Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Millbrook: "Belles on Their Toes" -- Guest Reviewer: Todd Jeffries

For anyone needing a respite from the blazing summer heat and bleak headlines of the day, I strongly recommend a trip to see the Millbrook Community Players' production of "Belles on Their Toes".

Based on the 1950 follow-up to Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's 1948 book "Cheaper by the Dozen", William Roos' dramatization is brought to delightful life by a wonderfully talented ensemble of young and veteran actors under the vibrantly paced direction of Joe Nolin, Jr.

The Golden Age of Radio provides pre-show musical fare, setting the time and tone of the play as the curtain rises on a well-appointed parlour set, reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell "Saturday Evening Post" cover. John Collier and John Chain, with an assist from the cast, have created a richly detailed and impressive set to be proud of.

At the top of Act I, Mrs. Gilbreth [Nichole Quinn] gives last-minute instructions and a warm farewell to her larger than average brood before departing for Europe on a lecture tour. It will be up to the three eldest daughters -- Anne [Katie Moore], Ernestine [Hannah Quates], and Martha [Ashley Joye] -- to hold down the fort and live up to their famous "efficiency expert" parents' reputations. Their father having passed away, the young women have a formidable challenge to keep things running smoothly while Mother is away. They have a bit of extra help in the person of Tom, a handy-man turned cook and home-remedy specialist with his castor oil and quinine concoctions, played with winsome verve by John Chain, current president of the Millbrook Community Players, Inc.

In addition to implementing austere budget policies that include wearing hilariously outdated swimsuits and a six-week moratorium on dating for Ann, Ernestine, and Martha, Martha decides to rent-out Mother's bedroom for extra cash. Mr. Hathaway [Michael Snead] is the kindly and quiet boarder who will play a pivotal role in the resolution of the plot.

Helping and hindering the sisters along the way are their younger siblings: Frank [Chase Adair], Bill [Austin Speigner], Lillian [Kristen Adair], Fred [Nolan Lamar], Dan [Brian Jones], Jack [Max Williams], and Bob [Noah Jones]. This is one talented and focussed group of young performers, running their paces and blocking so well that not once are we pulled away from the story. Well done and impressive work, with successful backstage coordination by Assistant Director, Gail Lombard.

Keeping the belles on their toes is a visit from their busybody Aunt Leora [Emily Barton] and an outbreak of chicken pox, prompting a house call by Dr. Bob [Jason Morgan]. Ernestine fudges a bit on her pledge to not date when she pays increasingly frustrated hostess to her beau, Corey Jackson's scene-stealing Al Lynch, an oily young braggart arriving decked out in a full-length fur coat and armed with ukulele-driven love songs and side-splitting Charleston dance moves.

While the second Act was sluggish at first, the pace quickly recovered with the arrival of David Loring [Daniel Harms], a potential student for the new school venture Mother has planned in order to solve the family's financial worries. Mistakenly believing the young man to be Martha's date, the younger siblings proceed to interrupt the interview with hilarious results.

With money going missing and Tom "ratcheting up" the stakes with a comically out-of-character swat that leads Aunt Leora to bring police officer Mr. Crawford [John Collier] to the house, we barely have time to stop laughing between humorous misunderstandings and gut-busting revelations.

Like homemade ice cream and pink lemonade, The Millbrook Players' production of "Belles on Their Toes" is a summertime treat that takes us to a simpler time, and refreshes us with the soul-soothing balm of laughter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Theatre AUM: "The Daughters of Abraham" -- Guest Reviewer: Todd Jeffries

In partnership with ALAT, etc. (A Laboratory for Actor Training, experimental theatre company), Theatre AUM's Neil David Seibel has created an enchanting and provocative evening of theatre. Although billed as playwright, director, and choreographer of "The Daughters of Abraham", Seibel points in his Director's Note to the collaborative efforts of an ensemble of men and women who successfully brought this story to life.

The story is at once timely and timeless, intimately exploring the relationships among a group of women from the three major religious traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. They are an ensemble of mothers, daughters, and sisters, all living in a shared household. As the women struggle to live with each other's differences while finding a common ground, it is this theme of sharing that runs like a golden thread through the narrative of three daughters preparing for their imminent nuptials.

The absence of any pre-show music allows focus on Mike Winkelman's minimalist scenic design. Created from three massive panels of muslin suspended against a black background, the effect is ethereal and makes a truly contemplative place. Chris Rich's warm and magical lighting design lends to the stage a dreamlike quality.

As the show opens, a fiercely talented ensemble of radiant women slowly enters singing a gentle round of "Hallelujah", ushering us into a rich world of reverence and ancient traditions. With their arrival, the stage comes to fiery life. Randal Blades' exquisite costume design provides bold and vivid strokes of color against the black and white canvas of the set design. The set comes alive as the muslin panels become integral to the action of the story we are about to see. Using a fluid choreography, the panels variously morph into wash cloths, laundry, wedding dresses, and walls.

Singing plays a vital role in the storytelling. Memorable instances when dialogue subtly shifts from the pedestrian concerns of daily life into lyrical observations that ultimately blossom into actual songs include "Flowers" and "Food".

Perhaps one of the most beautiful symbolic moments in the play occurs when the three daughters discover they have each received love letters from the same man, Shem. Their initial devastation is potentially compounded by the fact that their father has decided the three of them will marry Shem on the same day. (This is easy enough to go with given the context of an ancient setting.) Their father has given each daughter a gift: a ribbon, frankincense oil, and an empty book. The young women choose to take a situation that might further divide them and instead bring their individual gifts together to create a more perfect whole. They place each of their love letters into the empty book, bind it with the ribbon, and add to it the fragrance of the frankincense which reminds them of their common bridegroom. This act underscores an important lesson we might all benefit from summed up by the response to their common question of whether they can share a husband and a household: "It's not impossible. -- But, it's not easy."

We are prepared to witness the arrival of the wedding day and the daughters departing to meet their bridegroom; but first comes a moment in which a panel of muslin is stretched slab-like to form a dividing wall behind which the entire ensemble is backlit. They begin to speak about the modern day tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While informative and poignant, the comments have the feel of CNN soundbites, pulling us abruptly out of the narrative that has been playing out for the better part of an hour and twenty minutes. Although this moment serves to tie the ancient, almost dreamilke story to contemporary events, it would have better served as an epilogue and bookend to the play, especially since the commentary culminates with a jubilant reprise of "Hallelujah", the cast backlit in golden light and dancing in a round with the celebratory exhuberance of whirling dervishes.

Of special note: proceeds from each performance of "The Daughters of Abraham" benefit non-profit service organizations in Montgomery, reinforcing a central idea of the play as a whole: Can we share and individually make a difference in our world? -- "It's not impossible. -- But, it's not easy".