Sunday, December 4, 2011

Faulkner: "The 1940s Radio Hour"

Hands down, the star of Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's The 1940s Radio Hour is the on-stage orchestra -- members of Faulkner's Jazz Band. Directed by Andrew Cook as the play's "Zoot Doubleman Orchestra", the nine member ensemble's solid arrangements of Big Band Era standards, with brassy riffs on "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to laid-back sophisticated support to such vocals as "I Got It Bad", transport audiences to a past time with nods of recognition and remembrances.

This is not to diminish the 14-strong cast of triple threat actors-singers-dancers who enliven its 20 songs with clever interpretations, character back stories provided by the script's thin story line, and impressive vocal strength.

With a running time of two hours without an intermission, director Jason Clark South's company keep the story moving forward and the energy level high.

It's December 21, 1942 at WOV Radio Station in New York. World War II is at its height, and the nation needs its spirits lifted as Christmas approaches. A storm delays some of the entertainers, Pops Bailey [Jordan Berry] runs an of-track betting operation on the station's phones, over-eager delivery boy Wally Fergusson [Jason Morgan] wants a chance to perform, arrogant heartthrob Johnny Cantone [Chase McMichen] yearns for a Hollywood career as he drinks himself into a stupor, trumpet playing soldier Biff Baker [Jon Timbes] is leaving for the European front the next day, diva Geneva Lee Browne [Brooke Brown] is perennially late & demanding, and various others like Neal Tilden [David Brown] are looking for their big break, while the station's owner and on-air voice Clifton A. Feddington [Tony Davison] tries to hold it all together just minutes before a live broadcast.

When the lengthy expository set-up finally segues to the radio program itself (with us being the "live radio audience"), the rest is non-stop songs interspersed with commercials for such "new" products as Pepsi Cola, Cashmere Bouquet soap, Sal Hepatica laxative, Nash automobiles, and others.

As Faulkner continues to adjust to its new theatre, some of the production issues might get ironed out. The ambitiously detailed period set appears cramped as actors maneuver around one another. While some movement establishing character relationships is distracting when placed simultaneously behind a featured singer, the main focus remains on the songs, but the orchestra's volume too often drowns out human voices so lyrics and important dialogue are inaudible.

Nonetheless, both the ensemble and individuals get their times to shine. "Jingle Bells" and a patriotic anthem in "Strike Up The Band" feature the best aspects of the ensemble's blend of voices and peppy energy.

Brittney Johnston as Ginger gives an unexpectedly sultry shoulder-shaking interpretation of "Blues in the Night". Bret Morris as Neal Tilden shines as a substitute in "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and a sensitive "You Go to My Head". Mr. McMichen's "Love is Here to Stay" capitalizes on his rapport with the women in the audience. Novelty numbers like "Chiquita Banana" and songs featuring the insouciance of Abby Roberts as Connie in "Daddy" and "Five O'Clock Whistle" are hits.

Shared credit for show-stopping numbers go to Brooke Brown and Kristy Humphreys. Ms. Brown's spot-on interpretation of the band's arrangement of "I Got It Bad" is so fully committed that it dazzles, and her strong voice lends support to several ensemble and small group tunes. As Ann Collier, Ms. Humphreys is as solid as one can be. Whether in an ensemble or a sextet like "I'll Never Smile Again", or solos "Black Magic" and a heart rending "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Ms. Humphreys commands attention with intelligent and understated passion, clear diction, and vocal support that set the standard for all.

With The 1940s Radio Hour, Faulkner is ringing in the season with a delightfully nostalgic show that puts smiles on faces and lifts our spirits.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Holiday Gifts of Words & Music"

The Cloverdale Playhouse will present Holiday Gifts of Words & Music -- three benefit performances for the Playhouse and the Montgomery Chorale.
December 15 & 16 at 7:30 p.m.
December 18 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are available online at or by phoning the Box Office at(334) 262-1530 between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.

Red Door: "The Christmas Letters"

It does not matter what part of the country you live in, The Christmas Letters, now showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, will touch your heart and make you realize the importance of family at all stages in life.

Adapted from Lee Smith's novel by Paul Ferguson, with music & lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell, the story is told through a series of Christmas letters from 1944 to 1996, and is punctuated by numerous songs that carry the plot forward or comment on the action. What unfolds through the words of three generations of women is a poignant tale of family experiences we can all identify with -- births & deaths, financial need & prosperity, faithfulness & infidelity, war & peace.

In 1996, Melanie [Valerie Sandlin] picks up the tradition of writing the letters that her mother & grandmother had created, and she reads the first letter from 1944, taking us back to that time when her grandmother Birdie [Beth Egan -- strong and confident in the role, with a fine singing voice] started it all. Picked up later by her mother Mary [Anna Perry], the letters bring us back to 1996 by the end of the play.

We see the crochety great-grandmother Mrs. Pickett [Anne Brabham], Mary's devoted husband Bill [William Harper], their dutiful son Joe [Joseph Crawford], Mary's husband Sandy [Beau Shirley], and assorted family, friends, & neighbors...each of whom impacts the others and plays a role in developing their personalities and determining their behavior.

The songs -- played by the Lighthouse String Ensemble from Troy, AL [they also entertained with a pre-show concert of bluegrass music -- major talent here] -- are as engaging as the story. "Christmas Snow" sets an appropriate winter scene, "A Recipe for Living" gets us into the commitment of the family, "The Flood" evokes both the distress of flooding and the stalwartness of people under duress [as one character says: "Calamity can be a blessing in disguise."], "Mama's Death" helps bring the family together.......through all their trials over five decades, they still "try to get it right" -- and by the end, they do.

With a mixture of experienced and first-time actors, director Tom Salter has created a fine on-stage ensemble. Though the script could benefit from some attention to developing characters and smoothing out time-shifts, the story has been told clearly, and there are a couple of stand-out performances. -- Mr. Harper plays three roles [husband Bill, stuffy teacher Mr. Rutledge, and flambuoyant marriage therapist Peter Waterford], distinguishing each with voice and behavior differences. And Ms. Perry's development of Mary from a child to a middle-aged woman is so gradually developed that we hardly notice the changes; and her clear soprano carries many of the songs.

These are essentially good people who meet the family & social issues head on, and we leave the theatre feeling better for sharing with them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

ASF: "A Christmas Memory"

Truman Capote's largely autobiographical A Christmas Memory (1956) has become a staple fare for the holidays, evoking a past & more gentle time and the simplicity of a heart willing to give for the pure joy of giving, asking nothing in return but friendship and love.

Its most recent version now on offer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a musical adaptation (2010) by Duane Poole, with music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Carol Hall. -- Although it adds characters to Capote's text, this version is otherwise true to the original's intentions, capitalizing on incorporating Capote's narrative that makes the simple profound and the ordinary poetic.

The heartwarming story of the close and loving relationship between a boy named Buddy Faulk [James Zitelli] and his elderly cousin Sook [Kay Walbye] is narrated and bookended by the adult Buddy [Jonathan Rayson], a successful author who questions his writing ability and purpose, and who returns in 1955 to sell his childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama, where he meets Anna Stabler [Terry Burrell] the long-time family housekeeper, triggering reminiscences of the 1930s events that shaped him and ending with the adult writing the story of his childhood.

In its two acts, sensitively directed by Karen Azenberg, Buddy's and Sook's 1930s adventures are interspersed with songs and 1950s commentary on them. -- A total of seven actors create an excellent ensemble of multi-dimensional, credible & familiar individuals, allowing the sentimental material to tap into the audience's awareness of the truths Capote has to tell about country life, love and loneliness with a kind of warm wisdom that only comes from the heart.

Unlike today's techno-savvy and techno-demanding children, Buddy is happy to tell stories, find a Christmas tree in the secret part of the woods, make home-made decorations out of paper & tinfoil, string popcorn & cranberries, and bake fruitcakes to deliver to neighbors and send to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- all in the company of his best friend and playmate, the guileless and ingenuous Sook [and their dog Queenie].

Buddy lives with Sook and two other middle-aged cousins -- Jennie [Carolyn Mignini] who runs the family business and is the realist of the group, and Seabon [Rodney Clark] a kindly but timid soul who has never acted on his dreams or desires. They are concerned that Sook is a hindrance to Buddy's maturity, and Jennie wants to send him to a military academy so he can grow up with traditional male influences. -- Thus, their idyllic life in flying home-made paper kites is threatened.

And there are outsiders too: tomboy Nell Harper [Lizzy Woodall at the opening performance], Buddy's "neighbor and worst enemy", constantly taunts the boy and "double-dog-dares" him to demonstrate courage; and Haha Jones [Rodney Clark in the second of three roles in all, the other one being Farley Wood, the nosy postman] is the beligerent supplier of whiskey needed for the fruitcakes, and whose gruff manner belies a hidden kindliness.

This gem of a play doesn't have big production numbers with a cast of thousands, nor does it have the glitz & glamor of fancy costumes and sets [all of which have their place in the likes of blockbuster musicals]; but it makes up for it by enthralling audiences in allowing them to connect with the hearts of its characters, and it entertains us with a rustic charm both visual and thematic.

Songs like the ragtime "Alabama Fruitcake" are irresistably engaging, and "Mighty Sweet Music" has the cast accompanying Tom Griffin's peppy pit orchestra on-stage playing spoons, lemonade glasses, washboards, and Jews-harp capture the essence of simple down-home energy. While Anna's "Detour" describes her past, and Seabon & Buddy connect touchingly with "Stars to Guide" them.

Whether it is possible to never grow up like Peter Pan, we might all prefer to remain young forever like Sook. And though time has a way of challenging us in many ways, and death is inevitable, we can all have an influence on one another. As Sook says: "Just because a person dies doesn't mean they're gone...just moved on to a better place."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "An Evening With Mark Twain"

Brought in for just one short weekend, Kurt H. Sutton's impersonation of Samuel Clemens in An Evening With Mark Twain graced the Wetumpka Depot's stage with the wit and wisdon, and frequent spot-on criticisms of American culture, society, and politics.

Mark Twain is revered as America's greatest humorist, and was known later in his life for remarkable speaking engagements across the land where he entertained the crowds by reading excerpts from his books & stories, and reminiscing on his life.

So it is here: the setting is his "parlor" -- a carpet, a wing-back armchair, a lectern, a couple of instruments, and some other props -- from which he recites, sings songs, passes judgement on several sacred cows, and entertains us with his quick wit, sly grin, and frequent forays into folk and "spiritual" music.

