Sunday, August 29, 2010

WOBT: "The Letter Box"

The Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is currently showcasing a debut performance of The Letter Box, a "dramedy" by Tina G. Fonte and Lisa Martin. It is WOBT's 24th production since 2003.

Designed to refer to businesses and individuals in any community where it is performed, the script engages local audiences who recognize them; even J.T. and Leeann's voices are heard on the radio in this show.

Directed by Ms. Martin, who also has an on-stage role, and designed by Ms. Fonte, the plot of The Letter Box centers on Elmo Finkelstein [Matthew Givens], a Jewish holocaust survivor living in Prattville, Alabama, and known to everyone both as a hypochondriac and a "local character" whose eccentricities endear him to some and test the patience of others.

Elmo has been searching for his long-lost son, and makes contact by writing letters to the distant Knott family children; and he keeps a box of letters with him at all times, letters that are discovered later to contain links to his past.

When Elmo is hospitalized and in a coma after a hit-and-run incident, the locals come to his rescue by reading his letters and attempt to re-unite him with his family.

Act I provides a long exposition that introduces an assortment of characters who intersect Elmo's life: hospital Nurse Nellie [Teri Sweeney], business-like Dr. Kenton [Whitney Lehmann], Bus Driver Bill and Poppy Jenkins [both roles played by West Marcus], polite & stuffy Englishwoman Velma Dinsmoor [Misty Corrales], brash & outspoken Haddie Gipson [Michon Givens], and flirtatious socialite Widow Hildebrand [Ms. Martin]. -- The dysfunctional Knott family are played by David Felber, Dana Morrison as his upward-moving politician wife who sacrifices family for career, and Rachel Brackins & Hannah Germann as their two daughters.

The two families come together in Act II when Thea Knott travels to Prattville to confront the stranger who has been writing to her daughters, only to find him hospitalized, and where she learns to be more tolerant of others and to value her own family.

The script has a lot going for it -- some clever dialogue and important themes -- though some judicious editing and a firmer directorial hand could tighten the 2-hour and 20-minute performance. Played as it is on a small stage, some of the numerous locations require lengthy scene changes, thus slowing down the plot movement and disengaging audiences from its themes and situations. And the sets use a curious mixture of pictorial detail and clumsy unfinished renderings.

Most of the performances, saddled as they are with stereotypes and sentimentality, are convincingly credible. Chief among them is Teri Sweeney's completely natural sound and behavior that are committed to each moment, providing an excellent model for the rest of the company.

The believable adolescent whining and bluntness of the Knott sisters is fine; the well-defined gestures and comic vocal inflections of Ms. Givens make her character both truthful and funny; and Mr. Marcus' distinctions between the pathetic illness of Poppy and the in-your-face tauntings of Bus Driver Bill are insightful and convincing.

The range that Mr. Givens' interpretation of Elmo provides is character driven, making audiences laugh or cry as dictated by the script, and though his dialect could be more nuanced, he does make us care about his plight and the plot's resolution.

Monday, August 16, 2010

ASF: Scot Bruce -- "Elvis: The Early Years"

Thirty-three years to the day of Elvis Presley's untimely death, Scot Bruce brought to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival a very special concert -- "Elvis: The Early Years". There will be another concert tomorrow night at 7:30.

Looking so much like "the King" in his prime, and dressed in a gold lame jacket for the first act and skin-tight black leather for the second, Mr. Bruce's efforts were not so much a slavish impersonation [though there were plenty of mannerisms, poses, and gyrations in his performance], but rather a sincere tribute to a man who still brings so much joy to millions of people around the world through his music.

Performing almost non-stop for two hours including a brief intermission, he and his able instrumental quartet gave us thirty songs out of the over-700 Elvis recorded; and the sold-out audience cheered, sang along, and danced in the aisles throughout. Every song was familiar, and every one received grateful and hearty applause.

