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".

Thursday, March 30, 2017

WOBT: "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

Director Blair Dyson's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre has one of that theatre's strongest acting ensembles gracing the stage in Neil Simon's 1983 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy. Set in the title's Brooklyn neighborhood in 1937, it tracks a Jewish family's lives as World War II is about to erupt in Europe where many of their family and friends still live.

The War is occasionally referenced in the two acts, reminding us that even during the Depression, the hard times in America pale in comparison to the horrors of the holocaust to come.

But war is the last thing in the mind of Simon's alter-ego, the precocious 15-year-old Eugene Jerome [Sam Elsky] who is more interested in sports and a fixation on women's breasts. -- Eugene is also the narrator of the piece who regularly comments on his frustrations with other family members: his mother Kate's [Zyna Captain] constant nagging and unremarkable cooking; his Aunt Blanche's [Melissa Strickland] fragile health; his admiration of elder brother Stanley [Christian Chapman] who "instructs" him on "the ways of the world"; his older cousin Nora's [Grace Moore] breasts and dreams of becoming a Broadway star; his younger cousin Laurie's [Tori Sigler] retreat into bookishness because of a perceived illness; and the solidity of his father Jack [Gary Essary] whose wise advice is sought on every important issue or decision.

While several characters' choices need Jack's sage advice, and with two families living under one roof due to financial straits in hard times predictably cause some friction, the resulting anger and misunderstandings [some recent and some long-held resentments] are eventually forgiven because of the bond of love and family they share.

What holds this production together is the sincere portrayals of all the characters. The playwright's witty dialogue is delivered truthfully, demonstrating these actors' ability to humanize their sometimes outrageous pronouncements. And for all their complaints about others behaviors, the love that is rarely expressed in words is demonstrated by their actions.

They invite us into their home and their lives for a couple of hours, and we can't help but love them back.

ASF: "Dauphin Island"

First done in Montgomery as a reading in 2015's "Southern Writers Project", playwright Jeffry Chastang's Dauphin Island is being given its World Premier production on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon stage. In an intermissionless 90-minutes, director Nancy Rominger and her two actors -- Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel and Esau Pritchett [both veterans at ASF] -- involve audiences in the relationship that develops over a weekend between two unlikely souls.

Set in a remote rural landscape in Southern Alabama, a place where people could easily get lost or where they could escape the pressures of the outside world, the contrived meeting of Selwyn Tate [Mr. Pritchett]  and Kendra Evans [Ms. VandenHeuvel] when his car breaks down and he stumbles into her yard, then tracks the small and large events they share as the relationship changes from combative to a kind of detente to trust and a love that both understand will not be fulfilled.

Make no mistake, this is not a twenty-somethings romantic tale; these are adults who have life experiences that have molded them into the persons they are today. Coming from very different backgrounds [information about each one's past is distributed bit-by-bit throughout the play], their individual experiences with marriage, children, family, jobs, social expectations, and the need to break traditions, affords the playwright and the company the opportunity to delve into subjects that audiences share in common with the characters.

And when we are graced by the strong and truthful performances by these two gifted actors, there is hardly a moment when we are not engaged.

Yet things happen so quickly, stretching credibility that the aforementioned changes in their relationship as well as some elements of their physical appearance could have happened in a matter of hours.

Ms. VandenHeuvel and Mr. Pritchett are so committed to their roles,mspeaking the play's naturalistic dialogue with utter confidence and comfort, that audiences readily accept the gaps in the script that omit sufficient evidence that might have supplied clearer answers to the characters' motives.

Production values (set, lights, costumes, sound) are all top notch, making the Octagon's intimate space the ideal location for this intimate two-handler. -- And the quality of the acting involves audiences long after the performance ends.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ASF: "Sherlock Holmes"

It's not often that stage scenery gets applause these days, but James Wolk's stunning sets for the Alabama Shakepeare Festival's production of Sherlock Holmes did just that on opening night virtually every time the massive revolving Festival stage revealed yet another superbly detailed location. These, and Paula Scofield's gorgeous period costumes, transported the audience back to late-Victorian England for 2 3/4 hours that ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes -- an uber-sleuth whose powers of deduction set the standard for other fictional detectives -- put lesser humans to shame from his 1887 appearance in "A Study in Scarlet" through a series of novels and short stories till 1927. But, how does he do it? His mantra, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", was first expressed in "The Sign of Four" (1890); and his mastery of deductive reasoning has been variously portrayed by stage and film actors from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch.

