Sunday, December 16, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "A Very Second Samuel Christmas"

With playwright Pamela Parker in the opening night's audience, director Tom Salter announced A Very Second Samuel Christmas not only as the final sold-out show in the Wetumpka Depot Players' 32nd season, but also as its "World Premier".

This short play -- a scant 90-minutes including intermission -- follows the residents of the fictitious Georgia town of Second Samuel as they prepare their annual Christmas pageant to be performed for the first time in "a colored church": the "Rock of Ages Free African".

A second installment by Ms. Parker of her popular and prize-winning Second Samuel that the Depot produced to much acclaim awhile ago, it relies on the long-term recall/memory of the Depot's audiences to fill in the blanks about the assorted population of the town of 342 residents. Mr. Salter is most fortunate in having most of the 11-strong ensemble fitting easily into reprising their roles.

This new play retains much of the charm, gentle humor, and pathos of the original, but is still a work-in-progress. For the uninitiated -- and there were several on Thursday evening -- the script could benefit by the addition of some background details and references to its progenitor to catch them up on characters and relationships. [While most characters are largely unchanged from before, some of their names ("B-flat", "U.S.", "Omaha") need explanation. And despite the actors' total commitment to their roles, and their collective abilities to generate appropriate responses from the full-house, the admittedly engaging narrative stance of its central character is a mere substitute for more satisfying dramatic action.]

As before, the set is divided in half to accommodate frequent scene shifts : one side is the men's domain -- "The Bait and Brew" -- where they meet, play chess, and dawdle away the time; the other side is the "Change Your Life Hair & Beauty Emporium" where the women meet to gossip while having various treatments. At center is the entrance to the "Rock of Ages Free African" church, and closer to the audience is a tree-stump where B-flat narrates the homespun story.

It is some years after Second Samuel, and B-flat [Jonathon (sp?) Conner] -- a sensitive, simple, and slow young man who can predict the weather and is replete with facial and body tics -- has changed with the times; here, he is more confident than he was in the past, appears to have accumulated a lot of knowledge, and is more literate in expressing his philosophy of tolerance and of the essential goodness of mankind while quoting the Bible verbatim. Quite an accomplishment, and Mr. Conner remains faithful to making him the most convincingly rounded character in contrast to the stereotypes presented by most others in Ms. Parker's script.

Jimmy Deanne [Kim Mason] is still an impudent snob, despite Doc's [Brad Sinclair] claim that she is "softer than...appearances". When she is put-out at having "her pageant" plans ruined by the death of the preacher named "Wonderful Counselor", and by the storm-flood previously intimated by B-flat that destroys the church, Ms. Mason's brashness in the role makes her someone we love to hate. The rest of the fine ensemble support one another well, each with his or her individual quirks and issues that we can recognize as common recognizable traits.

When in Act II B-flat suggests that "everyone needs a miracle...[that] don't have to be flashy to qualify", said miracle shows up: the miracle in the ruined church -- the appearance of a bright light--the angel of the Lord -- ultimately brings all the play's characters together, who, despite their differences and conflicts with one another, listen to B-flat's recitation of the Biblical Isaiah's prophecy and of the later Nativity narrative, and conclude that B-flat's message of Christmas: "Believe and you'll see and be free" is one that can impact both the Biblical shepherds and modern people alike.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Season's Greetings"

Full disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

With laughs coming a-mile-a-minute throughout its two-and-a-half-hours, the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Season's Greetings cements its inaugural season as one of the best in town. Director Fiona Macleod has an excellent group of actors at her disposal, many of whom are veterans of the local theatre scene. -- And while there may not be a star role in this play, each of the actors shines both individually and as an essential part of the talented ensemble.

It doesn't hurt that Alan Ayckbourn [arguably the most prolific contemporary British playwright -- to date, some 77 plays] has given them a brilliantly funny and insightful script that is a gift to actors who can create memorable performances from it. Danny Davidson's costumes give an appropriate period feel, and are clearly chosen to provide insights to the characters. As an added delight to emphasize the play's intimacy (we feel we are eavesdropping at the Playhouse), Ms. Macleod has chosen to stage it in-the-round as Ayckbourn first produced it in 1980 at the "Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round" in Scarborough, England. While there are no walls in the set, there are several rooms defined by furniture arrangement and carpeting; so, with simultaneous action in the various locations, we can follow the frenetic goings-on with one overall view.

An enormously popular play that is revived by professional and amateur theatres virtually every year, Ayckbourn resisted writing yet another feel-good Christmas-is-for-children play but decided to do this one where the children are nearby but always off-stage and the adults behave like children on-stage.

It is the 1980s in Yorkshire, England, and Neville and Belinda Bunker are hosting a family and friends Christmas weekend where, in the playwright's words, "people who can't stand each other are forced together!" Theirs is a monotonous marriage; Neville spends more time in his workshop with his friend Eddie who escapes there to avoid his pregnant wife Pattie and their other offspring; Neville's alcoholic sister Phyllis has taken over the kitchen while her ineffectual doctor-husband Bernard prepares his annual dreaded puppet show for the children; Neville's Uncle Harvey commandeers the television and guards the area in the belief that the weapons that are his Christmas presents are necessary for protection against a yet-unseen enemy; and Belinda's spinster-sister Rachel has invited Clive -- an author and the only outsider (and consequently a romanticized curiosity to the group) -- to join them. "Just an average family Christmas", says Ayckbourn.

Perhaps not "average", though their circumstances and situations are commonly shared this side of the Atlantic; and yes, these are not very nice people -- just like children, they fight over inconsequential things, seek attention, bully one another, sneak around, are casually insensitive to the needs of others; and as adults, they judge success or failure by material things, prefer to let their drunkenness be an excuse for their moral infidelities; and like both, they kiss and make up  by the end.

Mariah Reilly returns to the stage as Belinda after too long a hiatus since her days at Huntingdon College, and creates one of the most natural and physically comfortable characterizations along with Lee Bridges' Neville; completely credible as husband and wife, their unspoken communication [or lack thereof] as well as an occasional quiet scene settles the often madcap pace of the play. And Mr. Bridges' mastery of the Yorkshire dialect is a standout among the inconsistent or sporadic standard British accents from some of the cast.

The friction between Eddie and Pattie is disarmingly frank at the hands of Jason Morgan and Jesse Alston; her persistence and his sporadic rage are both ridden with frustration -- his from lack of a job to provide for his growing family, and hers from confusion or ignorance of what is bothering her husband.

Mike Winkelman [an eleventh-hour substitute for hospitalized cast member David Hendrick] is all bluster and bravado as the lunatic Uncle Harvey. As he begins to suspect Clive of being a thief, he becomes more and more a sinister presence, issuing cryptic warnings to all.

Bill Nowell and Layne Holley are each so watchable as the childless couple Bernard and Phyllis. As he escapes from reality in producing the annual puppet show [be warned...his version of "The Three Little Pigs" has a lengthy preparation and is well worth the wait], and she escapes to booze [one of the most hilarious stage-drunks you'll ever see and by itself worth the price of admission], there is also no doubt that they love one another, as each comes to the other's rescue just in time.

As Rachel, Renea Dijab allows us to grasp her conflicted feelings for Clive [Kalonji Gilchrist]. Does she or doesn't she want a romantic relationship? or is a Platonic relationship even possible? As he attempts to figure her out, Mr. Gilchrist's Clive claims to be an average man, but gets the attention of both Phyllis [who is infatuated by his celebrity as a novelist, and in her drunken haze concludes that he is a homosexual], and by Belinda [who needs a man to pay attention to her].

When a midnight tryst between Clive and Belinda under the Christmas tree is thwarted by their triggering numerous gadgets and noisy toys, rousing the sleeping household and bringing potential doom to the holiday, what's left is to restore peace and harmony and the good will of the season, though not without some delightfully impulsive cost.

Audiences need to pay strict attention to all of the evening's proceedings; as split-scenes focus our eyes and witty dialogue garners huge laughs, it is sometimes challenging to see or hear everything. But there is no doubt that the combination of Ayckbourn's merry script, the astute direction by Ms. Macleod, and the antic ensemble performances make this production of Season's Greetings an excellent holiday treat.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Spoiler alert! Charles Dickens, one of the world's most renowned storytellers, was also an accomplished amateur magician -- who knew?! So, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol has a few on-stage "how did they do that?" tricks up its sleeves; it also has Dickens as its narrator who slips in and out of a number of minor roles in the person of actor Wynn Harmon.

Though narrative in place of dramatic action is risky business at best, hearing Dickens' prose is essential for audiences to appreciate the full flavor of his familiar Christmas classic, and while many can recite verbatim from the characters' quotable lines -- from "Bah, humbug!" to "God bless us, every one!" -- Mr. Harmon's nuanced delivery of the descriptive richness of the novel helps transport us to a distant time and place, and infuse us with just the right amount of Christmas sentiment.

Phil Monat's visually stunning sets and Elizabeth Novak's character-driven period costumes [and authentic replicas of the novel's ghostly apparitions] complete the picture.

So, while Mr. Sherman's production is traditional in most ways, his cuts and additions [including some diverting period songs] tell the story in an efficient two hours that hardly afford time for actors to be subtle in developing their characters or give audiences time to register the impact of its many short scenes before moving on to the next episode; and yet it seems to lag in a couple of them, most notably in a lengthy quibbling over the spoils that Mrs. Dilber brings to Old Joe, no fault to the actors.

None of this diminishes the impact of Sherman's vision for A Christmas Carol. -- Intact are the powerful presence of Brik Berkes as the ghost of Jacob Marley, a seven-year dead business partner who sets Scrooge [Rodney Clark] on his overnight reclamation from malicious ogre to giddy schoolboy in the finale, and the combined instructions of the ghosts of Christmases Past [Jillian Walker], Present [James Bowen], and Yet-to-Come [a mysterious non-speaking spectre].

Here too are Paul Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as the unabashedly gregarious Fezziwigs, Scrooge's persistently hopeful nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], and Alice Sherman as Scrooge's one-time fiancee Belle, whose captivating lullaby showcases this actress's rich singing voice.

Of course, there is the Cratchit family, whose dependence on Scrooge is key to their survival. The audience's collective hearts come close to breaking through the honest simplicity of Billy Sharpe and Greta Lambert as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, as they face their own poverty with determined faith in the goodness of mankind, love of family, and the prospect of losing their crippled son, Tiny Tim [Liam South is an ideal waif, following his older brother Crispin in playing the role at ASF].

