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.