Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Millbrook: "The Wizard of Oz"

"We're off to see the Wizard......" The Millbrook Community Players are currently showing a sold-out run of The Wizard of Oz, involving a cast of some forty-five actors, and costumes and performances which replicate those in the 1939 film that this musical production emulates. Based on L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the film starring Judy Garland wasn't an instant hit, but has gone on to become one of the most beloved of American classics.

Under A. John Collier's direction, the Millbrook production is true to the film's design and to the lessons it gently delivers: "There's no place like home" still registers for both the young and young at heart. And the familiar songs have audience members taping their feet and quietly singing along with the energetic cast.

The action does lag a bit from over-long set changes and the backstage juggling of so many actors, but the spirit of the show is infectious and has audiences cheering by the end.

Dorothy's [Jubilee Lofgren] trip to the land of Oz is triggered by a Kansas tornado; she wakes up to assorted Munchkins, witches, wizards, and a talking scarecrow, tin man, and lion -- the dream versions of the real people she left on her Aunt's and Uncle's farm. Of course, she wants to get back home, but must earn the return by learning valuable lessons. She, like her companions, has the ability all along, but must realize it for herself before she can go back.

The costume crew and the cast have replicated the movie's signature costumes, making all the major characters instantly recognizable; as expected, the actors deliver their performances in ways that approximate their film models while adding a good amount of originality to them.

Roger Humber [Hunk/Scarecrow], Michael Snead [Hickory/Tinman], and Joe Nolin, Jr. [Zeke/Lion] have uncanny resemblances to the movie version's Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr, and come to life in their roles as they accompany Dorothy to see the Wizard of Oz [Ron Harris also plays Mr. Marvel] in hopes of getting back to the Kansas farm where she lives with her Uncle Henry [Randy Burdick] and Aunt Em [Emily Burdick]. -- Aided by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North [Jennifer Gay] and a host of Munchkins and Ozians, Dorothy and her three new friends [along with Toto (a dog named Murphy Snead threatens to steal the show)] make it to Oz, but not without the taunts and deviously attacks on them by the Wicked Witch of the West [Janie Allred, who also plays the nasty rich neighbor Miss Gultch] and her cohorts of monkeys and soldiers. -- Miss Allred's Witch, with her long hooked nose and bilious green face glowering, plays the arch-villainess to the hilt as she seeks revenge on Dorothy for the death of her sister and the return of her ruby slippers; she garners "boos" with some regularity, and receives deserved cheers at the curtain call for her performance.

Katy Gerlach on piano keeps the action moving and serves the songs well. "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead", "Yellow Brick Road", and "Off to See the Wizard" are all lively chorus numbers with simple choreography by Daniel Harms. -- Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion each believe they lack something that the Wizard can provide in singing "If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/the Nerve (courage)"; yet, it seems they actually possess these traits, made clear by their abilities to help Dorothy and each other in their quests.
Mr. Nolin's "If I Were the King of the Forest" brings down the house.

Of course, the most famous song "Over the Rainbow" catches everyone's heart. Ms. Lofgren, a high school senior and veteran of several Millbrook productions, is an ideal Dorothy. She exudes confidence on stage, has a pleasant singing voice, and a charming demeanor that make it easy for audiences to care about her. -- So, when she makes it back to Kansas by clicking her heels three times and saying "There's no place like home", she -- and we -- have learned that she doesn't have to look very far to find true happiness.

Friday, February 22, 2013

WOBT: "Cookin' With Gus"

Award winning actor-playwright Jim Brochu's Cookin' With Gus opened its three weekend run at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville to a small but enthusiastic audience. The success of this formulaic comedy rests on the talents of its ensemble acting company, and WOBT has comedic talents in spades in its four member veteran actors.

Directed by Matthew Givens [who also plays a role] and Amanda E. Haldy [her first directing gig], the action moves briskly for the entire two hour running time.