Originally devised as Mark Twain Tonight by Hal Holbrook many decades ago, an entire cottage industry has emerged with actors portraying Twain. Mr. Sutton has been on the circuit for over six years, and clearly has a comfort in the role, a command of a wealth of material, selections of which vary from performance to performance, and a demeanor that gets an audience to respond as to a long-time friend [though it took a while for the audience to warm to him and respond appreciatively to an old-fashioned style of storytelling].

We have to listen carefully to sometimes get the joke -- a turn of phrase, a clever pun, or a sly off-hand remark delivered with a shrug of the shoulder or a double-take or a well-timed delayed comment.

If we listen carefully, there is no doubt why Mark Twain's works have continued to captivate readers in three centuries; not only are his subjects timeless or at least relevant today as when they were first penned, but Twain's prose descriptions of rivers & nature & human foibles are rendered to create vivid and lasting pictures.

And his humor always hits its target. For example, he once told someone that he came across "the ugliest woman I ever saw", but the next day when her sister was around, he "now withdraws the statement". Or that "I can cut out bad habits, but not moderate them", concluding that a person with no bad habits is a "moral pauper". Or calling Congress the "Grand old national asylum for the helpless", stating further that we have "the best Congress money can buy" -- sentiments which met with approving laughter from the audience. -- And his rambling story of "Grandfather and the Ram" told by the town drunk who falls asleep in a drunken stupor before finishing the tale, gets funnier with each section as the storyteller gets distracted by the details of the story.

In Act II, Sutton spends much of the time with selections from Huckleberry Finn, and plays all the roles, stating further that this book particularly has been banned by some group or another ever since its first printing, and wisely noting that "nothing sells as well as a banned book". -- Huck's moral dilemma is, of course, that he doesn't turn in the runaway slave, Jim, and thinks he will go to hell for it, but that he can't quite figure out why anyone could enslave another; the choice of going to "the good place" where he would be always in the presence of do-gooders & hypocrites is unbearable for Huck, so he prefers "the other place" for his eternity.

This Mark Twain gave us a lot to think about at a time when slogans and moralizing have little substance; we could well take notice from the master.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Millbrook: "A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody"

The Millbrook Community Players' 2011 season is coming to a close with Ron Bernas' comedy/murder mystery, A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody. In its two hours, virtually every convention of the genre is parodied good-naturedly by a company who play it straight, with no attempts to signal or belabor the humorous intent.

Wealthy businessman Matthew Perry [John Chain] is seemingly very happy in his long marriage to Julia [Sharon Demuth], but longs for the "freedom" his friends appear to have -- to go on trips, play golf, etc. -- and on New Year's Eve, the couple reveal their New Year's Resolutions to each other: hers is to finish reading Doctor Zhivago, and his is to kill her before the year ends.

Since her death must look like an accident, and since this is a sophisticated couple who can exchange witticisms casually, she offers ideas for her demise, though they are all rejected for reasons apparent to anyone familiar with the murder-mystery genre, and she adds a resolution to urge him on his way that she will have a mad passionate affair with their butler Buttram [Michael Snead].

The couple's ditsy-blonde daughter Bunny [Katie Moore] shows up with her new boyfriend, up-and-coming lawyer Donald Baxter [Shelton Davis] and announces her engagement, so everything gets complicated for Matthew & Julia: a June date is too soon for Bunny, who has so many preparations to make, so Matthew suggests the next January 1.

Can their resolutions be changed? Matthew won't budge, so Julia resolves to stay alive. -- Let the games begin.

The play's several scenes take us through the year as numerous off-stage deaths occur, prompting the intervention of Detective Plotnik [Paul Foree], a gumshoe who thinks he is clever, but is easily distracted by "evidence" he finds. All the deaths seem to have happened after Donald arrived on the scene, so he is a suspect; the "butler did it" when Plotnik overhears a phone conversation; and so on -- circumstantial evidence at best. -- And the parties the Perry's throw throughout the year have fewer and fewer guests, as the invitees fear for their lives while the body count increases in ever-increasingly odd circumstances.

It is a credit to this ensemble that they play their roles honestly, with no hint of self-indulgence. So the humor comes through. In one hilarious scene at the couple's Halloween party, everyone is in costume appropriate to their character: Prince Valiant [Donald] & his lady in waiting [Bunny], Charlie Chan [Plotnik], Big-Bad Wolf [Matthew] and Little Red Riding Hood [Julia], and a Bunny [Buttram] with ears and cottton tail spoofing Playboy bunnies.

Of course, not everything is as it seems, and all will turn out for the best by the end. Without giving away essential plot reversals and revelations, let it suffice that there are a few appealing surprises here.

Highlight performances come from Mr. Chain and Ms. Demuth whose stage comfort and experience come to the fore; Ms. Moore portrays a dumb-blonde with credible naivete; and Mr. Baxter [in his acting debut with only a couple of weeks in rehearsal] shows a lot of promise.

Director Fred Neighbors has a quietly pleasant hit on his hands.

Friday, November 4, 2011

AUM: "Servant of Two Masters"

Italian comic playwright Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters has been on stage almost continually since 1743, making the rounds of professional and educational theatres and finally landing again at Theatre AUM where, under Neil David Seibel's direction, it affords veteran and neophyte actors opportunities and challenges to build on.

Based on the improvizational commedia dell'arte traditions of the 16th Century, the play's stock characters and exaggerated comic style provide this ensemble company a wealth of occasions to hone their craft.

The scenario gets a bit confusing, and requires significant "suspension of disbelief" from the audience, but in a nutshell: Beatrice [Tina Neese] disguises herself as her deceased twin brother Federico in order to get back from Pantalone [Mark Dasinger, Jr.] a dowry so she can find and marry Florindo [Wes Milton]; only Brighella [Shane Tyus] knows Beatrice's true identity; Pantalone's daughter Clarice [Brittany Carden] loves Silvio [Geoffrey Morris], the son of the pompous Dr. Lombardi [Nicholas Warman], but has been promised im marriage to Federico; Beatrice entrusts money & goods to her sly servant Truffaldino [La'Brandon Tyre] who, in attempting to get even more for himself, agrees to also be Florindo's servant.

As the script requires that the two masters can not be on stage simultaneously until the end, our focus is on Truffaldino's ability to extricate himself from potential problems while pleasing both masters equally. With an assortment of keys, letters, and property given to him by various characters with the admonition of only "for your master", the illiterate servant can not tell which "master" is meant, and has to extricate himself from numerous difficulties which after much confusion bring all the lovers together, forgiveness for Truffaldino, and his own marriage to the crafty servant Smeraldina [Laura Bramblette].

In true commedia form, the characters are broadly drawn: crafty servants, romantic lovers, foolish fathers, pompous doctors -- all have certain conventional manners of walking and talking, and costumes [gorgeously rendered by Val Winkelman with an eye to commedia conventions & stylish characterizations] recognizable instantly in the theatre. The AUM company paint them in bold strokes that suggest their characters; some are more successful than others, but given that several actors here have little stage experience, their efforts succeed only to a degree. [In commedia, actors took years to perfect the expressions, postures, and lazzi (stage business) of a single character type, and spent whole careers playing just that one role.] What these young actors have accomplished in a few weeks is a good start...and most of the cast have achieved a fine sense of comic timing.

Although much of the enjoyment comes from the physical behavior on stage -- and the ensemble commits to its demands very well -- the complexities of the plot & character relationships are found in the brilliantly witty dialogue. Regretably, a lot of the words are muddled in their articulation, especially when delivered as rapidly & passionately as the style demands.

Cliff Merrit's forced perspective "street-scene" backdrop and a lot of open space provide plenty of room for the physical action; and the music choices that begin with the pre-show music and punctuate the goings-on throughout cleverly comment on the Italian setting as well as the particular events -- everything from Rosemary Clooney singing "Mambo Italiano" to the theme from "The Godfather" and Dean Martin's "That's Amore". -- And Mr. Seibel also adds a sweet [but too short] sequence where the lovers eat a plate of spaghetti right out of "Lady and the Tramp".

Theatre AUM is again presenting a challenging production that theatre students [and local audiences] experience only rarely...and this new crop of student actors is one to watch.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

ASF: "Dracula"

Vampire-mania is clearly with us [see Twilight, True Blood, et al.], so what better way to prepare for the upcoming Halloween season than with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's suitably dressed-out version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula as adapted by William McNulty.

Played straightforwardly [along with some appropriately melodramatic comic renderings of dialogue] by a talented ensemble of veteran ASF actors and newcomers to the Montgomery stage on Peter Hicks's gloriously Gothic & period sets, director Geoffrey Sherman allows his actors to find nuances of character to suit McNulty's well-crafted and literate script. -- Yes, there are the familiar lines that draw audience responses [for example: "I never drink (pause)" says Dracula; and, of course on hearing a wolf's howl: "Listen to them, the children of the night; what sweet music they make!"]; but these and others are spoken with conviction of character that fit the script without further comment.

Brett Rominger's eerily lush musical score, claps of thunder, and plenty of smoke introduce us to a Nosferatu monster [Craig Hanson] -- with long fingers & sharp mails, a hunch-back, and bulging bald head -- as he takes his first victim in a graveyard, a child [Ella Grace Johns]. A fluid scene change to Dr. Seward's large Victorian-Gothic consulting room: Abram Van Helsing [Paul Hebron] is ushered in by Irish housekeeper Margaret Sullivan [Jennifer Barnhart]; when she leaves him, Renfield [Greg Jackson] enters pretending to be a doctor/consultant, though he is one of the inmates in Seward's hospital.

It is clear from the outset that all is not well: Renfield's strangely erratic behavior and his regular attempts to escape, his eating of live animals beginning with flies, then rats, then..., and his references to "forces beyond his control" are a study in madness and he has to be kept under control by asylum attendant Briggs [Brik Berkes]; Seward [Keith Merrill] is "paralyzed with grief" over the mysterious death of Mina [Sandra Struthers Clerc] and the failing health of Lucy Westphal [Mairin Lee], caused, it seems, by certain wounds on her neck, and has summoned his mentor Van Helsing to solve the matter.

The mention of a new neighbor, Count Dracula [Juri Henley-Cohn], impacts Van Helsing immediately, and when Dracula insinuates himself into the house and seduces several of the people there, Van Helsing's diagnosis is that Lucy does not have a disease, but is in thrall of the un-dead...Nosferatu...the vampire. Soon, Dracula also controls the housekeeper.

When Lucy's fiance Jonathan Harker [John P. Keller] returns after having made his escape from Dracula's castle in Transylvania, the hunt is soon on to find and destroy the monster Dracula.