But, it all comes down to Scrooge, doesn't it? Rodney Clark reprises the role, finding new ways to inhabit the penny-pinching miser's gradual decision to change into a man who "knew how to keep Christmas well" and be a model for us all. -- At the start, he is a villain deserving our ire, but he takes us along on his journey of self-discovery that invites us to assess our own beliefs and behaviors. Mr. Clark allows us to experience his changes of heart as he wishes he could have a word with his clerk, Bob Cratchit, or give a street urchin a coin, or mend the broken relationship with his nephew Fred. So when Christmas Day dawns and he sets about to make amends with one and all, we share his complete overwhelming joy, his childlike innocence, and his decision to "honor Christmas with all my heart". Lessons for everyone, and a fine way to introduce the Christmas season.

Faulkner: "Inspecting Carol"

Putting a satiric twist on the holiday season, Faulkner University is presenting Inspecting Carol by Daniel Sullivan and The Seattle Repertory Theatre. Using Nicolai Gogol's 1836 one-act The Inspector General for inspiration, Sullivan's play takes us to the "Soapbox Playhouse" and a rehearsal of their annual production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a heretofore guaranteed success, and one which allowed them to pay the bills [and doesn't every theatre need a moneymaker these days?].

There are several twists to be expected: rehearsals are delayed due to any number of actors' idiosyncrasies or demands, the director Zorah [Brooke Brown] is a self-proclaimed emotionally-charged Lithuanian, 12-year-old Luther [Danile Harms] playing Tiny Tim has outgrown the part, Phil playing Cratchit [Brandtley McDonald] is a walking hypochondriac, in an attempt to be multi-cultural the company hired an untried Black actor named Walter [Erik Gunn], Larry [Allen Young] who plays Scrooge is so bored from having played the role so many times that he did it once entirely in Spanish, an impetuously eager young man named Wayne [David Brown] arrives to audition and won't be denied a chance -- and, oh yes, they owe $30,000 and they're broke!

When their new accountant Kevin [Taylor McGregor] breaks the disturbing news that the National Endowment for the Arts has suspended their funding till an investigation is conducted, the company conclude that Wayne must be the NEA inspector, and do anything to please him. Just as in Gogol's witty play, Wayne's assumed identity leads to all sorts of havoc.

Director Jason Clark South and Scenic Designer Matt Dickson have things well in hand. On a flexible stage [lots of moveable parts for scene changes] that never appears crowded: the action moves along at a brisk pace, only occasionally are actors voices too soft, and the plot devices [too many to enumerate here, but suffice it to say that audiences familiar with A Christmas Carol and with theatre-lore will get an added kick out of it] provide numerous surprises from the talented cast. The razor-edged comedy may not always be as sharp as demanded by the script, but the actors are refreshingly engaging and uninhibited.

The ensemble feel to this production keeps things on an even keel with each participant's over-the-top antics threatening to overpower the others but always kept in check by the clever script and the combined talents of the acting company whose trust in one another keeps audience comfort intact. The characters' predictable in-fighting and backbiting, and a never ending surprising turn of events, ultimately result in a crazy revisionist rehearsal of Dickens' classic tale that has Scrooge ad libing his way through the morass of problems besetting the doomed production.

When the real NEA inspector Betty [Hannah Darrough] attends this rehearsal and -- surprise! surprise! -- actually likes it, the company is saved, and the audience goes home with a new and slightly skewed appreciation of A Christmas Carol.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Red Door: "The Homecoming"

Earl Hamner, Jr.'s 1970 autobiographical novel The Homecoming, later turned into the very popular television series The Waltons, is currently playing a sold-out short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs in a stage adaptation (itself a Christmas season favorite) by Christopher Sergel.

Under Tom Salter's sensitive direction, the 23 member cast of area actors create a comfortable ensemble around Clay Boy [Joseph Crawford] its central character and narrator of his own story. Mr. Crawford, in his first major role at the Red Door, immediately engages the audience with his sincerity in recounting the events of Christmas 1933 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where he is the eldest of eight red haired siblings.

At the height of the Great Depression, with a blizzard imminent and father Clay Spencer [Tim Gables] en route for Christmas at home from his job 40 miles away, brothers and sisters impatient for Santa Claus, and mother Olivia [Elizabeth Roughton] on the brink of despair and down to two-dollars to provide for her brood, Clay Boy is saddled with the responsibilities of being the temporary man of the house.

Clay Boy wants to be a writer, and though he loves & admires his father, he is frustrated by a seeming indifference from his dad who advises him to "become a responsible man, build a home, raise a family" -- the practical admonition of a practical man.

With his father very late in arriving, Clay Boy goes off in search of him, a search in which he meets an assortment of neighbors from whom he learns a great deal about his father that he never knew -- his kindness, his generosity, his love of family, and his admiration of his son. Several of these characters appear only briefly, but each makes a lasting impression -- so when Clay, Sr. predictably shows up in time for Christmas, he more than lives up to the reputation he has in the community.

Because this play is so familiar to today's audiences, and due to its sentimentality and predictable plot, its success depends a lot on the excellence of its acting company (particularly those in featured roles) and here we are in good hands. -- Emily Roughton is delightful as young Pattie Cake who believes in Santa and is so eager for Christmas to arrive; Eve Harmon's depiction of the angst-ridden adolescent Becky is a mixed-bag of anger and softness; Kim Graham and Cecelia Moorer as the eccentric spinster sisters who make bootleg eggnog are solid & unpredictably entertaining; and Mr. Gables does a fine job of bridging the practical unswerving parent with the loving-caring rock of the community.

Ms. Roughton's portrayal of Olivia is so consistently credible as she suffers while trying not to show it to her children, and demonstrates her love for her family with simple gestures and words of hope to sustain them through such difficult times. -- And it is when she and Mr. Crawford share the stage that the intimacy of a mother-son relationship rivets our attention. They are a good pair. Mr. Crawford commits fully to his role and produces an admirable balance of frustration and acceptance, puzzlement and discovery; while Ms. Roughton allows herself so unobtrusively to be the strength he needs so he can find out for himself that love and appreciation for family and friends are what is needed to get us through. -- And when Clay Boy receives an unexpected gift from his father, he is also given permission to lead his own life.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Millbrook: "The Foreigner"

It seems that the Millbrook Community Players are always up to something -- an exhaustive and challenging five-production season, occasional scheduled "special" performances, participation in Alabama's Community Theatre Festival, and building a diverse company of community actors. Presently, they are showing Larry Shue's award winning 1984 dark farce-comedy, The Foreigner, a risky show that depicts some Southerners in uncomplimentary terms (even the good-guys are simple-minded) while lashing out at absurd excesses of these all-too-familiar bigoted stereotypes: a two-faced preacher and a redneck racist. -- Still, there are plenty of laughs to be gleaned from Shue's witty script.

Set in Betty Meeks' [Angie Mitchell] backwoods Georgia hunting lodge-cum-inn, Froggy LeSueur [John Chain], a British munitions expert, deposits his compatriot friend Charlie Baker [Roger Humber] there for some R&R so he can come to terms with his unfaithful wife's illness. A pathologically shy milquetoast, Charlie believes he has no personality and is boring to everyone, and does not want to be left alone with strangers, so Froggy invents a new identity for his friend -- a "foreigner" who can't understand or speak English -- and tells Betty it would be best to not even speak to him.

As to be expected, this plan is doomed. Betty is too kind-hearted to ignore her guest, and though she has been sworn to secrecy, can't resist trying to communicate with Charlie. Brother & sister -- a "simple" half-wit Ellard Simms [Corey Jackson] and spoiled self-centered and pregnant Catherine Simms [Catherina L. Curl] -- are due to inherit a fortune from their deceased father. Catherine is engaged to Rev. David Marshall Lee [Michael Snead -- replete with blond wig & polyester suit], a sleazy con-man in cahoots with local property inspector Owen Musser [John Collier] who is about to condemn Betty's property so he and the Reverend can buy it at almost no cost and open a "Christian hunting club" -- a not-too-subtle euphemism for the Ku Klux Klan -- on the premises.

Believing that Charlie can't understand them, each of the characters in turn divulges information in his presence so he becomes privy to all their devious or innocent talk. And therein lies the bulk of the humor. -- Betty maintains her naivete and trust in human nature; Catherine confesses her misgivings and dreams to Charlie's seemingly sympathetic ear; Owen and the preacher discuss their nasty plot in his presence, and Owen openly taunts this "foreigner", threatens him, and proclaims that all "foreigners" will soon be driven away.

But the plot hinges on the miraculous success of the innocent Ellard to teach English to Charlie, so that in a matter of two days, he can both communicate and thwart the bad guys. -- What starts slowly as a vocabulary lesson -- "fo-wurk = fork; aygz = eggs; gree-itz = grits" -- develops a charming connection between outcasts and gives both Ellard and Charlie more confidence.

Shue's concept is unlikely at best, and relies on the talents of his cast of characters to overcome a rather patronizing tone and keep the farcical situations moving. -- Director Fred Neighbors has a lot of veteran actors at his disposal, and while the dubious accents of the British characters are inconsistent, the rest of them are clear. Neighbors' Act I takes far too long to get through the lengthy exposition, and the pace throughout needs to pick up to sustain the farcical intent. Otherwise, the laughs come only intermittently in the two-and-a-half-hour playing time, despite the efforts of the capable cast.

Mr. Jackson, for example, is absolutely convincing as the simple-minded Ellard, and his gradual confidence is infectious. The teaching scenes between him and Mr. Humber are delightfully funny. And Mr. Humber's dead-pan behavior and his eventual realization that he actually "has a personality" brought out through his interactions with Ellard, Betty, and Catherine, and his confidence in defeating Rev. David and Owen, are controlled and credible.

There is a fine line between sinister portrayals and farcical depictions of the racist characters. Mr. Snead allows the laughs at the hypocritical preacher's expense to come easily; he is, after all, a very familiar target.

