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.