The story is so familiar, that there is no doubt about the ending; the delight is in the journey to it; and there are a few surprises. -- Yes, there will be blood [not too much]; yes, there will be special effects, some of which are startling, and all of which are accomplished so that audiences wonder "How did they do that?"

Mr. Berkes returns to ASF after successes last season to a strong showing here, and Mr. Hebron -- too long away from the ASF stage -- is exceptional as Van Helsing. Ms. Clerc and Ms. Lee alternate the roles of Mina and Lucy, providing each the opportunity of showing both the prim & proper vs. the possessed character. Ms. Barnhart's role affords no-nonsense practicality and devious passion. Mr. Keller's Harker is at once tortured and sympathetic. And Mr. Merrill's depth of feeling is impressive. -- In a role so well written as to almost steal the show, Mr. Jackson's Renfield is lively, intelligent, and no doubt a madman, but one who achieves audience sympathy...and very funny at times.

As we watch Dracula weave his influence and make others writhe in pain as they try to escape his physical control, Mr. Henley-Cohn's powerful presence bewitches us as much as it does the characters on-stage -- we can't help but be caught in his spell, by the irresistability of the forbidden.

Finally, his lair discovered and his end ensured with holy water, a crucifix, and a stake through the heart, with elaborate special effects Dracula's spell over the several initiated vampires appears to be over...but is it?

Faulkner: "The Phantom of the Opera"

Montgomery's newest theatre is presenting the first local area production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster musical, The Phantom of the Opera, on the theatre's Grand Opening.

Faulkner University is showcasing its beautiful new state-of-the-art theatre space -- located across the Atlanta Highway from the main campus -- to sold out enthusiastic audiences, about 100 of whom have dinner before the show, and another 80+ are seated in comfortable auditorium seats.

Ever since it opened in London in 1986, Phantom has had a continuous run there, and generated award winning productions in most of the world's major cities as well as countless touring productions.

Vocally demanding of virtually all its principal characters, the story revolves around a physically disfigured Svengali-like musical genius -- the Phantom [Terry Brown] -- who terrorizes an opera company, claiming the opera house belongs to him and demanding that his protege Christine Daae [Alyssa Boyd] must displace the current prima donna Carlotta Giudicelli [Christina Burroughs], and that the leading tenor Ubaldo Piangi [Tony Davison] will also be relegated to minor roles.

Complicating matters is the presence of Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny [Matt Roberson], in love with Christine and her sworn protector from the machinations of the Phantom.

Co-directors Jason Clark South and Angela Dickson, along with a fine pit orchestra conducted by Andrew Cook, have gathered a company of some 42 Faulkner students & faculty and area actors/singers into their 2-hour and 45-minute extravaganza, complimented by lavish period costumes & wigs, and numerous moveable set pieces, some of which are so large and clunky that they overwhelm the playing space and create cumbersome scene changes & crowded staging.

There are some outstanding singers in this company; tops among them is Ms. Burroughs, whose powerfully clear and precise soprano was showcased in several songs, never once faltering in quality and passionate dramatic intensity. She is matched by Mr. Davison's tenor that is rich in their duets, a voice impressive also in Smokey Joe's Cafe earlier this season.

Ms. Boyd -- appropriately for her role as Christine -- has a lighter and sweeter soprano voice that she uses for best effect in quieter reflective moments: "All I Ask of You" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again". Mr. Roberson's strong baritone compliments Ms. Boyd, but got lost in its lower registers [as did several voices] due in part to the orchestra's volume...some sound balance checks need to be accomodated as Faulkner investigates its new equipment.

Mr. Brown's Phantom sounded shaky for much of the performance; though he reached for and met most of the score's high notes, it was apparent that he struggled for much of the time.

While the voices carry a lot of this production, relationship developments are essential to audience engagement, and here very little chemistry between major characters was evident except between Carlotta and Ubaldo, and in secondary characters. -- One never felt the necessary conflicted attraction between Christine and the Phantom until almost the end of the play; and the romantic attachment between Christine and Raoul was so tentative that actions belied words. -- Perhaps these relationships will develop during the run of the show.

On the other hand, Braxton McDonald and Chase McMichen as M. Firmin and M. Andre, along with Bill Nowell as M. LeFevre, created an excellent comic trio who fed off one another's every gesture and nuanced dialogue. -- And Angela Dickson as Mme. Giry turns in a solid truthful performance; as she provides answers to the mysterious Phantom's background [placed awkwardly in Act II for some reason], it is good to know Ms. Dickson can deliver the goods.

The Faulkner company should soon get used to its new performance space and figure out the best uses of equipment. Several areas of the stage, for example, were either left in darkness or such deep shadow as to render actors almost invisible at important moments of the action. -- Since productions like The Phantom of the Opera require more sophisticated lighting than Faulkner's all-too-few lighting instruments allow, this company and the excellent new space would benefit from a substantial investment in lights.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel"

Actress and first-time director Kim Mason has chosen a challenging debut production in Mitch Albom's curious Duck Hunter Shoots Angel now on-stage at the Wetumpka Depot. The author of Tuesdays With Morrie creates a strange, reflective, comedic, and occasional social commentary that seems at times to not know where to place its emphasis or what exactly it wants to be as it jumps from one to the other in mid-scene.

Is it a story about redemption, race relations, tabloid journalism, North vs. South -- or perhaps all of these? Filled with so many stereotypical characters [a crazed tabloid editor, two "redneck" simpleton duck hunters, a depressed reporter with his reluctant photographer, a naively innocent woman, a smarter than average teenage shopkeeper, a half-alligator/half-man (tabloid journalism's idea of a fine story)], Albom's script does manage a number of clever comic lines and biting and uncomfortably critical comments on today's culture, but remains a cipher even at the end.

That being the case, Ms. Mason demonstrates a clear understanding of the bizarre as she guides her ensemble to handle their characters truthfully, no matter how strange or disconnected the script seems to be.

Urged on by his obsessive boss Lester [M. Gabriel Santos], Sandy [Dave Haenlein], the depressed white journalist, spends much of the play in conversation with a "Voice" [Layne Holley] who interrogates him about his assignment to cover a story in Alabama that suggests that two local duck hunters had shot an angel -- a prime topic for The Weekly World and Globe, a paper he claims to be "ten notches below the National Enquirer". His black sidekick photographer Lenny [Steve Mitchell] is a sardonic realist ever ready with a sly comment that Mr. Mitchell delivers with casual assurance.

The inept hunters are brothers Duwell Early [William Harper] and Duane Early [Alan Patrick], two bumbling clowns whose antics are among the most comically diverting of the evening as these actors comprise a fine double-act as they try to first understand that they killed an angel and are facing "hellfire & damnation" and second as they attempt to hide the truth and/or bilk more money for their story.

In several conversations with the "Voice", Sandy experiences flashbacks to a relationship with a young unnamed Woman [Sonjha Cannon] he had a brief affair with years ago in Alabama, and the memory of leaving her without explanation serves to be the link to Sandy's depression. It turns out -- not surprisingly -- that she had his child unbeknownst to him, who now is the local shopkeeper named Kansas [Madeline Caver], a clever sort who seems out of place in this Alabama backwater swamp.

In a smart bit of writing, Albom frequently uses the last bit of dialogue from one scene as the first speech in the following scene, no matter whether they are connected in time, thus making some interesting segues both of words and themes.

Though there does seem to be some sentimentalized redemption for Sandy by the end, a "tabloid ending" involving Duwell's becoming an angel seems a bit too convenient.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Millbrook: "A Bad Year for Tomatoes"

John Patrick's comedy A Bad Year for Tomatoes is the Millbrook Community Players' current offering this season, playing to almost full houses, and entertaining audiences with the antics of eccentric characters & silly siutations.

Director Stephanie McGuire sensibly changes the script's setting from New England to "somewhere in the South" to accomodate the actors' natural Southern accents, ones which fit so well in the mouths of the local sheriff, bumbling simpleton, and town gossips. And, she has changed some references to actual events and off-stage celebrities to suit the new location in both place and time.

Myra Marlowe [Shea Jackson] is a well-known television actress noted for playing a "granny" on a popular sitcom, who escapes from Hollywood to "search for something real" in her life, winding up in the rural village of Beaver Haven where she believes she can remain incognito to plant tomatoes and write her memoirs. The only person who knows of the pretense is her long-time friend (and potential love-interest), Tom Lamont [John Chain], who swears to keep her secret, as she introduces herself to everyone by her real name, Myrtle Durdle.

No sooner has she arrived, however, than the locals descend on her from all points nearby in the small neighborhood. The "Hospitality Committee" is comprised of Cora Gump [Rae Ann Collier] and Reba Harper [Nancy Power], who proceed to interrupt virtually any sense of privacy. Though Reba often claims "I don't like to gossip...", hardly a word from her mouth is anything else...and Cora backs her up in warning Myrtle/Myra about Willa Mae Wilcox [Ginger Collum], a strange flamboyant person they call a witch among other things.

While the women continually intrude on Myrtle's attempts to dictate her memoirs, a local handyman named Piney [John Collier in a role he perfectly underplays] provides some of the best comic moments in the play as he speaks in monosyllables and takes everything literally while bargaining the cost of his handyman services, much to Myrtle's frustration.

In a desperate move, Myrtle invents a crazy sister named "Sis Sadie" who, if she escapes from her locked room upstairs, will wreak havoc in the community...and winds up disguising herself as "Sis Sadie" on several occasions in her attempts to be left alone.

The cliche-filled plot contrives to insinuate a murder has been committed when "Sis Sadie" mysteriously disappears, and the truth will be revealed through the intervention of a well-meaning Sheriff [Mark McGuire] only after a lot of confusion, accusations, and silliness.

It is too bad that all the action of the play is performed upstage of the proscenium curtain, distancing the actors from the audience; segues between scenes need to be tightened up to avoid long gaps of time in the dark; and more assured delivery of lines and characters will hopefully come in time...but the show is otherwise easy on the eyes and ears.

Friday, September 16, 2011

WOBT: "The Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)"

Although any one of William Shakespeare's 37-or-so plays would take over three hours to perform in its entirety, in less than two hours, Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is delighting their all-too-small audiences with a merry romp through all the plays [plus the 154 sonnets and other occasional poems by the Bard]: The Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged).

Devised some years ago in England by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield -- who call themselves the R.S.C., the "Reduced Shakespeare Company", not to be confused with the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-upon-Avon which they call the "other" Shakespeare Company -- this show has been entertaining audiences around the globe with its irreverent approach to Shakespeare's canon, and its topical references to whichever community where it is performed.

