Friday, June 11, 2010

ASF: "Cowgirls"

Talent abounds in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of "Cowgirls", directed by Karen Azenberg, who also directed & choreographed ASF's production of "West Side Story", and choreographed "A Christmas Carol: the Musical" and "Beehive".

Not only do the six actresses act and sing their roles, they are also called on to play an assortment of musical instruments ranging from cello to mandolin and from piano to washtub in the two hour performance; and they demonstrate a variety of musical styles from classical to country. Impressive.

The plot is simple: Jo Carlson, the daughter of a celebrity country-singer mother, owns "Hiram Hall", a bar/entertainment venue that is about to be foreclosed on by the local bank unless she can come up with a substantial amount of money almost overnight. Her mother has been away for many years, and her father squandered the money and refused to hire women to play at the Hall for now 39 years.

To raise the necessary funds, Jo has contracted what she believes is the "Cowgirl Trio"; in fact, the three women who show up are called the "Coghill Trio", a classical group of graduates of Coghill College who are also down on their luck, near the end of an extended B-circuit tour. Lots of comic potential here.

None of the trio has any experience with country music, but Jo's two waitresses are eager to perform and want to help her out. What ensues is fairly predictable: the classical trio determine to assist Jo by learning how to play country music, and their journey -- and everyone's journey of compassion and humor and understanding and coming to terms with their individual hang-ups -- sustains the plot.

Most of the play is an extended exposition, and it isn't till the final moments that they actually perform as the "Cowgirl Trio". But when they do, the event is a foot-stompin' delight -- partly because they have transformed into a really good country act, and partly because we have become invested in their lives.

When Act I opens on Peter Hicks's two-level interior of Hiram Hall in Rexford, Kansas, one can almost smell the years of smoke and spilled beer, the brown wood aged just enough and the numerous photographs of country stars and old advertisements reach out to include the audience, so the external world that is never seen through its windows hardly matters. This is the world for the present.

Rita [Pearl Rhein], Lee [Tamra Hayden] and Mary Lou [Jessica Tyler Wright] rehearse Beethoven's "Sonata Pathetique" and audition with Gilbert & Sullivan's "Three Little Maids", much to the consternation of Jo [Angela C. Howell] and her two employees, Mo [Chelsea Costa] and Mickey [Carrie Cimma], but soon convince Jo to give them a chance at learning to "sing country".

Under Jo's tutelage, either as a group or individually, each learns from the other, and even the waitresses are given their chance at performing. The "Trio" learns in fits and starts, stumbling over interpretations of "feelings" rather than accurate notes, till they are all seduced by the music and the lyrics.

But other lessons are learned as well: "Don't Look Down" offers advice that fear can be conquered if we don't succumb to it and if we trust in help offered by those who are close to us, and a mother's love that sustains us throughout our lives is clearly told in "Songs My Mama Sang".

Individual personalities emerge as we watch the relationships grow, and by the end, most audience members will have chosen a favorite and will cheer the spunk and achievements of this excellent ensemble.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Faulkner: "The Light in the Piazza"

The Faulkner University Dinner Theatre opened its 23rd season this week with Craig Lucas' and Adam Guettel's adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella, "The Light in the Piazza", a musical that garnered numerous accolades on its 2005 Broadway run.

Set in Florence and Rome in the Summer of 1953, it tells the tale of a young couple in love -- Clara, an American tourist who falls in love with a young Florentine named Fabrizio -- a romance made innocently difficult at first by the language barrier and more seriously later by a well-kept secret from the past by Clara's mother Margaret.

Under Jason Clark South's capable direction, the ensemble of mostly veteran actors drawn from Faulkner's students & faculty and the local community are most impressive in their managing the challenges of the musical score that verges on the operatic -- a few songs and some dialogue are in Italian, and the score contains equivalencies of opera's arias, duets, a quintet, and ensemble pieces.

From the very start, however, Music Director Art Williams's excellent three-man orchestra's and the actors' body microphones were amped so high that vocal clarity was often impaired, the words disappearing into the resulting noise. Such unnecessary amplification has become so commonplace, even in professional theatres, that audiences can no longer anticipate hearing acoustical instruments or the natural singing voice -- a shame, really, and especially so in such a small venue as Faulkner's with its unquestionably gifted singer/actors.

Plot elements and characterizations are of increased importance in this take on an otherwise traditionally romantic boy-meets-girl scenario. The appeal of Italy's cultural history has drawn American tourists Margaret [Angela Dickson] and her daughter Clara [Beth Pirtle] to take it all in. Margaret, guidebook ever in hand, tries to deflect a budding love-at-first-sight romance between her daughter and a charming local necktie salesman, Fabrizio [Matt Roberson], characters who are destined to be together.

Margaret, who also serves as an occasional narrator, provides some suspense by divulging that Clara is "not what she seems"; she is slow and innocent as a result of a childhood accident, and Margaret's duty is to protect her. -- Ms. Dickson's performance is the standout in this production. She is engaged in every on-stage moment, and her journey becomes ours. Completely credible in her protective concern for her daughter's well-being, or when realizing that she needs to loosen her hold on Clara's life, and conscious always of maintaining propriety, the balance Ms. Dickson achieves between her private suffering and her public "face" is a lesson in acting, whether in scenic conversations, or long-distance phone calls to her increasingly estranged husband, or riveting our attention with her sincere and impassioned [and musically sophisticated] solo songs. The role is a challenging one, and Ms. Dickson hits every mark; a memorable performance.

As the young lovers, Ms. Pirtle and Mr. Roberson -- each also with gifted singing voices -- are engaging in their respective naivete. Their awkward first conversations, complicated by language barriers, are gently humorous and immediately put us on their side. Ms. Pirtle's ability to insert quirky mannersims into an inquisitive openness to experiencing everything, makes her genuinely attractive to Mr. Roberson's Fabrizio, while giving clear reason for her mother's concern.

The supporting principle and ensemble roles are given solid interpratations, and though the stage occasionally feels crowded, Mr. South's detailed and flexible street scene design creates an authentic Italianate feel.

Gina South's costumes evoke a 1950s style, with attention to such details as women tourists wearing dresses, hats, and gloves -- very different from today. So, what can possibly explain a disregard for the details of clerical robes for the priests and nuns, especially the fashion-conscious shoes of the nuns seen clearly below their above the ankle skirts?

"The Light in the Piazza" runs just over two hours, and the combined plot, characterizations, and strong singing make for a pleasant theatrical evening's entertainment.