Thursday, December 14, 2017

Millbrook: "A Country Christmas Carol"

Director Sam Wallace and the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened A Country Christmas Carol last weekend with a cast of fifteen actors, most of them playing multiple roles, and including some fledgling talents who show promise for the future.

This musical version of the Charles Dickens classic -- book by Ron Kaehler, music by Albert Evans, lyrics by Evans and Kaehler -- tells the story of Eb Scrooge's [Matthew Givens] overnight change from mean-spirited miser to a benevolent and generous friend to all, with the intervention on his behalf of former business partner Jacob Marley who has enlisted the Ghosts of Christmases Past [Ashlee Lassiter], Present [Roger Humber], and Yet to Come [Timothy Rotkiewicz] to turn Scrooge around.

Setting this version in the 1950s in Marley County, USA, allows for some homespun local color and recognizable stereotypes; but in a number of twists from the original, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchitt is now a single mother named Bobbie Jo Cratchitt [Chloe Prentice], who gets fired on Christmas Eve yet manages to keep the spirit of Christmas for the sake of her two children: Jane [Natalie Lantz] and Tim [Jack Walker]; Scrooge's kindly nephew Fred is now called Dwight [Steven Deloney], the beloved town drunk; and "Tiny Tim" doesn't get to proclaim "God bless us, every one".

The score is unremarkable, though there are a few moments to highlight action, theme, and character: "Angel Beside Me", "I Gave Myself a Bottle for Christmas", "Golden Idol", "Goodbye Old Dog", "Less is More", and "Life Goes to Show You" fit the bill. -- Megan Lofgren's excellent keyboard accompaniment sometimes overpowers the voices on stage.

The script is long on exposition that firmly establishes Scrooge's negative impact on the community, making much of the later hauntings feel somewhat rushed.

The production was beset with several problems during the rehearsal period, and a few last minute cast replacements made for some tentative performances. -- That notwithstanding, there are a few actors whose performances stood out: Ms. Lassiter [Lavinia and Christmas Past] and Ms. Prentice [Bobbie Jo and Belle] give solid interpretations of strong women whose time has come for recognition; and young Mr. Walker as Tim and Boy Eb gave each character distinct behaviors: if as the adage goes "half of acting is in reacting", Mr. Walker's demeanor was credible, and his in-the-moment reactions to his stage partners so natural that one could believe he was experiencing them for the first time. Bravo!

Scrooge, of course, gets most of our attention. Mr. Givens comes across as an utterly despicable tyrant at the start; he is heartless toward everyone, so his transformation is huge. And he allows the audience to track the changes at signal moments in his journey with the ghosts, even though we all know what's coming. Hats off to Mr. Givens for finding the humanity in the old miser that carries the audience to his ultimate giddy celebration of the true spirit of Christmas.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Faulkner: "Meet Me In St. Louis"

The Christmas Season is upon us with a number of productions across the River Region providing pleasant antidotes to the often mean-spirited and prurient broadcasts on reality television, in the news, and on social media. The latest -- one that hearkens back to an era of good manners, genuine family values and respect for all, a time when a chaste kiss could set romantic hearts aflutter -- is the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's charming musical production of Meet Me In St. Louis.

Adapted from the 1944 film of the same name by Patrick Quentin, with music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blanc, Meet Me In St. Louis is playing to enthusiastic crowds under Angela Dickson's direction.

There's not much of a plot here; the Smith family get caught up in anticipating the opening of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Officially called the "Louisiana Purchase Exhibition", it was touted as "the greatest exhibition of them all" when it showcased many new inventions and products: electricity in the home, airplanes, automobiles for personal use, x-ray machines, a wireless telephone, incubators for newborns, Dr. Pepper, and even the statue of Vulcan that now stands in Birmingham. -- Though we take these accomplishments for granted today, the actors in this Faulkner production seem to genuinely get caught up in the moment, allowing audiences to share their excitement and feel good doing so.

Individuals in the family have some personal matters to attend to during the build up to the Fair's opening. -- Mr. and Mrs. Smith [ Chris and Kari Kelly] try to keep an orderly household, while their son Lou [Hunter Smith] prepares to go to college, youngest daughter Tootie [Sydney Jones] plays some pretty gruesome episodes for her dolls, daughter Agnes [Lucy Wilson] seeks attention from every quarter, and the older girls. Rose [Catherine Allbritten] and Esther [Brittney Johnston] find romance respectively with Warren [Colby Smith] and John [Brandtley McDonald]. Eccentric Grandpa [Mike DiLaura] and Irish cook Katie [Mattie Earls] round out the principal roles.

There are some predictable misunderstandings among them, all of which will be remedied by the end; and all accomplished through music for which Faulkner has enviable strengths.

A few novelty numbers punctuate the action: "A Touch of the Irish" is led by the strong voiced Ms. Earls; Tootie's "Under the Bamboo Tree" showcases Ms. Jones's talent; and Mr. Smith leads a flashy dance number, "The Banjo". -- The big production numbers "The Trolley Song" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" have a lot of energy and excellent harmonies.

But it is through the quieter songs that the characters become well defined and afford audiences the opportunity to connect with them. -- Ms. Kelly's explanation about knowing when one is in love in "You'll Hear a Bell" makes us listen attentively, and when she reprises it with Mr. Kelly in "You Are for Loving", we understand the depth of a solid marriage. -- Mr. Smith and Ms. Allbritton share a sincere moment in "A Raving Beauty".

The script is skewed to highlight the romance between Esther and John, and Ms. Johnston and Mr. McDonald deliver in spades. Their voices have never been better as the score matches their strengths. Ms. Johnston's dramatic rendering of "The Boy Next Door" is riveting, and when it is reprised with John in Act II, their partnership is ensured. The touching "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is done with simple purity. Their other duets -- "Over the Bannister" and "You Are for Loving" -- are told with such vocal assurance and clarity, and with such intensity of feeling, that the connection between these two actors holds our complete attention.

At the finale, the audience is invited to sing along; and they do. What a lovely way to end the evening on a note of friendship with characters we've known for only a couple of hours, but who seem like family.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Little Women"

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

Louisa May Alcott's 1868-69 novel Little Women is on the boards at The Cloverdale Playhouse. Having had several film and stage versions, this new "trunk-show" adaptation is by Playhouse Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton. She does not attempt to cover the entire breadth of Alcott's novel; rather, Ms. Thornton's episodic structure narrows the focus to the immediate struggles of the March family's titular "little women" in Civil War Era America, covering some ten years. It is, by turns, a nostalgic coming of age story, a touching family drama, and an early appraisal of the emerging status of women yearning to be on a par with men.

Played on J. Scott Grinstead's minimalist forced perspective architectural framework set, with an assortment of props pulled from a steamer trunk, a shadow-play curtain judiciously punctuating the story, with Temperance & Jason Grinstead, along with Danny Davidson-Cline's neutral period looking costumes that are frequently overlaid with vests, shawls, skirts, and hats to denote character changes and role-playing, and an on-stage three-piece band playing Greg Thornton's evocative score as well as a number of traditional melodies, simplicity is the key to Ms. Thornton's storytelling, allowing each new scene to describe a particular moment that contributes to the overall plot.

Her focus is on family, after all, and the love that binds them together and us to them. -- The family bond is apparent from the onset as the four adolescent girls entertain themselves by staging adventurous plays devised by Jo [Sarah Key], the tomboy protagonist who yearns for a writing career and freedom to exercise her wits as an equal to men. The girls' personalities often get in the way of a harmonious household, but their ever patient Marmee [Katie Pearson] offers sound advice and homespun wisdom to deflate any animosity among her daughters; and their servant Hannah [Teri Sweeney] bustles about.

Young Amy [Kacey Walton], a vain charmer in her blond curls, has a gift for art, though she can be vindictive when she doesn't get her way. Meg [Lauren Morgan] is the eldest daughter and also the most traditional, always aware of maintaining propriety. Beth [Valorie Roberts] is the gentle peacemaking one who never asks anything for herself.

It is a household without men; since Mr. March [Adam Shephard] is away at the war, the women are left to their own devices, and are financially beholden to their tyrannical Aunt March [Ms. Sweeney again]. -- But men are close by: wealthy next door neighbor Mr. Lawrence [also Mr. Shephard] befriends them when his young grandson Theodore "Laurie/Teddy" Lawrence [Matthew Klinger] gets to know the girls and becomes best friends with Jo. "Laurie" and his tutor, John Brooke [J. Scott Grinstead] endear themselves to the March women with kindly acts freely given to women living in genteel poverty, especially in times of distress for Mr. March and illness of the girls.

Most of the play's attention is given to Jo, whose independent spirit of adventure and curiosity feed her desire to become a famous writer; and we experience her growing maturity and that of the others in her realm through her perspective. -- Ms. Key holds our attention in every moment, whether she cajoles or comforts her sisters, or capitulates to Marmee's advice, or idolizes her father, or teases "Teddy", or falls in love with Friedrich Bhaer [Mr. Grinstead in this role also], a German professor she meets in New York where she goes to develop her writing skills, and whose gentle prompting of her talents helps give focus to her life, this is a credible performance in all its complexity.

The ensemble cast define their roles well and support one another generously. Special note ought to be given to Mr. Klinger and Mr. Grinstead: Mr. Klinger's effervescent depiction of Teddy's joie de vivre is contagious, especially in the games he plays with Jo; and his declarations of love are touching. Mr. Grinstead's portrayals of John Brooke and Professor Bhaer are quiet and intense; he appears so comfortable in the skins of each character, and his ability to generate a sincere connection to his acting partners [Ms. Morgan and Ms. Key] are the most sensitive and convincing in this production.

The two hour and twenty minute playing time could be shortened by more efficient shifting of the trunk  and small bits of furniture, and lighting that frequently leaves much of the stage in semi-darkness could better showcase the depth of the set, but this version of Little Women emphasizes the importance of family and love for our fellow human beings in such a fashion that celebrates the simple values we ought to share every day.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "A Christmas Story"

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" -- Everyone from his Mother, to his teacher, to schoolyard friends, and yes -- even to Santa Claus, has this rejoinder to Ralphie's passionate request for a BB-gun at Christmas: not an ordinary BB-gun, but a "Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time". Sound familiar?