Mr. Bruce's interpretations were spot-on conjurings of Elvis in his heyday; starting with "Blue Suede Shoes" and "All Shook Up", he had the audience on his side immediately, and kept the upbeat quality and the volume up for most of the evening, often drowning out the lyrics, and only slowing down occasionally with "Love Me Tender", "Peace in the Valley" and "Cryin' in the Chapel".

And he "played" the audience by moving down to the footlights to make eye contact with the many admirers [mostly female] in the first few rows, accepting Teddy Bears and "articles of clothing" from them with good grace, and calling out his thanks to Montgomery and to ASF.

So many audience favorites came in quick succession: "Heartbreak Hotel", "Don't Be Cruel", "Devil in Disguise", "Hunk of Burnin' Love", "Suspicious Minds", "King Creole", "Tutti Frutti", and "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" [from the film Blue Hawaii], and ending with "Hound Dog" cheers after cheers.

Mr. Bruce's energy is amazing. The musicianship of the entire group is first rate,and each was featured on a couple of numbers to showcase their significant talents.

Of course, the concert could not end without an encore, a medley of patriotic songs and "All My Trials", concluding with a resounding version of "Jailhouse Rock", with people on their feet by the end.

For an all-too-brief time, Elvis lived again.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Depot: "Big River"

Here's what the best of community theatre is all about: a sold-out run of a classic story, an award-winning musical score, a simple well-made set & costumes, strong direction, and the near perfect casting of an able ensemble drawn from the surrounding community. The Wetumpka Depot Players hit every mark in their current production of "Big River" by Roger Miller and William Hauptman, based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".

The Depot's Artistic Director Kristy Meanor is at the helm of this endeavor, and captures the essence of Twain's themes and characters, inventively stages the numerous scenes, balances rollicking humor with moments of pathos, collaborates with Mary Katherine Moore's clever choreography, and establishes excellent rapport with Marilyn Swears' orchestra and the onstage guitar & harmonica.

In a little over two hours, we are transported "down the Mississippi" on a raft with Huck [Jonathan Conner] and runaway slave Jim [Depot newcomer Darryl Hall] and their adventures interspersed with considerations on the morality of slavery and the degrees of adulthood Huck is forced to confront and conquer in his meetings with some thirty other characters.

Chief among them are Pap Finn, played with inebriated gusto by Tom Salter; Miss Watson [Kim Mason] and the Widow Douglas [Cheryl Jones] whose haughty attempts to both civilize and Christianize Huck prompt him to run away; the good-hearted Mrs. Phelps [Layne Holley] and her husband Silas [Lee Windham] who can't resist making money in the slave-trade; and the con-artists The King [Sam Wallace] and The Duke [Jeff Langham] whose wonderfully comic escapades contribute to the complexity of the plot and whose schemes offer some highlights of entertainment. And Tom Sawyer [David Brown] complicates matters with his insistence on ever-expanding devices in romanticizing their adventures. Even Mark Twain himself takes the stage in Patrick Hale's fine impersonation.

And a lot of the story is told through song: "Do You Wanna Go To Heaven?" , "The Boys", and "Waitin for the Light to Shine" set the tone of adventure; while "Muddy Water" and "The Crossing" target the serious side of matters. Even Pap's drunken tirade "Guvment" connects with many people's critiques of government "interference" in their lives.

The theme of "freedom" is given at least two meanings: Huck wants freedom to go on adventures and not be tied down by the civilizing forces of polite society, a youthful innocent desire; yet when he meets up with the runaway slave Jim, whose freedom is determined by the many people hunting him down, Huck is forced to choose between what he has been schooled to believe -- that slavery is right and that he has an obligation to turn in a runaway -- and what he knows is right -- that every person, regardless of race, is entitled both to freedom and dignity.