But the greater risk is left in Mr. Collier's capable hands. With close-cropped hair, a dark fitted t-shirt, and heavy boots, and with a commanding & threatening presence, he comes across as a very tainted and dangerous person -- and yet, he earns some of the most deserved laughs at the expense of his character's derision of Ellard and his racist stance against Charlie and all foreigners. -- With so much attention being paid today to Alabama's draconian immigration laws, and the call to treat all the disenfranchised with respect, the Millbrook Community Players are bringing these sensitive subjects to our attention.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

AUM: "An Evening of One Act Plays"

Student written -- student directed -- student acted -------- Theatre AUM has mounted three one-act plays that were generated in a playwriting course last Spring. Though not yet the sophisticated product of experienced authors [the language has many cliches, there are a number of broad stereotypical characters and predictable conclusions, and the brief episodic scene structure prevents actors from developing characters & relationships in sustained scenes], the plays bring with them some promising signs that reflect AUM's dedication to educational theatre: an ability to present characters, plot, and conflict clearly, identifying a new talent pool of actors, as well as choosing subject matter that is current -- race, family, sexual orientation.

Played in front of Mike Winkelman's Mondrianesque structures that help define space and location for all three plays [with some simple adjustments and additions], Part I has two of the one-acts with just breathing room between them.

LaBrandon Tyre directs Amazed by Donna Smith, a short, sometimes confusing family drama whose characters are a mix of recognizably bizarre types who host an annual birthday party in the graveyard behind the family home for Constance's [Allyson Lee] long-deceased husband Beau. Though one character -- Evangeline [Samantha Blakely] -- is accepted by several universities, and Constance received a job offer in Shreveport, it is clear from the start that no one is really going anywhere, and that the petty jealousies of siblings (a lively interaction between Kerry Jackson and Amber Baldwin) will continue because, as Constance says: "even death won't come between us."

Next comes Choices by Daniel Brown. directed by Michael Krek, in which teenager Aldyn [ardently played by Jackson Wheeles], faces up to his homosexuality. Though it is something he has been taught to hate, he prays to be "normal" and gets more sympathy and acceptance from an atheist friend Stefani [Josie Profio] than from either of his parents [Ashley Stanaland & David Wilson] or the Minister [Keyra Thomas] his religious-fanatic mother enlists to engage in "spiritual warfare" to exorcise the evil spirit within him. --- Mr. Brown's attempts to include so much character-driven social commentary and amateur theology in the 30-minute playing time allow hardly any of them to register & sink in, despite some laudable performances.

Part II is devoted entirely to Keep Breathin' by Erica Johnson, and directed by Wes Milton, in which two sisters are reunited after an eight-year separation when Lizzie [Madison Clark] returns home pregnant and sick, and is cared for by Charlotte [Monique Hopkins], who puts her life on hold despite their life-long misunderstandings and mistrust, reasons for all of which are revealed in Ms. Johnson's overlong and sometimes rambling script that is long on emotional context, Biblical references, and moral platitudes from other characters.

Each of these novice playwrights shows promise, and while for now their hearts are firmly on thier sleeves, the ability to sensitively address matters that concern them may eventually allow them to write with greater efficiency and objectivity. -- A good start, and a testimony to Theatre AUM's mission of developing new theatrical voices.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse Extra: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill"

For three performances only, the Cloverdale Playhouse hosted independent director Anthony Stockard's production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, a biographical songbook of one of the Twentieth Century's most popular and influential music icons -- Billie Holiday -- the legendary Lady Day of the title. -- As an opening act, Ricky Powell set an effective mood with a 30-minute set of period songs.

Set in a seedy Philadelphia "club" in 1959 [the Playhouse was transformed simply with tables & chairs on the floor in front of a small stage to replicate the place], a few short months before her untimely death at 44 from cirrhosis of the liver aggravated by her addictions to drugs and alcohol, Georgia native Ashley Bishop's Billie Holiday drifts in and out of an alcoholic haze in singing more than a dozen songs that link and comment on several important episodes of Holiday's life.

Dressed in a creamy period-perfect gown designed by Danny Davidson, wearing Holiday's  signal gardenia in her hair, and brilliantly accompanied  by Byron Thomas as Holiday's long-suffering pianist Jimmy Powers, Ms. Bishop evokes the essence of Billie Holiday rather than attempt a personification of her -- a good choice that affords her ample opportunities to showcase her own sometimes husky singing voice and acting skills as she finds her way through Lanie Robertson's intentionally rambling, disjointed, and non-linear script that captures the deterioration of the person we see before us.

Billie Holiday's life provides rich fodder for today's tabloid celebrity-fixated sensationalism, and the text honestly recounts such events in her life: rape as a child, abusive men, a strained relationship with her mother whom she calls "the Duchess", racism, drug addiction, and alcoholism, along with a series of successful recordings and performances with the great band-leaders & jazz/blues singers of her day. And, the play's focus is appropriately on the songs that often complete the episodes or reveal the struggles she was subjected to in both her private and public lives.

On her entrance, Ms. Bishop's chatty approach immediately engages the audience, and though she appears bright and happy, the first two numbers -- "I wonder where our love has gone" and "When a woman loves a man" -- despite their "bounce", tell us that this is a woman in denial, and that there is a great deal more she intends to reveal in the next 90 minutes. -- She tells us early on that "singing is the best part of living to me" [a refrain heard frequently throughout the play], and that when things get too hard to bear, Jimmy "fixes things" for her: "What a little moonlight can do" suggests that "moonlight" from Jimmy might be more alcohol or drugs to get her through her psychological pain.

Then follows a series of tawdry events that she tells with what honesty she can muster, punctuated by some fairly salty language: events she witnessed as a child in a brothel, awareness of racial divides between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South -- "all our blackness is on the outside" she says ironically -- musical influences by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Artie Shaw, and others, and her love for her first husband Jimmy "Sonny" Monroe, the man who got her addicted to heroin -- she tried it to prove her love for him, she says.

Ms. Bishop's renditions of "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit" -- the songs everyone wanted to hear Holiday sing in nightclubs -- are given with passion determined by the back-stories of her personal life, and lead to her temporary breakdown. -- After a brief intermission, she returns with assistance, defensively sings "Ain't Nobody's Business" and indicates through rambling dialogue how much she needs attention and verification of self-worth. She has come to the end of the line -- at least for this night -- and with "Don't Explain" gives the most convincing phrasing of a song in Billie Holiday's style in this show. As "singing is the best part of living" for Billie Holiday, then Ms. Bishop's singing is the best part of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Faulkner: "The Pirates of Penzance"

It's not often that Montgomery audiences have an opportunity to see productions of Gilbert & Sullivan, the 19th Century masters of comic opera; but, Faulkner University is now showing The Pirates of Penzance, one that ranks with The Mikado and The H.M.S. Pinafore among the most popular of G&S works for well over 100 years, and the only one of their plays to have made its debut (1879) in the United States.

The performance style established by their collaborator Richard D'Oyly Carte's company is prescribed in extraordinary detail regarding movement, musical score, staging, and sets -- something like the prescriptions of some classical ballet. -- Directed at Faulkner by Angela Dickson, with music by Marilyn Swears' spot-on 3-piece orchestra, the 25-strong cast of Faulkner students, alumni, faculty, and community members respect the D'Oyly Carte traditions, but are not slavish to them, putting their own anachronistic stamp on the play and making it more accessible to today's audience.

Subtitled "The Slave of Duty", Pirates tells the story of one Frederic [Chase McMichen] who, on reaching the age of 21 becomes a full-fledged member of a band of pirates; his hard-of-hearing nurse Ruth [Jesse Alston] mistook giving him to a "pirate" instead of a "pilot" when he was very young. Frederic tells the Pirate King [Matt Dickson] that he will leave them and be duty-bound to bring the pirate band -- who, despite their swagger, are a motley crew of tenderhearted men who never hurt orphans -- to justice.

Taking Ruth with him and promising to marry her (she is the only woman he has ever seen till now), when he encounters a bevy of beautiful young women -- all sisters -- he rejects Ruth and falls instantly in love with Mabel [Christina Burroughs], the favorite of these daughters of Major General Stanley [Chris Kelly], and they swear eternal fidelity.

This far-fetched tale soon has the pirates wooing the other sisters, the Major General intervening, and pretty much everyone claiming to be an orphan to escape the pirates' wrath. -- But honor and duty must trump all, causing a lot of confusion and convoluted plotting that will very cleverly be remedied by the end with the help of the local Police Leader [Brandtley McDonald], and his company of Keystone Cops.

Gilbert & Sullivan's brilliant lyrics and melodies carry the plot and themes about social class distinctions and Victorian "honor", or satirize the era's opera trends, so it is essential that they are heard and  understood by the audience. -- The Faulkner actors/singers appear committed to their roles and relationships, producing some sweet romantic scenes, jealous tirades, swashbuckling derring-do, and comical stereotypes, but they are inhibited by the very live acoustics in the theatre. Their accurate diction is most effective in solos, duets, and small group numbers, but suffers in choruses and at times when their lively stage action and/or spontaneous and deserved audience responses render their words incomprehensible.

That notwithstanding, there are a number of performances that brighten the stage. Mr. Dickson struts around the stage with vigor as the Pirate King, and Ms. Alston's long-suffering Ruth is credibly presented. Mr. McDonald's Police Leader's dead-pan attitude and robotic Keystone Cop demeanor [and  his strong & clear singing voice] give him full attention. As the young lovers, Ms. Burroughs and Mr. McMichen make a believable connection, and have voices that enrich the lyrics with intention and clarity. They also play off one another's reactions with knowing glances, and Mr. McMichen's narcissistic swaggering gets the most out of Frederic's character.

In a virtual non-speaking role as the Police Lead Dancer [and chorus member, pirate, et al.], Michael Williams gives the most sustained, focussed, and always in-the-moment performance in this show. Everyone else, take note.

But the showcase number is given to Mr. Kelly. "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General" is a signature G&S piece: rapid-patter witty lyrics sung at lightning speed by a character actor who knows what he is about. His imposing physical image, his facial expressions, his exquisite comic timing, and his command of the stage bring the house down, and rightly so. It is this that shows G&S the way it is meant to be.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Millbrook: "Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play"

Joe Landry's Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play has a four-performance dinner-theatre run at the Millbrook Community Theatre this weekend. Originally conceived to be played by five actors, director Christopher Perry decided to secure a large cast in order to provide opportunities to more local actors to perform on their stage in radio-drama readings of three of Hitchcock's masterful films: Act I includes The Lodger (1927), and Sabotage (1936), while Act II is devoted entirely to The 39 Steps (1935), all of which are set in the United Kingdom.