Jean Shepherd's story, made into a popular film in 1983 and a stage version by Philip Grecian in 2000, is now on stage at the Wetumpka Depot, directed by Kristy Meanor. A Christmas Story has become a staple for the Christmas Season, appealing to audiences with its nostalgia for a simpler time and its cast of characters who live out the reminiscences of an adult Ralph fondly remembering his childhood.

Except for Lee Bridges who plays the grown up Ralph, the Depot has two sets of actors playing alternately the other 10 named roles and 5 ensemble members. And it is he who holds the production together, serving as narrator, commentator, and occasional participant in minor roles throughout the two hour evening's entertainment. -- Mr. Bridges is an excellent guide through the telling of his childhood self's quest for the aforementioned BB-gun, and he delivers his lines with a wry sense of humor in his assessments both of himself and of his family, schoolmates, teacher, and the local bully; even the unseen Santa and next door neighbors, the Bumpus family and their 785 dogs who target Ralphie's father -- the "Old Man" -- yet bother no one else.

Yes, they're all there (in Cast A on opening night): Mother [Samantha Inman] who in Ralph's memory serves meat loaf and red cabbage every dinnertime, has a wealth of knowledge of trivia, and who can be stubborn and protective of her children when it matters most; younger brother Randy [Clay Edwards] who plays with his food, hides in unlikely places, and "has to go wee-wee" at the most inconvenient times; and, of course the "Old Man" [Brad Sinclair] an inept household handyman whose "vast catalogue of invective" is demonstrated frequently with cleverly disguised would-be obscenities, and is obsessed with mail-in contests and thrilled to win "a major prize" -- a garish leg lamp.

There's Miss Shields [Susan Montgomery], the disciplinary teacher; school friends Schwartz [Adien (sp?) Glass] and Flick [Jackson Moscona] whose tongue gets frozen to a flagpole when he is triple-dog-dared to do so; and the town bully Scut Farcus [Jackson Dean], who will get his deserved comeuppance at the hands of Ralphie; and brainy Helen [Zoe Zink] and flirty Esther Jane [Abigail Roark].

Noah Henninger plays Ralphie. This young actor turns in an effective characterization that shows Ralphie's frustrations with every thwarted attempt to get the BB-gun as his one and only wished for Christmas present. He shines especially in Ralphie's frequent fantasies where he defends his family from desperadoes, or melodramatically pretends to be blind, or anticipates a rapturous response to his teacher's writing assignment, or expects Santa to grant his wish. -- Ralphie is persistent, and it ultimately pays off. Well done, Mr. Henninger.

There are a lot of laughs in store for the Depot's audiences here; and yet, there is an important message as well. While we reminisce with the grown up Ralph about a gentler time, we also get caught up in the familiar domestic catastrophes and can identify with most any of the cast of characters. Perhaps it is good to remember that we get through these things because "we have each other and love" -- Not a bad message for the Christmas Season.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's official. The Christmas theatre season is underway with the opening of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's perennial treat: A Christmas Carol. [There are several others underway at community and university theatres across the River Region...stay tuned.]

The Charles Dickens classic stars Rodney Clark as miserly Ebenezer Scrooge whose miraculous transformation happens over the course of one enchanted night in the company of the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Lilly Wilton], Present [James Bowen], and Future [Woodrow Proctor]. Instigated by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes], Scrooge goes on a journey that allows him to reflect on the mistakes of his past, the reality of his present situation, and the indeterminate future which he alone can redeem through compassion and generosity.

The story is narrated by Charles Dickens himself [David Schmittou], an amateur magician with several sleight if hand tricks on display, who also takes on a number of supporting roles in the story. In fact, virtually every actor other than Mr. Clark plays a number of roles, so that the 25-strong ensemble appears to be much larger.

Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation has been featured a number of times at ASF, each iteration with its own stamp. Nancy Rominger directs this year, and has re-distributed some of the actors' roles, tweaked several moments, and scaled down the text to play in under two hours including an intermission. The deliberate exposition in Act I is important to establish plot, theme, and character; but later on, much of the action seems rushed, important moments flashing by so quickly they barely register. Yet, it is still a visual delight with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes and Paul Wonsek's Victorian inspired sets, complete with their own magic -- pyrotechnics, moving parts, trap doors and smoke -- all in the service of Scrooge's reclamation from self-imposed isolation from the rest of mankind to a man who intends to keep Christmas in his heart every day of the year. Audiences get caught up in ASF's adroit mixture of story and spectacle, novelty songs and traditional Christmas carols under Joel Jones's musical direction.

When we first see him, Mr. Clarks' Scrooge is so earnestly nasty that we see he has a long way to go. He berates his hard-working clerk Bob Cratchitt [Billy Sharpe] and threatens to fire him on Christmas Eve; dismisses the Charity Man's [James Bowen] request for a donation to help the poor, suggesting that the prisons and workhouses meet their needs and that "if they would rather die" than go there they should do it and "decrease the surplus population"; and derides his nephew Fred's [Seth Andrew Bridges] undaunted good humor and well intentioned Christmas greetings with a resounding "Bah, humbug!" on the Christmas Season. -- His words will come back on him with a vengeance later.

Once Marley sets things in motion with a warning that without the intervention of the other three ghosts he has no chance of avoiding Marley's fate of wandering the world in pain, Scrooge is on his way, unwillingly at first. -- Some events in his past can not be remedied. While his love for Belle [Noelia Antweiler] has been replaced by his love of money, and the generosity of his first employer Mr. Fezziwig [Mr. Schmittou] and Mrs. Fezziwig [Fredena J. Williams] can never be repaid, Scrooge's guilt weighs heavily.

But two persistent issues cry out for resolution: to be reconciled with his nephew, and to help Bob Cratchitt with a living wage to support Mrs. Cratchitt [Jacqueline Petroccia] and their family and provide the means to find a cure for Cratchitt's crippled son Tiny Tim [Matthew Cramer on opening night].

The ghosts have shown Scrooge his past and present, and he has been moved to change but does not know how. He fears the Ghost of Christmas Future more than the others; when he is shown the results of his behavior, and receives no answer to whether these are things that "will be or might be", he awakens on Christmas morning a changed man. -- Mr. Clark's irrepressible giddiness and delight in a world of new possibilities is infectious. He makes good on his desire to help the Cratchitt family and is reunited with Fred.

With a full heart shared with the ASF audience, Scrooge is a reclaimed man carrying Tiny Tim on his shoulders; as the boy exclaims "God bless us, every one!" we can't help but leave the theatre with our own full hearts and concern for our fellows.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Woyzeck"

Each performance of German playwright Georg Buchner's Woyzeck at Theatre AUM was unique. -- Left unfinished at his death in 1837 at age 24, Buchner's episodic fragments have since then been arranged and re-arranged and "finished" by a long catalogue of admirers.

In an adaptation by Nicholas Rudall, who encourages directors to arrange the scenes in any way so as "to make their own dramatic coherence", director Val Winkelman has her audiences draw numbers out of a hat to determine that performance's randomly arranged sequence of scenes. -- This arbitrary choice removes any director's guiding principle and with mixed results; so actors must signal the essential plot and thematic issues on the fly, and audiences are left to their own devices to piece together the story as best they can. -- Combining this with Elise Sottile's first-rate circus-themed set, costumes, and make-up designs reminiscent of German expressionism and Fellini-esque baroque manipulation of the political and social worlds, there's a lot to suss out in this version of Woyzeck. -- Everyone has to pay strict attention. There are rewards for doing so.

More concerned with social conditions, the financial and moral divide between the rich and poor, exploitation of the less fortunate members of society that leads to suffering and madness, than with character development and human relationships, Ms. Winkelman's twelve ensemble actors serve Buchner's ideas well.

Led by Kodi Robertson in the title role of a poor young soldier who lives with Marie [Brittany Vallely]  and their illegitimate child, who earns extra cash doing menial jobs for the exploitative Captain [Michael Breen], and is a guinea pig participant in medical/psychological experiments run by the Doctor [Kate Saylor] who puts him on a diet solely of peas that causes him much dismay, the cards are stacked against him. -- When Marie has an affair with the Drum Major [Tony George], and Woyzeck is on the brink of a mental breakdown after experiencing several apocalyptic visions, he stabs Marie to death near a pond and tries to clean the blood from his hands.

Woyzeck has been thoroughly dehumanized by his social superiors; but Buchner never finished the play, so there is no satisfying resolution. Despite this, Woyzeck has never been out of fashion, allowing virtually any culture to view it as a reflection of the world they live in. The play has been lauded for close to 200 years and has influenced many playwrights since its composition.

Theatre AUM's production is challenging, frustrating, entertaining, and provocative, all in the best traditions of educational theatre that exposes AUM students and their audiences alike to some of the most important plays in world theatre.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Whales and Souls"

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

Chris Roe -- an alumnus of the UofA/ASF Graduate Acting Company -- returned to Montgomery last week for an all-too-short run of Whales and Souls as part of The Cloverdale Playhouse's new "underground experience".

A hit in the New York Fringe Festival, Andrew Kramer's one-hour one-man play is subtitled "An adult fable" that fits into the Playhouse's stated aim here of showcasing "new and exciting explore off-beat avant-garde" works that reach "our community hungry for new edgier works".

Performed on the outdoor Courtyard Stage on two successive chilly nights that enhanced the atmosphere of Whales and Souls [a collaboration with "Sexy Dirt Productions" in New York], the minimal props and evocative screen projections highlighted Mr. Roe's expressive interpretations of seven distinct characters; starting as its narrator [a Parks and Rec guide], he weaves a mesmerizing tale of a family and community caught up in the impact of corporate greed that pollutes both the local lake and the lifeblood of its residents. He plays all the parts with subtle changes of voice and posture so effortlessly that we never doubt who is speaking.

With literary nods to Greek and Shakespearean tragedy and to Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and with several Gothic elements that include a "forbidden love", a "medicine woman/witch", and  a "creature" that emerges from the lake to issue warnings of death and destruction to the neighborhood if they don't curb the corporate takeover, Mr. Roe's manner conscripts his audiences to take heed to the seriousness of the play's themes of greed and vanity and passion that often interfere with ecological and moral ideals.