Though it helps to be familiar with Shakespeare's works, it is not a prerequisite to enjoyment of this piece...and if you ever get lost or feel out of place, one of the three energetic and self-effacing actors who play all the roles is there to guide you through.

First-time director Matthew Givens is fortunate in having three capable actors to bring this piece to life: veterans Joshua Diboll & Wes Milton have been performing in and around Montgomery for several years, and newcomer Kalonji Gilchrist demonstrates a good deal of talent to match (and spar) with them. -- Imagine, for example, the complete telling of Shakespeare's English History plays (about a dozen of them) as a football match in which the crown instead of a football is passed from one king to another while other characters are often "slaughtered" on the fields of battle.

Or witness Romeo & Juliet with Three Stooges and WWF references; or Shakespeare's most gruesome telling of Titus Andronicus [in which the bad-guys are killed and served to their mother in a pie] as a Southern Cooking TV Show; or Othello told as a very clever "rap"; or the Scottish play [never say the name Macbeth in a theatre because the play is "cursed"] in terrible Scottish accents...or: well, you get the picture.

Add to this some good-natured audience participation; plenty of cross-dressing [after all, someone has to play the women's roles, and in Shakespeare's theatre there were no actresses allowed on stage]; and Hamlet played three times in succession, each one briefer that the one before; several "ad-libs" and "takes" and "editorial asides" to the audience, and you have an enjoyable evening's entertainment, emerging with a knowledge of Shakespeare too.

These talented actors are to be commended. They have quite a physical workout in the two-hours' playing time, and they have entertained. Good show!

Friday, September 9, 2011

AUM: Unseen

Hard on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Theatre AUM is producing the World Premier of Unseen by the university's Provost, Jeffery Scott Elwell. The play recounts the devastating effects of the death of one Roy Gibbons [Neil David Seibel] on his wife, sister, and young of many a story that likely unfolded in thousands of households here and abroad.

Montgomery is hosting several tributes and observations memorializing the 9/11 victims, and this study of its impact on an ordinary family caught up in bureaucratic insensitivity and psychological therapy is effective in its treatment of events and issues that continue to haunt us.

At its opening, a powerful slide-show of the construction of the World Trade Center Towers culminating in photos of the September 11th attacks had the audience in rapt attention; at its end, Mike Winkelman's set was revealed: an arrangement of platforms depicting the play's various locations placed amidst the grey-ash rubble with iconic skeletal frames at the rear...and the audience response was a visceral intake of breath.

Director Val Winkelman handles Elwell's episodic structure by finessing the breaks between scenes with La'Brandon Tyre's effective sound scoring. -- With hardly a sustained scene in it, the cinematic storytelling relies on moments that connect us to the lives and conflicts of its individual characters.

Young Roy "Junior" Gibbons [AUM freshman Nik Smith] "sees" his father at a memorial service, despite the fact that Roy Senior's body has not yet been found after the collapse of the building where he worked. Convinced that his father is still alive [though no one else can see him] Junior's insistence concerns his mother Helen [Sarah Worley] and sister-in-law Susan [Alicia Fry], beginning a series of sessions with a psychiatrist [Michael Krek] for both the boy and later his mother.

Roy and Junior each need one another, and their lives are unsettled. Roy can not rest nor completely die while someone believes he lives, and his son relies so heavily on his father's presence that he can not accept his death.

Compounding the immediate issue of grieving is the bureaucratic handling of insurance claims by an Investigator [Daniel Brown], who, though not completely lacking in compassion when he hears of Junior's absolute conviction of his father being alive, delays the insurance process till Roy's death can be verified.

Elwell's script is a work in progress that evokes the time and various understandable human responses & reactions to the catastrophic events of 9/11. Lacking some concrete details of the lives and relationships among its characters, we are given a touching picture that could draw us in more with fleshing out these elements and extending scenes to develop them.

The AUM ensemble actors are credible in their portrayals under Ms. Winkelman's tutelage, and there are some especially effective moments when hardly a word is spoken or needed.

Newcomer Nik Smith is particularly convincing as Junior, capturing many of a budding-teenager's vocal & physical behaviors. Ms. Worley's depiction of the distressed wife & mother shifts gears from concern to grief believably, though she often speaks very quickly and softly, rendering her words almost inaudible. Mr. Krek's psychiatrist mixes the script's gentle humor with a professional demeanor meant to soothe or at least not disturb his patients. And Mr. Seibel lends a comfort to his role that is an admirable lesson for the student actors.

Fitting so well into this week's commemorations, AUM's Unseen might also have a life of its own afterwards.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Millbrook: "Sister Robert Anne's Cabaret Class"

Showing for too-few nights, the Millbrook Community Players are showcasing the talents of Brooke Brown in a one-woman musical show, Sister Robert Anne's Cabaret Class, the latest in the cottage industry Nunsense productions. Accompanied on the piano by Katy Gerlach as Sister Mary Katherine, Ms. Brown's Sister Robert Anne takes us on a one-and-a-half hour ride that capitalizes on her strong singing voice and capable comic delivery.

Brooklyn born and street smart, Sister Robert Anne storms onto the stage, clicker and notecards in hand, to teach her students [us, the audience] how to put together a cabaret act, mixing this extended monologue with several songs and reminiscences of her past juvenile delinquent behavior & salvation from it at a strict Catholic school.

Dressed in a familiar black & white habit, though with colorful sneakers on her feet and a number of simple props to create moods or characters, Ms. Brown owns the stage and commands our attention -- this is done by direct address to us and frequent audience participation moments that audience members good-naturedly joined.

Though it might seem a strange vocation for this pugnacious Sister, her attitude is best expressed in Act II when Sister Robert Anne says: "If you love what you're doin' the payoff is great." -- And Ms. Brown clearly loves what she's doin'. She relishes in impersonating Bette Davis and Ethel Merman, admires Elvis, and knows that there are several ways to "become a star" -- the convent being somewhat unconventional, but with a payoff.

When she lets us in on some "confidential" [and possibly risque] editorializing or advice, Ms. Brown's quick aside comments are punctuated by knowing looks and an animated face, letting us in on secrets with a shrug or a wink & a smile. In short, we like her because she is just like us. And she can sure belt out a song, making the body microphone almost superfluous.

There are several "in" jokes from film and theatre that are delivered so quickly we hardly have time to register them, but just as in any class, we are meant to pay attention.

On a technical note: the lighting kept Ms. Brown in shadow for much of the performance; simple adjustments to the aim & focus of the instruments would let this talented actress be seen to best advantage.

There are only a few performances of this good-natured production, and the Millbrook Community Players are also dishing up a tasty buffet dinner with the show.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Faulkner: "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

It's cool! It's hip! It's the Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller musical revue, Smokey Joe's Cafe...and, it's the best family entertainment in town that serves as a refreshing antidote to the sweltering weather in the dog-days of summer.

Directed by Angela Dickson, with musical direction by Marilyn Swears and her excellent 4-piece rock & roll band, and Kari Gatlin's creative choreography, Faulkner University dishes up an impressive musical entertainment that showcases the triple-threat cast's energetic talents in acting, singing, and dancing.

Taking us back to the 1950s -- the good old days celebrating romantic love in its various guises -- the play begins & ends with an invitation to the audience to "come back to the old neighborhood" and value the comraderie that allows us to honestly assess the present from the experiences of the past. -- Though there is no plot to speak of, the 40-or-so songs celebrate the inherent goodness in all of us.

It's non-stop entertainment all the way that keeps the audience engaged in familiar and not-so-familiar songs of the period [some like "Loving You" and "Hound Dog" made famous by Elvis Presley]. -- Too bad there were some unfortunate microphone glitches and some all-too-demure costume adjustments that drew attention to themselves and spoiled the otherwise authentic period look that costumer Emily Martin had established so well with her choices of evening gowns & tuxedos, and 1950s-era jackets & hats.

It took a couple of numbers to get the right rhythm to the evening, but when Kristi Rowan Humphreys took the stage with "Dance With Me" along with Michael Williams and the soon to be showcased male quartet [Tony Davidson, Matt Dickson, Eric McIntire, and Chase McMichen whose four-part harmony was spot-on], the show took off and never stopped. -- The quartet was featured several times in Act I -- "Keep On Rollin'", "Searchin'", "Poison Ivy", and "On Broadway", and as a quintet in Act II with Mr. Williams in "Little Egypt" (hugely funny), "There Goes My Baby", and "Love Potion #9 (Mr. McMichen at his comic best).

The women [Alyssa Boyd, Brittney Johnston, and Bethany Telehany joined Ms. Humphreys] too had ample talents to demonstrate in their quartet numbers: "Neighborhood", and especially their anthem to women's lib, "I'm A Woman", that brought the house down.

There are some high quality individual singing voices here that also blend well in duets, quartets, and ensemble singing. -- Whether in the effervescent "Trouble" performed with a lot of class by Ms. Telehany and Ms. Boyd, or a touching rendition of "Love Me/Don't" by Mr. McMichen and Ms. Johnston, or the sophisticated "You're the Boss" by Ms. Boyd and Mr. McIntire (whose comfortable bass voice complimented so many of the songs in the show), or Mr. Dickson's tender "Loving You" with a back-up chorus, the clever comic combining of Mr. Davidson's "Treat Me Nice" with Ms. Humphreys' response in "Hound Dog", and the comical ensemble "D. W. Washburn" that segued into a rousing evangelical rendering of "Saved" led by Ms. Humphreys, they gave constantly changing moods and interpretations to these numbers.

Solos allowed cast members to demonstrate a significant range too: Ms. Telehany's "Falling" featured her clear soprano; Ms. Johnston's passionate and deeply felt version of "Pearl's A Singer" was heartbreakingly good; Ms. Boyd's seductive temptress singing "Don Juan" was a delight; Mr. Davidson's amazingly strong falsetto rendering of unrequited love in "I (Who Have Nothing)"; and Ms. Humphrey's riveting version of "Fools Fall In Love" which was the simplest and single most compelling presentation of the night that allowed us into the inner life of the person.

An unexpected treat featured the band in "Some Cats Know", Ms. Swears' confident piano complimented in this bluesy number by Andrew Cook's smooth & enticing saxophone, percussion riffs by Trey Holladay, and laid-back bass provided by Mark Roberson.

Ms. Dickson and her entire company deserved the enthusiastic standing ovation they received. By the evening's end, we had all been affected by the production's good nature, its sensitive treatment of love & relationships, and the energy & enthusiasm of its talented cast. It's nice to exit the theatre feeling good. Would that there were more such high-quality guileless entertainments around.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Red Door: "The Exact Center of the Universe"

Denise Gabriel has returned to the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs to direct her second Summer production. and brought two recent graduates from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro where she teaches to enhance a local production of Joan Vail Thorne's Southern-themed provocative comedy, The Exact Center of the Universe.

