Monday, October 14, 2013

Faulkner: "Les Miserables"

At roughly 2.5 hours, the relentless pace of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's production of Les Miserables, the international record-breaking musical, only rarely slows down. -- Spurred, no doubt, by the play's success since its original 1984 opening in London, and the recent blockbuster film, Faulkner's co-directors Angela Dickson and Jason Clark South are filling the house in the four week run of this most ambitious undertaking: non-stop action for some 31 actors, a demanding orchestral and vocal musical score, numerous large scene changes, and hardly a break from heightened emotions.

It is fair to say that while Faulkner's theatre is no match for the huge scale of a major Broadway house or a big-screen film, there are moments here that capture its power with the Chorus in full voice in the signature "Peoples' Song" and "One Day More", as they fill Matt Dickson's simple evocative set with strong harmonies and emotional power.

Victor Hugo's novel on which the musical is based covers the vast sweep of the French Revolution and its clarion call for "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" that can still be felt today in clear social and economic distinctions between the haves and have-nots; but the Revolution recedes somewhat when it concentrates on the personal stories of the people of little consequence.

The plot revolves around Jean Valjean [Brandtley McDonald] in his attempt to change his life after being released from a 19-year prison sentence for a petty crime, and given a second chance by a benevolent Bishop [Patrick Hale]. Pursued by Inspector Javert [Matt Dickson] for breaking his parole, Valjean (under an assumed name) helps a destitute woman Fantine [Jesse Alston] and rescues her daughter Cosette from the con-artist innkeepers Thenardier [Chris Kelly] and Mme. Thenardier [Mara Woddail]. Ten years later when Cosette grows up [Brittney Johnston], she falls in love with Marius [Blake Williams], one of the revolutionaries under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras [David Rowland].

Valjean's moral dilemma is often tested: "Who am I?" is a refrain frequently heard as he questions whether to save others or himself, keeping secrets or telling the truth, duty to the Revolution or to his promise to Fantine. And he has an impact on other characters, especially Javert, who face similar, if opposite conditions.

There is a paucity of spoken dialogue in Les Miz; more operatic in structure, the bulk of plot action, character development, and social commentary are carried in music and song lyrics.

Quality singing has become a hallmark of Faulkner's productions, and so it is here in most of the featured roles as well as the aforementioned Chorus. -- Musical Director Marilyn Swears and Conductor of the fine nine-member pit orchestra Andrew Cook support the actors without overwhelming them, though only the principal actors are "miked", rendering a lot of the lyrics assigned to supporting roles (lines which contain essential plot details) completely inaudible.

As the inkeepers, Mr.Kelly and Ms. Woddail invest in the disarming comic properties of "Master of the House", making their more greedy elements in Act II more pronounced.

Eponine [Alicia Ruth Jackson], caught between devotion to the Revolution and love for Marius, delivers an exquisite "On My Own", but is otherwise given little emphasis in this production through unfortunate staging and vocal amplification in the second act.

While the romantic chemistry between Cosette and Marius is lessened by Mr. Williams's rigid postures, Ms. Johnston makes the most of her lyrical soprano voice and her absolute emotional commitment to Marius as well as to her protector, Valjean. Long overdue a role of this stature, Ms. Johnston brings you to tears and admiration.

Ms. Alston as Fantine can break hearts with "I Dreamed a Dream", so much that when Fantine dies midway through Act I, her presence is felt long after.

Young Matthew Klinger plays Gavroche, the urchin who proclaims with conviction "I run this town" with impressive maturity.

Mr. Rowland brings to the stage the full-package that sets a high bar in playing Enjolras. He commands every scene he is in without stealing focus, urging the revolutionaries with a passionate swagger that charismatically engages the audience with the on-stage action. Every inch the leader physically and vocally, Mr. Rowland's credibility is never in doubt and is one of the most solid portrayals on Faulkner's stage.

Mr. Dickson's Javert is a powerful antgagonist whose obsession in tracking down Valjean is his sole raison d'etre.  Mr. Dickson's threatening demeanor becomes gradually more introspective as Javert wrestles with Valjean's compassion towards him, finally reducing him to self-doubt and a feeling of worthlessness. -- It is in their scenes together that we feel most strongly the inmpact of the Revolution on individual lives, as both men contend with doubts that take them in opposite directions -- suicide and salvation.

Valjean is Hugo's hero, and the protagonist whose journey is central to everything else as he influences all the other characters. Mr. McDonald takes on the task of carrying the show on his capable shoulders. He has a powerful voice that almost overwhelms in the opening of Act I, that one wonders if he has anything in reserve for later on; but he does, and in the quieter moments ("Valjean's Prayer", for example) exhibits vocal control and emotional credibility. -- This role is a test in a way, and demonstrates that Mr. McDonald is on his way to becoming as fine an actor as he is a singer.

