Monday, December 6, 2010

Millbrook: "Irving Berlin's White Christmas: the musical"

The holiday spirit has come to Millbrook in a charming production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas: the musical. Taking its cue from the 1955 film, but with several additional songs by Berlin interspersed throughout its two-and-a-half hour length, director A. John Collier's production is delighting its sold out audiences.

In part a backstage musical, in part a traditional love story, in part a patriotic statement so necessary in times of war, and in part just plain old nostalgic sentiment for the hoildays -- this version warms the heart from beginning to end.

Despite the limitations of a small stage [though Millbrook's stage has been permanently enlarged for this production], Collier & Company have created a workable space to house several scenic locations and a large number of actors -- 31 to be precise. Quite an accomplishment.

In addition, Collier has mixed some of the area's most experienced actors with a number of newcomers to his stage, built some stunning costumes, and delivered a solid show that could transform any Grinch or Scrooge in the audience.

In 1954, veteran song & dance team Bob Wallace [David Brown] and Phil Davis [Jason Morgan] are about to rehearse a new nightclub act in Miami, and are impressed by a new act by sisters Betty [Brooke Brown] and Judy Haynes [Lauren Morgan].

Attempting a love-match between Bob & Betty, Phil switches their train tickets for ones to Vermont where the girls have been booked for the Christmas holidays at an inn owned coincidentally by retired General Waverly [Roger Humber], who the men had served under in World War II.

The inn is on the verge of bankruptcy, and balmy weather threatens its holiday bookings. To help the General, Wallace & Davis conscript their entire cast & crew to rehearse in Vermont and add the Haynes Sisters as headliners.

As is to be expected, this chestnut of a play has assorted romantic misfirings, but all will turn out for the best...the show must go on, the inn saved, and the pairs of sweethearts united.

Solid performances and strong vocals hold this White Christmas together. Mr. Morgan is an excellent comic foil to Mr. Brown's more serious character. Their romances are innocently depicted and aided by the ingenuous style of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Morgan. All four are effervescent in their roles.

Mr. Humber delivers one of the most convincingly truthfull and understated characterizations of his long community theatre career as the General. -- The General's granddaughter Susan is played by Maddie Hughes; she performs the role credibly and is featured in a rousing version of "I'm Happy".

The role of the housekeeper has been enlarged in this stage version to an Ethel Merman type known as Martha "the megaphone" Watson [Eleanor Davis], who also wants to be in the Wallace & Davis show. And deliver she does. Ms. Davis gives a standout performance as a feisty realist with a motherly concern for Susan and a loving attitude for the General. She can belt out her songs with the best of them, and her bright smile literally lights up the stage.

Irving Berlin's songs create a holiday atmosphere. Those who recall the film are irresistably drawn to novelty numbers like "Sisters" and sentimental favorites like "Count Your Blessings", but it is the signature "White Christmas" that has everyone in the audience singing along and exiting the theatre with the holiday spirit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Faulkner: "Guys and Dolls"

Based on Damon Runyon's popular stories set in New York's world of gamblers and their women, the ever-popular 1950 Tony Award winning Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows musical Guys and Dolls is currrently captivating sold out audiences at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

From its first appearance on Broadway, Guys and Dolls has rarely been absent from professional and amateur stages -- and with good reason. It contains some of musical theatre's most memorable songs ["Luck Be A Lady", "I've Never Been in Love Before", "Bushel and a Peck", "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", and "Adelaide's Lament" among them]; and some of its most memorable characters in Sky Masterson & Sarah Brown, Nathan Detroit & Miss Adelaide, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and Big Jule. Put these together with two untraditional love stories, Runyon's masterful mixture of street slang with formal speech patterns, and a tremendously sophisticated wit, and what emerges is a challenging show that reaches through time to remain as topical as when it was first written.

The combined efforts of director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears have challenged their large ensemble cast to tell the story clearly and sing & dance their way through its complex moments with seeming ease. -- Favored with strong singing voices and some significant stage experience, the featured roles come across convincingly, especially as they have to manage the intentionally stilted Runyonesque dialogue.

Nathan Detroit [Chris Kelly] has his hands full: he is the organizer of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York", but needs $1000 to keep it going; at the same time, he has promised the featured entertainer at the "Hot Box" nightclub, Miss Adelaide [Bethany Telehany], that he is giving up gambling and intends to marry her after a 14-year relationship. She has been more than patient, and he consistently finds excuses for staying away from the altar.