What at first glance is yet another in the popular genre of plays about strong Southern women [Steel Magnolias, et al.], Ms. Gabriel's firm hand and respect for Thorne's script prevent it from a dependance on predictable and stereotypical characters and situations. Only occasionally do her talented actors over-indulge and drop character -- perhaps to the delight of the local audience, but at the expense of otherwise truthful characterizations that would earn the laughs nonetheless. -- Performances are individually distinct and credible, each actor contributing to the ensemble with confidence and security in their roles.

In its two acts set in the 1950s and 1960s, Vada Love Powell [Betty Hubbard] is the self-appointed doyenne of the town, on first appearance a "powerful force" and stalwart defender of traditional values and good taste who takes the moral high-ground in her pronouncements, and whose authority has never been challenged -- especially by her son Appleton "Apple" [Stephen Spencer], who also serves as the narrator of the piece [with a nod to Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie].

She has smothered her son for all of his adult life, especially after the death of her husband, Mr. Powell, also played by Mr. Spencer, in dream-like sequences brought on by Veda's weak heart.

Living as she does in self-imposed isolation from the world's diversity [race, religion, etc.] that she chooses to ignore and presumes inferior, she seems impervious to change and ignorant of her own prejudices. As one character says, if "you live a lie long enough, you grow into it." -- Backing her up are Enid [Kim Graham] and Marybell [Janet Wilkerson] other members of her coven who gossip regularly in Enid's tree house while playing canasta, drinking tea and sherry, and consuming sweets, and whose down-home philosophy provides a clever commentary on the main action.

At the beginning of the play, Veda interrogates a young woman she presumes to be Apple's sweetheart Mary Ann [Kaleigh Malloy], only to find out she is Mary Lou, her identical twin, when Apple phones to tell his mother that he and Mary Ann are married. Coming as she does literally from the wrong side of the tracks [Mary Ann is also a Catholic from Italian extraction], Veda's control has been thwarted, bringing on a cycle of mistrust, fear, and regret. Veda is used to getting her own way, and everyone defers to her will, though she begrudgingly accepts her son's marriage.

Act II occurs ten years later, when Apple and Mary Ann have settled in town and produced children, with a kind of detente agreed with Veda. Mary Lou and Veda have become confidantes, perhaps because Mary Lou's excursions to exotic places intrigue Veda; but some of Mary Lou's explicit photographs of indigenous people are deemed "dirty" by Veda and therefore unfit for her grandchildren. -- Though she insists that she never "interferes", rather "intervenes", she oversteps the boundaries of parental authority, bringing outrage from Apple and Mary Ann's finally standing up to her mother-in-law.

Safely set in the not-too-distant past when [accurately or not] life was better and right & wrong absolutes were agreed, one can not help but notice the resonance of the play's themes on today -- when certain elements of our society take their opponents hostage and presume to impose their personal version of morality and right living on everyone regardless of the diversity that enhances understanding and tolerance.

Lessons can be learned from this production of The Exact Center of the Universe which unfortunately had only three performances. Perhaps the Red Door might re-think its one-weekend-only performance schedule so more people might experience productions of this caliber.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "All Shook Up"

Fresh from representing the Southeastern United States at the "American Association of Community Theatres" National Festival in Rochester, NY with their highly praised production of Second Samuel, the Wetumpka Depot Players are currently showing All Shook Up, a lighthearted tribute to Elvis Presley, with nods to William Shakespeare [see: Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It], John Waters' Hairspray, Mel Brooks' The Producers, tv's Happy Days, Grease, and every 1950s Rock & Roll romance.

With a limited Broadway success a few years ago, Joe DiPietro's script weaves some 25 songs made famous by "the King" into a pleasantly diverting entertainment.

Director Kristy Meanor deftly guides her 10 principal characters and large ensemble cast through the play's 19 scenes over 2 acts, that tell the story of Chad [Bradley Moon], a motorcycle-riding roustabout lady-killer [who breaks into song at the drop of a comb], and his impact on a small town.

Though he captures the hearts of virtually every young woman in the town, the most smitten is Natalie [Sarah Eckermann], a grease-monkey in her father Jim's [Tom Salter] garage, who resorts to disguising herself as a man she calls "Ed" in order to become Chad's trusted sidekick.

Natalie has another suitor in Dennis [Jeff Langham's comic timing helps him turn in a heartbreakingly funny characterization of a loveable "innocent" whose eventual blossoming garners cheers from the audience].

And her disguise and essential goodness make 'her/him' attractive to Sandra [Sonjha Cannon], a seductive Amazon who owns a local museum, and provokes one of a number of gender-confused relationships -- another one when Chad reluctantly and awkwardly falls for "Ed".

Chad influences the men in town too. Dennis and Jim both emulate his biker swagger and black leather costume, helping make them attractive respectively to Sandra and Sylvia [Shelley Williams -- the no-nonsense African-American proprietor of a local honky-tonk].

When Sylvia's daughter Lorraine [newcomer Taylor Finch is one to watch] falls for Dean [Matthew Walter], the son of the mayor Matilda [Sally Blackwell], whose self-righteous bullying makes her a character we love to hate, the more serious overtones on interracial marriage come to the fore through these likeable teenagers' adolescent yearnings.

Key to all this is DiPietro's clever use of Elvis' songs [all performed without microphones] to develop character and further the plot, whether to establish Chad's rebellious nature with "Jailhouse Rock", or Dennis' true feelings with "It Hurts Me", or Sylvia's passionate rendering of "There's Always Me", or to encourage Natalie with "Follow That Dream", or for Dean and Lorraine to risk social censure with "It's Now Or Never", or just fine ensemble singing of "Can't Help Falling In Love".

And it is to everyone's credit that these recognizable archetypes take on a degree of truthfulness that allows us to connect with their frustrations, challenges, and honest emotions.

Central to it all is Chad, and here Mr. Moon has found his "inner Elvis", his dark good looks, self-assured manner, swivelling hips, and confidently strong singing make his performance a stand-out; yet, he is also very much an ensemble actor who shares the stage attention generously with the rest of this talented company.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Millbrook: "Child's Play"

Continuing its challenging 2011 season, the Millbrook Community Players are staging Child's Play, a comedy by Jacqueline Lynch under the direction of Dean Kelly.

On its comfortable living/dining room set [located too far away from the audience, unfortunately] this short two-act piece combines love, jealousy, hypnotism, celebrity, petty arguing, and business-dealings in its sundry relationships among the characters.

Margaret [Kari Gatlin] and Janet [Hailey Beene] are roommates expecting a visit from Hollywood heartthrob Shane Velasco [Michael Williams] to sign a book deal. In comes Hank [Joaquin Guzman] -- Margaret's ex and rival agent -- who brings "famous" hypnotist Guadalupe Montevideo [Madyson Greenwood], an eccentric sort who hypnotizes Margaret out of spite, turning her into a 5-year-old, and then disappears. Psychologist Norman [Chris Kelly], intending to go out on a date with Janet, gets to practice his skills on the now childlike Margaret. -- A lot of confusion ensues over the next hour-and-a-half, with several attempts to locate Guadalupe and restore Margaret to her adult self.

This is pretty predictable stuff, but does engage the audience in its assortment of plot twists and engaging performances. -- Mr. Guzman brings down the house with his antic drunkenness, and Ms. Gatlin grows in her depiction of a 5-year-old by adding petulance and mischief to her bewilderment. Mr. Kelly has the ability to be both compassionate to the "child" and fully frustrated by the predicament.

Getting off to a rather slow start, and with vocal projection a problem, the play picks up energy with Mr. Guzman's and Mr. Kelly's arrivals, and then continues in style. -- Director Kelly often has characters staged behind furniture or upstage of other actors, making them hard to see and hear, but there are a lot of clever lines delivered confidently.

A couple of script references to childhood trauma and losing parents when children adds a serious note that gives breadth to characters. And the arrival of Margaret's grandparents [John Collier & Rae Ann Collier] in Act II enlivens the already confused ensemble to unravel the truth; and when the hypnotist is finally brought back to release her victim, all will end happily.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "Sugar Bean Sisters"

Welcome to Sugar Bean, Florida and the "swamp house" of sisters Fay [Kim Mason] and Willie Mae [Kristy Meanor], two middle-aged women who have been nagging at one another for thirty years since their parents and youngest sister died under bizarre and tragic circumstances. In Nathan Sanders's Southern Gothic dark comedy The Sugar Bean Sisters [1995], directed with a sure hand at the Wetumpka Depot by Tom Salter, the ambivalent relationship between the sisters is at once strange and familiar.

They have just returned from a trip to Disney World to find Videlia Sparks [Jaymee Vowell] inside their house; a cross between a dance-hall floozie and a garish New Orleans Mardi Gras entertainer, Videlia insinuates herself into their lives while Fay awaits the return of a Martian space ship and Willie Mae yearns for deliverance into the "celestial kingdom" -- hopefully in company with the local & handsome Mormon Bishop [Brad Sinclair].

With family buried in the swamp just outside the front door, a convenient thunder storm to douse the lights, several gothic tales of deaths and doom & gloom philosophy, Willie Mae's "settlement" fortune buried in a secret place, assorted "curses" on the family, a murder plot that goes awry, the ghost of their mother occasionally rocking the rocking chair, and a voodoo Reptile Woman's incantations that claim "sometimes you can't tell the devil from an angel" [Anne Marie Mitchell stops the show with her intense characterization], the plot's many twists and turns continually surprise and entertain.

Performances here are top-notch, if a bit unsettling. None of the characters are virtuous,yet we are somehow drawn to them. Even Mr. Sinclair's Bishop is a study of contradictions -- he seems innocently compassionate at first, yet has some sinister traits revealed later on. They lie or dissemble, cheat, plot against or manipulate one another in devious ways; but the dialogue is replete with witicisims and, as we see their faults, we can't help but to approve of disaster to come for them. At the same time, the actors are so fully committed to playing these eccentric dysfunctional types so honestly, that no matter how repellent their actions and ideas might be, we can see them as human beings trying desperately to live out their unfulfilled dreams and escape the family legacies.