And now at ASF, Brik Berkes takes on the role in director Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of American actor-manager-playwright William Gillette's version of Conan Doyle's character. Gillette called his play Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Miss Faulkner (1899), and introduced theatre-goers to Holmes's deerstalker hat and calabash pipe; and he wanted to bring in a romantic element to a character hitherto a confirmed bachelor.

Gillette and Sherman keep Holmes off-stage for a long time, preparing the audience for his arrival with numerous references to his abilities; so from Mr. Berkes's first entrance on, we are treated to the familiar as well as some new facets of his character. Always assured to the point of arrogance, it is no surprise that Mr. Berkes's Holmes emerges victorious in thwarting arch-enemy Professor Moriarty [Rodney Clark plays the title character's nemesis to crusty perfection] and his underworld organization of criminals. But, his growing interest in Alice Faulkner [Alice Sherman], who is planning to avenge her sister's murder by withholding incriminating letters, adds another level to a man unused to romantic feelings.

Miss Faulkner is being held under duress by James and Madge Larrabee [John Manfredi and Jennifer Barnhart are both duplicitous to the core], who are also in cahoots with con-man safe-cracker Sidney Prince [Seth Andrew Bridges plays him with an irresistibly charming East End swagger that provides much of this production's comic relief].

As the plots intertwine, and with delightfully understated performances by Paul Hebron as Holmes's invaluable assistant, Dr. Watson, and James Bowen as a "sometime servant" John Forman, Holmes second-guesses everyone except Miss Faulkner who ultimately in Ms. Sherman's gentle yet firm depiction enables Holmes to admit his feelings towards her.

Supporting roles are handled by an assortment of returning and local actors: former ASF acting-intern Jason Martin returns to play three roles here; and Liam South, a fifth-grader veteran of A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan at ASF, plays errand boy Billy with confidence and maturity.

Making their ASF main stage debuts: Adrian Lee Borden gives French maid Therese a vigorous persona; Scott Bowman plays a tough hoodlum Jim Craigin and returns in an almost unrecognizable disguise as an officious Count Von Stalburg; and Sam Wootten appears first as Bassick, one of Moriarty's nasty henchmen, returning in a delightfully contrasting role as Parsons, a nebbishy butler.

There were a few technical problems on opening night, and the play itself creaks here and there with turn of the century plot devices, but the performances and the production values mentioned above engage us from beginning to end, resulting in a fine evening's entertainment.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Coupler"

Put together a young emerging playwright's award-winning script, a design team who help bring her clever story to life, a tight seven-member acting ensemble, and a director whose vision brings inventive interpretations that engage a contemporary audience in a fast-paced intermissionless 75-minutes, and you have Theatre AUM's latest foray into exhilarating theatre. -- Meredith Dayna Levy's Coupler has ended its two-weekend run, but for those fortunate enough to have gone on her magical fantasy ride, the memory should last a while.

Mike Winkelman's forced perspective cartoon-like set is made to replicate a London Underground train carriage that confines the actors into a small area that is located close to the first row of the audience and thereby invites them into its intimate space. Familiar popular music selections regularly punctuate and comment on the action. Val Winkelman's character-specific costumes help define the actors' roles and, with a few concessions to idiosyncrasies of the script, look like they could have come from anyone's closet.

For the first few minutes of director Neil David Seibel's production, there is no dialogue...only music, announcements of the names of station stops on "the tube's" Northern Line with reminders to "Mind the Gap" or be careful of the "closing doors", and actors getting on and off the train where they take various positions sitting or standing, each one in his or her own isolated world, until...the fatal brief eye-contact followed by an amazing kiss that erupts into a fantastical saga of hyper-connected people dropping their electronic devices and trying to communicate on a personal level. -- Can't we all identify with that?

