Wednesday, September 30, 2015

AUM: "Celebrating 40 Years -- Gala"

For the past 40 years, Theatre AUM has been a model for educational theatre, balancing its academic programs with a commitment to producing plays from the breadth of world drama -- classical and modern, tragedies and comedies, straight plays and musicals, old standards and new scripts -- challenging its students and local audiences with its sometimes risky choices and a variety of theatrical styles.

So, its Gala celebration on Saturday night -- Celebrating 40 Years, co-directed by Neil David Seibel, LaBrandon Tyre, Mike Winkelman, and Val Winkelman -- was unsurprising in showcasing its educational theatre mission, while affording the audience a capsule of scenes, monologues, and songs from its 40-year repertoire, and featuring an ensemble of 20+ current students, alumni, faculty, and guest artists, some of whom reprised roles they had appeared in decades earlier.

Celebrating with them in the audience were Guin Nance, former AUM Chancellor who started the theatre program, Bob Gaines, who was Department Chair from 1977-2007, Mary-Lynn Izzo, a former AUM costume designer, Randy Foster, who directed several productions, and Mike Cunliffe, an alumnus whose play Movie Night was excerpted in one of the evening's most memorable performances by Sophomore Kodi Robertson.

In a kind of love-fest between actors and audience, all some of these veterans had to do was take the stage for the audience to enthusiastically welcome them home; and Eleanor Davis [triumphant in a rendering of "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch" from Company], Layne Holley [powerhouse samplings from Godspell and Noises Off], Scott Page [passionate in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat], and Sam Wallace [restrained in singing "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks], did not disappoint.

Each of the selections was done as an "audition piece", with actors introducing themselves and the titles to be performed. And while it is hard to pin down the best of the best, the talents showed a wide variety of offerings. -- It was a treat to see AUM's managing director Katie Pearson share the stage with her daughter Rita Pearson-Daley (a last-minute replacement) as mother and daughter in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. And selections from All in the Timing, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Brigadoon, and Coastal Disturbances demonstrated the range that AUM is noted for.

Even a few theatrical in-jokes punctuated the evening's two acts. Waiting for Godot, Six Characters in Search of an Author, and yelling a single word -- "S-T-E-L-L-A" -- from A Streetcar Named Desire, among them, received appreciative laughs and applause.

It was truly an upbeat celebration, with Theatre AUM proclaiming "this is who we are...this is what we do", with the promise of continuing their traditions. Congratulations.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Millbrook: "Route 66"

It's time to "get your kicks" on Route 66, the Roger Bean musical revue now showing in Millbrook under A. John Collier's direction and finely rendered scenic design. -- Little more than a compilation of 30+ songs from the 1950s and 1960s, its premise is a cross-country road trip along the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.

With a talented cast of four -- Jody Dow, Tina Hosey, Michael Snead, Pat VanCor -- who perform in solos and in various combinations, the trip and their songs are connected by an assortment of period radio advertisements for Chevrolets, "a little dab 'l do ya" Brylcreem hair-gel for men, "let Hertz put you in the driver's seat", Firestone tires "where the rubber hits the road", Delco batteries, and Uniflo motor oil among them: a nostalgic treat for audience members of a certain age.

Some of the better moments in this pleasant two act show are: a sensitive version of "Mother Road", clever novelty numbers "Beep-Beep" and "Long Tall Texan", a hilarious "Rolaids, Doan's Pills, and Preparation-H", the touching "Oklahoma Hills", and popular foot-stompin' renditions of "Fun-Fun-Fun" and "I Get Around".

While a few of the pieces are performed with solo acoustic guitar accompaniment, the ensemble sings mainly to an over-amplified pre-recorded soundtrack that unfortunately distorts much of their sound. And the static-filled radio advertisements are also disarmingly loud, making the words almost unintelligible.

All in all, though, Route 66 is a diverting entertainment. Thrown in with the ticket price is a Southern style dinner catered by Felicia Swanner of Swanner's Catering, making an evening out complete.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Love. Loss, and What I Wore"

Love, Loss, and What I Wore, the Nora and Delia Ephron stage adaptation of Ilene Beckerman's best selling book, is playing at the Wetumpka Depot with a different all-women's cast on each of its three weekend run. So, though Cast #1's turn has ended, there's still time to see other groups of River Region and beyond actresses take to the boards in this charming, funny, poignant, and occasionally irreverent take on women's obsession with clothes and the memories they associate about life and death, and relationships of all sorts.

Staged as readings [the six member cast are lined up on high stools with scripts on lecterns in front of them, and with several dresses displayed behind them], director Kim Mason takes audiences on an uninterrupted 90-minute ride into the hearts and minds of an eclectic ensemble as they dissect siblings, mothers, and grandmothers, current and ex-husbands, changes of fashion, and signal moments of growing up and getting older -- all through the lens of their collective association with clothes.

Each of the women here -- Elizabeth Bowles, Sharon DeMuth, Kristy Meanor, Katie Svela-Crews, Lizzy Woodall, Susan Woody -- has moments that bring her individual personality to the fore, but it is their combined sense of comradeship in shared experiences that provides a comfort level that connects actor and audience. -- And, they are all good storytellers.

Whether the subject is prom dresses or wedding gowns or bras, boots or shoes or bathrobes, sibling rivalries or motherly advice, philandering husbands or their own sexual dalliances, breast cancer or rape or the untimely death of a family member, these women and their stories effortlessly keep our attention.

And oh, by the way, this isn't merely a play for women; the men in the house on Saturday night "got it": the serious and lighthearted moments alike; "I have nothing to wear" from a closet full of clothes, the "Does this make me look fat?" refrain, and the never-ending battle of finding anything in a cluttered purse, resonate with men and woman alike.

Lots of laughs, a few tears, and an overall confident cast make Love, Loss, and What I Wore a delight.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

WOBT: "Godspell"

Rarely off the boards at schools and community theatres since its 1971 Off-Broadway premiere, the John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell is being given a three-weekend run at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Directed by Jason Morgan, with an eleven-member cast of veterans and newcomers, the revised in 2012 version's earnestness in its many teaching moments drawn mostly from St. Matthew's Gospel give audiences ample opportunities to reflect on personal beliefs and behaviors as well as to study the avowed Christian stances taken by many of 2015's public officials.

The litany of over a dozen parable messages -- "those who are humbled shall be exalted", "turn the other cheek", "walk in someone else's shoes", "one can't be a servant to two masters", "let him who is without sin cast the first stone", et al. -- are told in a variety of musical styles as Jesus [Hunter Lee Smith] conscripts his Apostles, a rag-tag bunch who, on opening night, exhibited some individual strengths in characterization [Paul Neace in the double role of John the Baptist and Judas], singing [Jailyn Ausborn and Alicia Ruth Jackson], tap dance [Daniel Harms], mime [Merelee Robinson], and stage presence [D'Andre Massey], but who [with Lucie Chesser, Olivia Johnston, Danielle Phillips, and Jillian Rabb] never quite congeal into a unified ensemble.

Perhaps because much of the movement was so very casual, and a lot of the dialogue spoken so softly as to throw away important contemporary popular culture references and ideas, the sporadic energetic moments better demonstrated a discipline that made them memorable. -- In addition, several scenes were staged in dark areas of the theatre, so the actors could not be seen clearly.

Godspell has survived for over forty years in great part due to its timeless themes and messages that bear repeating today. Songs like "Prepare Ye" and "Day by Day" have a permanent place in the canon of musical theatre. Hopefully, the next two weekends' performances will achieve the solidity the play deserves.