Ms. Meanor is stalwart in the role of Willie Mae, the seemingly better adjusted sister; Ms. Vowell's deceptive flightiness belies ulterior motives well; and Ms. Mason's comic timing and animation are exquisite as they hide a darker side. Yet it is their ensemble playing that raises this otherwise quirky dark comedy into a provocative production in which Mr. Salter balances humor and pathos that causes us to reflect on our own motives and relationships.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Red Door: "Driving Miss Daisy"

Alfred Uhry's popular prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy is showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs under the sensitive direction of Fiona Macleod.

With countless stage presentations, and a film version to its credit, and several Broadway revivals [the current one stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones]Uhry's play provides plenty of opportunities for its three-member cast to demonstrate their skills and remind audiences of the importance of friendship.

In its numerous episodes, Uhry recounts the twenty-five year relationship between Daisy [Anne Brabham], a well-to-do elderly Atlanta Jewish matron, and her African American chauffeur Hoke [Stan Cooks] who was hired by Daisy's son Boolie [Danny Davidson] despite his mother's protestations of impinging on her independence. When Boolie instigates getting his mother a chauffeur, he is met first with refusal, then resistance, and finally capitulation. Throughout the 2+-hours' playing time, Mr. Davidson's patience pays off as he maneouvers her to thinking she is making decisions on her own and is in control.

In Ms. Macleod's gentle handling, the journey taken by Miss Daisy and Hoke builds in its numerous episodes from fractious resistance to growing comfort, outspokenness, trust, and friendship. -- Unlikely as it is from their first moments together [especially considering the racial & social chasms between them in 1948] by its end in 1973, these characters have changed along with the times.

As Daisy, Ms. Brabham is unflinching in her insistence that she is neither prejudiced nor putting on airs, yet she continually treats Hoke as an inferior in both subtle & direct ways, and it is to her credit that the steps in her journey to self-realization are almost imperceptible and that in her final days it is he alone she wants for company.

Whether in quiet domestic scenes, travelling in a sequence of more modern cars [suggested on-stage by chairs and a steering wheel], facing a bomb-attack on Daisy's Temple, attending a banquet for Martin Luther King, Jr., Daisy teaching Hoke to read, or criticizing Boolie's wife's cooking and celebrations of Christian holidays, this production makes the most of mixing humor and pathos to truthfully depict the humanity of its characters.

Mr. Davidson is utterly convincing as Boolie; his frustrations in satisfying his mother's whims conflicting with his love for her are done with humor and compassion as he attempts to ease most conflicts with the refrain: "You're a doodle, Mama."

Mr. Cooks's Hoke is an animated and clever representation of a man used to the prejudices against him and his race who nonetheless is his own man who gets what he wants through charm and wit. Though he slyly negotiates the terms of his chauffeur's contract with Boolie, he is unselfish in his care for a woman who resists him, making Daisy realize that ultimately he has become her only and truest friend.

This Driving Miss Daisy chalks up another in a long line of successful Red Door Theatre productions by Ms. Macleod.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Faulkner: "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

Based on the 1903 play and novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, the musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel [music by Frank Wildhorn; book & lyrics by Nan Knighton] has been entertaining audiences at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Set during the "Reign of Terror" at the time of the French Revolution, it is an adventurous romantic tale of passion and political loyalty that capitalizes on the strong singing and emotional strength of its principal characters, directed by Angela Dickson, with astute musical direction by Randy Foster.

Famous Parisian actress Marguerite St. Just [Austin Woddail] marries English dandy Percy Blakeney [Daneil Monplaisir] on the eve of the Revolution and moves with him to England while her former lover Chauvelin [Chase McMichen] and Robespierre [Bill Nowell] the leaders of the internal police -- the "Committee of Public Safety" -- continue bringing countless accused criminals to the guillotine, including ones Marguerite had unintentionally named as traitors.

Appalled by the cruelty of the police, Blakeney and several of his friends decide to mount a secret underground counter attack, announcing their intentions by letters signed mysteriously with a drawing of a red flower -- the scarlet pimpernel -- that becomes the nickname of the leader, Blakeney, whose identity is a secret to all but his closest allies.

When Marguerite's brother Armand [Jared Roberts] is arrested, Chauvelin threatens to reveal Marguerite's past romance unless she will help in finding "The Scarlet Pimpernel". -- The moment of reckoning will be at a masked ball thrown by the Prince of Wales [Allen Young], as Chauvelin hopes to unmask the "pimpernel" and win Marguerite back; but he is to be thwarted.

Along the way, tensions mount, deceptions abound, and audiences are treated to the strong choral and individual voices of the cast who render Wildhorn's extraordinary musical score with confidence. -- From the frightening moments at the guillotine to the silliness of the men's chorus of fops, the chorus fills the hall.

But it the individuals who hold the day: Ms. Woodail's clear soprano solos are tastefully rendered and emotionally truthful; Mr. Monplaisir's comic strength is also matched with a dramatic flair and a romantic intensity in the love duets with Marguerite.

Mr. McMichen, as Chauvelin, is given the most dramatic opportunities to shine in vocal interpretation...probably his strongest role at Faulkner to date. He demonstrates a fine capacity for investing emotional character-driven intensity to each moment.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has something in it to suit all tastes, and Ms. Dickson's company provides a fine interpretation.

Friday, April 22, 2011

ASF: "Julius Caesar"

Knowledge of Roman history -- especially in reference to Julius Caesar -- relies for many people on Shakespeare's dramatization of his assassination and its aftermath. From school studies on, they can quote short passages from the play: Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." for example.

But, while Shakespeare's version of history isn't completely accurate, he does tell a good story with a lot of rhetorical bombast meant to rile up his audiences against the threat of tyranny and the self-aggrandisement of individuals who drag down "government by the people" in the guise of restoring it to health. A play about loyalty, patriotism, and friendship, Julius Caesar is set in Ancient Rome, but sounds like today's headlines -- evidence of its universal appeal.

Hats off to ASF director Geoffrey Sherman who dresses his actors in togas, allowing the words to speak for themselves instead of imposing some modern dress concept as an attempt to make it relevant. -- It is Shakespeare's words produced by expert actors that carry the power of this production. Familiar as many of the speeches are, the words resonate freshly from the mouths of the cast.

Audiences are encouraged to participate in chanting dialogue as the crowd of Roman citizens, calling for "Caesar...Caesar" on his triumphant return to Rome, and "We will be satisfied..." when conditions change. -- This technique [evidence exists that Elizabethan audiences often called out during performances] did engage some of the audience, though at times it interfered with hearing important words or seeing important stage action.

Caesar [Rodney Clark] enters to overwhelming support from the crowd, but is immediatley warned by a Soothsayer [Greta Lambert makes the most of a small pivotal role and masterfully portrays the character and speaks the words brilliantly] to beware the Ides of March, and it is clear that some people -- Cassius [Thom Rivera] and Brutus [Stephen Paul Johnson] -- are not celebrating as much as the others, fearing that Caesar wants to be an absolute ruler, and causing a conflict between their fears and their admiration for Caesar. Meanwhile, Antony [Peter Simon Hilton] is ever faithful to his friend and his country.

As the conspirators plot Caesar's assassination, leaving Antony out, there are several incidents that test their mettle and their beliefs. Prophecies and dreams are, from the beginning, very significant elements in the plot and behavior, and it is the concerns of Caesar's and Brutus's wives that make up much of the human responses to the events. Brutus's wife Portia [Jenny Mercein] provides a telling insight, and Caesar's wife Calphurnia [Tara Herweg] gives warning with an honest sensibility.

The assassination at the end of Act I is sufficiently bloody for any modern taste, and though Caesar is absent from then on [except as he returns as a ghost in Act II], Mr. Clark's presence is so strong that one can believe he is there. -- So, it is Brutus who demands attention from then on, becoming the central character; and it is his dilemma, his questioning of his own patriotism, whether his participation in Caesar's death was justified, and what is to become of Rome now, is the focus of attention.

The famous debate between Antony and Brutus pits two rhetoriticians against one another, and it is to the credit of both Mr. Hilton and Mr. Johnson that each man's testimony seems completely honest. Shakespeare's speeches for each are in dynamic contrast and utilize tested persuasive techniques to sway their audiences. And how good it is for us to hear the words with such clarity and passion.

The "triumverate": Antony, Octavius [Corey Triplett] and Lepidus [Erik Gullberg] maneouver for power and eliminate most of the conspirators at the Battle of Philipi. And Brutus, by now resigned to his fate and anguished over his participation in killing Caesar, falls on his sword, becoming in Antony's words "the noblest Roman of them all".

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

ASF: "Much Ado About Nothing"

What a pleasure to once again attend a Friday night opening at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It is more of an occasion, and a pleasant way to end the day. Would there were more of these night-time openings, especially with high quality productions like Dianna Van Fossen's bright, funny, and intelligent rendering of Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. -- She invites her audiences into an exotic world: India in the 1930s, near the end of the British "Raj".

Costume designer Brenda Van der Weil's period British military uniforms and tailored frocks, along with Indian saris & turbans [and the clowns in an outrageous admixture of "guru", boy scout, organgrinder monkey, and an outrageously overdone red-jacketed guard uniform], and Peter Hicks's evocative and elegant set provide this world for Shakespeare's play.

In Much Ado, Shakespeare created some extraordinarily witty and comical lovers in Beatrice & Benedick -- constantly arguing with one another in games of one-upmanship, neither ready to admit love for the other, though everyone else knows it to be so -- and it could be the world today with wars and personal intrigues everywhere, concern for multiculturalism as the world is gradually changing, so many people quick to judge others on flimsy evidence or worse -- causing untold damage by constantly repeating lies with an authoritative voice, making these lies the only "truth" they know.

The Prince, Don Pedro [Thom Rivera] takes up residence in the home of Governor Leonato [Stephen Paul Johnson] on his return from a successful military campaign; in his retinue are the aforementioned Benedick [Peter Simon Hilton] and the younger Claudio [Erik Gullberg] who falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero [Catlin McGee] and proposes marriage. Pedro's bastard brother Don John [Phillip Christian] schemes against both the marriage and his half-brother, enlisting Borachio [Brik Berkes] and Conrad [Seth D. Rabinowitz] to trick Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful.

Before their plot can be put into action, Beatrice [Jenny Mercein] and Benedick -- both adamant in their refusal to capitulate to love, and Benedick vowing to be an eternal bachelor -- engage in some of Shakespeare's wittiest repartee about the nature of love and marriage, which Ms. Mercein and Mr. Hilton produce with seeming ease and vitality of character that we instantly like them and want them to be together. Despite their denials, their friends determine to have each one "overhear" reports that each passionately loves the other; and what comic results there are of this trickery, with each now believing the other is in love.

