Thursday, February 27, 2014

Millbrook: "The Sound of Music"

From Mary Martin to Julie Andrews to Carrie Underwood, the role of Maria Ranier von Trapp has captivated millions of fans on stage, film, and television in countless productions of The Sound of Music.  Certainly one of Rogers and Hammerstein's most beloved musicals, it is now showing at the Millbrook Community Theatre under John Collier's direction, with a cast of 40 actors from the local area.

Most people know the story of how Maria [Austin Flaherty in her Millbrook debut] left the convent to become the governess for Captain von Trapp's brood of children and soon became his wife. Set in Austria at the onset of World War II and the threat of Naziism imminent, it is the feel-good story of nice people caught between love of country and family and hard choices of sticking to their principles.

Marked by a musical score that contains several hallmark songs -- "Do-Re-Mi", "I Must Have Done Something Good", "Edelweiss", "The Sound of Music" among them -- the Millbrook Company delivers individually and collectively. What a treat to hear the nuns singing a cappella at the start in clear Gregorian manner that switches to the clever "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" that gently questions Maria's religious vocation and sends her on her way to the von Trapp's as a test of her convictions. -- Lead by the Mother Abbess [Angie Mitchell], whose clear tones and effective interpretation of all her songs -- most particularly "Climb Every Mountain" -- keep us engaged.

Captain von Trapp [Lance Eiland in his stage debut] is a widower courting Elsa Shraeder [Jennifer Gay], and running his children's lives with military precision. When Maria shows up and throws things out of kilter with her more relaxed style [she instantly realized that the children desperately need affection, especially from their father], she is an instant hit with the kids but must convince von Trapp. And we know from the start that Maria and the Captain are meant for each other.

Ms. Flaherty carries the show on her capable shoulders. With a clear and strong voice matched with energy and an effervescence that fills every moment she is on stage [and that is most of the play], her confidence makes her someone to watch. Hopefully, she will grace this local stage in future productions.

Of course, there is another younger generation love interest between the teenaged Liesl [Kari Kelly] and a local swain named Rolf [Chris Kelly] who has sided with the Nazis. Their "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is handled with sensitivity and good humor.

Max Detweiller [Mark McGuire] is a local government official who runs a Festival while taking numerous phone calls from the Nazi headquarters, and is caught between protecting his friends the von Trapps who show nothing but disdain for the Reich, and being true to the business of the new cause.

The children here -- Ms. Kelly, David Russo, Caitlin Garnett, Joshua Russo, Christianna/Gianna Russo, Lilla Wilson, Jaycee Parker -- appear to be having a good time, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Whether they play pranks on Maria, or delight in the play-time she affords them, or sweetly sing and dance their ways through "Do-Re-Mi", "The Lonely Goatherd", and "Goodnight", whenever they take the stage, all eyes are on them.

Though there is a lot of dead-time in blackouts between scenes, the action moves along pretty well, coming in at over two and a half hours. Nonetheless, the commitment of the ensemble, the fine vocal delivery of the songs, and the clear messages regarding being true to oneself and one's beliefs, and the strength of family are unmistakable.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

ASF: "Twenty Seven"

Literature is full of examples of natural disasters that point out human limitations, and often demonstrate our best qualities in helping others in such times. The impacts of recent hurricanes, typhoons, and floods around the world are still being felt, showing brute untamed Nature determining much of mankind's outcomes.

William Faulkner used the 1927 Mississippi River flooding as the focal point of his story "Old Man" in which an unnamed convict is sent to rescue an unnamed pregnant woman from the flood and, though he is presumed to have died in the attempt and has various opportunities to escape, he eventually returns to the Penal Farm only to receive a longer sentence as a political pawn.

"Old Man" has been adapted several times in film and for television, and now a new version World Premier of Twenty Seven by Edward Morgan is playing on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon stage.

Mr. Morgan's two act drama is given a sensitive-ironic-minimalist showing in director Nancy Rominger's production featuring a strong seven member acting ensemble. And while it takes several liberties with its source (Faulkner purists will disapprove, no doubt), the script easily shifts time and place, incorporates unobtrusive narrative into the dialogue, maintains suspense in its plot and character development, and issues provocative philosophical questions with some crudely humorous language -- all in keeping with Faulkner's prose.

