Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Faulkner: "Oliver! the musical"

Faulkner University continues its delivery of award winning musicals, producing Lionel Bart's Oliver! the musical [1960] with an emphasis on the sentimental aspects of Oliver Twist, the Charles Dickens novel that is its source.

Set largely in the underworld lairs of 19th Century London, it tells the well-known story of the innocent orphaned boy Oliver [Crispin South at the August 17th performance], who gets caught up in the world of the city's pickpockets, prostitutes, and philanderers before being rescued by the benevolent well-to-do Mr. Brownlow [Allen Young], discovered by the end to actually be his grandfather.

Director and Scenic Designer Jason Clark South has cast his production with experienced and neophyte actors, some of whom he gathered from the community and local schools -- many of the Chorus of Orphans, and some in featured roles --  a good move for recruiting and for identifying some excellent vocal talent. -- And, it seems that most of the sound balance between instrument and voice has been fixed; a vast improvement over previous shows. Now, the actors' voices can be heard more distinctly, and the instrumentation is no longer distorted.

Some of Dickens' most memorable characters appear here: Oliver, of course, along with the Artful Dodger [Blake Mitchell on August 17th], his mentor in the pickpocketing trade; Fagin [Brandtley McDonald], the conniving leader of the gang of child pickpockets; Mr. Bumble [Bret Morris] and Widow Corney [Kim Bradley], a fine comic couple who sell Oliver to the nasty undertakers, the Sowerberrys [Tyler Parker & Jesse Alston] when Oliver dares to ask for more gruel at dinner and is thought to be a trouble-maker. -- And, on the darker side, the former pickpocket Nancy [Alicia Ruth Jackson] is under the control of a ruthless burglar/pimp Bill Sykes [Chase McMichen].

Bart's version of Dickens is largely sanitized, though it does pay some attention to the novel's important themes: criticism of London's "poor laws" and the conditions of the underprivileged (especially children), rampant crime, and a "blind eye" attitude of many individuals in better circumstances. -- Yet, the criminal element in Oliver! the musical are treated with some compassion: Fagin, a career criminal living off the orphans he intimidates, seems to try to reform; Nancy gives her life to protect Oliver from her abusive lover, Bill Sykes. And it is Sykes alone who is given no hope of reclamation.

In keeping with this, Mr. South's production applies stage grime on the faces of the orphans, but the rest looks rather clean. And characters are drawn with bold strokes rather than subtleties, all in service of telling an inoffensive story that can deliver comforting messages: good is rewarded while evil is punished...both appropriate to Dickens and Bart.

There are some strong performances and some excellent voices on the Faulkner stage: Mr. Mitchell creates an energetic and charismatic Artful Dodger; Ms. Jackson is a passionate Nancy; Mr. Morris and Ms. Bradley are an excellent double-act; young Mr. South's depiction of Oliver is sensitive and credible [this young man has a track record at Faulkner and in several productions at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival]; Mr. Mc Donald gives his all to Fagin, showing a lot of promise in playing a character much too old for him; and Mr. McMichen, reliable as always, storms the stage as Bill Sykes in Act II and rivets our attention from then on.

But it is the music that carries the day; some of Mr. Bart's most recognizable songs are solidly rendered by the talented cast -- "Food, Glorious Food" opens the show with gusto; "Where Is Love" is sung with sensitivity by Mr. South; to introduce Oliver to the gang of pickpockets, "Consider Yourself" is an energetic rendering by Mr. Mitchell and the chorus; "I'd Do Anything" is a clever tribute to love; Oliver's "Who Will Buy?" adds an optimism to his new life; and Ms. Jackson's pathetic "As Long As He Needs Me" is heartfelt.

The production comes in at a neat two hours. Though the Faulkner stage is sometimes cramped with set pieces and a large cast of characters, and there are noticeable distinctions between newcomers and veteran actors, good voices and an ability to deliver each song's intention make for an enjoyable evening.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Red Door: "Dearly Departed"

Guest Reviewer: Fiona Macleod, an educator from Scotland and a freelance theatre director, is retired Theatre Program Director at Huntingdon College and a graduate of both Auburn and Alabama.