Set in New York in the 1980s before cable television ushered in "The Food Channel" and assorted celebrity chef shows, Gussie [Dana Smith], a well known cookbook author and sometime newspaper columnist, is offered a chance at a contract for her own television program through the efforts of her eccentric agent Bernie [Zyna Captain]. Two things stand in the way: Gussie's "husband" Walter [Matthew Givens], an idealist and amateur hypnotist, would prefer a romantic married life with Gussie to the aspect of having to share her with the public and be placed on the sidelines of a seven year contract for the show; and, oh yes, Gussie has an abject fear of public speaking. Into this mix comes a predictably odd neighbor Carmen [Teri Sweeney], an "authentic" gypsy princess who is hardly ever sober.

Gussie really wants to do the show, but can't face the camera; so she asks Walter to hypnotize her to get over her fear, agreeing that if she doesn't get the job she will marry him. They've been together for eighteen years, and think all their friends believe they are married. -- And Walter provides...but with a difference that attempts to sabotage her audition demo-taping session by giving both her and guest-host Carmen "trigger words" that make them do outlandish things while on-camera.

Thanks to the script's sometimes surprising plot turns and witty dialogue, and the confidence of the ensemble, the predictable silliness of the central action -- the taping of the show and its I Love Lucy style slapstick food-fight -- comes off with hilarity not often seen on the WOBT or any other local stage. Individually and as an ensemble, the actors commit themselves to the demands of the script and are absolutely credible in depicting characters with all their foibles intact.

Ms. Captain is an archetypal "agent" -- all business, talking in shorthand, and pushy to the point of our wanting to strangle her; but she also demonstrates a good heart through all her befuddlement of the goings-on around her. And she has a comic ability to capitalize on using pauses to drive a point home.

As the gypsy Carmen, Ms. Sweeney takes command of every scene she is in; complete with outlandish costumes, a New York Jewish accent, and an uncanny ability to get the most out of the script, she is a model of professionalism on the WOBT stage.

Ms. Smith and Mr. Givens are so comfortable with each other that one could believe them as an actual couple; they feed off one another's every glance or shift of posture or vocal inflection, and do so with apparent ease; we want them to stay together, forgive one another for any misunderstanding, and applaud the romantic ending. And, Ms. Smith delivers one of the most hilarious drunk-scenes to grace the area's theatres.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

AUM: "The Normal Heart"

Theatre AUM is currently staging Larry Kramer's quasi-autobiographical The Normal Heart, a sometimes angry and heart wrenching call to action on HIV/AIDS. Written in 1985, and set between 1981 and 1984 before AIDS had a name and when a small group of gay men desperately attempted to get the attention of government and society to do something about a mysterious disease that was killing so many people around the world, this play's subject is as relevant today as then.

Played on a bare stage with minimal furniture shifted by the actors to determine multiple locations, and flanked by a set of large colorful panels emblazoned with pop culture iconography and the names of famous AIDS victims, set designer Ashley Stanaland and director Val Winkelman and their acting ensemble create some vivid pictures that support the fluidity of Kramer's script.

The play at first seems somewhat quaint by today's standards and our current knowledge of the devastating effects of AIDS; but it is essential for us to know our history and to learn from it. Today's persistent reluctance to publicly address AIDS, the heads-in-the-ground posture that ignoring it will make it go away, and the misguided belief still that it is a gay man's disease -- let alone the alarming statistics of the millions of deaths that have accrued from only 41 in the time of the play's action -- give The Normal Heart even more significance today.

Ned Weeks [Cushing Phillips, III], aka Larry Kramer, is the ringleader of a small group of gay activists who are concerned that a mysterious disease -- "it" is all they can call the "immune system" plague according to Dr. Emma Brookner [Amber Baldwin] -- is killing several of their friends, and spreading worldwide. As their requests for media attention and government funding are ignored or put off over four years, their frustrations build as they try to play by the rules while more of their number succumb to "it".

Whether intentional or not, the small coterie of organizers -- Ned, Craig [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], Mickey [Chris Howard], Tommy [Daniel Brown], David [Lee Bridges] -- possess such shared attitudes and behavior that render them indistinguishable from one another; but not for long. While it is difficult to invest much feeling for any of them to begin with, when they are shown in private moments, they become more than mere voices for the persistent litany of facts about the AIDS crisis and the obstacles they face.

