Sunday, January 31, 2016

ASF: "Ain't Misbehavin'"

The joint is jumpin'!!! -- On opening night at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, after two hours of a non-stop celebration of legendary Fats Waller's music, the audience jumped to their feet and cheered director James Bowen's five ensemble actors and Joel Jones' terrific seven-piece band. Mr. Bowen and Company should be justifiably proud to know that (in an idea borrowed from a friend) "they've made somebody's life a little better for a couple of hours."

Ain't Misbehavin' is a (mostly) feel-good party set in scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen cabaret club reminiscent of the glamor and sophistication of the Harlem nightclubs of the 1930s and 1940s. -- In its frolicsome, worldly, and occasionally ribald versions of some 30+ songs from the Fat Waller repertoire, there is hardly a moment when Waller's sly take on love and relationships in the midst of World War and Depression Era angst isn't front and center; yet, the defense mechanism often present shows up regularly in the escapist devil-may-care attitudes of the company: a surface cheerfulness belies the uncertainty of the future.

The one sobering moment comes midway in Act II with "Black and Blue", an intensely controlled query of the plight of African-Americans then and now, who are judged too often by the color of their skin, and not by the content of their character. As in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask", behind the mask of laughter and seeming contentment there is pain, and the strategically placed song is all the more potent here because the audience has become attached to these exuberant actors and their music.

And that's what it's all about: the versatility and brilliance of the performances. Each actor is gifted with a fine singing voice and engaging personality, and each is afforded ample opportunities to showcase their individual and collective talents. Bianca Horn delivers some in-your-face antics with "Yacht Club Swing" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" and produces a sincerely moving rendition of "Mean to Me"; Shinnerrie Jackson is coquettish with "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Honeysuckle Rose" in a duet with Juson Williams. Mr. Williams shines also in comic numbers like "Your Feet's Too Big"; Eric LaJuan Summers joins Mr. Williams and encourages audience participation in "Fat and Greasy" and is all swagger in "'T Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do", and his rendition of "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song" mixes broad comedy with some sinister elements; and Fredena J. Williams imbues almost every number with sophisticated innuendo and a knowing twinkle in her eye: "Squeeze Me" and "When the Nylons Bloom Again" are standouts.

There is so much robust energy in the group numbers -- "Lookin' Good but Feelin' Bad", "A Handful of Keys", "Spreadin' Rhythm Around", "The Joint is Jumpin'", and the title song "Ain't Misbehavin'" among them -- that audiences come away energized and happy.

Though there is virtually no book/scripted dialogue, the personalities of the actors shine through with their frequent side comments and put downs, and self-aware digs at themselves and one another...all in a lighthearted manner that has audiences liking them from start to finish. They conscript us in the goings-on so we can laugh with them and share their experiences.

It's amazing what a couple of hours of unrestrained good will can do to take away the Winter's chill: "One never one?!"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

ASF: "Cinderella"

Young children in the audience invigorate a sparkling production of Cinderella in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon theatre. -- The eight-member ASF Acting Intern ensemble, under Nancy Rominger's direction, render playwright Ruth Newton's version of the fairy-tale in under an hour's playing time, inviting children young and old to help them tell the story and to both enjoy and learn: the two most basic precepts of live theatre.

This "Theatre for Young Audiences" production takes advantage of the Octagon's intimacy to make the future adult audiences (and the grown-ups they brought with them) comfortable enough to respond to on-stage questions about plot and production details; and the responses are instantaneous and well informed...often so animated and sincere that everyone approves.

The story of Cinderella's [Lilly Wilton] escape from a life of drudgery with the assistance of her Fairy Godmother [Kayla Eisenberg] to attend a royal ball where she wins the heart of the Prince [Michael Quattrone] is well known. -- Yet, there is much to delight along the way: Robert F. Wolin's set revolves from the dingy kitchen to the bright ballroom in the Prince's palace; Michael Medcalf choreographs the simple and elegant dance sequences; and Pamela Scofield's costumes are a joy -- from the gaudy and vulgar excesses of Cinderella's step-family to the restrained opulence of the courtiers, and a magical transformation of Cinderella's scullery-maid outfit into a stunning ball gown.

And there is a lot of delight in the performances as well. Noelia Antweiler is the two-faced social-climbing Stepmother who never misses a chance to push her daughters into the limelight, and who even promotes herself into a union with the Prince when her daughters' chances fall flat...and the Stepsisters, Matilda [Christopher Lemieux] and Griselda [Andrew Dahreddine], constantly fighting with one another with no realization of their foolishness, are so wholeheartedly greedy that they are hilarious.

Ms. Eisenberg's Fairy Godmother [she also doubles as a Lady at the Court] is forgetful and sincere; and she also manages a few magic tricks to delight the audience.

Parke Fech as the Prime Minister, and John Henry Carter as the Duke, are the Prince's cohorts who both assist him in his pretending to be a commoner as he woos Cinderella, and lead the search for the mysterious woman he fell in love with at the ball.

The love story is at the center of the plot, and is given a familiar twist when the Prince feigns a lower social status to the beautiful stranger so she might like him for his behavior and not his wealth. Mr. Quattrone's sincere confession to Cinderella that "everyone feels sad, lonely, and afraid sometimes" is central to their romance. Ms. Wilton, in turn, "pretends" to the Prince that she is not a Princess, and commiserates with him -- an instant connection.

Through it all, there are lessons that are given with gracefulness: telling the truth is essential to leading a good life; forgive those who hurt us as Cinderella forgives the Step-family; true beauty is within a person -- wisdom and honesty are traits that uncover that beauty; we can make our dreams come true, not simply by wishing, but by believing in ourselves.