Then things get even more interesting and bizarre as the Northern Line Train [Amy May], intent on being a kind of fairy godmother, sprinkles pixie dust on several unsuspecting characters, especially two "lost boys" who have reached adulthood but have not yet grown up or found true love. The "Neverland" metaphor takes over.

Christopher [Kodi Robinson] is an aspiring writer [he calls himself a 'logophile'] in need of inspiration for his new book. After he kisses Sadie [Brittany Vallely] and she disappears as she leaves her copy of Peter Pan on the train, his obsession with finding her is sidetracked when he meets Samantha [Olivia Crutchfield]. -- And Glenn [Jay Russell] is grieving over his mother's suicide and can't sustain any lasting relationship, especially with Emily [Kelli Abernathy] who also happens to be Christopher's publisher. -- Emily's assistant Cole [Antonio George] helps navigate the worlds of business between Christopher and Emily while attempting to ease a relationship between Christopher and Samantha.

The accomplishment of mixing fantasy with reality is managed with sound effects and sudden changes of lighting, so audiences are always aware how closely the real world resembles "Neverland" and how effortlessly the script allows both to exist simultaneously. -- It is a credit to the acting ensemble that they communicate this dichotomy so well and invite us to share their experiences.

To be fair, there are times when lines are hard to hear because of overlapping dialogue with a lot of physical action going on that garners spontaneous audience reactions; and the British dialects need to be more consistent.

The text takes great care in having the Train announce the various station stops along the Northern Line in correct order so there is never a doubt that all the real world action is confined to one carriage on an Underground train; yet, the surreal coexistence of "Neverland" intrudes into their lives, giving them a childlike freedom to help realize their potentials.

The characters may not grow up entirely, but by the end they are well on their way, and audiences who have delighted in their fantasies and felt the attraction of giving in to their own imaginations for a while, leave Theatre AUM with smiles on their faces.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

WOBT: "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Several stage versions of Harper Lee's beloved Pulitzer Prize novel To Kill a Mockingbird [1960] have appeared over the years. One adaptation that is most often performed is by Christopher Sergel, and each one puts its individual stamp on Lee's masterpiece.

Director Sam Wallace is at the helm at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre which is ending its sold-out run of Sergel's version this weekend. In a stripped-down production, he relies on actors and text to focus on Lee's messages, and though the plot is familiar to just about everyone, the presence of racism in America resonates forcefully in 2017, and reminds all of us that Thomas Jefferson's "all men are created equal" should be given more than lip-service.

Partly the "coming of age story" of tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch [Rebecca Joy Schannep], her older brother Jeremy "Jem" [Braden Fine] and their sometime neighbor Charles Baker "Dill" Harris [Levi Bone], who are fascinated and afraid of the reclusive neighbor they have never seen -- Arthur "Boo" Radley [Patrick Tatum] -- the story is set in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935, where Scout's and Jem's lawyer-father Atticus [Roy Goldfinger] agrees to defend Tom Robinson [Spencer Vaughn], a Black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell [Hannah Moore] the daughter of Bob Ewell [Eric Arvidson], a drunkenly aggressive and racist White man.

Facing the derision of many townspeople, Atticus believes Tom to be innocent; yet he realizes that he can't win the case because a White-only jury would never return a verdict of "not guilty" for a Black man so accused. The trial matches Atticus against defense attorney Mr. Gilmer [Douglas Mitchell], whose smooth twisting of evidence is a big challenge. Even though Atticus shows in court that Tom is innocent and humiliates the Ewells in public, the children believe Tom must be turned free; but the verdict comes down as expected, and Bob Ewell promises revenge.

When Ewell attacks the children one night, Atticus believes a wounded "Jem" had defended "Scout", killing Ewell in the fight. Sheriff Heck Tate [Michael B. Snead] knows that "Boo" Radley had protected the children, creating a dilemma for Atticus: a public trial of the simple recluse would do more damage (like killing a harmless mockingbird) than to accept the sheriff's pronouncement that "Bob Ewell fell on his own knife."