Director Matt Renskers [another UofA/ASF alum] has Mr. Roe embody each of the characters so completely that we understand their motives and relationships as they develop. The performance is impressive, fluid, expressive, and chilling, as we get more and more involved with the fate of the lakeside community as well as with our own.

Monday, October 16, 2017

ASF: "The Glass Menagerie"

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is attributed to Aristotle, and the synergy reflected on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon stage in The Glass Menagerie (1944), its first offering of the 2017-2918 season, provides ample proof of the adage. -- Tennessee Williams' masterful script is sensitively interpreted by director David Ellenstein whose generous ensemble actors are dressed in Brenda Van Der Weil's character driven period costumes on an evocative set by Peter Hicks, with Phil Monat's atmospheric lighting and a haunting sound design by William Burns. -- The result of this collaboration is a hallmark of many ASF productions: a satisfying theatre event that has audiences reflecting on their own participation, one that completes the conversation with the ASF company after the performance ends and the applause has died down.

The Glass Menagerie was Williams' first successful play, acknowledged to have several autobiographical elements in it. With its old fashioned poetic language, heartbreaking situations, a fine mix of humor and pathos, and achingly recognizable characters that transcend the Depression Era during which most of the play is set, the harsh reality is of a family bonded in their love for one another that is thwarted time and again by circumstances beyond their control or by their inability to face them.

Tom Wingfield [John Lloyd Young] manipulates time as the narrator of and character in the story of his family; the play is his "memory", and as such "it is sentimental, it is not realistic", a one-sided haunted view of a past that he can not quit. -- Building up to the climactic moment when co-worker Jim O'Connor [Kevin Earley] accepts Tom's invitation to dinner in the cramped St. Louis apartment Tom shares with his manipulative yet protective mother Amanda [Greta Lambert] and his physically and psychologically fragile sister Laura [Christina King], the disastrous end to this meeting between his sister and the "gentleman caller" his mother so determinedly wants for her daughter affords Tom a release from the constrictions of a mundane job and a co-dependent family to follow in his long-absent father's footsteps -- "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances".

In his first appearance at ASF, Mr. Young [Tony Award winning Best Actor for "Frankie" in Jersey Boys], comfortably shifts between a brooding narrator in the present desperately seeking release from his memories and the petulant post-adolescent son and brother in his own haunted past, who would rather write poetry or go to the movies to escape the claustrophobic confines of home. His interactions   with the other ensemble members are fine tuned. We connect with his frustrations with Amanda, his attempts to be a friend to Jim, and his protective impulses for Laura.

Ms. King ["Miranda" in last season's The Tempest] creates a Laura with extreme social anxiety brought on by a bout of pleurisy when she was in high school; this resulted in a limp and a paralyzing dread of any kind of interaction with the outside world that has her retreat into the privacy of listening to old phonograph records and playing with her collection of figurines -- the "glass menagerie" of the title, and a symbol of her own fragile beauty. For most of Act I, Ms. King's persistent single-note voice becomes an aggravation that grates on even the most forgiving instincts of Tom and Amanda. It is only when she is left alone with Jim that this Laura's guard is down and the tension in her voice and body all but disappears.

Tom describes Jim as "the most realistic character in the play", and ASF newcomer Mr. Earley exudes the studied self-confidence of a man who is trying to better his lot in life by taking night courses, and can hold his side of polite conversation with Amanda's coquettish charm. He is comfortable in his own skin, and when Jim realizes that he and Laura had a passing acquaintance in high school, he shows her such regard that she is able to hold a conversation and even dance with him and kiss him, momentarily oblivious of her fixation on her disability. Mr. Earley's subtle and gentle assessment of Laura's lack of confidence and Ms. King's transformation is rendered with unaffected directness. The sincerity he brings to confessing his love for his girlfriend Betty, saying that "love changes your whole world", dashes any hope for a relationship with Laura.  And though Tom knew nothing of Betty, Amanda holds him accountable for the family's impending ruin.

Ms. Lambert's triumphant ASF career is legendary, and in The Glass Menagerie, she adds one more iconic role to her resume in a performance so unassumingly truthful in its delivery and so generous in sharing the stage with her fellows, that she inhabits Amanda Wingfield completely. Amanda centers the action of the play that Tom's memory replicates. Wanting only the best for her children, her "plans and provisions" are dependent on their cooperation; first and foremost is finding a suitable "gentleman caller" for Laura, but Amanda's Southern belle requires a gentility that is out of vogue in 1934, and neither Laura nor Tom is equipped to live up to her expectations.

In fact, Amanda's behavior is in part responsible for driving them away -- Laura retreats to her glass menagerie, and Tom escapes to the merchant marines. Ms. Lambert continuously fusses over both her children, fixates on proper etiquette that she sees through the lens of a genteel past in Mississippi when she entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in one day, and cajoles them with a determined will.

Though Amanda is not subtle about her intentions, Ms. Lambert makes her behavior completely credible. Devoted to her children, and determined for their welfare often at her own expense, the nuances she brings to the various masks she wears are remarkable: the overly charming magazine subscription sales ploys she uses on the telephone, her coquettish attempts to make Jim feel at home, her denial of her daughter's disability and her son's similarity to his father, her unflappably persistent optimism; but all falls apart when she realizes both Laura and Tom have lied so as not to hurt her -- her defenses come down with a devastating and shattering acceptance of reality.

There is no doubt that all three Wingfields love each other. Complicated and frustrated by their inability to express it, Tom's memory attempts to come to terms with his ghosts and set them all free. And the ASF audiences are the beneficiaries of a masterful production of The Glass Menagerie.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "And Then There Were None"

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

A sold-out opening night at The Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Agatha Christie's superbly crafted murder-mystery And Then There Were None was greeted with a series of well-earned gasps of shock at the several murders, peals of spontaneous laughter at the character driven outrageous behavior and sophisticated bon mots of the actors, and a rapturous standing ovation.

Staged on the Playhouse's newly hired Technical Director Scott Grinstead's finely detailed set -- the living room of an upscale island home off the coast of Devon, England -- director Mike Winkelman's exceptional ensemble seemed to relish every eccentricity in their roles while remaining true to the melodramatic conventions of the genre...a slippery slope that deftly avoids excesses that might otherwise have reduced it to mere camp. This is a group whose comic timing, abounding energy, physical and verbal dexterity kept the audience enthralled for two hours and twenty minutes of non-stop enjoyment. Take your pick: Marcus Clement, Christopher Crockett, Rachael Dotson, Jacob Holmberg, Julie Janson, Bo Jinright, Tom Lawson, Bill Nowell, Tate Pollock, Alex Rikerd, or Adam Shephard will capture your attention, or be a prime suspect, and leave a lasting impression.

With book sales second only to the Bible and Shakespeare, according to several sources, Dame Agatha Christie's novels, short stories, and plays have become legendary -- famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple come from her pen, and her play The Mousetrap has been running in London since 1952; her novel And Then There Were None (1939) is accounted as the world's best-selling mystery novel of all time.

She wrote the stage version in 1943. The production at the Cloverdale Playhouse is an updated 2005 adaptation by Kevin Elyot based mostly on the novel. It is a familiar who dunnit: ten strangers have been invited to Soldier's Island by the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Owen; at their first gathering, a recorded voice accuses each of them of murder, promising punishment; though each guest denies or excuses their past actions, they are bumped off one-by-one, with a nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" (aka "Ten Little Indians") giving clues to the manner of their demises as the ten soldiers lined up on the mantelpiece mysteriously disappear with each death. They are deliberately cut off from the mainland, there is no telephone, and -- oh yes -- there is a storm.

Much of the enjoyment of an enterprise such as And Then There Were None is in trying to figure out which one of the guests is the murderer; but with every turn of events, and sufficient red herrings to distract our attention, unexpected results and lots of surprises are in store. Not everything is what it seems. -- There are also two alternative endings in this production, played on even and odd dates, so the ending you see might be different from someone else's.

Under Mr. Winkelman's strong directorial hand, the mix of humor and suspense, guilt and suspicion of others' guilt [we learn of each character's past in Christie's judiciously piecemeal exposition], and of some serious attention to the very human impulse of self-preservation, all feels natural. Danny Davidson-Cline's character driven costumes, and James Treadway's evocative lighting and soundscape, add dimension to the mis-en-scene.

The Cloverdale Playhouse company have breathed new life into a well-established classic. It is worth a visit.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Faulkner: "Romeo and Juliet"

Playing to an enthusiastically supportive audience with only three performances of an abbreviated version Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, director Angela Dickson introduces her ensemble of student, alumni, and community actors to the challenges of producing the Bard.

In a script that edits the five act original to a 90-minute intermissionless production that preserves Shakespeare's essential plot and character elements [and adds a couple of characters and incorporates a few contemporary songs], this show keeps the audience engaged throughout one of Shakespeare's most familiar and most produced plays. -- Whether we are captivated by the tragically romantic story of the "star crossed lovers", or the divide between parents and children, or the extremes of adolescent emotions and their rash behavior, we are assured here that love trumps hate even though there are dire consequences in going against the status quo.

On a borrowed multi-leveled set from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival that revolves to become a number of locations, the action moves quickly and determinedly to its inevitable end.

The biggest success of Ms. Dickson's production is in delivering a clear plot line through her well defined ensemble characters. Brandtley McDonald and Lindsey Justice portray the title characters with all the contradictions and single-mindedness of teenagers in love; there is a fine chemistry between them, and their interpretations of dialogue is the most accomplished in the cast. We immediately are on their side, and remain with them to their unfortunate end.

Geoffrey Morris and George Scrushy play the hot-headed Mercutio and Tybalt; their fight sequences as staged by Assistant Director Tony Davison contain significant danger, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

Mattie Earls plays Juliet's Nurse with a comic energy mixed with maternal instincts, and Michael DiLaura portrays Friar Lawrence with a combination of well-intentioned help for the young lovers with a certain amount of bumbling that causes much of the trouble.

Though some of the actors haven't yet mastered Shakespeare's verse, and the antics of secondary actors upstage some of the significant action or cover important dialogue, Ms. Dickson has wisely used this abridged version of Romeo and Juliet to introduce her actors to performing in one of the most admired masterpieces of World Drama...something essential to their complete education in theatre.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Liberty and Justice"

In its first production of their 2017-2018 season, Theatre AUM is offering a compilation of scenes, songs, and monologues entitled Liberty and Justice. The assorted pieces are performed by a talented  25-member student ensemble directed by a coterie of five: Marcus Godbee, Neil David Seibel, Cushing Phillips, Mike Winkelman, and Val Winkelman.

