Monday, August 29, 2016

WOBT: "Barefoot in the Park"

Third time's a charm for director Blair Dyson at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre. With two previous productions under his belt, this one has a strong and capable 5-actor ensemble who bring Neil Simon's 1963 Barefoot in the Park to charm local audiences during its three-weekend run.

One of contemporary American theatre's most prolific playwrights, Simon's urban romantic comedy features his signature witty dialogue and screwball situations that somehow seem familiar and ordinary, allowing audiences to quickly relate to his characters.

In Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds -- free-spirited Corie [Lolly White] and her conservative up-and-coming-lawyer husband Paul Bratter [Brady Walker] -- are moving into their five-storey walk-up first apartment [six flights if you count the front stoop] in a building that houses several odd neighbors; not the least of them is Victor Velasco [Adam Shephard], a worldly middle-aged bon vivant whose sophisticated manner enthralls Corie's mother Ethel [Janie Allred].

The apartment is tiny, a kind of extended studio that accentuates the physical and emotional closeness that might be ideal for the lovebirds, but which challenges everyone's ability to cope with the changes coming into their lives. -- Corie wants her mother's approval on most things, and sees an opportunity for a friendship in introducing her to Velasco; Paul has his first court case to prepare for overnight, but is coerced into going out to an Albanian restaurant that Velasco recommends; and Ethel reluctantly agrees to go where both she and Paul tentatively sample exotic foods while Corie relishes the new experience that Velasco offers.

Corie and Paul are the proverbial meant-for-each-other opposites-attract couple: she enthusiastically tries new things without a thought to consequences, and he is "always proper and dignified" to the extent of being labeled a "stuffed shirt". So, even when a crisis threatens to wreck their marriage, there is never any doubt that they will patch things up. And Ms. White and Mr. Walker  are so sincere in their characterizations that even her petulance and demand for a divorce after a seemingly trivial disagreement, and his sometimes over-the-top  drunkenness after walking barefoot in the park in the dead of winter to prove to her that he can take risks, come across as credible in their excesses.

Ms. Allred's passive-aggressive Ethel knows how to get what she wants, but her guard is down under Velasco; and Ms. Allred's transformation from taking prescription drugs and sleeping with a bed-board to a much healthier and live-in-the-moment woman under Velasco's tutelage is expertly drawn.

Mr. Shephard's Victor -- "the Bluebeard of 48th Street" -- is disarming from the start: oozing a confidence that disguises his con-man tactics that get others to pay for food and drink, he relies on his reputation as a connoisseur that gives him a dangerous appeal, especially to the women. Deep down, though, he is a good sort whose intentions with Ethel are always above board. Mr. Shephard makes him a character we admire.

With a running gag about the long flights of stairs that exhaust Paul and Ethel but seem to have no effect on either Corie or Velasco, and with two appearances by Mike Proper as a phone company worker who serves to add a reasonable tone to an otherwise madcap plot, Mr. Dyson keeps the action moving briskly; and his ensemble are in top form, providing a pleasant entertainment for the River Region.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Red Door: "Last Train to Nibroc"

Arguably one of its most polished productions, Arlene Hutton's charming Last Train to Nibroc is ending its all too short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With a cast of two excellent actors, the simplest of set designs (a series of benches that suggest the play's three locations), an evocative musical and sound underscoring, and sensitive direction by Fiona Macleod, Last Train to Nibroc is one part of a trilogy exploring the relationship between May [Eve Harmon] and Raleigh [Joseph Crawford] -- this one recounting their first chance meeting on a cross-country train and its aftermath against a backdrop of World War II and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans at home.

May, an aspiring missionary, is on her way home to Corbin, KY after breaking up with her fiance in Los Angeles. She is reading Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a book with significant Christian themes. Raleigh, a soldier honorably discharged after being diagnosed with epilepsy, is an aspiring writer on his way to New York to fulfill his dreams, though filled with self-doubt and guilt for "deserting" his fellow soldiers. When Raleigh takes the only seat available next to her, he tells her that the bodies of two recently deceased writers he admires [F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West -- of rather different leanings than Douglas], are traveling in the baggage car on their train. Quick to judge others on perceived moral lapses, May is uncomfortable with Raleigh's progressive ideas.