"Scout" has learned best that it is important to put yourself into another person's shoes in order to understand the complexities of the world; not always a happy realization, but certainly a big part in growing up, that both Atticus and the family's housemaid Calpurnia [Tunisia Thomas] reinforce daily by both word and example.

Some of the key moments in the play go by very quickly, lessening the impact as a result; specific moments need more stage time to allow audiences to absorb them -- the showdown between Atticus and the mob at the jail who want to hang Tom; the attack on the children and death of Ewell, for example. And the large group scenes and singing get a bit too raucous for important dialogue to be heard clearly.

But the focus is on the featured roles: each of the children give credible characterizations; both Mr. Arvidson and Ms. Moore are hateful Ewells in their deliberate lying under oath; Mr. Snead's sheriff is conflicted in his duty yet a representative of clear thinking; Mr. Vaughn is stoical and sympathetic as Tom; Ms. Thomas is a no-nonsense Calpurnia; Mr. Mitchell is a strong presence as Gilmer.

In smaller but important roles, Janie Allred shines as the fussy demanding neighbor Mrs. DuBose, and Lolly White is a clear and focused narrator, Miss Maudie.

Holding attention from start to finish is the nuanced performance given by Mr. Goldfinger as Atticus; he can be a commanding and persuasive lawyer, a sympathetic disciplinarian father, a compassionate neighbor, a cool-headed man when confronted by dangerous threats, and above all a moral arbiter whose integrity is intact throughout. His impassioned defense of Tom ought to be seen and heard by more people than the WOBT can hold. -- When Rev. Sykes [Calvin Johnson] intones the memorable line "stand up, your father is passing" to a disappointed "Scout" after the guilty verdict is read, we wholeheartedly agree that he deserves respect from everyone.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Millbrook: "Leading Ladies"

Ken Ludwig's farces have skewered actors [Moon Over Buffalo] and opera singers [Lend Me a Tenor], and he comes up trumps again with Leading Ladies as directed by A. John Collier this season for the Millbrook Community Players.

Here are two out-of-work English Shakespearean actors out of place in York, Pennsylvania; when they read a newspaper account of Florence [Michon R. Givens], a wealthy and sick old woman who is searching for her long-lost relatives to leave her fortune to; they plan to impersonate them and reap the rewards when the old lady dies. When Leo [Matthew Givens] and Jack [Alan Kouns] learn that the old woman's nephews Max and Steve are actually Maxine and Stephanie, they resolve to continue with their drag.

Things get complicated when Leo/Maxine falls for Florence's niece Margaret [Rae Ann Collier], and Jack/Stephanie falls for Florence's part-time aide Audrey [Meghan Yapana Ducote]. Of course, they can't reveal their true feelings. But Margaret loves Shakespeare, so Leo/Maxine intervenes with a plan to perform Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by getting Leo to act opposite Margaret in order to get closer to her. It hardly matters to him that Margaret is engaged to Rev. Duncan Wooley [Steve Phillips] who happens to be after Florence's millions as well. -- Needless to say, there are a lot of quick costume changes as the two actors must switch characters in the blink of an eye in order to continue their pretense. -- And the family doctor, Doc Meyers [Tim Griggs] attempts to foist his son Butch [Tanner Parrish] on Margaret in order to get some of Florence's inheritance for himself.

The set up has so many possibilities that Collier's ensemble cast deliver on very well. The energy they bring keeps the action moving while the jokes come hard and fast. It is hard to keep up with the almost constant barrage of familiar quotes from Shakespeare, both in and out of the context of Ludwig's farce. Additionally, the plot devices are taken straight from the Bard [and the long history of theatre]: cross dressing, disguise, deception, manipulative characters, witty dialogue, clowns, etc.

Ms. Givens portrays Florence with an archness and commanding voice that belies her character's age and illness, and stops the show with a presence that demands to be obeyed. Mr. Griggs and Mr. Parrish are excellent foils to the main characters. Mr. Phillips is significantly oily as the greedy minister who obsesses on controlling Margaret [and getting Florence's money]; sometimes, it is good to play the bad guy: the role is a juicy one.