Played on Mike Winkelman's open stage reminiscent of a patriotic rally to which we've grown accustomed (red, white, and blue drapes and a white star painted on the floor), and using minimal furniture, nearly forty vignettes hit their respective marks to remind us of both the ideals of America's founding fathers and the challenges to democracy that continue almost 250 years later.

Quotes from the Declaration of Independence ["all men are created equal"], the Statue of Liberty engraving ["Give me your tired, your poor"] and interpretive renderings of the "Star Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", and "We Shall Overcome" among others are given ironic twists on today's legislative bodies when the First Continental Congress is referred to as a bunch of "knaves and fools".

There is a decidedly political agenda in Liberty and Justice. Audiences are taken backwards and forwards in time, showing how 21st Century concerns with immigration, women's rights, racial inequality, LGBT inequities, and the death penalty, had their roots in the past yet continue to be unresolved.

The voices of marginalized people are brought to the fore by the acting ensemble, all dressed in various iterations of red, white, and blue; the short vignettes are given sometimes sensitively humane and sometimes confrontational in-yer-face interpretations. -- And the gender-fluid assignment of roles help focus attention on the messages on offer.

Selections from plays such as The Laramie Project, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frost/Nixon, Angels in America, All the Way, Stuff Happens, School House Rock, and Hamilton, as well as many others, drive the messages unrelentingly; and while one can not question the commitment of the actors to the seriousness of the issues at hand, the collection of scenes cries out for some comic relief to make the points even more impactful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Millbrook: "The Diary of Anne Frank"

The Diary of a Young Girl was published in 1947, just two years after its author, the teenaged Anne Frank, died in a concentration camp. Her father Otto was the only member of his Jewish family to survive the Nazi Holocaust; when he returned to the Annex above his former office in Amsterdam where his family and others had spent almost two years hiding from the Nazis with the assistance of Meip Gies and Mr. Kraler, he discovered his daughter's diary and determined to have it published both as a tribute to her and a reminder to the world of the horrors of war and the resilience of its victims.

In 1955, The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett opened on Broadway, receiving a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for "Best Play", as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. -- It is now being presented on stage by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. under the direction of Daniel Harms; and with the current international concern with Neo-Naziism, with aggression against those persons perceived as "other", and with daily newspaper and social media accounts of violent intolerance, its messages are uncomfortably resonant.

The action takes place in the Annex, a claustrophobic space with several levels, all cramped with furniture and made more confining by the eight inhabitants who must step over and around one another and share sleeping quarters that restrict any sense of privacy. They  must be absolutely quiet during the work-day hours, since there are people in the office below them, and any hint of a noise could bring the dreaded soldiers to arrest them and herd them off to a concentration camp. -- They can't cook or use the toilet, must take off their shoes and walk about as little as possible, and talk very little if at all.

So we see them only at night when the all-clear signals have been heard and they can relax a bit and speak and act out their repressed feelings toward the world around them and toward one another. Petty arguments mushroom into full-fledged animosity; territorialism and accusations of perceived preferential treatment are voiced; and the fear of being caught is always at the forefront. -- Yet there is hope, written in Anne's diary, that "in spite of everything, people are truly good at heart". And it is her voice that centers the play: a youthful voice of optimism, a coming of age voice dealing with all the contradictions of adolescence and the discovery of a first-time romance, a kind-hearted voice that can find the means to resolve the issues that confront them in their darkest hours.

Mr. Harms has gathered an ensemble of actors who clearly define their characters and keep audiences concerned for them, though we know from the outset that almost all of them will die. -- Though there are a number of technical items that could be addressed [lighting that casts unfortunate shadows in key locations, late sound and light cues, inconsistency in when everyone should not be wearing shoes, the loud volume of Anne's voice-over readings from her diary that connect the scenes], by and large the production focuses our attention on the characters and themes.

While the ensemble work well together and individually, and Brady Walker as Otto Frank gives a strong and sensitive performance, special notice should be given to Lucy Wilson's credible portrayal of Anne; she nails the character's contradictions and never fails to remain in the moment. Anne's frustrations with her relationship with her mother, her hurt feelings of being compared to her sister, her clear reliance on her father's wisdom and solidity, her refusal to accept the status quo -- all contribute to a fully realized character.

It is through Anne that we learn the horrors of war and Naziism, and through whom we make the connections to our own day.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "I Do! I Do!"

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the team behind the 42-year-long run of The Fantasticks (1960-2002) in New York, had another success in 1966 with a charming musical called I Do! I Do! which is currently on the boards at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre.

Played on a wide set dominated by a large four poster bed, and with some 19 songs in its two acts, I Do! I Do! spins the story of Michael and Agnes from their wedding day and the gift of a pillow embroidered with "God is Love", through the next fifty years; while there are few surprises and a lot of familiar territory in this gentle tale -- awkward first moments, the births of children and the responsibilities that come with them, the "traditional" roles of husbands and wives, events that test a marriage, grandparenthood, and retirement -- director Kristy Meanor and musical director Marilyn Swears have their actors create characters and weave a story as a testament to the bond between people who truly love each other.

Usually played by two actors, Ms. Meanor has chosen to split the roles for the two acts: Morgan Baker and Rebecca Ivey play Michael and Agnes in Act I during the first years of their marriage, while Jeff Langham and Kim Mason take over the roles in Act II from their middle-age to old-age. -- In both Acts, audiences are treated to strong singing and effective aging through modifications of wigs/costumes [well done, Matthew Oliver] and makeup, most of which is done off-stage. Ms. Ivey is particularly impressive in her Act I transformations; and both Mr. Langham's and Ms. Mason's transitions to old age are done in full view allowing us to see them age before our eyes.

Each of the actors is given moments to demonstrate their singing chops. Mr. Baker's rendition of "I Love My Wife" is particularly effective, and Ms. Ivey takes over the stage with "Flaming Agnes" in which she claims her independence; together, their versions of "Love Isn't Everything" and "A Well Known Fact" are delightful.

Probably the best known song from I Do! I Do! is Act II's  "My Cup Runneth Over", and is given a fine interpretation here. Mr. Langham and Ms. Mason relish their independence from their children in the humorous "When the Kids Get Married". His "The Father of the Bride" tells of every father's reticence in letting go of his daughter and suggests the empty-nest syndrome that everyone fears, and her "What is a Woman" questions her worth outside marriage. But all is forgiven with the exchange of gifts and the realization that "Someone Needs Me".

As they prepare to leave the house they lived in for the past fifty years, they leave the "God is Love" pillow and a bottle of champagne for the new young couple moving in, and audiences are left feeling good to have been in their presence.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

WOBT: "Deathtrap"

Ira Levin's Deathtrap -- a staple of the thriller-comedy mold -- is playing at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville under Matthew Givens' direction. His cast of five veterans and newcomers maneuver the intricacies of Levin's script with assurance, keeping audiences engaged with its ever-increasing plot twists.

Having has a successful Broadway run in the late 1970s, and a 1982 film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, much of the plot is well-known; so for the sake of those uninitiated, there will be few spoilers here. Suffice it to say that things aren't always what they seem.

Sidney Bruhl [Roy Goldfinger] and his sickly wife Myra [Adria Winlock] live in a comfortable Connecticut retreat where he is trying to re-invigorate a fading career as a writer of smash Broadway thrillers. When a former student sends him a script of a play he calls "Deathtrap", Bruhl is impressed by its quality, and fantasizes that he could steal the script and pass it off as his own, even off-handedly considering killing off the younger man. -- He has an array of weapons hanging on the walls of his study in full view of the audience. And here is the classic Anton Chekhov foreshadowing: "If in the first act you have a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." -- Stay tuned.

Helga ten Dorp [Michon Givens], a psychic who is renting a neighboring house, pays a visit to the Bruhls and instantly senses danger and pain in the house, mentioning specific details that will play out later, and warning them to be careful.

When youthful playwright Clifford Anderson [Woody Joye] arrives on Sidney's invitation ostensibly to fine-tune the play to get it ready for Broadway, they agree to collaborate. -- But murder and deception rule the day with elaborate plot twists that keep us guessing what will happen next.

Bruhl's lawyer Porter Milgrim [West Marcus] voices his suspicions about the close relationship of the two men, and encourages Bruhl to fix his last will and testament before it's too late.

As the men collaborate, they act out various scenes of the script they're working on: the script that replicates the previous action of the very play we are seeing in the theatre, and which bring both plays to their appropriate conclusion.

Suspense is sustained through a tight control on the script by both director and cast. However, there are several lengthy scene breaks that leave the audience in darkness and without any music to underscore and keep them attentive; these lapses make each successive scene a challenge to reconnect. And traditional "stormy night" sequences that depend on dim lights and dark shadows for impact, were so brightly lit that the intended shocking action was disappointing.

Nonetheless, the opening night audience responded with enthusiasm, and the WOBT company should be proud of their accomplishments.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Erma Bombeck's At Wit's End"

Erma Bombeck's "At Wit's End" is an affectionate tribute to the late American humorist currently showing at the Wetumpka Depot. -- In his directing debut, Jeff Langham heads the team behind Alison and Margaret Engel's one-woman show.

Kristy Meanor inhabits the role in an extended monologue that traces the ups and downs of suburban home life that inspired Bombeck and triggered her career as an unlikely journalist -- a career that started small yet mushroomed to a syndicated column in some 900 newspapers, the writing of 15 best selling books, a successful lecture circuit, a stint on ABC's "Good Morning America", and a passionate support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The audience at this brief sold-out run responded enthusiastically to the many quotes from Bombeck's writing that pepper the narrative, and admitted in the post-show talk back that clippings from her newspaper columns often found a place on their refrigerators as reminders of the homespun advice that endeared her to so many for so long.

The set [modified from the Depot's recent production of Southern Fried Funeral] shows the living room, kitchen, and bedroom of Bombeck's home, the place where she did most of her writing on a typewriter atop an ironing board. -- The quirky lighting design often left Ms. Meanor in semi-darkness or shadow that, while intended to focus attention on her, got in the way of clear communication.