The muted tones of an enormous mural depicting a Mississippi backwater serves as a backdrop to simple platforms and minimal furniture in Peter Hicks' understated set, affording the company significant freedom to shift location and explore the nuances of Mr. Morgan's script. And the audience is brought into the intimacy of the space.

Making an impressive ASF debut, Justin Adams portrays Aikins as a complex man whose answer to "What is the natural state of man?" is simply and succinctly that he is "born to die"; but how he gets there is so important to this Aikins and his sense of duty that he can't accept freedom "till I've earned it". As he recounts his adventures on the river to fellow inmates who can't fathom Aikins' voluntary return -- Drew Parker as the youthful and sex-obsessed Tommy, and Larry Thomas as the sardonic older guitar strumming Ike (both excellent)-- events of the present and the recent past alternate, allowing these two foils to follow Aikins' journey as he tries to make sense of the world he has been thrust into, a world that bioth mystifies and threatens him, victimizes and affords him release.

Vasnessa Bartlett plays Ellie, who avoids eye contact with Aikins at first rescue, and who maintains her own secret despite the intimacy of sharing a small boat. -- In the course of their few weeks together, we see a gradual development of a relationship; Aikins is confident in his abilities to manage a boat through the flood and appears to live in the moment but is reluctant to connect with Ellie, her "belly is a millstone around my neck"; she, on the other hand "needs a plan" from him; and ultimately there is a softening in their relationship. -- Mr. Adams and Ms. Bartlett work so well together that we can get involved in their respective plights, and understand their different solutions; very credible performances.

Eleven other characters are brought to life by a cadre of three actors -- Carl Palmer, Kevin Hearn Cutts, Brian Wallace -- who create memorable characters. Among them: Mr. Wallace's outrageous depiction of a Cajun gator hunter who comes to the couple's aid; Mr. Palmer's Deputy Buckworth as both a comic caricature and a reprehensible sadist; and Mr. Cutts as the Warden caught between doing what he knows is right and what is convenient...a finely nuanced portrait.

Ms. Rominger moves the action at a brisk pace, mixing humor and seriousness, and her actors are so finely tuned to one another, shifting time and location effortlessly while depicting in thoroughly credible characters, that audiences are left pondering their own decisions.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Into the Woods"

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

Bravo ! -- The Third Season at The Cloverdale Playhouse started Thursday night with director Randy Foster and his excellent ensemble actors in their exquisite "Sold Out" production of multiple award winning Into the Woods, the 1986 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical that takes fairy tales to increasingly intriguing, challenging, and thoroughly entertaining heights.

As the play weaves the plots of some of the Brothers Grimm's familiar tales -- Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, et al. -- they take on significant dimensions relevant to modern adult audiences, while retaining the child-friendly wonder and magic of the original stories.

Sondheim's score is one of his most challenging to even the most experienced and highly trained singers, and the Cloverdale cast do more than justice to it...they appear to be relaxed and comfortable with the music, and they are clearly enjoying the experience.

While so many productions of Into the Woods and other large-scale musicals rely on lavish sets and special effects, Mr. Foster wisely chose to use the small Cloverdale Playhouse stage to its best advantage: provide simple and imaginative set pieces (thanks to scenic designer Layne Holley), reduce the number of actors to thirteen for the more than twenty characters in the play, create effective and clever costumes (headed by Eleanor Davis), and allow the acting company to focus the attention on the plot, the themes, and the music.

With Mr. Foster at the keyboard onstage (the sole musical accompaniment -- and really all that is needed), this talented ensemble go through their paces for over two and a half hours without any lapse of energy or commitment, creating memorable renditions of their fairy tale roles, and enlivening the evening with insightful interpretations of the songs and themes.

Everyone, it seems, has a dream or a wish to fulfill: Cinderella wants to go to the King's Festival where she will meet her Prince, Rapunzel yearns for freedom from her tower, Little Red Riding Hood is on her way to Grandma's house, Jack has to sell his "pet" cow Milky White to make ends meet at home, and the Baker and his Wife desperately want a child, but have been cursed by the Witch who will only lift the curse if the Baker can bring her "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold" -- so everyone sets off "into the woods" on specific quests that get more and more intertwined to both comic and serious ends.

The original stories contain significant lessons, mixed with comic and sometimes macabre events, and Into the Woods capitalizes on this. And when actors give it their all, audiences can get caught up in each moment.