Ned is the center of the piece, and Mr. Phillips takes "the Ned Weeks School of Outrage" to heart, building from a bit of a whiner-bully in the early scenes, to a bombastic threat to the movement which needs the more temperate behavior of the closeted Bruce [Sam Wootten is a model of control in his AUM debut] as the public face of the organization, to the anguish he feels when his successful "straight" lawyer-brother Ben [David Wilson] will not risk public association with a gay group that needs the straight world's support for verification of its worth, to the confrontations with Hiram Keebler [Michael Moskowitz], a representative of the mayor's office who can make or break the movement with the stroke of a pen, to the insistent prodding of Ms. Baldwin's concerned Emma whose determination despite the lack of support from her own medical profession urges him forward, to a concerned lover as his partner Felix [Mark Hunter's natural demeanor is an excellent contrast to Mr. Phillips' bombast] succumbs to the disease.

The Normal Heart is a sobering account of the early days of HIV/AIDS activism, and an indication that the battle to combat it is not yet over. Thanks to AUM for having the courage to bring some notice to the Montgomery community of an issue that needs its support.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Red Door: "Fair and Tender Ladies"

Ever since its 1998 debut at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with Greta Lambert as its central character Ivy Rowe, director Fiona Macleod has been enamored with Fair and Tender Ladies -- "a play with music"; now she takes full advantage of bringing it back to life at the Red Door Theatre.

Capitalizing on the Red Door's simple stage with its stunning sepia toned stained-glass window serving as a backdrop, with fine musical accompaniment throughout, and an excellent ensemble cast, the story of Ivy Rowe's [Anna Perry] life journey in the Appalachian hill country is given a sensitive and thought provoking rendering.

Eric Schmeidl's script, adapted from Lee Smith's evocative novel, covers some seventy of Ivy's years in this production's two-and-a-half hours. Some judicious editing and quicker scene changes might move the action more quickly, but the intentional leisurely pace adopted here gives appropriate attention to the shifting moods and atmospheres established by Ivy's history and the songs by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell that are seamlessly integrated into the narrative and punctuate its celebration of a stalwart woman's survival. -- In lesser hands, the epic content of Ivy's story [family dysfunction, husbands, lovers, children and grandchildren, disease, war, death, et al.] might have read as cliche-ridden as a bad country western song. But here it just seems right.

Ms. Perry is effervescent as the young Ivy, and her gradual aging over the course of the play's two acts is subtly drawn without the aid of makeup by shifts of posture and facial expression. Ivy emerges as a complex woman, one who makes mistakes and does not make excuses for them. Though she is drawn to the larger world outside her mountain homeland, and dreams of being a writer, she has a certain amount of book knowledge, and much like Emily Dickinson travels far away through books and her own imagination while luxuriating in the rural landscape. And, also like Dickinson, uses simple language with such dexterity that she speaks with authority and poetic sensibility. Ms. Perry's vocal range meets the demands of the score, and she also brings an actor's sensibility to the lyrics so that she tells the story clearly. We imagine everything vividly through Ivy's memories.

Beth Egan and Kristin Hedges play multiple roles each -- Ivy's sisters, children, teachers, neighbors, et al. -- demonstrating skilled personifications of each as we see them differently at various times in Ivy's life. Good accomplished work here that demands full commitment to every individual, and the shifts of posture and voice [aided, of course, by costumes and wigs] make them credible, distinct, and recognizable over the range of time. We get attached to them too, as we do Ms. Perry's Ivy, and welcome them on their return.

A few other characters are played by the on-stage musicians, the stage manager Joseph Crawford, and even director Ms. Macleod in a touching cameo as Ivy's grandmother.

So much of this story is told through the songs, that it is a delight to the ear that the ensemble all have good voices. The instruments served them well, though there were several times that the opening attack of the singing was somewhat tentative. Once started, however, the songs took off and had a life of their own.