Any one-person show is an acting challenge, and Ms. Meanor's veteran instincts kept her portrayal of Ms. Bombeck's cheerful self-effacing attitude at the fore, spinning a positive note even onto such serious issues as cancer, dementia, and the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

The script cleverly interjects Bombeck's epigrams into the narrative, and Ms.Meanor delivers them with expert comic timing and knowing glances that make the audience complicit in her analyses. We are instantly on her side, largely because she says things we would like to have said about our own experiences: how to deal with children ["The favorite child is the one who needs you the most"]; the myth of the perfect suburban housewife ["I never met a woman who would give up lunch for sex"]; the importance of the ERA ["I wrote for me and the rest of the Moms who need recognition"].

The one-hour running time is just right. Though we could listen to Ms. Meanor for a longer time, "always leave an audience wanting more" is a sure-fire way to ensure a hit, and Erma Bombeck's "At Wit's End" does just that.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

ASF: Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's "Mary Poppins"

A heaping "spoonful of sugar" is ladled out in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's engaging family entertainment production of Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins, closing this weekend's successful extended run under Geoffrey Sherman's direction.

In reprising the title role, Alice Sherman's voice is in top shape as she confidently leads the large ensemble or delivers solo pieces with seeming ease, but it is her portrayal of Mary -- a no nonsense but craftily likable disciplinarian of Jane [Olivia Laine Scott] and Michael [Noah Henninger], her two rambunctious charges who have successfully sabotaged every other Nanny they've had -- that is especially notable. Her 2014 performance was charming, no doubt; but this time, Mary has taken on more depth in her understanding of the children's needs, her not-quite-romantic relationship with Bert [Bret Shuford], and her support of Winifred Banks' [Jean McCormick] emerging self-awareness as an equal partner with banker husband George [David Schmittou]. In short, this more mature Mary Poppins adds another level to our response to her; she is still charming, but is made an admirable role model.

When the Banks children successfully run off their latest nanny and write their own job description for a successor , Mary Poppins mysteriously arrives on the scene and proceeds to both entertain and discipline them; they can have fun, but must abide by certain rules. -- And while their father measures success as family provider in material terms, he too must learn the value of loving them, the quality that his wife and children all long for, especially young Michael who craves one-on-one father-son time with him.

The household servants -- the not so proficient cook Mrs. Brill [Toni DiBuono], and bumbling but earnest Robertson Ay [Billy Sharpe] -- add some high quality humor to the proceedings; Janelle A. Robinson renders two striking turns as Mrs. Corry and the "holy terror" nanny Miss Andrew. Her "Brimstone and Treacle" is a show-stopper.

When Mr. Banks almost loses his job by deciding to lend money to a "good" man rather than a shyster, he learns the difference between the value of a thing and its worth. When Mrs. Banks comes to his rescue after recognizing her own worth in "Being Mrs. Banks", she finds that the Bank Chairman [Paul Hebron] has already rewarded her husband for making the right choice in the first place.

Though Mary Poppins teaches several lessons to the children and the adults, the Bird Woman in the Park [Barbara Broughton] hits home with her sensitive treatment of "Feed the Birds", showing to one and all that a mere "tuppence a bag" for food for God's smallest creatures is a gift of far greater value. It is the little things -- small gestures that get no notice -- that mean the most. And Mr. Banks' finally flying a kite with his son seals their relationship.

There are quite a few production numbers that garner audience enthusiasm: "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" fit the bill, even in somewhat restrained choreographed staging.

Sets by Peter Hicks are detailed, flexible, and ingenious is differentiating between the natural Edwardian house and the technicolor dream-like quality of the Park; Brenda Van Der Weil creates costumes that also give period detail and fantasy crayola vibrancy.

Mr. Shuford's Bert -- the sometime narrator, sometime magician, sometime cohort of Mary Poppins -- is ever likable as he guides the children and the audience into Mary Poppins' delightful world. -- The lessons they teach are worth remembering; but Mary Poppins can only stay with the Banks family till she is no longer needed, and when they have all learned her lessons, they must be left to carry on without her.

When she leaves -- upraised umbrella carrying her over the heads of the audience -- we are all the better for having spent some time with her. She is, after all, "Practically Perfect".

Friday, August 4, 2017

Millbrook: "The Music Man'

Wow! An 18-piece orchestra led by Ken Lantz, brings a welcome "brass" complement to the Millbrook Community Players' lively nostalgic production of Meredith Wilson's Tony Award-winning The Music Man (1957). -- Set in fictional River City, Iowa in 1912, the play is an unabashedly upbeat look at an idyllic America.

Wilson's story centers on irrepressible flimflam man "Professor" Harold Hill [Brady Walker] and his attempts to con the citizens of River City into investing in instruments and uniforms for a brass band, and thus avoid the horrors of wasting their youth in pool halls, dens of iniquity that can corrupt them. Hill is so adept at his game that almost everyone succumbs. One of his tougher "sells" is with local librarian Marian Paroo [Sarah Missildine], who tries to research Hill's background; and Mayor Shinn [Ron Harris] also has his doubts, while his wife Eulalie [Carol Majors] easily falls under Hill's spell. And Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo [Michon Givens] provides a sincere Irish approval of a match between her daughter and the "Professor".

Anyone who has seen the play or the 1962 film version knows the outcome, but the journey to it is worth the two-and-a-half hours with The Music Man under Angie Mitchell's  adept direction of the 40+ actors in her able cast. -- They're a likable group who bring bright-eyed energy to every moment. Combined with Lantz's steady musical direction and Daniel Grant Harms' peppy choreography, the time goes by quickly.

All this is carried by Wilson's remarkable score -- songs that hearken back to a more innocent era while retaining a freshness that appeals across all social and economic borders. Many of them are indelibly in the canon of great American musical theatre songs: "Trouble", Hill's rapid fire energy driven song to convince the River City folks to invest in a brass band, sets everything in motion, and Mr. Walker commands the stage as he prods them unceasingly; "Good Night My Someone" and "Till There Was You" feature Ms. Missildine's lyrical soprano voice to excellent effect; novelty songs "Pick a Little, Talk a Little" that highlights the choral groups and "Shipoopie" has the charm of Lee Bridges playing Hill's cohort Marcellus Washburn; "Gary, Indiana" affords Marian's young brother Winthrop an opportunity to sing a song with very few "S" sounds so he won't be embarrassed by his lisp; arguably the most popular songs "Lida Rose" by the Barbershop Quartet combined with Marian's "Will I Ever Tell You" steal the audience's collective hearts. Of course, there's the rousing "Seventy-six Trombones" to get everyone's feet tapping.

Spurred on by anvil salesman Charlie Cowell [Tim Griggs] and about to be driven out of town on a rail for failing to uphold his part of the bargain, Hill is saved by the delivery of instruments and uniforms; though the boys are terrible musicians, they look good in the band uniforms, and their parents are so proud of them. And it is clear that Hill and Marian will be a match.

This affectionate production of The Music Man adds a well needed relief from the heat of the Summer and the political issues glaring from daily headlines by reminding us that the values inherent in an  America of not so long ago are still worth the investment.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Southern Fried Funeral"

Another River Region sold-out run just closed at the Wetumpka Depot. Southern Fried Funeral, a genuinely funny if somewhat familiar and derivative comedy, strongly directed by Kim Mason, received a lot of belly-laughs in recognition of the assorted characters' foibles and he play's clever dialogue.

Ms. Mason's 11-member ensemble of Depot veterans and some in their acting debuts, exhibited confidence and clear storytelling for the 2-hour performance. Performed on Kristy Meanor's finely detailed kitchen and dining room set, Southern Fried Funeral takes audiences immediately into familiar territory.

Family and friends of Dewey's [a good man who died in the middle of telling a joke to the local Rotarians], meet at the home of his widow Dorothy [Lynne Taunton] to grieve and sympathize and plan his funeral. But Dorothy has a lot to contend with besides the funeral: her feuding adult daughters -- black sheep Harlene [Catherine Barlow] and stereotypical Southern belle Sammy Jo [Janet Robinson] harbor childhood resentments; Sammy Jo also has some marital issues with her loving and misunderstood husband Beecham [Brad Sinclair]; her "simple" son Dewey, Jr. [Morgan Baker] seems oblivious to his father's death; and her smarmy brother-in-law Uncle Dub [Lloyd Strickland] tries to wrest away her land and home on the day of the funeral.

Add a bevy of neighbors -- toupee wearing Benny Charles [Alan Patrick], slightly dim Fairy June [Judy Savage in an understated pitch-perfect performance], steadfast friend Martha Ann [Susan Montgomery] and her nemesis, the over-zealous Ozetta [Hazel Jones] a pretentious busybody and (as she continually reminds everyone) the Chairwoman of the church's "Sunshine Committee" that plans all funerals according to strict social norms.

And then there's Atticus [Will Webster] a one-time lover of Harlene's and a local lawyer whose skills (shades of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird) will be brought into play to save Dorothy's home and land from the dastardly Uncle Dub.

The director's hand is very clear in this production: Ms. Mason guides her actors to give credible performances without going over the top into broad caricatures. And though there are only a few surprises -- a deftly staged food fight, for example -- the sibling rivalries and humorous takes on familiar "Southern" archetypes, make for a comfortable audience reception.

Beneath the froth of this confection lie some perceptive notions about how some people grieve (anger, denial, etc.), and while Dorothy's outburst when she can no longer take all the mayhem around her is reminiscent of M'Lynn's behavior in Steel Magnolias, it captures the very real limits to which anyone can be subjected under these circumstances.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

WOBT: "Hairspray"

Director Mary Katherine Moore and her expert team of designers, choreographers, musicians, and actors, transform Prattville's tiny Way Off Broadway Theatre into 1962 Baltimore for a joyous production of the 2002 musical Hairspray that's been getting spontaneous standing ovations at every performance.

Based on John Waters' 1988 film, this multiple Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Award-winning musical was made into a popular 2007 film, a TV special in 2016, and has had an enviable international production record. -- With a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, the pedigree speaks for itself; and the WOBT company are certainly up to the task.

