Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza"

The Wetumpka Depot Players are ringing in the Christmas Season with their comic (mostly) pastiche called Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza, and those tacky sweaters we've all come to cringe and laugh at are much in evidence both on stage and in the audience.

In about an hour and a half, the cast of seven mix traditional Christmas Carols with holiday novelty songs, children's letters to Santa, bits of witty banter concerning that eponymous fruitcake, comments about the commercialization of Christmas, little-known historical facts [Did you know, for example, that in 1836 Alabama was the first State to make Christmas a legal holiday?], Christmas traditions around the world, touching personal reminiscences, Southern versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before  Christmas", and several needful reminders of the true focus and significance of Christ's birth...a lot to pack into ninety minutes.

Written and directed by Tom Salter, and with seasoned Depot regulars sharing his stage, the informality of this production is so comfortable it's as if we've been invited into someone's home for -- well, fruitcake and eggnog...and healthy doses of Christmas cheer.

The ensemble -- Jennifer Habercorn, Cheryl Jones, Kim Mason, Cindy Veasey, Jeff Langham, David Woodall, and Mr. Salter -- are gracious and talented folks so much like all of us that we willingly go along for the ride. They clearly enjoy one another's company, and we do too; and so we willingly forgive the occasional missed cue, static moment, or vocal hiccup. In fact, these make it even more fun.

At a time when the calendar is getting more and more hectic and stressful as it gets us closer to December 25th, the infectious good spirits of the Depot Company provide a welcome relaxed atmosphere, a warmth of heart, and a celebration of family and good will of the Christmas Season.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play"

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

Christmas Eve 1946; Studio-A of radio station WTCP in Manhattan, NY -- and time for the "Playhouse of the Air" presentation of It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play. The actors gather on a cold night, the Stage Manager is in his booth, and the Foley artist [Sound Effects man] has his props all set. Add a pianist and a vocal trio, and The Cloverdale Playhouse's hour-and-forty-minute presentation is underway.

Joe Landry's adaptation of the 1946 classic film, a favorite of multitudes, re-tells the familiar story of George Bailey, a man whose dreams of leaving small-town Bedford Falls to accomplish "something big -- something important" are continually being thwarted or put aside as he helps others in need till he gets to a point of despair and considers suicide, believing that an insurance policy makes him "worth more dead than alive". -- His reclamation is aided by an Angel Second-Class named Clarence, who shows him how different the world would be had George never been born, and that the regard that others have for him demonstrates that he "really had a wonderful life", and emerges through love of family, sticking to his principles, and generosity towards his neighbors as "the richest man in town".

Director Greg Thornton's complement of five actors (many of them seasoned theatre artists, and almost all of whom are gracing The Cloverdale Playhouse stage for the first time) each play multiple roles, bringing to life the citizenry of Bedford Falls by assuming individualized voices for each one; to their credit and versatility, each character emerges fully recognizable. -- Even the WTCP Radio Singers [Sarah McWilliams, Kat Taylor, Toni Wood] are given personalities that help get us in the Christmas spirit as they sing carols to Marilyn Swears's expert piano accompaniment; and the "commercials" they sing for hair cream and soap are done with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.

The central characters -- George [Morgan Baker], his wife Mary [Alicia Ruth Jackson], the nasty money-grubbing Mr. Potter [Paul Nease], small town girl Violet [Barbara Smith], and of course the Angel Clarence [Patrick Hale] -- give appropriate nods to their film counterparts without attempting strict imitations.

Layne Holley's neutral scenic design replicates a 1940s radio station studio's details, one that puts us as the "On the Air" audience who are meant to respond to a flashing "Applause" sign on cue. -- Using period-looking stand microphones (equipped with an echo device for the "heavenly" sequences), a scattering of chairs, a piano, and tables in full view loaded with sound effects devices that invite our full participation in the story as Foley Artist Joe Collins deftly anticipates the sounds needed, with Stage Manager Jonathan Adam Davilla's assistance. Though we might want to watch their every move, if we close our eyes on occasion, the effect is excellent.

Eleanor K. Davis's period costumes (and the women's hair styles) lend authenticity to the proceedings, and add a bit of humor to the visual impact.