The stage is set simply with folding chairs and stand-microphones to replicate a 1947 broadcast studio at WBFR-radio in New York. Mr. Perry sits to one side and serves as the Announcer of the readings, while Ginger Collum [and crew] appear opposite him as "foley artists" who supply the live sound effects that support the action of the plays. There are even a few live "commercials" that humorously evoke other Hitchcock films like Psycho and North by Northwest.

A challenge to ensemble actors everywhere, radio plays performed on-stage rely on them and the sound effects to make audiences visualize the action of the drama without movement or a stage-set, costumes, or props; and in the case of Hitchcock, to create the suspense, fears, anxieties, and panic inherent in the scripts. -- And there is a degree of success in the Millbrook production.

Mr. Perry has his actors tell the stories clearly, and notably with Dave Kelsen, replicate an assortment of dialects; but only a few actors even attempt dialect and thereby emphasize the American accents of the rest of the cast. -- And there are a number of instances when Hitchcock's famous droll humor comes across, even in the midst of the dire circumstances of the plots.

The silent film The Lodger tells a kind of "Jack the Ripper" story: in 1888 London, a number of young blonde women have been murdered by "the Avenger" when a mysterious lodger named Mr. Sleuth [John Chain] rents a room from Mr. & Mrs. Bunting [Roger Humber and Renae Perry] whose young blonde daughter Daisy [Shelby Tennimon] might be the next victim. -- Mr. Chain's deliberately slow and odd behavior and voice lend credibility to his being "the Avenger"; though that is not Hitchcock's answer. -- He is not the murderer...but who is?

The trick here is to build suspense via the sound effects, and while Ms. Collum's crew suggest thunder, rain, the sound of a crippled foot being dragged, etc., the effects are often rendered too softly, loudly, or imprecisely to punctuate the story. - Here, as in the other plays on the evening's bill-of-fare, the sound effects ought to become almost another character rather than tentative or occasionally uncontrolled sounds that have not yet been fully integrated into the production.

In Sabotage, a plot is underway to bomb a London bus and terrorize the city, reminding us of a similar instance a few years ago in London, and similar instances around the world today. Carl Verlock [Dave Kelsen], a seemingly benign cinema owner is at the center of the plot. His wife Winnie [Daphine McCormick] begins to suspect him when he is being questioned by undercover investigator Ted Spencer [Tim Brooks] who, by the way, falls in love with her. Aided by a sinister Professor [Al Allenback], the bomb is placed in a film canister that Verlock has Winnie's brother Stevie [Caleb Perry] innocently deliver, with precise instructions as to the time. When Stevie is delayed and the bomb goes off killing him, Winnie takes revenge by stabbing her husband. In a stroke of sardonic humor, Hitchcock allows Winnie to get away with murder. -- The actors in this play are committed to their roles and deliver some convincing portrayals.

The 39 Steps is perhaps the most famous of this trio of plays, recounting the story of a Hitchcock favorite -- an innocent man on the run. Richard Hannay [John Collier] becomes party to the murder of Annabella Smith [Rae Ann Collier] who tells him of a sinister plot against the British government and refers to "the 39 steps", and has to prove his innocence while avoiding the police in London and Scotland in the company of an uncooperative Pamela Stewart [Jubilee Lofgren] who does not believe he is innocent but who is gradually falling in love with him. Everything hinges on figuring out what the reference to "the 39 steps" is; it will come out at the end through the music hall star, Mr. Memory [Roger Humber]. -- The actors again do credit to their roles, and Ms. Lofgren is a new talent to be reckoned with.

Perhaps with another performance under their belts, the sound effects and the actors voices will become  a polished unit. Let's hope so, as the stories themselves warrant it, and the dedication of the Millbrook company deserves it too.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Opus"

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

To say that The Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Michael Hollinger's witty, provocative, and poignant Opus is setting a high theatrical standard for Montgomery is an understatement. Artistic Director Greg Thornton has gathered a five-member ensemble of local veteran actors and bright newcomers who present a near pitch-perfect ninety-minutes of point and counterpoint exchanges that have audiences alternately laughing and crying at the harmonies and dissonances at the core of this play.

Staged in the round (a first in the Playhouse) on Mike Winkelman's spare set complimented by Madison Faile's sheet-music panels, and Danny Davidson's character-based costumes, Mr. Thornton moves his actors -- portraying a fictional string quartet called The Lazara after the creator of two remarkable instruments they play -- in continuous shifts of musical chairs as they rehearse, squabble, and try to define both their lives and the nature of a string quartet who "must play together as if with one bow".

Coming off a triumphant tour, The Lazara have been invited to play at the White House, but have just fired Dorian [Cushing Phillips], a brilliant visionary, but difficult musician dependent on prescription medications, and hire Grace [Desire Gaston], a young woman whose audition for the job parallels Dorian's accomplishments.

Each character has a back-story that is revealed bit by bit. Dorian has always been jealous of his lover Elliot's [Mark Hunter] playing the first violin part; Alan [Matthew Givens] playing second violin is in an unhappy marriage and is a kind of Lothario who romances younger women, and seems to be attracted to Grace; and the cellist Carl [Scott Page] is afraid that his cancer is recurring. Even Grace is unsure of her career path, and is torn between accepting the job or auditioning for the Pittsburgh Symphony.

So there you have it: a story about sex, drugs, and -- well -- chamber music.

On hiring Grace and realizing her potential, the quartet decide to play "Beethoven's String Quartet #14 Opus 131" at the White House, one of the most demanding pieces that requires absolute attention to details and intercommunication among the musicians. -- Along the way, we are treated to several episodes that show how seasoned the Playhouse's actors are.

With truthfulness and complete commitment to their roles, it seems that the audience is eavesdropping on actual events, and the subtle development of character and situation throughout has us eagerly awaiting every nuance and each shift of allegiance. Their respect for Mr. Hollinger's insightful script, its taut dialogue, its ability to focus on very real & alarming human issues, its sometimes dark humor, and its inherent musicality, as well as their apparent respect for one another, makes for an invigorating evening of theatre at its best. Mr. Thornton has masterfully got them to respond as a quartet who anticipate one another's moves and achieve a balance of tempo, rhythm, and dynamic that seems effortless.

Even their "playing" the instruments [the sound track is courtesy of the Vertigo String Quartet] is so expertly timed, that it seems they are actually playing.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot -- and a number of surprises -- that keep us interested from start to finish, and while we might prefer one character to another, the most impressive thing is the clear and generous ensemble performance. In the words of Dorian: like playing the best music, this production of Opus is "wonderful -- terrifying -- beautiful".

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ASF: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

Eight new acting interns at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival are performing in their first play on the Festival Stage. Laura Eason's pleasant adaptation of Mark Twain's 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a limited public showing on only three Saturdays this  month, playing mostly to Schoolfest audiences on weekdays. -- This fresh ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles, are off to a good start.

Eason's stage version thankfully preserves most of the classic novel's key events -- Tom tricking friends to whitewash a fence, his innocent romance with Becky Thatcher, and his coming forward to testify in court saving Muff Potter from a murder charge and accusing Injun Joe of the crime -- but unfortunately either omits some of the book's dramatic events (Tom's inability to quote the Bible and win a prize), or glosses over them (Injun Joe's dramatic escape from the courtroom), or narrates others (almost always a weak substitute for dramatizing), especially at the end when the action simply stops.

This notwithstanding, director Nancy Rominger's engaging troupe's eagerness is a mark of their performances utilized for unobtrusive teaching moments for the young target audience. -- Yes, it is good to be free from responsibility when we are young, but even the merry pranksters have scruples, and Tom & Friends know right from wrong and when it matters most, they do the right thing.

Given their well-scrubbed appearance and the enthusiasm with which they address the play and their respective roles, and with scenic designer Peter Hicks' idyllic representation of a pre-Civil War Missouri town along the Mississippi River, it is clear that for them every day is an adventure, and we're along for the ride as Tom [Jim Staudt], Huckleberry Finn [David Umansky] and Joe Harper [Logan James Hall] play hooky, witness a murder and run away to nearby Jackson's Island to become pirates, and later search for buried treasure -- anything to resist the "civilizing" forces of school, church, and the tolerant  ministrations of Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas [Jillian Walker in both roles].

Mr. Staudt's ability to charm the other characters and the audience makes Tom's cleverness a delight; couple that with acrobatic talent and some moments of poignancy, and he centers the action. His tentative romance with Becky [Michelle Geisler] is so recognizably adolescent -- and Ms. Geisler's naive embarrassment at Tom's awkward wooing -- that their scenes together might make adult audiences reminisce and wish for more innocent days.

Mr. Umansky delivers a Huck Finn who avoids responsibility at almost any cost, but does so with a finesse that makes even his "civilizing" by the Widow Douglas credible. Seth Andrew Bridges plays Muff Potter sympathetically as the wrongly accused innocent; his simplicity in the role is admirable. Ms. Walker's portrayals of the two civilizing forces is done with honesty. Chris Pappas has an infectious smile as Tom's half-brother Sid, and a solidity as Doc Robinson, the murder victim. Mr. Hall's several roles (Joe Harper, the defense lawyer, accomplice, and townsperson) show a fine range of characterizations.

As the murderer Injun Joe, the School Master, and the Minister, Jason Martin disappears into each role so completely that he is hardly recognizable from one to the other...a sinister and ruthless criminal, a task-master teacher, and an evangelical preacher.

There is a lot of playfulness in this production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the collected talents of its youthful cast members anticipates further success this ASF season. Adult audiences might revisit their past innocence, and children will certainly receive valuable lessons about honesty from this show -- and they might even get to understand their parents a bit more.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Seeing Stars in Dixie"

Thanks to director Kim Mason's firm hand and the truthful performances of an ensemble cast, Ron Osborne's comedy Seeing Stars in Dixie rises a bit above the familiar and formulaic elements of this Southern-themed play now on offer at the Wetumpka Depot.

It is 1957 in Natchez, MS where a Hollywood crew is "on location" to film Raintree County, with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint as its chief stars; and the word is that one person from the local community will audition for a small role. Bring on the competition.

Set in a "tea room"run by Clemmie [Teri Thompson], where curiously no one ever pays for the tea-cookies-donuts consumed regularly on the premises and no bills are presented to the customers (do they all have running accounts there?), once the battle lines are drawn there's little more than a resolution to follow.