Two-and-a-half-hours fly by, as the 30+ member ensemble act, sing, and dance their collective ways into our hearts, telling the story of "pleasantly plump" teenager Tracy Turnblad [Merelee Robinson] as she attempts to secure a role as one of the "nicest kids in town" on the Corny Collins [Tate G. Pollock] afternoon television dance show, and on the way discovers love for teen idol Link Larkin [Michael Armstrong], and leads the way to racially integrating the Corny Collins Show.

Tracy gets sent to detention where she meets several African-American students, among them Seaweed Stubbs [Matthew Mitchell], who teaches her some new dance steps. When she realizes that "Negro Day" on the Collins show is only once a month, she doesn't understand why Blacks and Whites aren't allowed to dance together, and determines to do something about it. And when her friend Penny [Lucie Chesser] falls for Seaweed, things get even more complicated, especially since Penny's bigoted mother Prudy [Elizabeth Bowles] would never approve.

But Tracy's parents are there to support her. Wilbur [Michael Buchanan], the goofy owner of a joke shop, encourages his daughter to follow her dreams; and Edna [Jon Darby], a self-consciously plus-sized woman who runs a laundry business at her home which she hasn't stepped out of in years, delights in Tracy's new-found fame.

There are other obstacles in Tracy's way -- from the cool kids' mocking her weight, to the resistance against integrating the TV show -- but love and inclusion will win the day.

Amber Von Tussle [Kiersten Mattox], a local beauty used to winning the "Miss Hairspray" contest and Link's long time girlfriend, does her best to obstruct Tracy's chances; and her mother Velma [Olivia Crutchfield], a former beauty contest winner and producer of the Corny Collins Show, conspires against Tracy and any attempt to integrate the show.

With the assistance of Motormouth Maybelle [Makayla Matthews], the "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" hostess of "Negro Day", the kids march on the Corny Collins Show, get thrown into jail, and ultimately rock the house with a "now and forever" integrated show.

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for 1960s music, and the score delivers the spirit of the era without sentimentality; the songs have familiar sounds and lyrics, but manage to be current as well. "Good Morning Baltimore" opens the show with a feel-good sensibility that hardly goes away, "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" has the three girls and their mothers spatting about growing up, and "Welcome to the Sixties" is a reminder that social and societal change is on its way. And "I Can Hear the Bells" and "It Takes Two" are universal paeans to young love.

"Run and Tell That", "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful", and the powerful anthem "I Know Where I've Been" drive home the serious messages of racial inclusion and social acceptance that were 1960s' imperatives that resonate as strongly today as our world is confronted by obstruction, name-calling, and fear-mongering from every quarter.

Layne Holley's masterful use of periaktoi in her stage design makes the simple set pieces serve numerous purposes; costumes by Carol Heier, Cheryl Jones, Faye Parker, Judy Savage, and Danny Davidson replicate the 60s and are character driven in their choices; Daren Eastwold's and Ms. Moore's choreography is energetic, capturing the spirit of the period and challenging the ensemble. Marilyn Swears' musical direction gives attention to the strong solo voices as well as the dynamic chorus.

The ensemble is terrific as they depict a variety of characters [done in a twinkling with the able assistance of off-stage dressers], as they drive the plot forward and support the featured actors -- specially noteworthy is the African-American girl trio who command the stage on every appearance. -- Two cameo roles are played with verve by Scott Page as Mr. Pinky, the owner of a line of clothes for plus-sized women who "dresses" Tracy when she gets some acclaim; and Leslie Bailey as the mean-spirited Prison Matron who gets her kicks from abusing inmates. Both are enjoyable.

Ms. Moore is fortunate to have gathered an ideal cast in the major roles: Ms. Chesser and Mr. Mitchell seem so well paired and comfortable with each other, and her shy and nerdy Penny is a perfect foil to his self-assurance as Seaweed. -- As the nasty Von Tussles, it is clear how parents often influence the worst behavior in their offspring; Ms. Crutchfield's domineering Velma is replicated in Ms. Mattox's impersonation of the spoiled Amber. -- Mr. Pollock imbues Corny Collins with all the slick show-biz elan he can muster; Corny is the consummate TV host with one eye on the camera and one eye on his appearance, and a smile he turns on on cue. Good work.

Ms. Matthews' depiction of Motormouth Maybelle is passionate and compassionate; she shows a clear understanding of the racial situation and rises above the stereotypical. A powerful performance.

Almost a match made in heaven, Mr. Darby's Edna and Mr. Buchanan's Wilbur register a comfort that is admirable; their heartfelt support of Tracy is sincere, and their love-duet -- "Timeless to Me" -- is the sweetest declaration of love and respect between two unremarkable individuals that nonetheless leave a lasting impression on the audience. Mr. Darby in drag is so committed to the role that one thinks of him only as Edna.

Mr. Armstrong's Link -- a heartthrob if ever there was one -- has the youthful good looks the role requires; and his ability to ingratiate himself through audience "asides" and swoon-inducing swaggers makes it possible for Tracy to fall for him hook-line-and-sinker. Add to this a pleasant singing voice, able stage presence, and a confident connection to Ms. Robinson's Tracy, and you have a solid performance.

Ms. Robinson, though, is the heart and soul of Hairspray; it is her story that holds everything together, so it is important that we are on her side from the start. And from the top of the show to its rousing conclusion where she leads the company in "You Can't Stop the Beat", there is never a moment when she is onstage that we are not rooting for her. Whether she is cajoling her parents or Penny, or standing up to Amber and Velma, or connecting with Seaweed and Motormouth Maybelle, or pining away with love for Link, or rallying the troops to demonstrate for inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance of all people, Ms. Robinson's commitment, energy, vocal endurance, and persistent optimism are the major forces in this production. Kudos.

This WOBT production of Hairspray should have River Region audiences talking for some time. In meeting the play's many challenges, in cooperative and collaborative work from numerous local theatres and their personnel, in addressing the serious themes of inclusion that are still too much with us, and in providing a dynamic and provocative and delightful evening's sold-out entertainment, there's more than enough evidence that live theatre is thriving here.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Peter Pan"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse's sold-out run of J. M. Barrie's beloved Peter Pan, with its mix of young and adult actors, continues this weekend under Jason Morgan's inventive direction. Time passes quickly in this production, as we are caught up in the dynamic energy of the strong ensemble actors, the flexibility of the Playhouse's long thrust stage, the inventive and colorful costumes, and the uninhibited truthful  reactions from several younger members of the audience. -- There is some magic going on here.

Audiences are transported to "Neverland" along with Wendy [Piper Doyle], John [Dan Jordan] and Michael [Jake Jordan], as their nursery-bedroom becomes the home of the Lost Boys, a Pirate Ship, and the several other locations in "Neverland" where Peter Pan [Kendrick Golson] -- the leader of the Lost Boys who is determined to "never grow up" -- has brought them, with a sprinkling of pixie-dust compliments of Tinkerbell [Emily Witcher, who also plays the children's mother Mrs. Darling] -- so that Wendy can regale them with stories and become their surrogate Mother. Tinkerbell's jealous streak almost dooms Wendy, and Peter sends her away.

Peter's arch-enemy, the dastardly Captain Hook [Matthew Klinger] -- pursued by the Croccodile that bit off his hand [Steven Majors also plays Nana, the children's "nanny" dog] -- and his cohort of pirates, have captured Tiger Lily [Percionna Hale]; the ever resourceful Peter and his crew rescue her, and things seem to settle down for the moment.

When the children get homesick, their plans of returning are temporarily thwarted by Captain Hook, who also poisons Tinkerbell; but their return home, to be reunited with their doting parents [Ms. Witcher and John McWilliams as Mr. Darling] with all the Lost Boys except Peter in tow, is guaranteed; and Peter promises to return each year to take Wendy back to Neverland at Spring-cleaning time.

While there are a few rushed moments [for example: bringing Tinkerbell back to life by asking: Do you  believe in Fairies? and needing time for "clapping" to bring her back], and a lot of rapid speech that blurs articulation of important plot details, the story and its characters are clear.

The ensemble is a good one, but special notice goes to Mr. McWilliams's portrayal of the stuffy Mr. Darling who nonetheless endears himself with his resistance to display emotion; and to Mr. Klinger's sly and nasty Captain Hook; and to Ms. Doyle's truthful depiction of Wendy's charm, intelligence, and awkward-age need to be treated as an adult.

Holding it all together is Mr. Golson's Peter Pan. Not only does he turn in a remarkably athletic performance, but his ever-ready smile and optimistic outlook in the role makes him completely believable as the boy who won't grow up, and his generous shared relationships with the Darling children, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily, the Mermaids, the Pirates and Captain Hook keep him the center of attention throughout.

This is the first time the Playhouse Troupe has had a production in the main season at the Cloverdale Playhouse. -- If this is any indication of the quality and audience support, let us hope it continues.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Millbrook" "The Odd Couple"

Ten years ago, The Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened its inaugural season with Neil Simon's The Odd Couple at the Robinson Springs United Methodist Church. Now housed at the nearby old Robinson Springs Elementary School, their current production of The Odd Couple boasts a cast of veteran actors, several of them reprising roles they played in 2007.

It seems that Simon's works never go out of style: The Odd Couple [1965] is the fourth Simon production to hit the River Region since February -- Fools at Faulkner University, Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Wetumpka Depot. His popularity stems in part from his likable and decent characters [imperfect as they are], as well as his witty dialogue replete with zingers and snappy one-liners.

The Odd Couple is most familiar from the successful 1970-1975 television sitcom of the same name, so there are built in expectations of seeing conflicts between good friends -- the easygoing and sloppy Oscar Madison [John Chain] and his unexpected housemate, the uptight neat-freak Felix Unger [Roger Humber].

When Felix arrives late to the weekly poker game at Oscar's 8-room Manhattan apartment [at $240 a month, a probably rent-controlled bargain even in 1965, when cigarettes went for .38-cents a pack and newspapers cost a dime], the motley crew of poker buddies are all concerned for their friend. Felix reluctantly tells them about his upcoming divorce, and Oscar generously offers to take him in as a temporary housemate. Longtime friendships are put to the test, and disaster is predictably on its way.

Of course, Felix wants to be helpful, and at first everyone is happy that his cooking outshines Oscar's and his tidying-up is a blessing; but things get out of hand as Felix's obsessions with cleanliness and deadlines destroy their camaraderie.  Roy [Wes Meyer], Speed [Bill Rauch], Murray [Mark McGuire], and Vinnie [John Collier] have numerous fallings-out, but Oscar eventually reaches a breaking point when his plans for him and Felix to double-date the Pigeon sisters -- Gwendolyn [Karla McGhee] and Cecily [Rae Ann Collier] -- ends catastrophically.