It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play is a pretty straightforward re-telling of the film, with little attempt to develop relationships among the actors in the radio station studio playing the roles, even though each one has a distinct personality. -- So, while we are impressed by the versatility of the ensemble's talents, the story's timeless messages are the main focus, and come through loud and clear: ordinary people's lives have value far beyond the reaches of mere economic worth, dreams and goals are sometimes fulfilled in unexpected ways, kindness and generosity to others are often their own reward. Things to keep in mind throughout the year. -- And, oh yes, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Faulkner: "I Love a Piano"

What's not to like? In a play (more like a revue, in fact) that showcases sixty of America's foremost songwriters' tunes [he composed about 1500 of them in a musical career covering over half a century] audiences are invited to sing along to their favorites in Faulkner University's witty and tuneful production of Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano.

With a three-piece pit band that sometimes sounds like a lot more instruments or allows a simple piano accompaniment, director Angela Dickson fluidly guides her multi-talented eight-member ensemble through this catalogue of Berlin's repertoire from 1910 Tin Pan Alley through the late 1950s, dazzling us with multiple costume changes for each period.

The conceit of saving an old piano from the junk heap links the two acts' ten scenes through the Twentieth Century via Berlin's iconic music.

Matt Dickson's black-and-white Art Deco set is complimented by simple tracking set pieces and a large upstage screen with period looking black and white projections including a grainy video featuring Blake Williams as a Simon Legree villain. -- Though the lighting often leaves the actors' faces in shadow, the result is mostly bright and cheerful, with occasional detours to more serious matters.

But the play, devised by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkley is, after all, about the music, and Ms. Dickson never loses track of it as the songs evoke simpler past times at signal moments in American history.

Mr. Berlin could be sentimental and romantic ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "The Best Things Happen When You Dance"), comical ("We're a Couple of Swells" and "Anything You Can Do"), showy ("There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"), and unabashedly patriotic ("God Bless America") as he celebrated his adopted country over a lifetime that spanned a century.

So many of his songs have become a part of America's shared experience through the many films and Broadway musicals he composed, for example: Top Hat, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, White Christmas; and some of their most familiar song and dance numbers are replicated here.

And the ensemble -- Jesse Alston, Courtney Curenton, Matt Dickson, Brittney Johnston, Brandtley McDonald, Blake Mitchell, Trey Ousley, Emily Woodring -- come through with charm and finesse, clearly enjoying themselves and delivering Berlin's lyrics with verve and understanding. Each is afforded individual moments to shine, and the ensemble comfort and support for one another is top notch. Solid performances by all.

Red Door: "Always, Patsy Cline"

There's another weekend to see Always, Patsy Cline at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs -- if tickets are available, that is. It has been playing to packed houses.

Director William Harper's lively production of Ted Swindley's 1990 play has audiences applauding in recognition of many of Ms. Cline's hit tunes -- "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Crazy" among them -- and enthusiastically cheering Lisa Norton in the title role (double-cast with Tina Hosey on alternate nights), and Janet Wilkerson as Louise Seger, her unlikely friend and narrator of the story who met her at a Texas honky tonk and struck up an instant friendship.

The on-stage six-piece "Bodacious Bobcats Band" is, in a word terrific, providing both authentic renditions of the production's twenty-seven songs, and excellent support for Ms. Norton's ample voice. They overpower her at times when she sings in her lower register, but the balance is much better when she opens up in full voice.

Ray Thornton's set: an iconic replication of the Grand Ole Opry that houses the band, a simple kitchen, the suggestion of a nightclub, and an open space, allows for smooth location shifts as the story progresses.

Ms. Wilkerson -- adept as always with comic timing and direct engagement with the audience -- not only narrates the arc of Patsy Cline's career and the two women's friendship, but she also voices several other characters, delightfully characterizing them with broad descriptive gestures.

Between them. Ms. Wilkerson and Ms. Norton establish a comfortable rapport, and when the focus is on Patsy's songs (as it is for most of the play's running time), Ms. Norton gathered momentum after a tentative start to ultimately charm us all.