Fair and Tender Ladies continues the Red Door's commitment to producing plays with Southern themes; they do them well. This one is a celebration of a traditional heritage; one that is both familiar and exotic, nostalgic and with contemporary relevance, humorous and poignant, and a tribute to the strength of Southern women.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Cabaret"

Full disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directers of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

B-R-A-V-O, and..."Wilkommen...leave your troubles outside...here life is beautiful...wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome..." to Cabaret, now playing a sold-out run as the Cloverdale Playhouse's first production in its second season, and forcefully imprinting its mark on the Montgomery theatre scene by bringing ambitious, challenging, edgy, and high-quality entertainment to the local community.

By way of Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin" stories, and John van Druten's play I Am a Camera, John Kander and Fred Ebb's inspired Cabaret took form on Broadway, generated the film featuring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, and spawned several international revivals, notably with Alan Cumming as the Emcee which is now regarded as the model to follow as is done in Cloverdale under Director/Music Director Randy Foster's keen eye and ear. Mr. Foster has produced an enviable ensemble production that, with only a few tentative acting and orchestral moments on opening night, is one of the best theatre events in Montgomery's recent history.

Set in a seedy nightclub in the late 1930s as Hitler was coming to power in Weimar Germany, the impending threat of Naziism creeps stealthily into the lives of the hedonistic entertainers of the Kit Kat Klub as well as to their customers and to the audience by association, as some of them are seated at tables abutting the stage and are occasionally conscripted to participate in the show.

When life is uncertain and potentially dangerous, the choices we make in order to survive often come at some cost; and so it is with many of the characters in this award-winning musical who find it hard to preserve their integrity and dignity while trying to eke out a meagre living, or establish a stable friendship or romantic relationship. The harsh reality is that they often make questionable choices, and we sense their unhappy fate from the outset as the Emcee's [Bill Cobb] ironic invitation to the cabaret as an escape for those already pretty desperate provides little solace from the outside world's pressures.

The party inside the club, with its free-flowing booze and easy sex, seem to dull the senses rather than stimulate them -- very effectively shown in the blank glowering stares and harsh robotic movement of the chorus of Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys. -- The club is a mere distraction from the real world's impending crises; and it can't last. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is an anthem begun by a solo child's voice signaling the devastation of World War II.

Everyone, it seems, wears a mask of some sort; a disguise through which they try to convince themselves that all is well. English cabaret singer Sally Bowles [Sarah Carlton] disguises her need for acceptance by always posing as a happy optimistic sort; but she refuses to face reality and escapes through drink and denial. Ms. Carlton's versions of "Don't Tell Mama", "Perfectly Marvelous", and "Maybe This Time" tell her story very well. And her relationship with Cliff Bradshaw [Wes Milton], a closeted bi-sexual American writer hinges on her inability to commit to it, even with an unexpected pregnancy that he is willing to accept. Mr. Milton's conflicted portrayal of Cliff is enhanced by his natural performance and an urgency to resist the financial rewards offered him by the two-faced Ernst Ludwig [Scott Page] as a smuggler for the Nazis.

A more touching story involved Fraulein Schneider [Eleanor Davis] and Herr Shultz [Billington Garrett]. She runs a boarding house where several other characters live, and turns a blind eye to the goings-on under her roof; though she claims a moral high ground, she allows Fraulein Kost [Rhonda Crim almost steals the show with her reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"] to entertain sailors nightly in her room in order to afford the rent, and she lets Sally move in with Cliff for the same reason. Though she is unconcerned that Herr Schultz is Jewish ["So What"], and though his intentions for marriage are accepted [Mr. Garrett turns in a most sympathetic characterization], when push comes to shove and Ernst Ludwig intimidates her, she calls off the marriage ["What Would You Do?"] in order to survive in the Berlin where she has lived and worked all her life. We feel her anguish.