Ms. Ducote is absolutely charming and vivacious as the air-headed Audrey. She lights up the stage every time she appears, and is generous in sharing the stage with her fellow actors. Well done.

Ms. Collier has the double charge of being constant to her fiance Rev. Wooley while simultaneously falling for Leo/Maxine; her confusion and ultimate choice to do the right thing and follow her heart and dreams gets deserved applause.

But the honors in this production go to Mr. Givens and Mr. Kouns. They are a terrific double-act reminiscent of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. -- While they sometimes go over-the-top in "campy" postures and voices, they work so well together, it makes for a delightful episode every time they are alone together on stage.

The scant opening night audience were treated to a raucous farce that could be even better with a packed house's laughter.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Red Door: "Tokens of Affection"

Topher Payne won the Osborn Award for a promising new playwright a few years back and has since become one of the most popular and prolific Atlanta-based writers. His affectionate romantic comedy Tokens of Affection [2011] has just finished its sold out all-too-short-one-weekend run at The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

Directed by Kathryn Adams Wood, a uniformly strong ensemble of six actors get more comfortable with Payne's snappy dialogue and contagiously rib-tickling situations as the performance progresses.

Most of the action takes place in and around the bohemian [i.e. "messy"] Manhattan apartment of Charlie Garrett [Alex Eberhart] who is struggling under a deadline to animate sea-turtles for a computer game he is constructing. His continually interrupted by phone calls from his sister Claire [Charity Smith], complaining that their neat-freak mother Jackie [Ms. Wood] has come to stay with her, having walked out on their father Frank [David Allen] and wants a divorce because he doesn't bring her flowers. -- "Mr. Fix-it" Frank meanwhile has arrived at Charlie's, suitcase in hand, with a far-fetched reason for his visit.

The adult children feel ambushed, and not comprehending why Jackie would suddenly ask for a divorce after 37 years of marriage, they want nothing more than to have their parents reconcile, leaving them to resume their normal lives.

Charlie's needy but supportive neighbor Rita [Elizabeth Roughton], a former actress and possibly romantic interest for Charlie, becomes a not-too-welcome distraction to Frank, and Claire's husband Bruce Burnham [Timothy Hereford] always identifies himself on the phone to Charlie by stating his full name (a running joke that audiences anticipate with glee) wants his mother-in-law out of his house because she has taken it over completely.

Playwright Payne deliberately keeps Jackie off-stage for a long time, while her assorted attributes are delineated by other characters in great detail; when she does finally appear, Ms. Wood displays all the passive-aggressive behaviors and martyred posturing that audiences expect.

For all of the melodramatic exaggerations he invents, the author has crafted characters and situations everyone can recognize, and the Red Door company take on his heightened insightfully witty dialogue with a remarkable vigor. -- As each character recognizes the building absurdity of their situations and admits a need for attention and a wish for happiness, they also discover that love is expressed in a variety of ways, and that they are best expressed in the "little things" that matter a lot more than major events.

Faulkner: "Fools"

Neil Simon is one of the most prolific living American playwrights whose witty comedies regularly appear on Broadway and in theatres around the world. Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Brighton Beach Memoirs are among the best known pieces; yet there are a number of lesser known works that also contain his signature verbal dexterity and clever situations -- Fools [1981] is one of these that is currently on offer at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Directed by Jason Clark South on Matt Dickson's flexibly moveable stage, the 10-member ensemble acting company make the most of Simon's one joke script: everyone in a remote Ukranian village except their new schoolmaster Leon Tolchinsky [Hunter Lee Smith] have been cursed with "stupidity" for the last 200 years; and once it is established that they take everything literally, can't add or subtract or even sit down without difficulty, don't know their own names, and have to be reminded that something happened just seconds ago, the conceit wears thin and the jokes are anticipated before they are spoken.

Once Leon meets his pupil Sophia Zubritsky [Emily McAliley] and falls instantly in love with her, he determined to break the curse by educating her and marrying her  within 24-hours or have to leave the town or become "stupid" like the rest of them. -- Sophia's parents, Dr. Zubritsky [Morgan Baker] and his wife Lenya [Catherine Allbritton], are all in favor of the match, but, like all the townspeople, are too "stupid" to help in any meaningful way; and marriage to Count Gregor [Ian Bruce looking like Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula and who comes twice a day to propose to Sophia] could also break the curse.