Versatility is an important element of this production. What a delight to see Jonathan Conner and Scott Page as two narcissistic princes whose mugging and one-upmanship is so cleverly showcased in their duet "Agony", but also to see each actor in a completely different guise: Mr. Conner as a frighteningly sexy Wolf to Katie Maiello's shoot from the hip Little Red Riding Hood, and Mr. Page as a most believably devoted Milky White Cow to Matthew Walter's exuberantly naive Jack (as in the Beanstalk).

Bill Cobb as the Mysterious Man keeps popping up throughout the play to deliver clues and urge characters on -- no spoiler alerts here; you'll have to see the play to discover what the mystery is all about.

A masterful handling of Sondheim's fast patter lyrics is given in the opening exposition by David Rowland as the Witch, and carried often by other members of the ensemble. Mr. Rowland's interpretation of the double role of the Witch who transforms to Rapunzel's Mother is mesmerizing; the darkness he brings to the role is made palatable by the insistence that Rapunzel is kept in the tower to protect her from the evils of the world. Brittney Johnson as Rapunzel dares to risk it by running off with her Prince. -- And it seems that there are significant prices to pay for their actions.

Several lessons are learned by the characters, lessons that can benefit all of us. Act I ends on a note of some hope, but Act II demonstrates the lengths to which we will go to achieve our goals or desires will all have consequences.

The Baker [Chase McMichen in his best performance yet in Montgomery] and his Wife [Emily Lowder Wooten; her first role at the Playhouse that sets a high bar for what is to come] are so intent on getting the aforementioned "" that they manage to con Jack into selling Milky White for a sack of beans, try to steal Little Red's cape, cut some of Rapunzel's hair, and swipe Cinderella's slipper. Ever at odds with one another, their arguing threatens the relationship, and the Wife even has a fling with one of the Princes who excuses his behavior saying he was brought up to be "charming, not sincere". -- And when the inevitable Beanstalk brings down the Giants' wrath, the blame game begins with a vengeance.

There is definitely "something about the woods" that is different from their regular lives. It is a magical place where defenses are down and things aren't always what they seem. Cinderella [Gillian Lisenby Walters, whose comic pratfalls are hilarious ] learns that her fantasy Prince can't provide anything more than fleeting happiness; and her nasty Stepmother [Katherine Taylor] and Stepsisters [Summer Gagnon and Brittney Johnson] will get their deserved comeuppance; Jack and his Mother [Eleanor Kerr Davis has a few delightfully feisty moments] learn that family is what matters most, and that ill-gotten riches (golden eggs and harps) looted from the Giants are only transitory.

Growing up is hard, and not everyone can do it. Being responsible is important, but not everyone is cut out for it. Doing what is right rather than what is convenient is essential. We influence others by what we do and say: "Children will listen", after all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Faulkner: "Flight of the Lawnchair Man"

It's the musical that few have heard of, though it has been around in several iterations for years. Based on actual events in the life of Larry Walters, a California truck driver who in 1982 floated into commercial air space on a simple lawn chair held aloft by 45 weather balloons, Flight of the Lawnchair Man is showing now at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Directed by Angela Dickson, with Musical Direction by Marilyn Swears, this engagingly sweet musical by Robert Lindsey-Nassif and Peter Ullian re-locates the play to Passaic, NJ and has as its protagonist, docile Jerry Gorman [Joe Vasquez], a 34-year-old whose attempt to fulfill a life long dream of flying is abetted by ever faithful would-be girlfriend Gracie [Emily Woodring], despite the resistance of Jerry's one-time hippie Mother [Madyson Greenwood], and overbearing Wal-Mart boss Mr. Frankel [Blake Williams]. -- Throw in pilot named Big Jack [Brandtley McDonald] who Jerry idolizes and who is accompanied by Barbie-like stewardess Blaire [Brooke Johnston], and assorted townspeople, NASA officials, TV reporters, and Leonardo DaVinci, Charles Lindberg, and Amelia Earhart, and what results is a hodgepodge that somehow manages to hold us with its clever lyrics, solid performances, and innocent and uplifting messages.

Set on Matt Dickson's brightly colored cartoon cut-out set [there are a number of very astute choices in making some characters "fly"], and with an unremarkable but singable score, it is the ensemble actors who carry the play along.