Clemmie has always dreamed of leaving a legacy -- a kind of immortality -- by being captured on film for eternity, thereby giving meaning to what she perceives as an insignificant life. But socially influential Marjorie [Elizabeth Bowles] claims the role in the film belongs to her and will do most anything to ensure it for herself. With the assistance of wannabee weather-girl Jo Beth [Erika Wilson] and newspaper columnist Tootie [Wanda Brantley] who wields some influence of her own, Clemmie transforms from a wallflower to a Cinderella under their tutelage. And with the unassuming support of Teddy Glease [Stephen Dubberley] -- the only man in this women's world who prefers art & music to football & barbeque -- everyone faces up to their own failed dreams while learning a few things about true friendship.

As a true ensemble, there is no one person on the Depot stage who dominates our attention or demands our approval [though we might have our own preferences]: Ms. Bowles' haughty depiction of Marjorie is someone we love to hate; Ms. Wilson's insecurity as Jo Beth is both engaging and disarmingly familiar to many; Ms. Thompson's awkwardness shifts convincingly to show a person becoming more at home with herself and her relationships; Ms. Brantley's Tootie exudes confidence and a refreshing brashness; and Mr. Dubberley's understated portrayal of Glease allows this talented actor to suggest so much by reactions and responses (and not a lot of actual dialogue) that he emerges as perhaps the most complex of them all.

In a little under two hours, these characters with all their eccentricities on show providing plenty of laughs also create a few scenes of heartfelt truth as they strip away their protective veneers and honestly face up to their individual shortcomings and strengths. And we come away with a better understanding of the nature of true friendship.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Theatre AUM: "The Little Foxes"

Director Mike Winkelman has mounted a solid production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) at Theatre AUM, thanks in part to Michael Krek's evocative minimalist set, Val Winkelman's stunning period costumes, and strong performances by actors in its key roles. -- Certainly a scathing commentary on American capitalism in 1939, Winkelman's interpretation [often through actors directly addressing the audience & making them complicit participants] resonates with today's obsessions with instant gratification, greed, and venture capitalism.

Set in a small unnamed Southern town in 1900, Hellman's three-act play recounts the story of the Hubbard siblings -- Oscar [Frank Thomas], Ben [David Wilson], and Regina [Maddie Bogacz] -- as they attempt to become instant millionaires by merging their cotton business with Chicago tycoon William Marshall's [Zack Travis]. While each of them must put up equal shares of $75,000, Regina's sickly husband Horace Giddens [Michael Krek] refuses to join in their scheme on his return from a long hospital stay in Baltimore.

Mr. Krek has a keen eye for scenic design, evidenced recently in his set for AUM's Proof where he compressed the space and capitalized on that play's intimacy; for The Little Foxes, his set makes AUM's lab theatre seem larger than  it is -- by putting the living room on a diagonal, using white frames for its high windows & archways against black curtains, and dressing the stage with a relatively few judiciously placed pieces of period furniture, the space appears large enough to replicate a Georgian or Victorian mansion while giving actors plenty of room to move.

Ms. Winkelman's attention to period detail in her character driven costumes once again articulates her understanding of integrating them with the needs of the play and providing actors with helpful tools with which to assume and develop their roles. Fabrics, color pallet, and cut all support the play's intentions. Like Florenz Ziegfeld who dressed even his chorus-girls from the skin out, Ms. Winkelman appreciates how well clothes do make the man or woman believable on stage.

Peopled by veteran and relatively inexperienced actors still learning their craft, there are a number of stand-out performances here, despite articulation and vocal energy issues that blur some important information, or heightened emotional moments and audience responses that covered lines as well.

Mr. Thomas's gruff stooped-over depiction of Oscar and his frustration at being dominated by his other siblings is palpable. Nicole Holt's nervous mannerisms in playing Oscar's closet-alcoholic wife Birdie, the most genteel member of this clan and an outsider coming from the Southern aristocracy that the others aspire to, and who realizes too late that her family's plantation was the only reason Oscar married her, make her Hellman's most sympathetic character.

Mr. Wilson portrays Ben as a smooth-talking bachelor with nothing to lose, and yet when thwarted he is the most ruthless of the family, going so far as to approve of a marriage between Oscar's weak playboy son Leo [Jackson Wheeles] and Regina's naive daughter Alexandra [Tina Neese].

Ms. Bogacz's acting debut in the pivotal role of Regina [originated by Tallulah Bankhead, and later by a catalogue of famous actresses] is impressive. There is no doubt that her Regina knows how to manipulate others by coquetry or sly allusions, and knows how to put up a good front by using Southern female charm or feigned ignorance to her advantage in getting her own way. Though Ms. Bogacz occasionally relaxes her control, her Regina is a match for almost all the men in this man's world of 1900. Her single-mindedness in leaving home and marriage for the perceived social whirl of Chicago and Europe to be provided by a successful business venture blinds her to how self-destructive she truly is until Horace intervenes.

In Mr. Krek's Horace, Regina has met her match. Though everyone believes Regina can make Horace do whatever she wants, he has nothing to lose as he sees his own death from a heart condition as all too imminent, and will not stand by to see greed destroy everything he holds dear. -- Mr. Krek's performance is the most nuanced on the AUM stage as he depicts Horace's ailments credibly, as well as his concern for his daughter's welfare and for the servants Addie [Allyson Lee] and Cal [JaMarcus White], his compassionate affection for Birdie, his complete disregard of Oscar, Ben, and Leo, and his defiance of Regina.

Theatre AUM continues to expose Montgomery audiences to important plays in world theatre, and this production of The Little Foxes connects to the world today by delivering the goods to which all theatre should aspire.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Millbrook: "Our Town"

Now a staple of American theatre, Thornton Wilder's revolutionary Pulitzer prize winning Our Town's (1938) deceptive simplicity has led many companies to believe it is an easy play to produce; yet, it challenges actors and directors to embrace its serious and profound themes told through the simplest of means: almost no plot, details about the ordinary citizens of a small New England town, bare furnishings on a bare stage, and the engaging presence of a character called only the Stage Manager who serves as both a narrator & chorus [and who takes an occasional small role in the story], who manipulates time and offers provocative insights on life and death, family and social values, dreams and personal goals, and the nature of the temporal and the eternal.

The Millbrook Community Players, with director Stephanie McGuire in charge, have mounted a clear and sensitive production with a large cast of local actors inhabiting Grover's Corners, New Hampshire from 1901 through 1913.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the romance between neighbors George Gibbs [Daniel Harms] and Emily Webb [Annabelle Dubose] over the twelve years of the play, from teenage crushes through marriage and Emily's death from childbirth of their second child. And the assorted family and townspeople add to the truthfulness of their story.

Grover's Corners is an "average" American town, where doors are seldom locked, where neighbors look out for one another, where secrets are few, and where -- though there may be significant changes in the world beyond its borders, and several citizens die -- the town remains essentially the same.

Life's recognizable features -- sibling rivalries, generation gap arguments & misunderstandings, an assortment of town eccentrics and gossips, and the inevitability of death -- are the things that bind the audience to what is reflected of themselves from the stage. And the Stage Manager [Matt Jordan] pointedly and dispassionately provides commentary on it all.

Mr. Harms and Ms. Dubose give sensitive performances as the two young lovers. Their individual innocence and heartfelt attraction and devotion to one another is admirable. As parents, Michael Snead and Angela Pietrzak as Doc and Mrs. Gibbs give credible portrayals of solid citizens whose values are impressed upon their son George; and Roy Goldfinger and Karla McGhee as Mr. and Mrs. Webb turn in strong characterizations as well, with Mr. Goldfinger creating the most fully realized role in this production -- vocally and physically, he is the gold standard here, and a model for others to emulate.

But it is the Stage Manager who guides the entire production. Mr. Jordan's comfortably casual demeanor is palpable from the start. It is essential that audiences connect with this role, and Mr. Jordan makes it easy for them. Directly addressing us throughout, taking detours to provide background and historical details, commenting on the action and the characters, interpreting enough for us to understand the extraordinary within the ordinary, and making it clear that we are in a theatre where we are meant to think about our own beliefs, the context of Grover's Corners and its inhabitants becomes everyplace and everyman.

The final scene in the graveyard at Emily's funeral, where the dead speak and comment on eternity, claiming that "people don't appreciate life while they're living it", causes the Stage Manager to question the mystery of the universe -- we can never know for certain, he says -- but meanwhile, life continues.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Faulkner: "Oliver! the musical"

Faulkner University continues its delivery of award winning musicals, producing Lionel Bart's Oliver! the musical [1960] with an emphasis on the sentimental aspects of Oliver Twist, the Charles Dickens novel that is its source.

Set largely in the underworld lairs of 19th Century London, it tells the well-known story of the innocent orphaned boy Oliver [Crispin South at the August 17th performance], who gets caught up in the world of the city's pickpockets, prostitutes, and philanderers before being rescued by the benevolent well-to-do Mr. Brownlow [Allen Young], discovered by the end to actually be his grandfather.

Director and Scenic Designer Jason Clark South has cast his production with experienced and neophyte actors, some of whom he gathered from the community and local schools -- many of the Chorus of Orphans, and some in featured roles --  a good move for recruiting and for identifying some excellent vocal talent. -- And, it seems that most of the sound balance between instrument and voice has been fixed; a vast improvement over previous shows. Now, the actors' voices can be heard more distinctly, and the instrumentation is no longer distorted.

Some of Dickens' most memorable characters appear here: Oliver, of course, along with the Artful Dodger [Blake Mitchell on August 17th], his mentor in the pickpocketing trade; Fagin [Brandtley McDonald], the conniving leader of the gang of child pickpockets; Mr. Bumble [Bret Morris] and Widow Corney [Kim Bradley], a fine comic couple who sell Oliver to the nasty undertakers, the Sowerberrys [Tyler Parker & Jesse Alston] when Oliver dares to ask for more gruel at dinner and is thought to be a trouble-maker. -- And, on the darker side, the former pickpocket Nancy [Alicia Ruth Jackson] is under the control of a ruthless burglar/pimp Bill Sykes [Chase McMichen].

