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.