When Claudio denounces Hero at the altar due to Don John's plotting, she swoons and is later reported as dead, and Leonato and his brother Antonio [Rodney Clark almost steals the show with his slow but certain comic descent into drunkenness] demand repentance of Claudio for defaming Hero. And Beatrice demands that Benedick get revenge.

In a most clever turn, Shakespeare creates a loveable clown in Dogberry [Eric Hoffman is brilliant in the role], the local constable who unintentionally misuses words so terribly and is a contrast to the glittering language used by Benedick & Beatrice. -- Additionally, it is he and his cohorts who by sheer accident capture the evildoers and bring them to justice.

All will end happily -- it is, after all, a comedy -- with music and dancing after the assorted lovers are convincingly reunited and Benedick renounces bachelorhood when Beatrice says she will have him. Ms. Van Fossen ends with a "Bollywood" dance that sends us all away feeling happy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ASF: Moonlight and Magnolias

"Tara's Theme" -- the evocative signal music of Gone With the Wind -- fills the darkened Carolyn Blount Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, conjuring memories of the film classic. Lights come up to reveal film mogul David O. Selznick's MGM studio office in Hollywood in 1939, as he cries out in disbelief: "You didn't read the book?!?!?", starting the merriment of the next two hours on stage.

Selznick was in a jam: he had shut down production of the long-awaited filming of Margaret Mitchell's novel, fired director George Cukor and pulled director Victor Fleming off the lot of The Wizard of Oz as a substitute, discarded innumerable scripts, and brought in prolific script writer Ben Hecht to re-write the screenplay in five days. It made no difference that Hecht had not read the book. Cost was no matter. Selznick was on a mission. He needed a save his marriage to partner Louis B. Mayer's daughter, to put the studio and himself in top place in Hollywood, and to emerge from under the shadow of Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg.

All this is true. -- What happens in Ron Hutchinson's witty script of Moonlight and Magnolias, directed by Geoffrey Sherman, is a fictionalized account of what might have ensued behind those locked doors, with only bananas and peanuts for sustenance, communication with the outside world prohibited except for occasional food deliveries and intercom messages from a secretary, and personalities and ideologies clashing.

For a full appreciation of Moonlight and Magnolias, it is important to know GWTW; but Hutchinson's script provides more than adequate details of its plot, characters, and dialogue for most any attentive audience to understand the basics and to enjoy the farce before them.

The five days it took to accomplish Selznick's charge are described in three scenes that delineate the physical and mental degeneration of the project's participants -- their dishevelment and frustrations building -- along with the growing detritus of paper, banana peels, and peanut shells that litter the stage.

There is a lot of ego in the room. Each man argues his own importance to the project. Hecht [Brik Berkes] the writer claims words are the soul of any film and that his words are the best, while Fleming [Thom Rivera] insists that the director's vision brings those words to life and that he knows how to shoot it. Pragmatist Selznick [Eric Hoffman] says that "the little people who go to the movies" have the power to make or break a film, and that he knows what they want -- melodrama [not real life] -- and he knows how to deliver it.

Much of the delight to audiences is to watch these egos collide...and collide they do. What starts off somewhat innoculously with Selznick and Fleming acting out scenes as the book's characters while Hecht labors at a typewriter to get it all down becomes increasingly frustrating when Selznick insists that all the dialogue must come directly from Mitchell's novel, and Hecht insists that no Civil War movie ever made money and that certain parts of the book [Scarlett O'Hara's questionable moral stance, a white person slapping a black person, for example] risk censorship from the fearsome Hayes Office, and should not therefore be filmed.

In 1939, the onset of World War II around the corner and Hollywood prejudices against both Blacks and Jews add some seriousness to the proceedings of Moonlight and Magnolias.

Hecht, a real life civil rights activist and avowed Zionist, provides a kind of moral center to the play, and Mr. Berkes has some settling moments amidst the mayhem as he faces-down Selznick's stubborn refusal to admit his own Jewishness. And his physical embodiment of writer's cramp -- stiff gnarled fingers from days at the typewriter -- is matched by a clever cramp in the leg as well.

Fleming, whose directorial vision is marred by a burst blood vessel in his eye, is another clever script point that Mr. Rivera capitalizes on, and when after Hecht & Fleming attempt to leave, but have second thoughts and stay because they had promised to do so, there is genuine sincerity in the decision.

Secretary Miss Poppenghul is played by Nandita Shenoy as a stereotypical wide-eyed, almost robotic bimbo, complete with a mincing tip-toed bounce of a walk and high-pitched voice. Portrayed with complete conviction by Ms Shenoy, it is an odd choice and out of the established naturalism of the men's roles. Though there are many opportunities for developing the character's frustrations at deflecting the persistent entreaties of Mayer, actress Vivien Leigh, and others to get a phone-call connected to Selznick [frustrations we can only imagine since most of her time is spent off-stage], there is hardly a sign of it throughout her several all-too-brief on-stage appearances, so her exhaustion at the end of the play is surprising.

The actors in Moonlight and Magnolias are a fine ensemble who demonstrate a lot of comfort and generosity for one another, and whose energy is admirable, but it is Selznick's vision that drives the script. He knows what sells, and the MGM motto --"Ars Gratia Artis" ("Art for Art's Sake") means little to a man determined to sell GWTW as a melodrama. In the person of Mr. Hoffman, the powerful character of Selznick fits like a proverbial glove...whether cajoling Hecht and Fleming, outrageously impersonating characters while acting out the plot of the novel, evading the unpleasant reality of impending war in Europe, or being defensive about his Jewishness...he never loses sight of his objective; and after five grueling days of merciless dictatorship, he knows he has accomplished what he set out to do, probably saved his marriage, believes he has a potential hit on his hands, is confident that his reputation will be secure, and resumes the cool and polished countenance of a successful businessman. -- Image, after all, is also what sells.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Theatre AUM: "The Great Easter Egg Hunt"

There's a lot of silliness going on at Theatre AUM. Thursday night's sold-out crowd was treated to a raucous two hours of Ken Jones's The Great Easter Egg Hunt, a lively and irreverent send-up of small town Southern culture, as the zany residents of Umatilla, Florida continuously sabotage one another in their quest for a golden egg and the promise of prizes and the right to reign as king or queen over the town for the next year.

Director Neil David Seibel is at the helm of the mayhem on stage. Told in episodic short scenes, much of the first act introduces various teams of provocateurs -- couples in love or lust, matronly gossips, rednecks, members of the local rifle club, and a local judge who imbibes too much home made cider -- and they could be our neighbors.

Hardly any of them are nice people, yet we are drawn into their lives by the very audacity of their characterizations. The gossip-mongers are so quick to judge others and spread only nasty rumors, considering themselves to be unassailable in their conviction of superiority. The local bad-girl who flaunts her reputation hides the fact that she is actually fairly nice so she won't be lonely [a good study of contradictions by Tina Neese].

The conflicted lovers Will [Mickey Lonsdale] and Perry [Andi Klimetz] are at the center of the plot. Constantly at odds with one another -- he is "smart" and has been accepted to Harvard, and they quibble about nuances of vocabulary that get misinterpreted at every turn with neither of them willing to budge. If either of them finds the golden egg, they might be doomed to remain in Umatilla (which both want to leave) and never realize their dreams.

Some of the roles are little more than caricatures -- and nasty ones at that. The redneck Dumpling brothers [Clem, Horseshoe, and You] are embarrassingly dumb, and the rifle-toting members of the gun-club just "have to shoot someone". When confronted with "You don't shoot someone without a reason", the retort is "Sure you do: this is America." It seems that "manhood" is defined in part by shooting a gun. Frightening, isn't it? And no wonder that Will & Perry are so intent upon leaving.

LaBrandon Tyre does an excellent job of portraying the judge as he becomes increasingly out of control from drink, even hallucinating that Will is Jesus and that he is experiencing "the rapture". Mr. Tyre's antics are hilarious.

Sarah K. Worley plays Perry's mother -- Lambie -- with a mix of flamboyance and a sense of rightness, and shows how appalled all of us should be at the behavior of the citizens of Umatilla.

While most of the characterizations are meant to be laughable, Wes Milton's depiction of Herring Pernell [one of the hunters in short-cropped hair] is downright frightening and dangerous, even when walking around in boxer shorts emblazoned with college football insignia. -- There are several moments in the comic action that provide a more serious cricicism of the goings-on in Umatilla.

E. John Williford, III's set design is detailed with a high degree of realism, taking the audience into the realm of a small town, and affording actors plenty of space for their grotesque behavior...and the actors are uniformly committed to their roles, taking us on a wild journey for about two hours.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Millbrook: "Anne of Green Gables"

The Spring season is underway in Millbrook with the Millbrook Community Players' production of Anne of Green Gables, Joseph Robinette's affectionate adaptation of L. M. Montgomery's classic.

Directed by Chris Perry with a wealth of local talent -- some 38 in all, mostly area school children -- the staging capitalizes on these talents by providing on-stage opportunities for so many neophyte actors.

For those unfamiliar with the book or with several film and television adaptations of it, the story of orphan Anne Shirley's [Jubilee Lofgren] teen years begins as she is reluctantly adopted by kindly brother and sister Matthew [Joe Nolin, Jr.] and Marilla Cuthbert [Renae Perry] whose house -- "Green Gables" -- is the idyllic location on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Red-haired, green-eyed, freckle-faced, and skinny, Anne bemoans her plain looks and dreams of escape to both physical beauty and overly-romanticized places. In fact, she describes most everything she experiences with over-the-top melodramatic language and gestures sourced, no doubt, from exposure to the popular novels of the day.

Teased and ridiculed by children and adults alike, Anne is befriended by a neighbor girl Diana Barry [Elizabeth Knott], a local popular beauty, and they swear to be "bosom friends" for life.

Anne talks a mile a minute, sometimes imprudently, her imagination working overtime -- annoyances that nevertheless endear her to others. She is very intelligent, too, providing competition to Gilbert Byrne [Cory Jones], a local Lothario and the smartest boy in school. Their love-hate relationship adds a spark of youthful romance to the plot.

Most of the other characters are drawn with bold strokes -- nohing too subtle: Ms. Lofgren's broad gestures and declamatory speaking especially make her stand out from the crowd, while Mr. Nolin's and Ms. Perry's more naturalistic styles serve as contrast.

Angela Pietrzak turns in a simply conceived performance as local busybody Rachel Lynde who, it turns out, has a softer side. And Pamela Trammell's no-nonsense rendering of Aunt Josephine Barry is a model of controlled solid naturalistic acting.