The action shifts between the cabaret and the city outside, but much of the content in the cabaret songs provides commentary on the socio-political scene as well as on the problematic lives of its characters. The Emcee both conducts and joins in on the action; and it is his sometimes sinister editorializing that hammers home the intentions of the show. He knows full well what is going on, distracts people with outlandish behavior, and is a grim reminder to us all that the forces of Naziism and the dissolution of a brilliant cultural heritage were just around the corner. -- Mr. Cobb is a chameleon in the role, shifting personality and physically committing to the several nuances of his character, by turns threatening, charming, persistent, ingratiating, deviant, innocent, and utterly fascinating. His presence is felt even when he is off stage. But when he is on, it is hard to look away from him: whether he cajoles us with "Welcome to Berlin", or is a sly fox in "Two Ladies", or lets us know that "Money" makes the world go round, or beguiles us with "If You Could See Her" [a novelty dance number with a gorilla that has a twist at the end: "she wouldn't look Jewish at all" reminding us that there are better ways of looking at the world, that tolerance and compassion are needed], or devastates us in the "Finale" tableau dressed in Holocaust prison garb.

And Ms. Carlton's desperate singing of the title song, "Cabaret", signals her capitulation to the Emcee's invitation: live...have fun...ignore the truth. But the Emcee has the last word -- to us -- "Where are your troubles now?" Something to think about.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

ASF: "Ethel"

Make no mistake; Terry Burrell is a quadruple-threat: actor, singer, dancer, and playwright. She devised Ethel -- a tribute to the legendary African-American singer and actress Ethel Waters -- that is now playing in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre, in only its second incarnation since debuting in Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater.

Ethel Waters was such a force in music, stage, film, and television, with links to most of the major performers of her day [from Bessie Smith to Sophie Tucker; from Harold Arlen to Irving Berlin and Fletcher Henderson to Duke Ellington], and influenced other singers like Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eartha Kitt. --- And though she was one of the best paid performers in New York in the 1930s, performed in both Black and White vaudeville circuits (helping to break the color barrier there), appeared in major roles on Broadway, had a long recording contract with Columbia Records, and was the second African American to receive an Academy Award nomination, nonetheless some thought her stage and film roles were "demeaning stereotypical maids and housekeepers" and that "singing white" alienated her and diminished her contributions. -- For fear that Ethel Waters might be forgotten or relegated to mere footnotes, Ms. Burrell set out to rehabilitate her image.

Ms. Burrell makes it clear from the start that Ethel Waters is a survivor, that despite the many similar experiences with her contemporaries in African American blues, jazz, or gospel singing in the early 20th Century -- poverty, racism, abusive relationships, and a catalogue of common miseries that have become the stock-in-trade of several one-woman shows -- she overcomes these hurdles, using them to provide strength of will and demonstrate an innate sense of decency. -- And it doesn't hurt that Ms. Burrell engages the audience with her own spunky personality, and clearly knows how to interpret a song; she is backed up by the considerable talents of Joel Jones (keyboard) and Joe Cosgrove (bass), whose accompaniments drive each song and also serve as support for the themes and stories Ethel weaves through the two-hour production.

The play begins in the 1940s, when Ethel fears her career is over and lives in a borrowed Harlem basement apartment where she avoids phone calls from bill collectors and the tax man, and won't open a telegram because "they always bring bad news". Director Kenneth L Roberson has her recount her storied career on Felix E. Cochren's period-looking multi-leveled set that depicts the flat and a nightclub stage, but which becomes many other locations through Ethel's imagination and memory.

Ethel remembers her career and her life through "old songs that have meaning for me", so we are given insights to familiar lyrics through biographical references; and since memories aren't always experienced chronologically as she tells us, the time shifts in the play aren't either. We learn of her attachments to and admiration for her mother and grandmother, of unsuccessful marriages, of seedy clubs where she "worked from 9 p.m. to unconscious", of first being treated like a human being by the nuns in a parochial school, of being rescued by a young white nurse in Jackson, MS from life-threatening botched surgery, intertwining music and storytelling: no pity-party here, rather an honest appraisal of her life.