The play is really about friendship more than anything else: male-bonding over poker, cigars, booze, and bad food; friends who tolerate each others' extreme idiosyncrasies, even friendships between divorced husbands and wives. -- Both Oscar and Felix are devoted to their families [Oscar's sincere phone conversations with his ex-wife show a genter side of his otherwise brusque demeanor, and Felix's declarations of still loving his soon-to-be ex-wife can soften even the hardest hearts].

Directors Susan Chain and Stephanie McGuire have an acting ensemble who appear comfortable in their respective roles and with one another. But some static movement and unclear articulation get in the way of Simon's witty script. [Perhaps the unfortunately small audience had an effect on their performances; greater numbers responses would add to a lively interaction between actors and audience.]

Nonetheless, this production of The Odd Couple delivers on the playwright's intentions, garners some laugh-out-loud moments, and sends a gentle reminder that friendship is important to everyone.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Last of the Red Hot Lovers"

Rose: "Why would a man need more than one woman?"
Johnny: "I don 't know. Maybe because he fears death."
--Moonstruck [1987]

Johnny's response in the film Moonstruck is also the crux of the matter in Neil Simon's comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers [1969], now being shown at the Wetumpka Depot Theatre, where the central character Barney Cashman [Will Webster] engages in hilarious encounters with three distinctly different women.

A bit of a nebbish, and essentially a "gentle, loving, and decent" fellow, Barney is appealingly naive when, after 27 years of marriage, he decides to have an affair, and uses his mother's apartment while she is away for a few hours in the afternoon. Completely ill-equipped for such a dalliance, always aware of his mother's fastidious housekeeping, and naive to any protocols, his attempts at romancing the three women are bound to fail from the very first moment, precisely because he is "gentle, loving, and decent."

Mr. Webster is on stage for the entire two hours and twenty minutes, a tour de force performance that shows this actor's versatility: comic timing, physical dexterity, clear and complex characterization, and a generosity in sharing the stage with three excellent actresses. -- And though Neil Simon was considered a lightweight comic writer in these early days, only being recognized for greater depth as his career developed, there are several serious notes in Last of the Red Hot Lovers that ought to receive attention.

In Barney's first encounter with sexpot Elaine [Leslie Blackwell], he first admits that this is "the first time in my life I think about dying". -- Elaine is loud, direct, and businesslike, and he is obviously nervous; and while he wants conversation "to get to know one another", she wants a drink and a cigarette. Ms. Blackwell is best at delivering one-liners with a deadpan seriousness that take Mr. Webster off-guard. And his blue-suit uptight demeanor dooms the relationship from the start. Our hearts go out to him, and also approve of her matter-of-fact non-judgmental exit.

Barney's second encounter with the hippie Bobbi Michelle [Leanna Wallace] is by far the most outrageously comical of the three. Ms. Wallace inhabits her character with all its contradictions and paranoid behavior with such unassuming grace and naivete that each squeal or aggression or petulance is welcomed by collective audience laughter. Goofy and charming throughout, this pot smoking scatterbrained chatterbox who has a Nazi-lesbian roommate, never misses a beat; and the pot smoking sequence loosens Barney up to the delight of the audience, especially as it has a near maudlin realization of Barney's age and mortality.

In the third encounter with Jeannette [Chantel Oakley] the icing is put on Simon's cake. Jeannette is a friend who clutches her pocketbook and has what amounts to an extraordinary emotional breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably and ruining any chance of an affair. -- She too is searching for the happiness that Barney seeks, and Ms. Oakley's melodramatic demands for him to name three people who are "gentle, loving, and decent" lead them both to realize that they and their spouses are the only ones that matter. Growing old together with the recognition that other people experience the same doubts and fears is a comforting note on which to end Barney's escapades.

Director Tom Salter stages Last of the Red Hot Lovers on a period specific 1960s set, and defines each scene distinctly, always aware of Barney's attempts to improve by adjusting to what came before, yet failing gloriously each time. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that stem from Simon's witty dialogue and adroit characterizations from the acting ensemble, making this an enjoyable and thought provoking production.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Crucible"

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

First-time director Sarah Adkins brings a lot to the table in her audacious post-apocalyptic production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the playwright's 1953 response to Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist "witch hunts" that Miller set during the actual 17th Century Salem, MA witch trials.

Replete with haunting music and sound effects by Stephen Dubberley, Mike Winkelman's "in-yer-face" theatre-in-the-round staging [multi-level platforms and harsh lighting create a harrowing mis-en-scene to support the story], a team's -- led by Matthew Oliver and Mariah Reilly, with Danny Davidson and Michael Reilly -- suitably "distressed" and well-chosen costumes, and a 20-strong age-appropriate acting ensemble who create indelible characters and articulate Miller's words and ideas with enviable clarity and conviction, Ms. Adkins' directorial debut resonates long after the performance ends.

Audiences at The Crucible seem eager to continue the conversation between the Acts and after the curtain call. -- How does what happened in 1692, or in the 1950s, or [in the case of this production] in a bleakly envisioned future, impact us in 2017? -- When we see in The Crucible how religious fanaticism trumps any cogent argument, how accusations and alternative facts are proclaimed without any regard for evidential support, how entitlement comes from money or social class, how mere suspicion equates with guilt, how fear-mongering becomes intimidating through persistence in shouting down or ignoring opposing views, the correlations with the current state of affairs at home and abroad leap off the Playhouse stage and into our collective consciousness.

It is important to know that witches and witchcraft were widely believed in 1692 Salem; yet, there are some strange happenings there and across the Massachusetts Bay Colony that Miller confronts in The Crucible. -- Puritan minister Reverend Parris [Jason Morgan in a transforming characterization that is arguably a career-defining role] has seen several young girls dancing in the woods with his Barbadian slave Tituba [Meghan Ducote] and suspects their mischief may have included conjuring the devil, especially since his own daughter Betty [Frances Brown] was one of them and is now lying in bed "afflicted" and comatose. Fearing his reputation more than anything else, he has called for witchcraft expert Reverend Hale [Marcus Clement shows a complex range as his character changes allegiances] to come from nearby Beverly to detect witchcraft, and if so to destroy witches in the name of God, and prevent an outbreak of panic and hysteria.

Parris' niece Abigail Williams [Amber Baldwin, cold-hearted and despicable in the role] is the ring-leader of the girls, who is determined to maintain their innocence at all costs; she had had a brief affair with local farmer John Proctor [Kalonji Gilchrist] when she worked for him; when Proctor's wife Elizabeth [Mariah Reilly] discovered their affair, she kicked Abigail out of the house, but the younger woman refuses to be put off when Proctor says their relationship is over. -- She then takes advantage of Proctor's weakness to shift attention from the girls' conjuring in the woods by charging witchcraft on Elizabeth in order to kill her off and take her place with Proctor. -- Abigail's chief cohort, Mary Warren [Alex Rikerd is riveting in the role as her testimony will determine the results], provides a glimmer of hope when she agrees to testify on Elizabeth's behalf; but her shifting allegiances get the better of her as she succumbs to Abigail's authority.

How easy and familiarly contemporary it seems, and how quickly the fear and hysteria snowball. --  Parris is more concerned with retaining his position than with the well-being of the community he is meant to serve from the pulpit; wealthy Thomas Putnam [George Jacobsen] and his wife Ann [Elizabeth Bowles] are ready to accuse others of witchcraft as they suspect the infant-deaths of several of their children can only be explained that way. In haughty and determined characterizations, their history of winning lawsuits by dint of their wealth and social position is also a matter of contention from Giles Corey [Tom Lawson] and Francis Nurse [Bill Llewellyn]. So, whenever the truth about the girls' exploits are in danger of being revealed, Abigail leads them in "spontaneous fits" and outrageous accusations of witchcraft against Rebecca Nurse [Teri Sweeney] and several of the most respected members of the community. And our sympathies go out to them.

Yet things get even more frightening on the arrival of Judge Hathorne [Lee Bridges] and the imposing Deputy Governor Danforth [Roy Goldfinger];  a stern and practical man, Danforth is a calculating presence in Mr. Goldfinger's portrayal. Sticking to the letter if the law during the trials, he seems to favor the stature of the court and his position over justice, and refuses to examine evidence or stop the executions; he clearly is Miller's villain, since he wields life or death authority over the falsely accused but acts unfairly and unreasonably. And yet, he cannot fathom the people's fear of him and his court. Even Reverend Hale's frustrated declaration -- "I quit this court!" -- when he determines the fraudulence of the accusations and testimonies, does not deter Danforth; when Hale returns to "minister" to the condemned, Danforth is temporarily caught off guard, but tries to use Hale to his pre-determined judgments.

When Proctor tries to defend his wife against invented and circumstantial evidence, and Abigail's vengeful tantrums threaten to disrupt the proceedings, he calls her a whore, thus condemning himself as a lecher and sealing Elizabeth's fate when she lies in his defense saying she knew nothing of the affair. -- The focus of Miller's play is on the Proctors, and Mr. Gilchrist and Ms. Reilly imbue their characters' complexity and contradictions faithfully. With subtle vocal and physical changes, clarity of intentions, and impressive dignity of character, these two actors create a palpable tension in every scene they are in, and an empathy with the audience.

There are a few times when staging blocks important action from parts of the audience, and when lines are muddled or hard to hear because of intense emotions or busy stage action, but The Crucible [its three hours seem to fly by] certainly ranks high in The Cloverdale Playhouse's seasonal offerings : fine ensemble performances of a challenging and provocative script that has been given new life by Ms. Adkins -- a promising emerging director.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

ASF: "The Tempest"

Part One:
Geoffrey Sherman is stepping down this Summer at the end of his 12-year stint as Producing Artistic Director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; so it is fitting that his last Shakespeare production is The Tempest, acknowledged as the Bard's last play written alone [without collaborators], and one that many scholars believe is his farewell to the stage through the figure of the play's protagonist Prospero, played here by Esau Pritchett, seen recently at ASF in Dauphin Island.