All this is told through the individual portrayals. Mr. Conner has made an impression at the Depot in both "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Second Samuel" in which his detailed characterizations and vivacious demeanor connected with audiences; and he continues here as Huck with a character conflicted with important decisions and portrayed with subtle distinctions between self-aware humor and deeply felt morality. -- Mr. Hall's portrayal of Jim is so natural and heart-felt, that he is instantly and consistently believable in the role. -- And the connection between these two actors we watch grow from tentative to complete trust, deeply felt compassion, and an earnest desire to make the world a better place. -- Plus, they can both knock out a rousing song or rivet the audience with a touching version of "Worlds Apart".

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" is an important piece of American literature; "Big River" provides a modern day interpretation of his masterpiece; the Wetumpka Depot Players are gifting the local community with this excellent production.

Faulkner: "The Fantasticks"

What can you say about "The Fantasticks" -- in the 50th Anniversary of its initial production, now in an updated version by its originators, Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt? It has an assured place in the annals of American Musical Theatre history, having touched generations of theatre patrons with its signature opening song: "Try to Remember". Currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre to sold out audiences, this deceptively gentle and innocent musical keeps its viewers engaged throughout its two-plus hour running time through its delightful characterizations and intelligent musical score.

The story of young love between the romantic Luisa [Anna Sailors] and the equaly naively heroic Matt [Chase McMichen] is put to the test by their Fathers -- Hucklebee [Chris Kelly] and Bellomy [Tony Davidson] who have feigned a neighbors feud in order to pair up the couple; after all, as one of the songs they sing states, children will do the opposite of what they're told by their parents.

To make this happen, they enlist the aid of El Gallo [Matthew Dickson] and his cohorts Henry [Sam Evans] and Mortimer [Braxton McDonald] to stage an "abduction" of Luisa which Matt will thwart, emerge the hero, and settle the family feud...all a farcical trick played out by moonlight.

Come the dawn, and the stark bright light of day, the romanticized relationship is put to the test as reality shows all the little flaws and foibles the night had disguised; result -- disappointment and disillusion. -- Yet, all will be resolved with a happy ending, with life experience as the teacher.

Under Angela Dickson's assured direction and Randy Foster's masterly piano accompaniment, the cast of Faulkner regulars and community actors provide a thoroughly entertaining and touching performance. -- Unlike most of the Faulkner musicals with large ensembles of actors, this one has a mere nine performers, two of whom are "Mutes" [Kari Gatlin & Michael Williams] who supply props, change drapes, and mirror the behavior of the young couple. -- The focus is therefore on the individual actors all the time.

And, they are up to it. The score is demanding, requiring mature voices, subtle dynamics and phrasing, and keen ears for melody lines and harmonics; and the range of song types goes from hauntingly romantic duets, to novelty numbers, to comic narratives, to complex quartets -- all fitting the characters and furthering the plot.

Ms. Sailors' clear voice and effervescent depiction are matched by Mr. McMichen's rich tones and youthful bravado, but it is in the chemistry they make that the love match is best communicated; their commitment ot each other -- though intimately portrayed on stage -- reaches out to the entire audience.

Mr. Davidson and Mr. Kelly are an excellent double-act as the fathers: a lot of good-hearted bluster and comfort with each other is grand. Each actor is developing a naturalness and stage comfort that makes them easy to watch.

Mr. Evans' "coarse-actor" who can't remember Shakespeare's lines but insists on continuing by improvising, is a hoot; and Mr. McDonald's cockney second-banana who stages "death-scenes" can steal the show.

Mr. Dickson's El Gallo has much to praise: he is narrator and participant, simultaneously suave and awkward, a masterful man in charge who can be thwarted in the cause of true love. He sets the tone of the play, plays the villain with elan, and disappears into the background when necessary -- a consumately generous actor.

Jason Peregoy's fight choreography fits the style of the play, and has numerous clever touches of combat mixed with romance. -- Yet it is the songs that dominate: "Soon It's Gonna Rain", "Love, You Are Love", "It Depends On What You Pay", and "Plant A Radish" among them keep the plot moving and keep us involved in the lives of these delightful characters.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

ASF Grads in New York

If anyone from the Montgomery area plans to be in New York City in the next two weeks, they'll have opportunities to see some Alabama Shakespeare Festival graduates on stage:

Afton Williamson has taken over the lead-female role in David Mamet's Race, a role she had understudied...and she is more than up to the task. In June, I saw the production which is now in its last two weeks. The New York Times gave Afton a glowing review, claiming that she surpassed the original.