Much of the fun in this production comes from the commitment the actors give to their "stupid" characters; though they are not formally educated, they do show a remarkable ability to make a lot of sense. And the close family relationships and concern for the improvement of the town by removing the curse show them to be smart in other ways.

There is a lot of silliness at hand, but behind it are some important lessons in human behavior. "Love" is an unknown to the town, but Leon shows them the way; family and a citizenry concerned for the well-being of the town say a lot about the basic needs of everyone. -- And when the townspeople are told that they have been brainwashed into believing they all inherited their "stupidity" and that "you are only 'stupid' if you believe it", the curse is broken: basic Psychology 101.

This is Neil Simon in a minor key; but even in a minor key, there is a lot to enjoy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ASF Interns: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"

Greta Lambert [The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Director of Education and Outreach, and highly respected actor whose every appearance there is an event in itself] has done it again: for the seventh year in a row, she and the "ASF Bringing the Bard to Life" touring company enliven a Shakespeare play in an abbreviated text to introduce the Bard to high school students around the South and dispel the myth that Shakespeare is hard to understand. -- This year's offering is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, considered by many scholars to be his earliest play, a comedy that germinates many themes, characters, and plot elements that are developed in his later writing.

The current Acting Interns [last seen on their own in September in Charlotte's Web] are an energetic and inventive ensemble who engage their audiences with clear storytelling, precise articulation of Shakespeare's verse, occasional audience involvement, and expert comic timing.

All this is made possible by Ms. Lambert's adept and masterful editing of Shakespeare's script that retains all its essential  elements while tweaking its themes and characters into a 1960s setting, along with many anachronistic references and songs that fit the play's intentions and encourage contemporary audiences to connect with the on-stage action. -- Robert F. Wolin's clever set [moveable parts with gloriously rendered painted scenes], and Elizabeth Novak's inventive period costumes, create a stunning visual impact.

The performance lasts less than 90-minutes, and half of the eight member acting company play multiple roles apiece [their quick costume changes disguise the actors so well that one would think there are many more actors filling the roles]; with full commitment to each impersonation and technical skills to match, we simply enjoy the ride.

When Valentine [Andre Revels] heads to Milan, he asks his best friend Proteus [Justy Kosek] to go along; but Proteus is reluctant because he is in love with Julia [Kate Owens]. This young couple exchange rings and profess their undying love when Proteus' father insists he should be with his best friend in Milan. -- Meanwhile, Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia [Ann Flanigan], the daughter of the Duke of Milan [Joe O'Malley] who wants her to marry Thurio [Joshua Sottile], a rich fop, and locks her away in a tower to keep Valentine at bay. -- When Proteus arrives, he immediately falls for Sylvia and plans to win her away from much for the undying love he professed for Julia and the friendship he held for Valentine.

Back in Verona, Julia plans to go to Milan disguised as a boy, to surprise Proteus; but when she gets there, she discovers Proteus serenading Sylvia [who, by the way, rejects him], and offers to be his servant. -- There is a convoluted plot where the rings they had exchanged are forced upon Proteus, Valentine's capture by outlaws, and a reunion where everyone is reunited. -- Oh, yes, there's a wacky clown called Launce [Javon Q. Minter] and his dog Crab [Tirosh Schneider] who threaten to steal the show on their every appearance.

So many comic conventions are shown in their infancy in Two Gents: a woman disguised as a man who serves him while in disguise, the excessively melodramatic adolescent behavior of romantic teenagers, lovers' inconstancy, an exchange of letters into unintended hands, and a conflict between love and friendship...all of which are resolved by not always credible means.

But, the youthful vivacity of the ASF Intern troupe goes a long way into making these conventions palatable. -- Their complete conviction in telling Shakespeare's story makes for a delightful and sometimes thoughtful entertainment.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wetumpka Depot: "Ring of Fire"

It hardly matters whether or not you're a fan of the music of Johnny Cash when you witness the wealth of talent on the Wetumpka Depot stage in their production of Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash. -- The vitality of the ensemble cast and their abundant musical talents in singing and playing an array of musical instruments, keep this celebration of the man and his music in high gear for almost two hours.