At the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, the audience might have been confused by the black enclosed space with shiny black panels and a dominant white circle on the black floor. Where was the set: the furniture, fireplaces, stairs, doors, windows; the homey country environment? -- The answer was revealed in the first few scenes of Dearly Departed by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, when an adroitly trained crew silently moved designer Mark Parsley's panels and simple black & white furniture, creating the numerous locations that this complex play needed, all beautifully choreographed to "good ol' country music" and keeping the upbeat tempo of the play intact during the scene changes...a visually stimulating sensory experience guided by director Denise Gabriel who masterfully moved the action.

The play focuses on events following the sudden on-stage death of Bud Turpin [Roy Royster]. Could it depict the "solemn thematic implications" of death, infidelity, sibling rivalry, eating disorders, miscarriage, alcoholism, marital strife, and other serious moral issues; or could it be viewed as the highly charged farce that it is? -- Definitely the latter.

Appropriately set in the heat of summer in the deep, rural South, the opening scene caught the audience off-guard. Turpin, the patriarch of a blue-collar family, hid behind his newspaper while his wife Raynelle [Beth Egan] read a letter to him from his sister Marguerite [Janet Wilkerson], who berated her brother for choosing television over church, and threatened to visit him to steer him back to what she sees as the right path; and that's when Bud dropped dead.

Ms. Egan, previously seen in Christmas Letters, a stoic presence with a droll delivery, was a mainstay in this production; she was supported by an able cast of Red Door veterans and some newcomers to Union Springs.

Raynelle & Bud's older son Ray-Bud [Jonathan Johnson], a hard-working, frugal and responsible man, feared that as well as helping his sensible wife Lucille [Elizabeth Roughton] cope with repeated miscarriages, he will be stuck with the entire funeral bill. His younger brother, a wannabe business tycoon named Junior [Mark Moore], has an obsessive wife, Suzanne [Leigh Moorer], who is convinced he was having an affair after discovering an earring that did not belong to her.  -- The feuding brothers were convincingly played without resorting to the maudlin or cheap gags, and had a scene that brought them closer together courtesy of a little Jim Beam. -- Their wives were clearly balanced opposites, Ms. Roughton very logical, and Ms. Moorer over-the-top, bringing the most highly charged moments in the show.

Bud & Raynelle's daughter Delightful's [Kirstyn Hall] obsessive eating disorder was "consuming", while Marguerite's Bible-toting tirades and hymns attempting to rouse her good-for-nothing son Royce [Travin Wilkerson] from his hungover slumber were played by both actors very well.

The minister was entertainingly played by William Harper as he practiced his effusive oratory. Asked what kind of man her husband was, Raynelle replied with calm certainty: "Mean and surly", the words she wanted on Bud's tombstone; and Mr. Harper's physical reactions were excellent.

Most memorable was a riotous funeral home exchange between Norval [Roy Royster], a decrepit old coot suffering the ministrations of his elderly wife Veda [Lillie Hall]. Add to this a highly caricatured sweeter than sweet potato pie and as poisonous as a snake Junior Leaguer named Juanita [Mary Malloy], and a delightful cameo appearance by Alicia Atkins as a very fecund character named Nadine, clutching a baby doll representing her latest "delivery" [the others she named Zsa Zsa, Oprah, and Geraldo], and Beau Shirley as Clyde, a friend of the family who lent an easy authenticity to the role, with some unexpected toilet humor from Mr. Harper's minister. -- Silent until the end, when asked her opinion, Ms. Hall's Delightful's eulogy to her father is a cheery "Wouldn't want to be you. Bye!"

Thanks to director Ms. Gabriel's attention to physical coaching of the actors -- a strength she brings through her expertise in movement & acting -- each character was distinct and brought an integrity and sensitivity to their performances. Her ability to combine honest, sensitive, and touching moments throughout this ribald Southern comedy provoked almost constant laughter [that, alas, prevented many lines from being heard], and captured both the pith and frivolity of Dearly Departed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ASF: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

As the final production of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's 2011-2012 season, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hits all the right notes for an end to Summer camp and back to school. -- A sprightly ensemble cast [all but one a newcomer to the ASF stage], a witty script, clever musical numbers in an assortment of styles, Peter Hicks' inventive set, and director Geoffrey Sherman's keen eye & ear that get the most out of each situation, make for a most enjoyable time in the theatre...an appealing antidote to August's heat and humidity. And an excellent way to bring the season to a close.