Bart's version of Dickens is largely sanitized, though it does pay some attention to the novel's important themes: criticism of London's "poor laws" and the conditions of the underprivileged (especially children), rampant crime, and a "blind eye" attitude of many individuals in better circumstances. -- Yet, the criminal element in Oliver! the musical are treated with some compassion: Fagin, a career criminal living off the orphans he intimidates, seems to try to reform; Nancy gives her life to protect Oliver from her abusive lover, Bill Sykes. And it is Sykes alone who is given no hope of reclamation.

In keeping with this, Mr. South's production applies stage grime on the faces of the orphans, but the rest looks rather clean. And characters are drawn with bold strokes rather than subtleties, all in service of telling an inoffensive story that can deliver comforting messages: good is rewarded while evil is punished...both appropriate to Dickens and Bart.

There are some strong performances and some excellent voices on the Faulkner stage: Mr. Mitchell creates an energetic and charismatic Artful Dodger; Ms. Jackson is a passionate Nancy; Mr. Morris and Ms. Bradley are an excellent double-act; young Mr. South's depiction of Oliver is sensitive and credible [this young man has a track record at Faulkner and in several productions at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival]; Mr. Mc Donald gives his all to Fagin, showing a lot of promise in playing a character much too old for him; and Mr. McMichen, reliable as always, storms the stage as Bill Sykes in Act II and rivets our attention from then on.

But it is the music that carries the day; some of Mr. Bart's most recognizable songs are solidly rendered by the talented cast -- "Food, Glorious Food" opens the show with gusto; "Where Is Love" is sung with sensitivity by Mr. South; to introduce Oliver to the gang of pickpockets, "Consider Yourself" is an energetic rendering by Mr. Mitchell and the chorus; "I'd Do Anything" is a clever tribute to love; Oliver's "Who Will Buy?" adds an optimism to his new life; and Ms. Jackson's pathetic "As Long As He Needs Me" is heartfelt.

The production comes in at a neat two hours. Though the Faulkner stage is sometimes cramped with set pieces and a large cast of characters, and there are noticeable distinctions between newcomers and veteran actors, good voices and an ability to deliver each song's intention make for an enjoyable evening.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Red Door: "Dearly Departed"

Guest Reviewer: Fiona Macleod, an educator from Scotland and a freelance theatre director, is retired Theatre Program Director at Huntingdon College and a graduate of both Auburn and Alabama.

At the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, the audience might have been confused by the black enclosed space with shiny black panels and a dominant white circle on the black floor. Where was the set: the furniture, fireplaces, stairs, doors, windows; the homey country environment? -- The answer was revealed in the first few scenes of Dearly Departed by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, when an adroitly trained crew silently moved designer Mark Parsley's panels and simple black & white furniture, creating the numerous locations that this complex play needed, all beautifully choreographed to "good ol' country music" and keeping the upbeat tempo of the play intact during the scene changes...a visually stimulating sensory experience guided by director Denise Gabriel who masterfully moved the action.

The play focuses on events following the sudden on-stage death of Bud Turpin [Roy Royster]. Could it depict the "solemn thematic implications" of death, infidelity, sibling rivalry, eating disorders, miscarriage, alcoholism, marital strife, and other serious moral issues; or could it be viewed as the highly charged farce that it is? -- Definitely the latter.

Appropriately set in the heat of summer in the deep, rural South, the opening scene caught the audience off-guard. Turpin, the patriarch of a blue-collar family, hid behind his newspaper while his wife Raynelle [Beth Egan] read a letter to him from his sister Marguerite [Janet Wilkerson], who berated her brother for choosing television over church, and threatened to visit him to steer him back to what she sees as the right path; and that's when Bud dropped dead.

Ms. Egan, previously seen in Christmas Letters, a stoic presence with a droll delivery, was a mainstay in this production; she was supported by an able cast of Red Door veterans and some newcomers to Union Springs.

Raynelle & Bud's older son Ray-Bud [Jonathan Johnson], a hard-working, frugal and responsible man, feared that as well as helping his sensible wife Lucille [Elizabeth Roughton] cope with repeated miscarriages, he will be stuck with the entire funeral bill. His younger brother, a wannabe business tycoon named Junior [Mark Moore], has an obsessive wife, Suzanne [Leigh Moorer], who is convinced he was having an affair after discovering an earring that did not belong to her.  -- The feuding brothers were convincingly played without resorting to the maudlin or cheap gags, and had a scene that brought them closer together courtesy of a little Jim Beam. -- Their wives were clearly balanced opposites, Ms. Roughton very logical, and Ms. Moorer over-the-top, bringing the most highly charged moments in the show.

Bud & Raynelle's daughter Delightful's [Kirstyn Hall] obsessive eating disorder was "consuming", while Marguerite's Bible-toting tirades and hymns attempting to rouse her good-for-nothing son Royce [Travin Wilkerson] from his hungover slumber were played by both actors very well.

The minister was entertainingly played by William Harper as he practiced his effusive oratory. Asked what kind of man her husband was, Raynelle replied with calm certainty: "Mean and surly", the words she wanted on Bud's tombstone; and Mr. Harper's physical reactions were excellent.

Most memorable was a riotous funeral home exchange between Norval [Roy Royster], a decrepit old coot suffering the ministrations of his elderly wife Veda [Lillie Hall]. Add to this a highly caricatured sweeter than sweet potato pie and as poisonous as a snake Junior Leaguer named Juanita [Mary Malloy], and a delightful cameo appearance by Alicia Atkins as a very fecund character named Nadine, clutching a baby doll representing her latest "delivery" [the others she named Zsa Zsa, Oprah, and Geraldo], and Beau Shirley as Clyde, a friend of the family who lent an easy authenticity to the role, with some unexpected toilet humor from Mr. Harper's minister. -- Silent until the end, when asked her opinion, Ms. Hall's Delightful's eulogy to her father is a cheery "Wouldn't want to be you. Bye!"

Thanks to director Ms. Gabriel's attention to physical coaching of the actors -- a strength she brings through her expertise in movement & acting -- each character was distinct and brought an integrity and sensitivity to their performances. Her ability to combine honest, sensitive, and touching moments throughout this ribald Southern comedy provoked almost constant laughter [that, alas, prevented many lines from being heard], and captured both the pith and frivolity of Dearly Departed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ASF: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

As the final production of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's 2011-2012 season, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hits all the right notes for an end to Summer camp and back to school. -- A sprightly ensemble cast [all but one a newcomer to the ASF stage], a witty script, clever musical numbers in an assortment of styles, Peter Hicks' inventive set, and director Geoffrey Sherman's keen eye & ear that get the most out of each situation, make for a most enjoyable time in the appealing antidote to August's heat and humidity. And an excellent way to bring the season to a close.

This Tony Award winning musical captivates from the start as we are introduced to prim & proper Rona Lisa Peretti [Eleni Delopoulos], a former winner of "the bee" and its current moderator, and the six finalists -- plus four audience members at each performance -- whose individual quirks of character go beyond stereotypes and endear them to us. Add to them Vice Principal Panch [Billy Sharpe] who reads the words & provides definitions and examples of how the words can be used in a sentence, and Mitch Mahoney [Kyle Scatliffe], a sinister-looking parolee doing community service at the event.

"The Rules" are laid out in a clever opening number that identifies each character and also gives insights into each of the contestant's techniques and strategies. The "fat kid" William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay) [Randy Blair] spells out words with his feet; Chip Tolentino [Brandon Yanez] is a super-confident past winner in a Boy Scout uniform; lisping Logainne SchwarzandGrubeniere [Liz Friolo] has two Dads (check her last name); Marcy Park [Laura Yumi Snell] continually defends herself by insisting she is "not all about business"; Leaf Conybear [John Garry] is a befuddled sort who got there by default and gets sidetracked a lot; and shy Olive Ostrovsky [Georgia Tapp] whose Mother is in India is waiting for her Dad to come from work to pay her fee. Each is indeed fodder for insensitive bullying...but not here.

These are indeed the "nerds" who are too often the focus of such bullying [notice the "Bully Free Zone" sign posted on the wall of the gymnasium where the contest is set], but here they become the most sympathetic of people -- adolescents who deal with the world around them and delight in words and their meanings. Words have been used against them for too long, so they compete more for acceptance and recognition than for a mere $200 savings bond & a trophy, much like the characters in A Chorus Line who "need this job" for self assurance. -- By the end, it is clear that winning is not the most important thing, both for the contestants and for us.

There are several stand-out moments in the ASF production: Mr. Yanez's extraordinary physical discomfort from his attraction to a young woman in the audience is not to be missed; Mr. Garry's most endearing innocence is a joy; and when Mr. Blair and Ms. Tapp begin to connect romantically and change the course of the competition, we can't help but admire them. Everyone should be able to connect with at least one of these special individuals.

While Ms. Delopolous persists in remaining stalwart, she does so with a commanding voice and demeanor. Mr. Scatliffe's parolee is by turns the most charmingly sweet person and a thug no one would want to cross -- lots of surprises here, good; and his vocal range is simply amazing.

Mr. Sharpe returns to ASF both as Vice Principal Panch and as Assistant Director & Dance Captain for "the bee"; and what a delight to see him in an understated role that affords him ample opportunities to turn a phrase, provide withering looks at the contestants, and improvise lines as needed. Welcome back.

At the opening performance, members of the audience included local WSFA-news reporter Mark Bullock who was the last of this quartet to be eliminated after unexpectedly spelling several difficult words and causing Mr. Sharpe to improvise by calling him back again and again, much to the delight of the audience.

Characterizations by this ensemble are distinct. We get involved in their lives, laugh and cry with them, and leave the theatre feeling good. They have overcome obstacles and come to terms with their lives.

Just as for Mr. Bullock, when each of the contestants misspells a word and has to leave the competition, they and we don't want them to go; they are worth more than that.

Monday, August 13, 2012

WOBT: "Patio/Porch"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently showing Jack Heifner's Patio/Porch, two one-act plays meant to be an evening's double bill.

Familiar territory here -- two sets of Southern women: sisters in Patio and mother/daughter in Porch -- along with stereotypes that could be too predictable were it not for the truthfulness of the WOBT performances.

William Harper directs with an understanding of the nuances of character and situation and an affection for these women: in Patio, Pearl's [Dana M. Smith] neat-freak and very proper Better Homes and Gardens behavior is balanced by Jewel's [Michelle Johns] seeming devil may care attitude; in Porch, Lucille [Cindy Beasley] is submissively patient with her mother Dot's [Margaret White] outspoken and often outrageous statements.