Country, Gospel, Bluegrass, and Spiritual all have their place in Cash's career, and are given plenty of attention in this production: not a biographical story, but one which contains narrative snippets that put the songs in context and showcase the skills of the eight actors and a one person back-up band in the person of Donny Tomlin who effortlessly switches from banjo to mandolin to an assortment of other instruments that accompany the on-stage performers and add substance to their playing and singing.

Gavin Fuller, Rebecca Ivey, Kim Mason, Tom Salter, Cindy Veasey, Jimmy Veasey, Jonathan Yarboro, and Jenny Whisenhunt comprise this multi-talented ensemble. In solo and group numbers, they play guitar, bass, violin, piano, mandolin, ukulele, spoons, washboard, slide whistle, and more while they take audiences on a high powered musical journey.

Equally comfortable in the various musical genres, they bring strong singing voices to the fore and connect truthfully to the lyrics of both serious and humorous novelty pieces. Quieter reflective moments like "I Still Miss Someone" [Ms. Ivey] and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" [Mr. Yarboro] are countered by "While I've Got it on My Mind" [Ms. Whisenhunt and Mr. Yarboro], "Straight As in Love" [Mr. Fuller], "Egg Suckin' Dog" [Mr. Salter and Ms. Veasey] and "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart" [Ms. Mason].

And some of Cash's most iconic songs are given deserved attention: "Daddy Sang Bass" [Mr. Salter, Mr. Fuller, and Company], "Jackson" [Ms. Veasey, Mr. Veasey and Company], "Ring of Fire" [Ms. Whisenhunt and Mr. Yarboro], "I Walk the Line" [Ms. Mason and Mr. Veasey], "Folsom River Blues" [Mr. Veasey, Mr. Salter, and Mr. Yarboro], and Cash's tribute to the downtrodden and overlooked people of this world "Man in Black" [Mr. Veasey].

Director Kristy Meanor moves her actors around a simple open area and platform set to accommodate the 30+ songs that come at us with barely a breath between them. And with stunning wigs by Matthew Oliver, and several costume changes that highlight moments in Cash's long career, the production is as visually appealing as the music is engaging.

Audiences are tapping their collective feet and sometimes singing along to their favorite songs. In a production that emphasizes simple values and abundant faith, Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash serves as a welcome entertainment to lift our spirits.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: The 39 Steps"

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

Back in 1995, when four actors first took the stage to play countless roles in The 39 Steps, who knew it would become so popular? Based on John Buchan's 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film of the same name, Patrick Barlow's 2005 award-winning adaptation is currently opening The Cloverdale Playhouse's 6th Season. -- While Hitchcock took many liberties with Buchan's book, adding a trademark "blonde woman" to the cast of characters and showcasing his recognizable style that mixes suspense with sophisticated humor, Barlow takes it many steps further by turning it into a parody-melodrama.

The convoluted plot revolves around Richard Hannay [Tate Pollock], a man who is "tired of life" but gets drawn into intrigues involving a plot to smuggle military secrets out of Great Britain as World War II threatens, all the while trying to clear himself of a suspicion of murder. His adventures take him from London to Scotland and back again, meeting an assortment of women, music-hall entertainers, farmers, innkeepers, law enforcement officials, etc. all of whom are played by three actors: Sarah Atkins plays most of the women, and two Clowns [Shane Murphy and Cushing Phillips] play the too-many-to-count  catalogue of male and female characters who help or hinder Hannay along the way.

And what a rollicking two-hour trip it is, played on a makeshift Music Hall stage with an array of set pieces, props, and signs that the cast manipulate efficiently [and in some cases with intentional mistakes].

Director Sarah Walker Thornton has an extra-high-energy cast of veteran actors at her disposal, and keeps the action moving at a sometimes frenetic pace while capitalizing on the many gags in Barlow's script that reference several Hitchcock films [Rear Window, North by Northwest,  and The Birds to name a few]. -- Her bare-bones production and the skills of her actors make much of a seat-of-their-pants style that belies a strict discipline that each one brings to the stage.