There is a lot of bombast in Les Miserables -- military and patriotic grandstanding, for example, combined with melodramatic romanticism; and while many of the crowd scenes involving French citizens and prostitutes are self-consciously staged with only modest commitment to creating stories of believable characters, the overall impact is achieved. Les Miz aficionados ought to be pleased by the musical presentations, and everyone will feel the impact of the Faulkner production's efforts.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "Blithe Spirit"

With Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit to end their 33rd Season, the Wetumpka Depot Players have mounted their second-in-a-row "improbable farce in three acts" (Michael Frayn's Noises Off was a hit this Summer), much to the delight of local audiences who might need a bit of levity to counterbalance the government shutdown, much as British theatre-goers needed relief in 1941 at the brink of World War II.

With his career in full swing between the Wars (he penned some 140 plays, hundreds of songs, films, and numerous cabaret acts over several decades), Coward often directed and starred in his glittering comedies of manners, many of which have a decidedly dark side underneath the urbane wit and sharp-edged dialogue that were his trademarks.

At the Depot, a few technical glitches and tentative dialogue sometimes slowed down the rapid pace demanded by farce, but with their first weekend under their belts, Director William Harper's multi-talented seven-character ensemble should be settling in to what promises to be a full-out laugh riot.

Charles Condomine [Lee Bridges] and his second wife Ruth [Cheryl Kiser] are hosting a dinner party whose guest of honor is Madame Arcati [Fiona Macleod], a bungling eccentric bohemian mystic who has been asked to conduct a seance for them, not aware that the Condomines and their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman [Michael Dilaura and Sherida Black] are thorough skeptics, and that Charles has invited her merely to learn "a few tricks of the trade" for a book he is writing about the occult. They have all agreed to pretend to be interested believers so as not to upset Madame Arcati.

Before their guests arrive, the Condomines do their best to instruct their new maid Edith [Meghan Ducote] on the polite ways to serve, and their conversation over several martinis turns to Charles's first wife Elvira -- a beautiful young free-spirited woman (and the polar opposite of Ruth) -- who died seven years ago, but who is often on both their minds.

So, it should come as no surprise when Madame Arcati unexpectedly conjures the spirit of Elvira [Leanna Wallace] who only Charles can see or hear, and whose presence creates some of the most outlandishly comical misunderstandings. -- And a major problem: whether or not (and then how) to get rid of Elvira who shows no signs of leaving. -- The scenes with Charles and his two wives are skillfully managed, with Elvira outwitting Ruth and Ruth bewildered by Charles's apparent acceptance of Elvira's ghost into their lives. The women heap verbal abuse on one another, and Charles contributes his own barbs. It seems that neither marriage is complete bliss.

Mr. Harper has some fine veteran actors at his disposal, and some relative newcomers as well. Mr. Dilaura makes a solid acting debut as Dr. Bradman; as he is paired with Ms. Black's flighty Mrs. Bradman, they make a good pair of foils for the more sophisticated Condomines. -- Ms. Ducote's overly eager to please Edith, scurries about and makes more messes than are obvious from the start. Her part in  resolving the play's conflict is cleverly done.

Ms. Wallace makes a return to the Depot after "a 10 year hiatus", appearing here in the ghostly mode of a silver dress and wearing a "reverb" lavaliere microphone to make her voice seem other-worldly. And, for a long-departed wanderer, Elvira has some very worldly desires as she tries to win Charles back by devious means that backfire. (You'll have to see the play to understand.)

Mr. Bridges and Ms. Kiser thoroughly assume their roles; they appear so comfortable with one another, that we believe instantly that they are a married couple; and their completely natural speaking and movement complete the picture.

But it is Ms. Macleod's portrayal of Madame Arcati that is both Coward's focus and the production's most hilarious characterization. -- As she leaps about in preparation of going into a trance for the seance, or intensely intuits that "someone else is psychic in this house", or girlishly celebrates her "success" in conjuring Elvira (the seance scenes are outrageously funny), or refuses to be downhearted when numerous attempts to remove ghosts from the house are unsuccessful, Ms. Macleod uses her long experience in the theatre to communicate with a sly wink or a pause or a giggle or a posture what lesser actors only wish they could do.

The finely detailed set and period appropriate costumes and music complete the picture as we are transported back to the 1940s in the Depot's joyful production of Blithe Spirit.