The version of The Tempest that Sherman is presenting is "a transcription for contemporary voices" by Kenneth Cavander, one of many playwrights commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Play on!" series -- more about that project follows below -- and whose Timon of Athens played at ASF a couple of seasons ago. A curious choice.

The story opens with a storm at sea and a shipwreck with the King of Naples and his retinue on board, the "tempest" caused by Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan who, with his 4-year-old daughter Miranda, was set adrift years ago and landed on an uncharted island. Here, Prospero discovered magic, enslaved the monster Caliban and the sprite Ariel who do his bidding with varying degrees of resistance. -- As the now teenaged Miranda worries about the shipwrecked passengers, Prospero assures her they are not harmed and decides it is time for her to know her origins and learn later of his intentions of revenge and ultimate forgiveness.

The lengthy exposition establishes secondary stories of the aristocrats' inner fighting and murder plots, the clowns' drunkenness and attachment to Caliban in a plot to take over the island by killing Prospero, and the deliberate separation of the King's son Ferdinand from the others in order to manage a contrived meeting with Miranda and their instant romance. -- Keeping these disparate groups apart till the penultimate scene affords audiences some suspense leading up to the inevitable gathering of all the characters and the discovery of Prospero's intentions.

Part Two:
Sherman's production has a lot of things going for it to delight the eye and ear: romantic costumes [Pamela Scofield], evocative musical composition [James Conely] and sound score [William H.Burns], complimentary scenery [James Wolk] and lighting [Kendall Smith], several magical special effects, stunning video projections [Brad Peterson] that establish locations and atmosphere, and talented and committed ensemble actors.

James Bowen's and Rodney Clark's buffoonery as the clownish Trinculo and Stephano eke out some sympathy for their predicament and drunken behavior; and their lording it over Caliban offers the pretensions of lower class men attempting to act like aristocrats.

Paul Hebron's sympathetic portrayal of Gonzalo, the old councillor who aided Prospero in his escape and who here adds a needed dignity to the aristocracy; especially as King Alonzo [Larry Tobias], his brother Sebastian [Jason Martin], and Prospero's brother Antonio [John Manfredi] who had usurped the Dukedom from Prospero years ago, are by and large a mean-spirited group.

As the love-at-first-sight couple, Ferdinand [Seth Andrew Bridges] and Miranda [Christina King] demonstrate an adolescent innocence along with appropriate excessive emotions. We, along with Prospero who had set this all up, approve of their union from the start; and their relationships with Prospero [father/daughter; father-in-law/son-in-law] are instantly recognizable.

Relationships are strained between Prospero and Caliban [Brik Berkes]. Mr. Berkes imbues the role with credible resentment [he once had the island to himself]; and though Prospero had treated him nicely at first, he turned on him when Caliban attempted to violate Miranda. As he says: "You taught me language; and my profit on 't/Is, I know how to curse."

As the sprite Ariel, Erin Chupinsky does Prospero's bidding willingly, but is eager for the freedom from bondage that Prospero had promised. Ms. Chupinksy is an adept dancer and singer, and seems to delight in the various tricks and magic that Prospero commands of Ariel. -- There is a bond between them that is expressed gently in their final moments together.

A commanding presence, Mr. Pritchett's Prospero is, by turns, paternal, authoritative, compassionate, vengeful, driven, and contemplative -- a many-dimensioned character who can turn on a dime and have audiences engaged throughout. Well done.

Part Three:
Elizabethan audiences went to "hear" a play, much like we go to "see" a play. So, it is not unusual for the production values in modern staging to receive much of the audiences' attention, sometimes distracting us from the sound of the words and the words themselves. -- For a long time, productions of Shakespeare have been edited, adapted, set in exotic locales and time periods, had all female casts, and been subjected to post-apocalyptic interpretations. So, it is common enough to attend a non-traditional rendering. And directors have regularly updated occasional antiquated words.

The "Play on!" project has been debated since its inception, questioning whether there is a need for updating scripts so contemporary audiences will find them more accessible. One camp believes that such "translations" will make them clearer, can attract new audiences, and stand side by side with the original scripts. Another camp believes that changing Shakespeare's vocabulary and versification dumbs-down the originals and condescends to today's audiences who, given productions by classically trained actors who make the words effortlessly comprehensible, will most certainly understand them; and that the richness of Shakespeare's words and the robustness of his verse must be preserved.

"Do no harm" is the charge given to all 36 "Play on!" writers: "don't add personal politics, don't fix Shakespeare's structure, observe the rigors of language [meter, rhythm, metaphor, imagery, rhyme, rhetoric, and structural content]; but go line-by-line, updating antiquated language, but retaining as much of the original as didn't need change".

While Cavander's script does retain much of Shakespeare's original [Prospero's major monologues, for example, and some familiar lines: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on..." and "O brave new world...", for example], many of the changes have rendered a less than vibrant dialogue and a flatness to the verse that the actors must rise above.

The beauty of Shakespeare's language is in part the sound of it. I missed luxuriating in that in listening to Cavander's version, despite the visual delight of this production.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Theatre AUM: "The Flick"

Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick is playing at Theatre AUM, in keeping with that program's educational theatre charge to showcase new plays along with standard fare. Montgomery audiences and the AUM students have a chance to see plays that will be unlikely at other local venues.

At its debut, the critical responses to The Flick were mixed, largely because very little happened during its 3+ hours playing time [AUM's production comes in at less than 2-hours]; yet, the characters and their personal stories resonate truthfully, no matter how mundane the situations and the dialogue.

Set in a one-screen movie theatre in Worcester, MA called "The Flick", it is one of a few remaining movie houses still showing 35mm celluloid projections while others have embraced the new digital format; and AUM director Val Winkelman locates her audiences on what is usually their stage playing area facing the rows of seats they ordinarily sit in, and what would be the location of the "screen" for the characters in The Flick.

For most of the play's two acts, two of the play's three central characters go about their dreary jobs cleaning up the movie house of the debris left by patrons at the end of the working day. Sam [David Moore] has worked there a while in a dead-end job, and is instructing Avery [Tony George] on the routine job requirements while establishing his seniority over the newcomer who is only there in a stop-gap position taking a break from college. Both are movie nerds, and engage in countless games of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon".

Sam is also enamored of the projectionist Rose [Cathy Raneiri], a take-charge open-minded woman; but she does not return his interest and seems to be intrigued by Avery.

In a series of short episodic scenes stretching over the course of several days, these minimum wage earners reveal many layers of their personalities and individual histories that realistically replicate the ways in which we often hold conversations: half sentences, overlapping thoughts, filler words, and sounds. -- We learn of the sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes frustrating things that each has experienced, along with some consuming obsessions about work, race, class, family, social privilege, and the need for solidarity among them in face of imminent closure of their workplace by the never seen manager and owner of "The Flick".

The major challenges of Ms. Baker's play -- delivering her ultra-naturalistic dialogue believably, and sustaining her deliberately slow pace with its numerous lengthy pauses -- make it imperative for the characters' complicated lives to resonate with audiences. And Ms. Winkelman's cast [also with Chris Mascia as an eager-to-please new hire named Skylar], render the words with conviction, though sometimes with such naturalistic understated delivery as to be hard to hear.

These are lonely people reaching out to one another in ways that they find difficult to express. -- And we feel for them without being able to help.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Faulkner: "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown"

In 1967, Charles M. Schultz's Peanuts comic-strip characters came to life in a small Off-Broadway theatre in a sweetly innocent musical comedy, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Small on dialogue, yet big on songs that re-create many of the Peanuts characters' familiar situations, it ran for over a thousand performances and was uniformly praised for its ability to capture the innocence of childhood through a simple low-key style. The music and lyrics by Clark Gesner evoked a nostalgia shared over the years by audiences all over the globe.

In 1999, a "revised" version with additional dialogue by Michael Mayer, and Andrew Lippa's insertion of some new songs and "enhancements" of the original score, became the version available for performances today; and this is the one currently showing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre. Though it retains much of the original's winsomeness [and Faulkner's ensemble actors are up to the task], some of the solo songs become small-scale production numbers, and the new songs work against the intentionally childlike qualities of the original source material.

Director Angela Dickson, along with Marilyn Swears [piano] and Mark Benson [percussion], keep the action going at a solid pace on Matt Dickson's cartoon-colorful set. And the cast -- Hunter Lee Smith (Charlie Brown), Catherine Allbritton (Sally Brown), Emily Woodring (Lucy Van Pelt), Morgan Baker (Linus Van Pelt), Colby Smith (Schroeder), John Pate (Snoopy) -- are instantly recognizable in their respective roles, and delight their audiences with strong singing Faulkner is noted for and with engaging performances.

While Charlie Brown's journey as a lovable failure who never succeeds at baseball or flying kites is the center of the story, each of the others has a moment in song that highlights a personality trait or renders a specific story line that are featured in Schultz's comic strip.

Production numbers -- "The Book Report" on Peter Rabbit shows each character's mind-set with hilarious results, and the "Glee Club Rehearsal" of "Home on the Range" deteriorates into mayhem -- show a fine sense of collaborative ensemble work.

Ms. Woodring's Lucy is bossy and arrogant and wants to be a Queen, but is also hopelessly in love with Schroeder as he plays the "Moonlight Sonata", and softens her amateur psychiatrist's pronouncements towards Charlie Brown in "The Doctor is In".

Mr. Smith's Schroeder is continuously frustrated by others who don't share his taste for classical music, but celebrates a raucous "Beethoven Day" with the company.

Ms. Allbritton has a ball with Sally's uncooperative jump rope and shines [along with Mr. Smith's Schroeder] in "New Philosophy".

Mr. Baker's most sensitive moment comes in "My Blanket and Me" as Linus serenades, almost loses, and ultimately rescues what we all recognize as a childhood security of the finer moments in this production.

Mr. Pate has several big moments as Snoopy: a dog's idyll that "They Like Me" is understated as "not bad at all"; his iconic aerial pursuit of "The Red Baron" as a "flying ace" from atop his doghouse; and an out-of-control delight in "Suppertime".

And Mr. Smith's disastrous "The Kite" that won't fly, his inevitable failure at "The Baseball Game", his constant distraction with the Little Red-haired Girl, culminate in "Happiness" with the whole company and Lucy in particular admitting at last: "You're a good man, Charlie Brown".