While their characters are often one-dimensional, the commitment of the individual actors is excellent. Ms. Greenwood's depiction of Mother is brash and comes with a spot-on Jersey accent; she commands the stage. Mr. McDonald is reliable as Big Jack, showing a "damaged man" convincingly. He is paired with Ms. Johnston, whose perky role could be a mere caricature; but she imbues it with a subtle sense of worldly knowledge that almost steals the show, and she is so natural that you can hardly take your eyes off her.

What starts out as a scene reminiscent of The Stepford Wives with clean-cut characters singing "Everything is Perfect in Passaic", soon turns to the dilemma of Jerry pursuing his dream. Mr. Vasquez captures the naivete and off-beat earnestness of Jerry, making him appear comfortable in his character's distress. -- And with Gracie ever at his side to encourage and protect (and wish that Jerry could return the devotion/love she has for him), Ms. Woodring brings a compassionate and strong presence to each of her scenes. -- Their duet at the end of Act I -- "I Want to Fly" -- captures the audience's collective heart.

No spoiler alerts here; the plot comes full circle, but with a number of twists along the way. And it is important to stress the themes/messages that carry the play to its end. "Follow your dreams." "Don't let ridicule run your life." "Seize the Day." -- And understand that a person can be impractical and happy.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "The Miracle Worker"

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker is an award winning play about teacher Annie Sullivan's persistence in teaching blind-deaf-mute Helen Keller the rudiments of language as her way out. Made famous by its 1957 "Playhouse 90" television broadcast, later on Broadway and in film, it also marks local actor Stephen Dubberley's debut as a director in this first production of the Wetumpka Depot Theatre's 34th season.

The action is set in the 1880s at Ivy Green, the Keller's home in Tuscumbia, AL when such children were often sent to asylums where conditions and care were appalling. Having exercised virtually no discipline on their child, and not knowing what to do otherwise at home, the Kellers offer treats to Helen to quiet down her frequent tantrums. But when Annie [Elizabeth Bowles] is hired as teacher/governess for Helen [Miette Crim], things begin to change. Enabling has got to stop, says Annie, but habitual behavior is hard to change.

So begins the journey to awareness for most of the characters in this three act drama whose plot devices  and now familiar episodes in the early life of one of Alabama's most revered heroines show their age. Nonetheless, Mr. Dubberley's stalwart cast turn in fine ensemble and individual performances.

Jimmy and Cindy Veasey play Helen's parents, whose concern for their daughter is unquestioned; though they address it differently, they both allow Helen to be the tyrant of the household, and excuse her behavior without considering alternatives. Mr. Keller rules the family with unquestioned paternal authority, so much that he does not realize how he is alienating others, particularly his son James [Reese Lynch] who is eager to become more independent.

When Annie, herself suffering from diminished eyesight and having self-doubt enhanced by frequent dream/nightmare sequences about her troubled past, makes small inroads with Helen -- not without a lot of obstacles and setbacks -- and asks for more time to get through to the child and teach her both to comprehend language and to love, she is met with resistance from all quarters. -- Everyone else has given up on Helen, but not Annie.

While the plot revolves around Annie's teaching Helen hand signals to spell out words, the themes at the core of the play center on the challenges of raising children. Ms. Crim is a force to contend with as Helen: high spirited, spoiled, vindictive, violent; it is through her commitment to such behavior and what it takes for her to change that makes her performance admirable and utterly credible. -- Ms. Bowles gradually gets through to her by "opening up the treasure inside"; Ms. Crim responds to hand-spelling of "d-o-l-l" and "w-a-t-e-r", and ultimately to "t-e-a-c-h-e-r", and we see the respect that each demands of the other.

And everyone has learned some lessons along the way -- lessons we can all benefit from: don't underestimate people or pre-judge them by appearances; persistence and discipline can work wonders; love takes many forms. -- The Depot Players make this evident through this solid production of The Miracle Worker.

ASF: "The Great Gatsby"

Simon Levy's compact and lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (the only authorized stage version) had its opening night audience absorbed for its full two acts and engaged in animated discussions on leaving the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Carolyn Blount Theatre.

Though Fitzgerald earned little money from it and thought his 1925 novel a failure, its depiction of the excesses of the 1920s Jazz Age and the desperate pursuit of "The American Dream" have been popularized by several films, an opera, and assorted spin-offs and secured its place on required reading lists as one of the great American novels. Almost a century after its composition, The Great Gatsby still resonates with readers who see 21st Century hedonism, glorification of celebrity and money, and disregard of ethnic minorities and the underclass as all too current.