This Tony Award winning musical captivates from the start as we are introduced to prim & proper Rona Lisa Peretti [Eleni Delopoulos], a former winner of "the bee" and its current moderator, and the six finalists -- plus four audience members at each performance -- whose individual quirks of character go beyond stereotypes and endear them to us. Add to them Vice Principal Panch [Billy Sharpe] who reads the words & provides definitions and examples of how the words can be used in a sentence, and Mitch Mahoney [Kyle Scatliffe], a sinister-looking parolee doing community service at the event.

"The Rules" are laid out in a clever opening number that identifies each character and also gives insights into each of the contestant's techniques and strategies. The "fat kid" William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay) [Randy Blair] spells out words with his feet; Chip Tolentino [Brandon Yanez] is a super-confident past winner in a Boy Scout uniform; lisping Logainne SchwarzandGrubeniere [Liz Friolo] has two Dads (check her last name); Marcy Park [Laura Yumi Snell] continually defends herself by insisting she is "not all about business"; Leaf Conybear [John Garry] is a befuddled sort who got there by default and gets sidetracked a lot; and shy Olive Ostrovsky [Georgia Tapp] whose Mother is in India is waiting for her Dad to come from work to pay her fee. Each is indeed fodder for insensitive bullying...but not here.

These are indeed the "nerds" who are too often the focus of such bullying [notice the "Bully Free Zone" sign posted on the wall of the gymnasium where the contest is set], but here they become the most sympathetic of people -- adolescents who deal with the world around them and delight in words and their meanings. Words have been used against them for too long, so they compete more for acceptance and recognition than for a mere $200 savings bond & a trophy, much like the characters in A Chorus Line who "need this job" for self assurance. -- By the end, it is clear that winning is not the most important thing, both for the contestants and for us.

There are several stand-out moments in the ASF production: Mr. Yanez's extraordinary physical discomfort from his attraction to a young woman in the audience is not to be missed; Mr. Garry's most endearing innocence is a joy; and when Mr. Blair and Ms. Tapp begin to connect romantically and change the course of the competition, we can't help but admire them. Everyone should be able to connect with at least one of these special individuals.

While Ms. Delopolous persists in remaining stalwart, she does so with a commanding voice and demeanor. Mr. Scatliffe's parolee is by turns the most charmingly sweet person and a thug no one would want to cross -- lots of surprises here, good; and his vocal range is simply amazing.

Mr. Sharpe returns to ASF both as Vice Principal Panch and as Assistant Director & Dance Captain for "the bee"; and what a delight to see him in an understated role that affords him ample opportunities to turn a phrase, provide withering looks at the contestants, and improvise lines as needed. Welcome back.

At the opening performance, members of the audience included local WSFA-news reporter Mark Bullock who was the last of this quartet to be eliminated after unexpectedly spelling several difficult words and causing Mr. Sharpe to improvise by calling him back again and again, much to the delight of the audience.

Characterizations by this ensemble are distinct. We get involved in their lives, laugh and cry with them, and leave the theatre feeling good. They have overcome obstacles and come to terms with their lives.

Just as for Mr. Bullock, when each of the contestants misspells a word and has to leave the competition, they and we don't want them to go; they are worth more than that.

Monday, August 13, 2012

WOBT: "Patio/Porch"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently showing Jack Heifner's Patio/Porch, two one-act plays meant to be an evening's double bill.

Familiar territory here -- two sets of Southern women: sisters in Patio and mother/daughter in Porch -- along with stereotypes that could be too predictable were it not for the truthfulness of the WOBT performances.

William Harper directs with an understanding of the nuances of character and situation and an affection for these women: in Patio, Pearl's [Dana M. Smith] neat-freak and very proper Better Homes and Gardens behavior is balanced by Jewel's [Michelle Johns] seeming devil may care attitude; in Porch, Lucille [Cindy Beasley] is submissively patient with her mother Dot's [Margaret White] outspoken and often outrageous statements.