Sometimes rambling and occasionally over-long stories are punctuated in Act I with snippets of most of its songs, with only an emotionally slow gospel rendering of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and a more upbeat "St. Louis Blues" given full treatment, and leaving some audience members wishing for more songs and fewer words. -- But this is all to a purpose when in Act II, a medley of "Cabin in the Sky", "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe", and her signature "Stormy Weather" were followed by "Heat Wave", "Come Up and See Me Sometime" (a tribute to her friend Sophie Tucker: the last of the red-hot mamas), and a heart breaking rendering of "Suppertime" (Irving Berlin's lament by a woman whose husband has been lynched), all serving to show the quality of Ms. Burrell's talent.

To her credit, Ms. Burrell does not try to impersonate Ethel Waters; instead -- though her singing acknowledges the legendary singer's vocal range and textured vibrato -- she gets the essence of the woman and focuses on her indomitable spirit, thus making us root for her.

So when at the end she reads the telegram offering her a role in the Hollywood film Pinky (the role that got her the Oscar nomination), her unabashed joy is a celebration we can share.

Faulkner: "The Drowsy Chaperone"

Faulkner University has a hit on its hands in a solid production of the award winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and a witty book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Director Angela Dickson and Musical Director Marilyn Swears capitalize on the talents of a mostly veteran acting company and a fine off-stage instrumental ensemble that only occasionally threatens to overpower the singing.

Using a play-within-a-play format, a character known only as "Man in Chair" [Jason Clark South] invites the audience to share his infatuation with old-fashioned musicals by playing LP-records of his favorite 1928 hit (fictional), "The Drowsy Chaperone". -- Filled as it is with a predictably convoluted romantic plot, stock characters, disguises, and too-many-to-list contrivances of a now unfashionable art form, today's audiences can share his guilty pleasure and delight in the relative innocence of a bygone era as Man in Chair's dingy apartment transforms to the more glamorous sets of "The Drowsy Chaperone" and the play comes to life in his imagination.

In it, Broadway star Janet Van De Graff [Brittney Johnston] intends to give up her career and marry man about town Robert Martin [Allen Young] whose best man George [Daniel Harms] encourages the match and plans the ceremony; powerful impresario Mr. Feldzeig [Jason Morgan], abetted by his ditzy blonde girlfriend Kitty [Emily Woodring], is threatened by two Gangsters [Matt Dickson and Blake Williams] who, disguised as pastry chefs, make it clear that his life and money would be at risk if the marriage takes place and Janet leaves the stage. So, the "Drowsy" [read: tipsy/drunk] Chaperone [Mara Woddail] is conscripted to keep an eye on Janet and convince her to call off the marriage. Complicating matters, a self-obsessed Italian Lothario named Aldolpho [Brandtley McDonald] is brought in to seduce Janet; but he mistakes the Chaperone for Janet and succeeds in winning her affection. Meanwhile, wealthy socialite Mrs. Tottendale [Kari Kelly] remains oblivious to all the goings-on as she prepares a wedding reception with the assistance of Underling [Chris Kelly] her dead-pan butler.

As the story unfolds, Man in Chair periodically interrupts the action to comment on the characters, the actors' talents, his love of musicals, and his own attraction to the matinee idol leading man. It is his story more than those told in "The Drowsy Chaperone" that connect us to the real life issues of people whose dreams have never been fulfilled and who escape to the magic of a romanticized fiction.

Of course, all this is told through the clever musical numbers that showcase the assorted gifts of the company: a stand-out "Cold Feets" has Mr. Harms and Mr. Young tap dancing their way into our hearts as they nervously prepare for the wedding; Mr. McDonald lampoons the Latin-lover in an impulsive tribute to himself in "Aldolpho"; Janet's claim that she doesn't want any more attention in "Show Off" results in a fabulous ensemble production number; mistaken identity that almost breaks up the couple we know must be married by the end is a sweet "Accident Waiting to Happen" -- are among the best pieces that link the story together.

When all seems to be heading for disaster, Trix the Aviatrix [Brooke Brown] shows up as a literal deus ex machina to save the day and renders "I Do, I Do in the Sky" with the ensemble with such gusto that we are carried along for the ride.

This is a feel-good musical comedy at its best, and the Faulkner troupe are more than up to the task.