Levy's script de-emphasizes the lavish spectacle of Jay Gatsby's celebrated parties in order to concentrate instead on the novel's characters and themes, and uses much of Fitzgerald's original dialogue and philosophical narrative to make his points. -- And director Geoffrey Sherman deftly guides his ensemble actors (some making debut performances on the ASF stage), allowing them to gradually reveal the private thoughts they so adroitly keep hidden through long-practiced guile and the belief that wealth puts people above any social or moral imperatives; problems can simply disappear if they are ignored, weak people can be ruthlessly used or trampled over, leaving the sophisticated people looking good...and that is all that matters.

Mystery-man Jay Gatsby [Anthony Marble] has built a mansion on Long Island's fictional West Egg, hoping to rekindle the love of golden girl Daisy Buchanan [Jenny Strassburg] who had married wealthy Tom Buchanan [Christian Ryan] when Gatsby had little money or social prospects. Tom carries on an affair with Myrtle Wilson [Paula Jon DeRose] whose husband George [Brik Berkes] runs a gas station situated in the "valley of ashes" between affluent Long Island and Manhattan, and overseen by an enigmatic billboard's startling image of all-seeing bespectacled eyes, an advertisement for Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

Narrated by Nick Carraway [Bjorn Thorstad], Daisy's cousin who rents a cottage next door to Gatsby and is in New York to pursue a career in the bond business, he becomes a reluctant go-between for Gatsby and Daisy, and gets caught up in their glamorous lifestyle while pursuing a romance with golf star Jordan Baker [Alice Sherman].

Nick is the conscience of the story. He introduces us to Gatsby: the dreamer gazing at the green light on Daisy's dock across the bay from his home, the obsessive romantic despite his underworld connections who is convinced that Daisy will be attend one of his parties and love him as she once professed. -- As Nick comes to know people for who they are behind the masks: "careless people...they smashed up things...and let other people clean up the mess they had made...", he rejects the lifestyle that is so intoxicating.

Yes, these are weak people, no matter their material success. They invent stories to hide the truth. They cheat and steal. They tell outrageous lies. They get caught up in their own illusions. And they come to life on the ASF stage.

In a production that eschews the fussy spectacle that screen versions rely on -- James Wolk's sleek minimalist set, and Brenda Van Der Weil's period character-driven costumes, are each based on the novel's descriptions -- the attention to developing characters and conflicts is done without affectation.

The three "love" stories counterbalance one another. Daisy is caught in an unhappy marriage, but hides her pain in order to preserve the lifestyle she values most, and Ms. Strassburg's exclamation -- "God...I'm so sophisticated!" -- makes her dilemma very real: What is she to do? Be with Gatsby, or stay with Tom despite his infidelity and racist beliefs? Mr. Marble's Gatsby is both appealing and an enigma, and his doting on Daisy's whims and his blind belief in reviving a romanticized past doom their match from the start.

Tom's affair with Myrtle, based essentially on his physical and emotional dominance of a woman desperate to escape a lifeless marriage, is, in the hands of Mr. Ryan and Ms. DeRose, a steamy, argumentative battle of the sexes, with Ms. DeRose's voluptuous portrayal the key. -- Mr. Berkes as her husband is so distraught at his wife's behavior, and so downtrodden in demeanor, that his actions are thoroughly credible.

Ms. Sherman's enticing depiction of Jordan Baker is beguiling and amoral; a finely nuanced performance that is both attractive and troubling. It is no wonder that Nick is enthralled by her (much as Gatsby is by Daisy), nor is it surprising that he rejects her as she continues her destructive ways.

Supporting the main characters are ASF veterans Greta Lambert and Rodney Clark who play several characters apiece. Most remarkable are Mr. Clark's efficient and alarming depiction of Meyer Wolfsheim replete with cufflinks made of human molars, a gambler who appears to control much of Gatsby's finances, and Ms. Lambert's gossiping Mrs. McKee.

And it is up to Mr. Thorstad as Nick to bring the play to its close. His relationship with Gatsby grows from wonder and scorn for the excesses of Gatsby's life to admiration and a gradual recognition of Gatsby's "extraordinary gift for hope" no matter how everything conspires against him.