In lesser hands, this could have been yet another foray into the cliches of Southern womanhood; but here -- and Heifner's script clearly suggests a lot below the surface of its witty dialogue -- the everyday concerns of sibling rivalry [Patio] and the of the onset of dementia in a parent [Porch], and the steadfastness of the women involved emerge gradually, catching audiences mid-laugh with insights and concerns we all can identify with and care about.

In Patio, Ms. Johns' brash look and manner appears to be mere stereotypical of every other "cosmetologist" in the realm of Southern plays: "Ruin a woman's hair and you've got a customer for life...She's dependent on you", she quips; and Ms. Johns can deliver such lines with aplomb. But Jewel is more than that; she too has dreams of a better life, and some guilt for having loved her sister's husband at a distance. Ms. Smith's Pearl is the epitome of a woman for whom "appearance means everything", and though she is misunderstood by everyone, her home -- "a museum" according to Jewel -- is a refuge from a disappointing marriage. And we can't help but feel for her. -- Together, these two actresses become "two gems: a jewel and a pearl".

Porch depicts what appears to be yet another humdrum day in the lives of mother and daughter, a day that has been endlessly repeated. Ms. Beasley exercises a lot of control as she submits to Ms. White's disjointed monologue that gradually shows the deterioration of her mind; seemingly random ideas show an internal train of thought not easily detected. A tour-de-force performance by Ms. White provides most of the laughs here, but it does not diminish Ms. Beasley's character. They work so well together, that we see that interdependence is the real cement of the relationship.

In both plays, the characters need one another and are tied together by blood; too often important matters remain unspoken for so long that it becomes increasingly difficult to express them without either lashing out or making a joke. The truth is often hard to bear, bit these Southern women [and the actresses playing them] make it work.

Wetumpka Depot: "Panache"

At the Wetumpka Depot, director Tom Salter's evenly paced production of Don Gordon's two act comedy-drama Panache has quite a bit of, well panache of its own. Salter has a talented cast that effortlessly inhabit Gordon's characters and gradually make audiences connect with their lives, even though the script relies on a most unlikely and improbable circumstance.

Affluent, socially-conscious (one might say obsessed) matron Kathleen [Kim Mason] from Scarsdale, NY has taken great pains to search out Harry [Stephen Dubberley], a down and out artist in his squalid Brooklyn apartment in order to get him to release his vanity license plate -- the "panache" of the title -- so she can give it to her husband, a high roller in industry and politics. -- Kathleen's tip-toeing around the detritus in Harry's apartment, her belief that staying in a Holiday Inn is "slumming", and the fact that her position and connections would allow her to pay someone else to bargain with Harry, makes her foray into the depths of Brooklyn far-fetched; but once our disbelief is suspended for the sake of the play, we are in good hands.

Finding Harry in the middle of a poker game with his friend Jumbo [Joseph Miller], Kathleen insinuates herself into their lives in several scenes that humorously demonstrate her persistence, despite Harry's refusal to give up the panache license plate.

Predictably, they each divulge a lot about their unhappy private lives, as is often the case between relative strangers: her superficially ideal marriage is little more than a sham, and his solitary existence the result of an inability to deal with a past tragedy. -- But this is also a very funny play, thanks to the witty dialogue and the expert delivery of it from the ensemble cast.

Harry's backstory involves a fellow named Irwin [Colgan Meanor] he helped gain confidence by arranging a date for him with Laura [Sonjha Cannon]. Told in flashback-dreamlike sequences, we see Irwin becoming Harry's conscience & guide; and Laura marries Harry.

The easy fit between Ms. Mason and Mr. Dubberley makes Kathleen's and Harry's contrasting life-styles and behavior completely believable. Her confident manner contrasts with his reticence; her brightness with his gloom; her "good breeding" with his "common man". Between them, they produce some of the best dramatic & comic & truthful moments seen recently on the Depot's stage...panache indeed.

It becomes clear quite early in the play that they are destined to be together, but the journey is enjoyable, as they are abetted by the supporting characters. -- Mr. Miller is thoroughly convincing as Harry's friend; Ms. Cannon proves her ability to develop a sensitive persona as we watch her mature over time; and Mr. Meanor [soon to attend the University of South Alabama] creates a memorable character in Irwin, growing from a nerdy sort into a man-about-town and eventually the most settled and secure of them all.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

ASF: "Nanta"

Spectacular! Spectacular! NANTA, the Korean comedy coking sensation which tickles your every funnybone, was enthusiastically received by Tuesday's audience at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Already in a congenial mood, having been extravagantly feted as only special occasions at ASF can do, the audience was eagerly anticipating a unique entertainment.

Many wondered what to expect. Why bring a show all the way from Seoul, Korea? Well, thank your lucky stars that ASF, Montgomery City & County, and Sweet Home Alabama got together to thank and honor the Hyundai Corporation for their several contributions to the State's economy, society, arts, and culture. -- It gave us an indication of the energy and vitality that fills this ancient country and its people.

Speeches & scrolls were masterfully, respectfully, and quickly exchanged between the celebrities attending, leaving the way open for music and lights to guide us into this rare spectacle. And it was breathtaking.

NANTA began its journey in 1998 and won every possible award at the 1989 Edinburgh International Festival. The Scotsman newspaper [known for its sombre reviews] reviewed it as "one of the best shows you'll ever see." -- Leaving Edinburgh, it toured Britain and Europe, reminding audiences how to let loose and laugh as children. -- In 2004, the show opened on Broadway where it became "the longest running Asian show in the history of the Great White Way." Newsweek raved that NANTA is "a big hit! Spectacular!", and is typical of reviews worldwide.

The word "nanta" means "noise", particularly the noise of chopping. A "cooking show adventure" we were told, and "modern" I expected, so I was surprised when a ritualistic opening wooed me into an awareness of this exotic culture. The audience hushed and settled in to observe. Not for long.

What followed was a magnificent evening of high and low comedy, slapstick, and behavior reminiscent of virtually every well-known comedian: from Chaplin & Keaton to the Three Stooges, from Steve Carell & Ricky Gervaise to Robin Williams and Billy Connolly. Think of your favorite comedian; their humor was there. -- Topics included young love, competition, and even a feud choreographed like a Jackie Chan scene.

Even burlesque and pantomime were included, and I was also reminded of Greek & Roman comedy, medieval pageants, and commedia dell'arte. The audience [some non-threatening audience participation was led by Todd Strange] got some up on the stage and kept everyone mesmerized, and thoroughly entertained.

The four male and one female actors portrayed enchantingly athletic Korean "chefs" preparing a wedding banquet. With the use of pots, pans, dishes, chopping boards, brooms, and knives as rhythmic percussion instruments that led and fueled the action, these young actors delivered skillful magical dynamic performances taking us through from chaos to a climactic ending that had you holding your breath, only to explode in rapturous applause.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cloverdale: "Starting Here, Starting Now"

Guest Reviewer: Fiona Macleod [retired head of Theatre at Huntingdon College]

A raucous and joyful standing ovation exploded through the Cloverdale Playhouse after Thursday's sold out open ing night of Starting Here, Starting Now. This spirited, energetic production, a great vehicle for its strong cast, is not standard fare, but instead a rare treat.

Harvard graduates Richard Maltby, Jr. [lyricist] and his collaborator, friend and music composer David Shire created a highly entertaining musical revue without storyline or dialogue. How? They chose songs from their earlier works that were not just sung, but interpreted by the actors to reveal characters and tell their stories -- all 24 or 25 of them: fascinating and impeccably crafted stories of young love, desire, and failing relationships.

Life isn't always wonderful; it often hurts, but it can be fun to watch. Maltby and Shire might have led the way for Rent or Wicked.

Artistic Director Greg Thornton welcomed the audience and explained the rationale behind the choice of this interesting story. -- The well-loved Montgomery Little Theatre performed Starting Here, Starting Now 25 years ago with the same director [Randy Foster] and the same costume designer [Eleanor Davis]; and Elizabeth Crump -- a prime mover at MLT now has this new Theatre at the Cloverdale Playhouse named for her. This production is a labor of love performed by everyone who worked with MLT or Cloverdale to celebrate the artists, some still performing or backstage at the Playhouse. -- The cast is different, young, and similarly talented. -- Happily, an original cast member -- the admired chanteuse Susan Woody -- was in the audience to cheer them on. And she did...loudly.

In choosing their first musical, the Playhouse found one in keeping with the high standards they had set with The Gin Game and The Boys Next Door. This revue, with material both sentimental and satirical, is an ambitious, difficult piece with similarly ambitious music not for the faint of heart. This play is seldom performed by community theatres but a reason the Cloverdale Playhouse wisely chose it to demand and celebrate the best that performers can give.

Mike Winkelman's creative new set for this musical has a catwalk surrounded  by seating which protrudes into the audience, who are made to feel like participants in the show. This new stage also makes the performers more immediate to the audience; there are more intimate and vulnerable moments created, and the different stage levels add interest to the visual images.

The lights thanks to James Treadway, and the judicious use of a vintage mirror-ball from the old dance hall era, heighten the romance. His design lit the actors well, creating an atmosphere which enhanced the work on stage.

The costumes were a treat. Eleanor Davis's Act One design stayed simple and attractive and whetted the appetite for Act Two's new looks and accessories. The costumes complemented the more personal topics and themes within each song.

Subtlety reigned with all three actors. Simply and creatively staged  by Randy Foster, these young performers won the hearts of the audience. -- Not just singers, the members of the ensemble had an emotional connection with each other and with the audience that enchanted throughout the evening. The two engaging young women and one lone male brightened the stage. Sarah Carlton with luscious brown locks has a sweet ingenue voice which makes the audience melt, while Kristi Humphreys' more powerful voice surprises the audience who laugh with her at one moment and empathize with her the next. Their foil, Chase McMichen, has a soft attractive voice enhanced by his charisma; he has the flair and smile of a young Gene Kelly. -- All three were beautifully cast and courageously embraced the difficult music and harmonies.

The music - played  by Randy Foster and Joe Cosgrove -- included perfectly chosen romantic balads, patter songs, and production numbers woven into a tapestry of stories.

