat-of-their-pants style that belies a strict discipline that each one brings to the stage.

On opening night, much of the dialogue was delivered with so much gusto as to render some lines almost unintelligible and to register many scenes at the same high volume and energy level. Once they settle down, this gifted ensemble acting company should provide a real roller-coaster ride with peaks and valleys that afford them and their audiences with consistent moments of glee and an occasional moment to breathe.

This notwithstanding, there is a lot to applaud in this production. -- Mr. Pollock ingratiates himself in a narrative introduction, and proves himself as Hannay: stiff upper lip well in control, ironic comments delivered with aplomb, a disinterest in romance that gets the better of him, and an ability to meet each dire circumstance with a sense of self-deprecating humor.

As the significant women in Hannay's life, Ms. Atkins differentiates each one with costume and wig disguises provided by Danny Davidson-Cline [and crew], specific dialect accents and behaviors particular to Anabella (a Teutonic spy), Margaret (a Scottish farmer's sweetly sympathetic wife), and Pamela (a spunky uncooperative hostage who at first believes Hannay is guilty of murder, and eventually trusts and falls in love with him).

Most of the broad humor comes from the two Clowns. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Phillips are so adept at quickly switching characters between scenes [and even within scenes], distinguishing each one with a mere change of a hat, a thick accent, or a change in posture. One would almost think there were several more actors in the cast, except the conceit of the play is that there are only the four of them.

And what appears to be an improvizational romp with plenty of giggles and belly-laughs, is actually a finely tuned production in expert hands.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

ASF: "Because of Winn-Dixie"

Because of Winn-Dixie, a family-friendly musical based on Kate DiCamillo's popular novel, is currently on a brief run at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its multi-award-wining collaborators' credentials are impressive; director John Rando, book and lyricist Nell Benjamin, composer Duncan Sheik, and the gathering of actors -- ASF newcomers and veterans along with some local talent, and a dog named Bowdie [trained by William Berloni] -- take audiences on a journey with plenty of life lessons.

The plot revolves around a young girl named Opal [Gabriella Pizzolo] who brings home a dog she names Winn-Dixie after the supermarket where she found him; Opal and her father, the Preacher [Adam Monley] have moved to a small Florida town to start a new life and are feeling down and out of place. The opening number "Strays" encapsulates their condition, and shows how many of the town's inhabitants also have their problems and issues with being accepted socially. As their stories unfold gradually, one is reminded of similar conditions facing many of this world's refugees. And Opal's persistence -- with the assistance of Winn-Dixie -- helps her make new friends, and has them ultimately face their respective demons and become a community.

...Winn-Dixie avoids most of the schmaltz and excesses of many musicals with children in the central roles; it is to their credit that the production respects the kids' points of view and has young actors who are up to the task. Ms. Pizzolo and Leonay Shepherd as a morose bookworm Amanda are particularly on point in their contrasting roles.

The play's journey began at Arkansas Rep in 2013 and has been developed at various regional theatres since then with an aim to eventually open on Broadway. Still a work-in-progress, it has much in its favor: the aforementioned respect for issues of youth, an assortment of recognizably credible characters,  an acceptance that there are no easy answers to what life and our actions thrust at us, and an unsaccharined belief that goodness can be found in everyone no matter their circumstances.

While much of the musical score stays too downbeat and somber for much of the first act's lengthy exposition, there are several numbers that push the energy when it is most needed. -- "Bottle Tree Blues" is masterfully rendered by Roz Ryan as a local eccentric known to the townsfolk as the Witch; "Sweet Life" tells the achievements of librarian Franny Block's [Carolyn Mignini is terrific] ancestor during the Civil War; and the pet-shop man Otis [Joe Carroll] tries to quietly turn his life around in a couple of songs that leave audiences wanting more from this character.

And, of course, there is the rambunctious dog. From his first appearance, the audience welcomed him with a chorus of "Awwww", and greeted his every on-stage moment with approval. To see Winn-Dixie respond to the various cast members, it is no wonder that Opal's skeptical father warms up to him as we do.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South"

First seen in GRITS: the Musical a while back, Adrian Lee Borden, Desirae Lewis, Kim Mason, and Cindy Veasey are reprising their roles at the Wetumpka Depot in Erica McGree's Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South. "Girls Raised In The South" explains the acronym of the title, and director Kristy Meanor takes audiences on a two-hour jaunt into the sometimes outrageous Christmas reminiscences of these four redoubtable women.

Staged on several holiday-decorated area platforms and an open space, the GRITS narrate several humorous situations that are familiar to us all, interspersed with traditional songs and carols, some of them given updated or inventively comic lyrics.

We know these women and their stories, and you don't have to be from the South to appreciate many of them...the predicament or challenge of "Re-gifting" is given an outrageous twist or two; "The Crazy Aunt Blues" capitalized on the women's abilities to impersonate all the cliche-ridden characteristics of eccentric relatives decked out in garish costumes; and "The Twelve Yummy Days of Christmas", featuring "five bourbon balls"  to a predictable drunken end, is a show-stopper.

There are touching sentimental reminiscences as well with such numbers as "I Never Knew Life Without You" and a few readings from Scripture, along with a medley of traditional carols to signal the true meaning of Christmas.

The ensemble actors have individual shining moments, but the key to this show is the feeling that they are good friends having a good time to celebrate their friendships. It's contagious. There is such a warmth coming from the stage, that audiences can't help but respond in kind....a fine way to usher-in the Christmas season.