In lesser hands, this could have been yet another foray into the cliches of Southern womanhood; but here -- and Heifner's script clearly suggests a lot below the surface of its witty dialogue -- the everyday concerns of sibling rivalry [Patio] and the of the onset of dementia in a parent [Porch], and the steadfastness of the women involved emerge gradually, catching audiences mid-laugh with insights and concerns we all can identify with and care about.

In Patio, Ms. Johns' brash look and manner appears to be mere stereotypical of every other "cosmetologist" in the realm of Southern plays: "Ruin a woman's hair and you've got a customer for life...She's dependent on you", she quips; and Ms. Johns can deliver such lines with aplomb. But Jewel is more than that; she too has dreams of a better life, and some guilt for having loved her sister's husband at a distance. Ms. Smith's Pearl is the epitome of a woman for whom "appearance means everything", and though she is misunderstood by everyone, her home -- "a museum" according to Jewel -- is a refuge from a disappointing marriage. And we can't help but feel for her. -- Together, these two actresses become "two gems: a jewel and a pearl".

Porch depicts what appears to be yet another humdrum day in the lives of mother and daughter, a day that has been endlessly repeated. Ms. Beasley exercises a lot of control as she submits to Ms. White's disjointed monologue that gradually shows the deterioration of her mind; seemingly random ideas show an internal train of thought not easily detected. A tour-de-force performance by Ms. White provides most of the laughs here, but it does not diminish Ms. Beasley's character. They work so well together, that we see that interdependence is the real cement of the relationship.

In both plays, the characters need one another and are tied together by blood; too often important matters remain unspoken for so long that it becomes increasingly difficult to express them without either lashing out or making a joke. The truth is often hard to bear, bit these Southern women [and the actresses playing them] make it work.

Wetumpka Depot: "Panache"

At the Wetumpka Depot, director Tom Salter's evenly paced production of Don Gordon's two act comedy-drama Panache has quite a bit of, well panache of its own. Salter has a talented cast that effortlessly inhabit Gordon's characters and gradually make audiences connect with their lives, even though the script relies on a most unlikely and improbable circumstance.

Affluent, socially-conscious (one might say obsessed) matron Kathleen [Kim Mason] from Scarsdale, NY has taken great pains to search out Harry [Stephen Dubberley], a down and out artist in his squalid Brooklyn apartment in order to get him to release his vanity license plate -- the "panache" of the title -- so she can give it to her husband, a high roller in industry and politics. -- Kathleen's tip-toeing around the detritus in Harry's apartment, her belief that staying in a Holiday Inn is "slumming", and the fact that her position and connections would allow her to pay someone else to bargain with Harry, makes her foray into the depths of Brooklyn far-fetched; but once our disbelief is suspended for the sake of the play, we are in good hands.

Finding Harry in the middle of a poker game with his friend Jumbo [Joseph Miller], Kathleen insinuates herself into their lives in several scenes that humorously demonstrate her persistence, despite Harry's refusal to give up the panache license plate.

Predictably, they each divulge a lot about their unhappy private lives, as is often the case between relative strangers: her superficially ideal marriage is little more than a sham, and his solitary existence the result of an inability to deal with a past tragedy. -- But this is also a very funny play, thanks to the witty dialogue and the expert delivery of it from the ensemble cast.

Harry's backstory involves a fellow named Irwin [Colgan Meanor] he helped gain confidence by arranging a date for him with Laura [Sonjha Cannon]. Told in flashback-dreamlike sequences, we see Irwin becoming Harry's conscience & guide; and Laura marries Harry.

The easy fit between Ms. Mason and Mr. Dubberley makes Kathleen's and Harry's contrasting life-styles and behavior completely believable. Her confident manner contrasts with his reticence; her brightness with his gloom; her "good breeding" with his "common man". Between them, they produce some of the best dramatic & comic & truthful moments seen recently on the Depot's stage...panache indeed.

It becomes clear quite early in the play that they are destined to be together, but the journey is enjoyable, as they are abetted by the supporting characters. -- Mr. Miller is thoroughly convincing as Harry's friend; Ms. Cannon proves her ability to develop a sensitive persona as we watch her mature over time; and Mr. Meanor [soon to attend the University of South Alabama] creates a memorable character in Irwin, growing from a nerdy sort into a man-about-town and eventually the most settled and secure of them all.