Monday, January 26, 2015

ASF Interns: "Alice in Wonderland"

For just over an hour, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Intern Acting Company transports Alice [Jessica G. Smith] and audiences of all ages down a rabbit hole in director Nancy Rominger's magically whimsical production of Jean Erickson's adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic Alice in Wonderland.

The script is faithful to its source, and this production is enhanced by Pamela Scofield's inventive and colorful costumes, and James Wolk's masterful scenic design.

When Alice wanders off from a picnic school-lesson led by her prim and proper sister Edith [Betsey Helmer], her dizzying tailspin (adroitly staged by this eight member ensemble -- most of whom play multiple roles), lands her in a place where animals, plants, a deck of cards, and chess pieces test her logical and imaginative mind as she tries to get back home.

Bewildered though she might be by the literal-mindedness of the inhabitants of this "Wonderland", she is also intrigued by all things strange and wonderful -- as we are as we follow her on her adventures. As  Alice says, things get "curiouser and curiouser".

All the major episodes of Carroll's book are presented here: Alice's growing smaller and taller in her attempt to fit through a tiny door in order to follow the White Rabbit [Patrick Burr] who is always late and insists on calling her Maryann. -- Alice meets the Caterpillar [S. Lewis Feemster] who tells her to stop whining and get on with it; then it's on to the Duchess [Metushaleme Dary], who has a moral for everything, and the Cook [Ms. Helmer again], who puts too much pepper in the soup, and where the White Rabbit delivers an invitation to play croquet with the Queen.

Various meetings with the Cheshire Cat [also Mr. Feemster manipulating a glorious puppet that continuously has him changing shape] test Alice's patience and knowledge.

The Mad Hatter's [Jonathan Weber] tea party with the March Hare [Cory Lawson] and Dormouse [Mike Petrie, Jr.] gets maddeningly outrageous. Their antics keep the pace moving swiftly.

And on to croquet (using flamingoes to hit hedgehogs through arches formed by playing cards) with the Knave [Mr. Petrie], King [Mr. Lawson] and Queen of Hearts [Ms. Helmer] whose "off with their heads" is a common refrain whenever she doesn't immediately get what she wants.

Alice eventually confronts the Queen's authority, and there is a frantic -- if prolonged -- chase sequence in searching out the culprit who stole the Queen's tarts.

The best of children's theatre assumes the youngsters in the audience will get engaged with the on-stage action -- and they certainly do here with both prompted and unsolicited responses and plenty of laughs as Alice's adventures get more and more confused.

And there are sufficient lessons for children and adults to absorb: to be curious about the world can result in knowledge and understanding of it, be truthful, power and money don't guarantee happiness, and when Edith finds her asleep on her return to the "real" world, Alice declares that "there should always be time to wonder...good advice.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

ASF: "Always, Patsy Cline"

Always, Patsy Cline has been on the boards since 1988, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is currently presenting its third iteration of it in the "STAGES St. Louis" production of this ever popular show. Audiences are again eating it up, and with good reason.

Based on the true story of the unlikely friendship between the iconic country singer Patsy Cline [Jacqueline Petroccia] and Louise Segar [Zoe Vonder Haar], a fan who befriended her when she was performing at the Empire Ballroom in Houston, TX, Ted Swindley's play is deftly directed by Michael Hamilton who guides his gifted cast through two acts and twenty-seven songs in a heart-felt Valentine to one of the greats of American song. -- The two hour playing time goes by in a flash as we are engaged and entertained throughout.

James Wolk's set -- a wide expanse of Louise's kitchen and sitting room with period linoleum floor and period patterned wallpaper -- transforms to The Grand Ole Opry, a television program, the Empire Ballroom and other venues; plus it contains a kitchen stove that becomes a jukebox on cue. -- Lou Bird's picture perfect costumes replicate several outfits any Patsy Cline fan would recognize.

But front and center in this production are the story of Patsy and Louise's friendship...and the music.

Ms. Vonder Haar is an able narrator and participant in the story. She inhabits the role of Louise with comfort in all her quirks so we never doubt the admiration she has for Patsy; and while she directly addresses the audience, encouraging our participation, her unabashed shoot-from-the-hip style is so engaging that we willingly go along for the ride. And we see how Patsy succumbs to her down-home Texas charm and compassion for a fellow human being who responds to kindness freely given.

Their friendship story is interspersed with a catalogue of Patsy Cline's repertoire: "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Sweet Dreams", "Crazy", and "Faded Love" among them. When Ms. Petroccia opens up at the top of the show with "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round", we need no more convincing that we're in for a powerhouse performance. Ms. Petroccia has a strong voice and an ability to sell a ballad, novelty number, or foot-stompin' honky-tonk, complete with a 'catch' in her voice that replicates Patsy Cline's vocal style.

Musical Director Joel Jones and his six piece Bodacious Bobcats Band provide spot-on interpretations of the songs, some back-up singing, and a bit of witty repartee with the actresses; they become another character in the story.

The play is part biography, part reminiscence, part concert, and always a tribute to a country music star who died tragically in a plane crash in 1963. It seems pretty clear that Ms. Petroccia and Ms. Vonden Haar are enjoying themselves. The chemistry between them is infectious, the music is brilliant, and the audience benefits from it.