The BAMA Theatre Company will perform Shakespeare's As You Like It as part of this year's NY Fringe Festival, under the direction of Greg Thornton who graced the ASF stage for many years. Last year's production received strong reviews from the NY critics, and this year should do the same. -- I was privileged to attend a rehearsal last week, and was impressed by the energy, inventiveness, and sophistication of the, it was a pleasure to have a bit of social time talking with this fine youthful company. --- The company comprises ASF grads: David Matthew Douglas, Greg Foro, Alison Frederick, Nathan T. Lange, Nick Lawson, Matt Renskers, Chris Roe, and Sarah Walker Thornton. -- Performances will be on August 15, 17, 19, 20, and 28. For further information, check out their website

Red Door: "The Widow's Best Friend"

Guest Reviewer: Gregg Swem

Everything is topsy-turvy in Randy Hall's The Widow's Best Friend, a play about Southern small-town duplicity which played recently at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. -- One of the town's leading citizens has died of a massive coronary, but before the body is cold, word of his demise has traveled so fast -- as is often the case in small towns -- that the widow's friends descend on her house like scavengers at a roadside kill.

Ostensibly, these five women are there to provide comfort with casseroles and a shoulder to cry on. They're old friends who've come to answer the phone, go to the door as more friends bring more food, and to be by the side of the grieving Cornelia Dupree. But this widow is so disconsolate, she's holed up under a sheet in her bed with a pet cat in her arms and doesn't want to see anyone.

While she's in the bedroom (the widow is never seen on stage), her inner circle of friends is in the living room and kitchen, where it soon becomes apparent that all is not copacetic in the fictional town of Persepolis, Alabama. One by one, the women arrive and find they can't get into the bedroom (at least, not for long) to be by their friend's side. Their conversations begin to reveal that not only was Cornelia's husband engaged in hanky-panky at the time of his passing, but that the lives of all these close friends are not what they appear to be. Indeed, this is no Mayberry. There are cheating spouses, children on drugs, alcoholism, and mental abberations.

What appears to be a gathering of a sympathetic support group turns into a true confessions confabulation. In the middle of the hullabaloo, a young reporter from the local paper arrives at the Dupree home to get information for an obituary. Serving as a sounding board, the wide-eyed cub reporter, believably played by Travin Wilkerson, finds himself becoming Father Confessor to the whole gaggle. The well-intentioned but worrisome friends are Leigh Moorer's meddlesome Inez Medders, Summer Pickett Rice's controlling Penny Smothers, Johanna Hubbard's quirky nonconformist Geneva Quimby, Janet Wilkerson's puckish Martha Dick Triplett, and Jamie Allen's self-absorbed Janet Price Savage. Playwright Hall has given each character a name mirroring the traits of that person, including the inexperienced journalist who's called Tommy Blankenship.

Although the characters are integral to the story, one stands out as pivotal. Geneva Quimby, who at first seems senile and not to be taken seriously, is a model of adjustment -- someone who's learned to cope with life in her own way, and she shares this philosophy with the others, including young Blankenship who by play's end has acquired a great deal of knowledge about the world, easliy aging in practical wisdom from 23 to 63.

Director Fiona Macleod has assembled a skilled, lively cast whose comic timing is on the mark. And except for an occasional misstep in the more serious parts of the play, this is a smooth production. On the tech side, Mark Parsley's set design is inviting and functional, reminiscent of home interiors of the 1980s, the time of the play.

A two-act play, Hall's script is sometimes hard to follow as the story moves on. After the first act, there are so many Peyton Place-like developments to keep track of that the turns and twists become confusing. Still, The Widow's Best Friend is a clever comedy with serious statements about life, love, and friendship.