On opening night, much of the dialogue was delivered with so much gusto as to render some lines almost unintelligible and to register many scenes at the same high volume and energy level. Once they settle down, this gifted ensemble acting company should provide a real roller-coaster ride with peaks and valleys that afford them and their audiences with consistent moments of glee and an occasional moment to breathe.

This notwithstanding, there is a lot to applaud in this production. -- Mr. Pollock ingratiates himself in a narrative introduction, and proves himself as Hannay: stiff upper lip well in control, ironic comments delivered with aplomb, a disinterest in romance that gets the better of him, and an ability to meet each dire circumstance with a sense of self-deprecating humor.

As the significant women in Hannay's life, Ms. Atkins differentiates each one with costume and wig disguises provided by Danny Davidson-Cline [and crew], specific dialect accents and behaviors particular to Anabella (a Teutonic spy), Margaret (a Scottish farmer's sweetly sympathetic wife), and Pamela (a spunky uncooperative hostage who at first believes Hannay is guilty of murder, and eventually trusts and falls in love with him).

Most of the broad humor comes from the two Clowns. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Phillips are so adept at quickly switching characters between scenes [and even within scenes], distinguishing each one with a mere change of a hat, a thick accent, or a change in posture. One would almost think there were several more actors in the cast, except the conceit of the play is that there are only the four of them.

And what appears to be an improvizational romp with plenty of giggles and belly-laughs, is actually a finely tuned production in expert hands.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

ASF: "Because of Winn-Dixie"

Because of Winn-Dixie, a family-friendly musical based on Kate DiCamillo's popular novel, is currently on a brief run at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its multi-award-wining collaborators' credentials are impressive; director John Rando, book and lyricist Nell Benjamin, composer Duncan Sheik, and the gathering of actors -- ASF newcomers and veterans along with some local talent, and a dog named Bowdie [trained by William Berloni] -- take audiences on a journey with plenty of life lessons.

The plot revolves around a young girl named Opal [Gabriella Pizzolo] who brings home a dog she names Winn-Dixie after the supermarket where she found him; Opal and her father, the Preacher [Adam Monley] have moved to a small Florida town to start a new life and are feeling down and out of place. The opening number "Strays" encapsulates their condition, and shows how many of the town's inhabitants also have their problems and issues with being accepted socially. As their stories unfold gradually, one is reminded of similar conditions facing many of this world's refugees. And Opal's persistence -- with the assistance of Winn-Dixie -- helps her make new friends, and has them ultimately face their respective demons and become a community.

...Winn-Dixie avoids most of the schmaltz and excesses of many musicals with children in the central roles; it is to their credit that the production respects the kids' points of view and has young actors who are up to the task. Ms. Pizzolo and Leonay Shepherd as a morose bookworm Amanda are particularly on point in their contrasting roles.

The play's journey began at Arkansas Rep in 2013 and has been developed at various regional theatres since then with an aim to eventually open on Broadway. Still a work-in-progress, it has much in its favor: the aforementioned respect for issues of youth, an assortment of recognizably credible characters,  an acceptance that there are no easy answers to what life and our actions thrust at us, and an unsaccharined belief that goodness can be found in everyone no matter their circumstances.

While much of the musical score stays too downbeat and somber for much of the first act's lengthy exposition, there are several numbers that push the energy when it is most needed. -- "Bottle Tree Blues" is masterfully rendered by Roz Ryan as a local eccentric known to the townsfolk as the Witch; "Sweet Life" tells the achievements of librarian Franny Block's [Carolyn Mignini is terrific] ancestor during the Civil War; and the pet-shop man Otis [Joe Carroll] tries to quietly turn his life around in a couple of songs that leave audiences wanting more from this character.

And, of course, there is the rambunctious dog. From his first appearance, the audience welcomed him with a chorus of "Awwww", and greeted his every on-stage moment with approval. To see Winn-Dixie respond to the various cast members, it is no wonder that Opal's skeptical father warms up to him as we do.