While Sarah Brown [Kari Gatlin], a soldier in the "Save a Soul Mission", tries valiantly to recruit & save the local sinners, Nathan sees in her a quick fix to his money problem: he gets the high-rolling Sky Masterson [Michael Morrow] to agree to a bet -- that Sky can get Sarah to accompany him to Cuba for a fling. Sky is such a slick operator, that he convinces some at the mission that he is a repentant sinner, and promises Sarah that he will fill her evening salvation session with at least a dozen sinners. Once in Cuba, Sarah falls for Sky, and he falls for her as well, having second thoughts about cheating her and the mission.

Runyon's characters, despite their shortcomings [drink, gambling, etc.], are really pretty decent sorts, and though he accordingly presents his men and women with different sets of priorities -- men want their freedom, and women want the security of marriage and a home -- they come across as likeable even with their faults, and especially when each realizes that no one side is perfect.

The action comes at a quick pace, though scene changes need to be managed more quickly & efficiently, and many of the characterizations are absolutely delightful. As we watch the romantic relationships develop, we get thoroughly engaged in their lives, and root for them to resolve their differences.

Mr. Morrow and Ms. Gatlin convince us of their affection in "I've Never Been in Love Before", appearing to have real feelings for each other. Mr. Kelly's bumbling efforts at avoiding marriage are quite funny. He is matched with Ms. Telehany's sensitive [and hilariously funny] "Adelaide's Lament"; and in "Marry the Man Today" with Ms. Gatlin, Ms. Telehany demonstrates a real talent for the comedic musical stage: a standout.

Tony Davidson's rousing rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" nearly brings down the house; and Paul Blount's grandfatherly advice to Sarah in "More I Cannot Wish You" is the singular most touching moment in this production.

In a brilliant casting choice, Bill Nowell plays Big Jule -- the toughest, meanest, and biggest gangster of them all. Mr. Nowell's slight frame and diminutive stature are no hindrance to his depiction of Big Jule; he gets away with it brilliantly and dominates the stage as if he physically filled it up.

With the entire company of 34 actors performing together only a few times, the stage does get a bit crowded, but all in all the staging remains fluid, the action moves along, and we are swept away by the energy of the actors and the brilliance of the script and the music.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red Door: "Wise Women"

It is getting close to Christmas in 1944. World War II is raging in Europe. And in Knoxville, TN, over-protective single mom Florence [Susie Priori Turner] keeps a close eye on her teenaged daughter Rose [Haley Greathouse] who is a dreamy-eyed fan of Frank Sinatra and wants to go to a local concert featuring her idol.

To make ends meet, and as part of the War Effort (and unknown to Rose and much to her disdain), Florence agrees to have two boarders come to live with them temporarily: the outspokenly enthusiastic Jiggs [Anna Perry] and the shy Sarah Ruth [Eve Harmon] who is dominated by her preacher father, and who will share Rose's room.

The 2003 "Southern Playwrights Competition" winner that debuted at Virginia's Barter Theatre in 2004, Ron Osborne's Wise Women is now in the capable hands of Artistic Director Fiona Macleod at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

On a detailed "homey" set placed at an angle to provide interest and space on the Red Door's small stage, Ms. Macleod sensitively guides her ensemble cast through what could become mere sentimentality into a touchingly recognizable story of the various women's journeys as they accept one another and themselves, emerging more aware and trustful. Each has at least one secret; each somehow mistrusts either herself or others. And each one's story makes us think and care about them.

As each of these women opens up to others, telling stories of their backgrounds and experiences, we learn that talking through our problems helps. -- Florence has created an ideal picture of Rose's father, one that we learn is untrue but which remains a secret from Rose. Rose herself learns that an innocent relationship with a Marine named Howard [Travin Wilkerson] does not have to be hidden from her mother, and Florence understands that she must allow her daughter to experience things for herself.

Sarah Ruth, though embarrassed in competing for the "Miss Bombshell" title, understands that doing so enabled her to step out on her own and relax the control of her father. And Jiggs is relieved to know that the false bravado she exhibits, charming though it might be, is unnecessary, and even the callous Donnie [Joseph Crawford] can't provide the love she so wants.

The plot unfolds in a series of short scenes, some serious and some humorous, keeping us involved in the lives of the characters. -- So many recognizable traits are treated with conviction by the actors appearing in the roles that they emerge as credible individuals, even though the language & references to the time-period might render some of it nostalgic.

Chief among the characterizations is Anna Perry's portrayal of Jiggs. Exhibiting confidence and providing subtle understanding of the dialogue's shifts from pathos to humor, detailed movement and gesture, and full committment to character relationships, Ms. Perry is a model of a truthful portrayal of a person we come to care about.

Wise Women -- set as it is during the Christmas season -- encourages all of us to find the true meaning of Christmas in our hearts.