Fitting several years into its two-hour & twenty-minute two acts, the production often feels choppy, as scene changes stop the action during long periods of stage darkness. Either adding music during these changes, or overlapping action from two scenes, might help.

Mr. Perry's actors have for the most part overcome the accoustical challenges of Millbrook's theatrical space, though some voices are hard to hear because he has staged the actors facing off-stage instead of angled towards the audience.

All in all, this Anne of Green Gables is a sweet tribute to the goodness in all of us, enabling us to settle our differences with generosity and compassion.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wetumpka Depot Takes Top Honors

Congratulations to the Wetumpka Depot Players.

Their production of Second Samuel represented the State of Alabama at the Southeastern Theatre Conference's Annual Convention held last week -- March 1-6 -- in Atlanta, where twelve companies representing ten Southeastern States competed to earn a place in the National Festival Competition to be held in Rochester, NY this June.

At Saturday's Awards Banquet, Second Samuel took the following honors that garnered a place in the Nationals:
Best Production
Best Director: Tom Salter
Best Ensemble
Best Actor: Jonathan Conner
Excellence in Acting: Steve Mitchell
"Spirit of the Road Award"

See the Depot's website for further details.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ASF: "Blood Divided"

Blood Divided by Jeffry L. Chastang is the second world premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival this month marking the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War almost to the day of Jefferson Davis's inauguration on Goat Hill in Montgomery.

A companion-piece to Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's The Flag Maker of Market Street, and playing in rep with it, Chastang's powerfully moving drama that also emerged from the Southern Writers' Project was enthusiastically greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation at Sunday afternoon's opening performance.

Like its companion-play, Blood Divided explores relationships among people with close relationships -- either blood relatives or surrogate family -- whose political and social philosophies are at such odds that they bring about critical conflicts not easily settled.

On the eve of Alabama's secession from the Union, we are introduced to a quartet whose intertwining lives and changing relationships are central to showing Mr. Chastang's themes: patriotism and racism, family bonds and political conformity, reason and custom, youth and adulthood, Federal Union and Confederate States -- all of which speak directly to 21st Century concerns.

Dr. William Baldwin [Jack Koenig] and his son Willie [Sloan Grenz] in many ways have a typical father-son relationship -- the adolescent boy wants to declare his independence, and the father holds on to his authority. Where they differ most importantly is in their separate stands on slavery and secession. The boy's youthful assessment of slavery as "natural" goes against his father's having freed his slaves. It does not matter that Willie's prime surrogate father is a freed slave named Jim [Billy Eugene Jones], the overseer of Dr. Baldwin's plantation and with whom he has an easy comfort as equals; he does not comprehend the contradictions of this behavior with his proclaimed beliefs.

Baldwin's closest and most unlikely friend is William Yancey [Brian Wallace], whose adamant and passionate support of the Confederacy is in direct conflict with Baldwin's pro-Union sympathies. But Yancey's charisma infatuates Willie to such an extent that he too supplants Baldwin as a father-figure and influences the young man's independent yearnings.

Under Nancy Rominger's scrupulously egalitarian direction [unquestionably her best effort so far at ASF] -- no easy sides to take here, as each person and each conflict is given its due, and with completely credible performances that illustrate the complexities and ironies within each of them, the human stories underlying the socio-political conflicts rivet our attention from beginning to end.

The ensemble actors depict essentially good men, though each is flawed in some way, making them accessible to us today. Mr. Koenig's textured portrayal of Baldwin, his steadfastness in trying to understand others' beliefs & actions, and his drive to do what is right while knowing the cost, make him a father to emulate. Mr. Wallace's depiction of Yancey's arrogance and audacity to risk even his life for a cause he holds precious and his inability to compromise show laudable attributes, and his leadership ability is unquestioned. Mr. Jones shows the contradictions of a freed slave: his independence is essential, though he retains several signs of humility & subservience for his own survival; and his easy open relationship with Willie is perhaps the most comfortable relationship on the ASF stage. Willie as performed by Mr. Grenz is utterly convincing in his adolescent behavior and immature rantings, yet this is tempered in later scenes as life experiences both reaffirm some concepts and bring others into question.

The sensitive collaboration of playwright-director-actor effects audiences throughout the two-hour performance, making them reassess their own beliefs and understand how so many of the play's conflicts are still with us. -- How is it, for example, that "we all come into this world slippery and screaming" as equals, but that our cosmetic differences bring about so many conflicts? How is it that "common sense" reveals such disparate conclusions? How is it that conscientious debate between intelligent sparring-partners turns too often to violence and division? How is it that misinformation is taken as truth when it is repeated often enough? How is it that an entire race of people can be vilified in one breath, and that an individual in the group can be regarded only as "an exception" to the accepted norm without negating the general premise?

The tragic ending to Mr. Chastang's drama appears inevitable [Willie enlists in the Confederate Army & goes into battle never to return], yet it is touching. If some solace can be gained from the loss of a loved one, a person with such potential, it might be that we forsee a better future, a greater understanding of one another. -- It has been 150 years since the Civil War started, and though progress has been made, we're not there yet.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Theatre AUM: "Art"

Yasmina Reza's one act play Art has become an industry in itself, grossing over $30-million worldwide since its 1994 debut in France, and in its receiving numerous awards for playwrighting, acting, and productions.

Its latest incarnation is currently showing at Theatre AUM under the cautious direction of Val Winkelman on Michael Krek's appropriately minimalist set.

Cautious it is, taking a scant hour to complete -- an hour that rushes through many moments that call out to be savored at some length, or that seems tentative in allowing silences so audiences can digest its glittering dialogue, its provocative ideas, and its complex relationship developments. -- Nonetheless, its ensemble cast of three talented actors debate the nature of art, but more importantly disect their relationships and try to comprehend the value of friendship.

Often referred to as a "play for actors", Ms. Reza's script affords each one plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their various skills. -- The plot is simple: Serge [La'Brandon Tyre] has just bought an all-white painting by a well-known artist named Antrios for 200,000 francs. His two long-time friends have quite different reactions both to the painting and to the price. Marc [Chris Howard] hates it and doesn't mind saying so, while Yvan [Wes Milton], who never wants to offend anyone, is ambivalent.

If this sounds familiar, AUM's recent production of Moliere's The Misanthrope also analyzes how speaking one's mind, or trying to be politically correct, or allowing others' opinions to dictate one's own self-worth, often create tensions and cause people to reassess what means the most to them. -- So it is here.

Though there is no explanation of how the 15-year friendship among them began, though the "all white painting" central to the debate is both textured and contains various shades of white & cream [choices that remain puzzling], and though the art critisicm is given slight attention, the play's tight structure, its combination of dramatic scenes interspersed with short "aside comments" or more lengthy monologues, its even balance of attention on all three characters, its witty dialogue, and its moment-to-moment plotting make it an actor's dream to play.

As the men meet by twos and then by threes, they discover not only that each one keeps secrets about their private lives, but about how they truly feel about one another. Marc is seen as a smug and insensitive sort, Serge as an art diletante, and Yvan as a henpecked wimp though it is two weeks before his wedding day.

As tensions build, the defenses come down, and gradually each man changes a bit. They have all realized that words can hurt, especially when they are trying to defend something they believe in that others attack. And sometimes words are inadequate.

Ms. Reza modulates her script so it starts relatively slowly, builds to an inevitable fight and has a slow denouement. Along the way, we see the silliness of being too attached to material things, the arch pretentiousness that begs to be quashed, and a milquetoast get a bit of backbone.

Ms. Winkelman stages her actors in several triangular positions, highlighting the interdependence of the relationships, and the actors -- to a man -- distinguish themselves in embodying their characters most credibly, displaying their acting talents with energetic enjoyment, and serving Ms. Reza's words.

Red Door: "Country Songs"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs continues to bring insightful interpretations of minor plays on Southern themes, this time in a production of Country Songs by Judy Simpson Cook.

Set in 1986, Cook's play explores the familiar themes and situations besetting Southern women seeking independence from thier men. This time, Mildred [Johanna Hubbard] -- another in a long line of cosmetologists a la Steel Magnolias -- is a spirited middle-aged wannabe country songwriter who attempts to break out of a humdrum existence while doling out advice to anyone who will listen, particularly to high schooler Carly Ann [Charity Smith], whose adolescent dreams of proms and life-after-high-school are highly romanticized.

Mildred's best friend Earl [Beau Shirley] tells her that country star Laverne & the "Catawba River Music Makers" are coming to town and that Mildred's ex-husband Dwayne [Dustin Anderson] is the band's coordinator...he might just be able to get Laverne to play one of Mildred's songs and provide her the means to success.

Hovis [Robert Moorer] is Mildred's current beau who doesn't want to see her get hurt and is justifiably jealous of Dwayne; Mildred just can't seem to forget him even years after their marriage broke up.

Mildred's philosophy -- to "be whatever you want" and to "make independent decisions" and "not be guided by what other people might think of you" -- comes back at her with a vengeance as she must reassess her own fear of being alone, and her true motives for wanting so much for her song to be played: Is it for herself and what she really wants? or Is it at least in part to show up Dwayne and declare her independence from him?

As the men in her life express their love for her, Mildred is forced to make a decision: Dwayne's attempts to rekindle their past relationship is sabotaged by his interference in getting the song played; Hovis's earnest romance is half-heartedly returned; and Earl's persistent and often embarrassing intrusions that he intends as protection keep him in the "best friend" category.

There is some extraneous comic relief in the characters of Chester & Lester [Travin Wilkerson & Joseph Crawford], two bumbling grease-monkeys who can fix anything wrong with a car, but who are too embarrassed to set foot inside Mildred's female emporium.

First time director Anna Perry creates a fine ensemble out of the "all Bullock County" cast -- the first time at the Red Door. She affords each character its moments to shine, allowing audiences to identify with their problems, and achieving a good balance of humor and seriousness. Their truthful characterizations make them appear all the more human, not easily seen as either good or bad, but rather as flawed, just like all of us.

Ms. Perry directs at a steady pace that could be enhanced by quicker scene changes and by a variety of intensity that could drive pivotal scenes and get actors to walk more purposefully, thereby adding interest to an already solid production.

There are some standout performances here too. Mr. Shirley's sincerity as Earl, and his physical comfort, dead-pan delivery, and impeccable comic timing add dimension to his character. And in the central role, Ms. Hubbard carries every scene with conviction and flexibility that make her confusion and frustrations emerge as utterly believable with hardly a trace of stereotypical behavior.

We can all learn something from this play: the value of friendship, the necessity of compromise, the pursuit of dreams, and the homespun philosophy that "there's nothing better than sweet potato pie, but too much of it will make you sick."