Lasting approximately two hours, this show flowed seamlessly from beginning to end, with one 15-minute intermission. Starting Here, Starting Now is not just a musical review, or the "expected" evening of song. Fast-paced and joyous, its slings and cupid's arrows of young love come right out of the sixties...remember?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Wiley and the Hairy Man"

Set in a swamp along the Tombigbee, Jack Stokes' Wiley and the Hairy Man -- one of several print and stage versions of the popular folk story -- is currently brought to life at the Wetumpka Depot by director William Harper's talented ensemble.

In about one uninterrupted hour's playing time [just right for the target audience of children], rendered in Stokes' charming rhymed verse, punctuated by the sound of nighttime crickets and other spooky effects, and with inventive and colorful "swamp creature" costumes by Sherida Black, this show appeals to children of all ages.

Narrated by a chorus of "swamp creatures" [Jacob Alldredge, Layne Holley, Mary Katherine Moore, and Cheryl Pointer] who also provide many of the play's central sound effects & secondary characters, the story focusses on Wiley's [Merelee Robinson] survival in fooling the Hairy Man [Paul J. Travitsky] three times in order to escape his wrath. -- The often repeated warning that the Hairy Man "got your pappy...and he gonna get you" tests Wiley's nerve and wit.

Wiley is helped and taught by his Mammy [Cindy Beasley -- delightfully zany in her Depot debut], the best conjure woman around, whose common-sense advice allows Wiley to develop his own abilities and overcome his fears. -- Though Mr. Travitsky's towering presence is scary enough indeed [the Hairy Man is, after all, everyone's archetypal "boogey-man], here he is more frightening in imagination than in the flesh -- and he "sho' can't stand no dogs...everybody knows that"!

So each of Wiley's scary confrontations with the Hairy Man, deep in the swamp and at night, is tempered by humorous dialogue, homespun philosophy, and guaranteed success as warranted by this play's instructive purposes: overcoming fears, self-awareness, family bonds, and the true meaning of courage & friendship.

Ms. Robinson is securing her place in local theatre. This versatile actress, a Faulkner University graduate and veteran performer with numerous acting credits [most recently as Judah in the Depot's excellent production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and as the show-stopping dead-pan Goth "signing interpreter" of "The Rose" in A Wedding from Hell] capitalizes on her comic abilities, stage generosity, unswerving energy & commitment, and complete confidence in each of the roles she has created, bringing to Wiley's audiences a comfort in realizing we are in good hands.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Millbrook: "Witness for the Prosecution"

Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie's 1925 short story that was turned into a play and later a film, has a legion of faithful fans, and surprisingly [based on the Millbrook Community Players' opening night audience's reaction] several who did not already know its surprise ending -- one that won't be spoiled here.

Essentially a courtroom drama replete with circumstantial evidence, suggestions of both innocence and guilt, questionable testimony, and plenty of red herrings to throw us off the track, it tells the story of Leonard Vole [Daniel Harms], a man accused of murdering a wealthy spinster in 1950s London in order to inherit her substantial estate.

Vole retains celebrated solicitor Sir Wilfrid [John Chain] and Mrs. Mayhew [Martha Ann Henry -- the most natural and convincing member of this acting ensemble]; together, and despite some misgivings, they piece together the evidence in this two-and-a-half-hour production.

Director Dean Kelly has assembled a cast of veteran and neophyte actors, and follows Christie's deliberately slow pace and old-fashioned structure to gradually reveal plot and character, so audiences must pay strict attention to minute and seemingly insignificant details.

While the courtroom sequences show Sir Wilfrid's and prosecution lawyer Myers' [Clifton Kelly] interrogation abilities as a test of wits, the challenge is to make the lengthy exposition preceding it dramatically interesting while the physical action is relatively static. -- And the actors here seemed tentative in delivering their lines: slow speech and long pauses diminished the conviction and authority of much of the dialogue.

Once the testimony begins, however, the audience interest is sustained by the persistence of the lawyers and the conflicting evidence provided. -- In an unexpected move, Vole's wife Romaine [Rachael Pike in a complex role] is called on as the titular "witness for the prosecution" instead of for his defense where her testimony might have been suspect. And, as her ambiguous responses contradict Vole's version of the events surrounding the woman's death, the truth must be discovered.

Mr. Harms brings significant naivete to the character of Vole, making his guilt or innocence a matter of audience choice, and Ms. Pike's aloofness as Romaine make her motives immediately suspect. So, it is up to Mr. Chain's Sir Wilfrid to plow through the maze of testimony with a deliberateness of purpose to discover the truth.

Of course, we are challenged along with the characters in the play to sift through the testimony and seek the truth without being prejudiced by appearances. That is Christie's major strength, and the Millbrook Community Players deliver the goods.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "Broadway Our Way"

For three performances only through tonight and tomorrow afternoon, the Wetumpka Depot Players are giving benefit performances of Broadway Our Way, a revue production featuring songs from nine Broadway shows that the Depot has produced over its 32 years, and one showstopper from their own scripted production of The Wedding from Hell.

They have recently refitted the theatre with new seating, and have upgraded their lighting equipment; hence, the need to raise funds for this award winning company's home space. [And, the Depot Players will be hosts for the Alabama Conference of Theatre's Community Theatre Festival in October.]

The cast, all dressed in evening wear, is an ensemble of many of the Depot's most familiar faces, many of them reprising songs they performed in full productions. Performing solos, duets, trios, quartets, and group numbers are: Sally Blackwell, David Brown, Jonathan Conner, Jennifer Haberkorn, Patrick Hale, William Harper, Kim Mason (who also directed), Kristy Meanor, Brad Moon, Merelee Robinson, Tom Salter, Cindy Veazey, and Jimmy Veazey.-- Marilyn Swears on piano is another Depot regular, even taking on a few lines of dialogue in this show, and provides the only live accompaniment masterfully.

Most of the numbers are played straight, but some others are given a "twist" of interpretation, given the "revue" nature of this evening's entertainment. Patrick Hale's version of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma had a true homespun feel; Jonathan Conner & David Brown's rendition of "River in the Rain" from Big River was sensitively harmonized, but then Mr. Conner demonstrated an amazing falsetto in a comical version of "Till There Was You" from The Music Man. Cindy & Jimmy Veazey's interpretation of "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma was a lovely romantic duet; Jennifer Haberkorn's shows a strong comic persona in "Lovely" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and "I Can't Say No" from Oklahoma; Brad Moon once more taps into his inner-Elvis with "Jailhouse Rock" from All Shook Up; Tom Salter's in-your-face tirade in "Guv'Ment" from Big River was an audience favorite; Kristy Meanor and William Harper's fine tongue-in-cheek version of "Old Fashioned Wedding", and Kim Mason and David Brown's one-upmanship in "Anything You Can Do" -- both from Annie Get Your Gun -- got plenty of well earned laughs; Sally Blackwell produced a moody & sensitive "Blue Champagne" from G.I. Jukebox; and, just before the finale came "The Rose" from A Wedding from Hell, sung straight by Ms. Blackwell and "signed" with deadpan boredom and edgy intensity by Merelee Robinson: outrageously funny!

In less than and hour and a half of non-stop entertainment, the Depot Players have sent a tribute to Broadway musicals and their long history in Wetumpka.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

ASF: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Intern Company, under Greta Lambert's astute direction, have created a sprightly touring production of Shakespeare's A  Midsummer Night's Dream that has been taken to several schools and to The Tipping Point as well as performances indoors and outdoors at ASF.

Eight actors play all the roles with quick costume changes and excellent script editing by Ms. Lambert, who knows the play well, having played Titania in the inaugural production of The Dream when ASF moved to Montgomery from Anniston.

She has honed the script to its essentials so it is performed without an intermission, keeping the story lines and character relationships clear, and affording each member of this talented ensemble opportunities to create memorable characters.

A staging challenge no doubt at each new venue on its tour, this production loses none of its spirit or audience connection in its "home" theatres; in fact, it has probably gained some.

One of Shakespeare's most popular and accessible comedies, the play's three "worlds" are the court of Athens, the working-class Athenians, and the fairy kingdom. How these three intertwine through telling their various love stories is the crux of the matter and the source of much of its comedy -- and in this production, all the actors have roles in each of these worlds.

Once this convention is accepted, the roles are never confusing -- subtle and lightning fast costume changes, fluid staging, and most of all this talented cast's ability to switch mannerisms for each role sustain interest, heighten the comedy, and tell the story clearly.

Ms. Lambert's metaphor sets the earthly Athenian kingdom in a world of gypsies [a clever nod to the gypsy lifestyle of many actors] and the folklore associated with them. She follows Shakespeare's lead that suggests that forests are magical places where fairies live (complete with such human foibles as love, jealousy, etc.), where the rules of the "real world" are suspended, and where mortals are transformed.  As the script "holds...the mirror up to nature", so too do Athens and the woodland fairy kingdom mirror each other.

And what energy these actors bring to this production! Played around a gypsy cart that transforms into the forest [in the Octagon there is a forest backdrop], they keep the action flowing so fast that their energy is contagious, and the vigor of their performances and their expressive bodies & faces engages young and old alike for the duration of the performance.

In the double roles of worldly and fairy kings & queens, Johnny Viel [Theseus/Oberon] and Bliss Griffin [Hippolyta/Titania] connect so well that we instantly believe their relationships and their commanding statures. As the two pairs of Athenian lovers -- Candace Scholz/Jay McClure and Laura Bozzone/Craig Hanson -- the intensity of love is heightened by their being mistakenly drugged by the fairy Puck [Ivan Perez] to love the wrong mate, and a scene in which they "have it out" as it were, is a knock-down furiously comic fight. -- This trick is a mirror of Oberon's drugging Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking; in her case, she awakes to see the rustic Bottom [Colin Meath] who has been transformed into "an ass" by Puck when he was awaiting his cue in a rehearsal of a play he and others were to perform at Theseus & Hippolyta's wedding.

When the spells are finally taken off their victims and a kind of order has been restored to one and all, it is time for the play within a play to be performed. The story of Pyramus & Thisbe as performed by the "rude mechanicals" before the king and queen is a silly as they come, but done with pure innocence and over the top histrionics by these well intentioned tradesmen with Bottom as the "leading man".

Though "ill met by moonlight" at the start of the play, Oberon & Titania are reunited by the end; Theseus & Hippolyta are married as are the lovers; and everyone can celebrate in a dance. There are several dreams in the play [nightmares, wishes, etc.] and though we might agree "what fools these mortals be" and that "reason and love keep little company nowadays", we have been entertained so well that the memory of this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream will last a long time.