Two unlikely souls, one might think, but as their conversations gradually reveal a lot more than the biographical details of their lives [he is also a Kentuckian who lives in a nearby town to hers], each one's defenses drop and the awkward beginning peels away layers of beliefs, doubts, and fears that most people can identify with, creating an intimacy between them and with the audience.

In their three meetings over a three-year period, we witness the growing comfort that May and Raleigh experience. In performance, Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford, guided by Ms. Macleod's assured direction, depict May's and Raleigh's journey, demonstrate confidence, show subtle and natural vocal shifts and inflections, deliver well-crafted overlapping dialogue, exhibit physical comfort and varied pacing without sentimentalizing a simple boy-meets-girl scenario. They simply let the audience into their lives.

It helps that Ms. Hutton's script doesn't pander to eccentric Southern stereotypes, but shows two real characters as they discover the joys, frustrations, humor, and compromise of being in love with the right person.

Two quibbles with an otherwise flawless production: 1) having an intermission in a tightly crafted 90-minute play breaks the audience's connection with the characters whose lives they have invested in, and 2) though there are a few times in the play when May and Raleigh almost kiss, at the end it doesn't happen and though they anticipate a kiss at the end, the audience justifiably feels cheated.

Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford have played these characters in See Rock City at the Red Door; if they choose to produce the third in the trilogy -- Gulf View Drive -- it would be a feather in their cap to get these two fine actors to reprise the roles once again.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

ASF: Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

With temperatures in the high 90s, and the school year about to start, what better way to spend an afternoon or evening than at the final performances of Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its extended run has been selling out, and audiences have been cheering during curtain calls...with good reason: it is a charming lavish production suitable for all ages.

First performed at ASF ten years ago, Disney's Beauty and the Beast has lost none of its appeal; and with several actors reprising their roles, there is also a bit of nostalgia in the air.

Based on a 1740 tale by French novelist Villeneuve, the story has been revised, updated, set to music and dance, made into several films, and has variant stage versions, the Disney product being arguably the most successful. -- With a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and with ASF's production design team transforming the Festival stage into a fairy tale kingdom, this is a show that is bound to please.

A spell being cast on a haughty Prince, turning him into a Beast (and all his domestic servants into household objects and cutlery) until a woman comes along who can love him before a single rose loses all its petals, sets the action going. -- With the Beast [Alexander Mendoza] holed up in his castle and getting increasingly cruel, we are introduced to Belle [Stephanie Rothenberg], the local "beauty" who is perceived as odd by the townfolk because she reads books and isn't interested in the strapping narcissistic heartthrob Gaston [Bryant Martin]. She and her eccentric inventor father Maurice [a sympathetic James Bowen] become objects of derision in the town, and when Maurice takes refuge in the Beast's castle after being attacked by wolves, Belle frees him by exchanging her own captivity for his, setting in motion a relationship that grows from mistrust to understanding -- and eventually love -- between Beauty and the Beast.

Featured servants have a lot to do with softening the Beast's behavior and bringing the couple together, as their fate is linked to his. Head butler, now clock Cogsworth [Rodney Clark], along with candelabra Lumiere [Billy Sharpe], teapot Mrs. Potts [Barbara Broughton] and her teacup son Chip [Gavin Campbell], feather duster Babette [Erin Chupinsky] and wardrobe Madame de la Grand Bouche [Fredena J. Williams], join forces to bring this about. Together, this ensemble keeps the show's magic alive.

Director Geoffrey Sherman and Musical Director Joel Jones keep the action moving on Paul Wonsek's stunning magical set, as the company of additional ensemble actors in Susan Branch Towne's inventive fairy tale costumes play an assortment of townspeople, wolves, kitchen utensils, gargoyles, and flowers. Paul Hebron makes his mark, both as the compassionate Bookseller and the contrastingly sinister Monsieur D'Arque who plots with Gaston to declare Maurice insane. -- Production numbers in praise of "Gaston", led by his comic foil Le Fou [Henry Hodges is a delightful clown], and welcoming Belle to the castle in "Be Our Guest", led by Lumiere, and the optimistic "Human Again" as the servants anticipate the spell's being broken, are show stoppers.

But, it is the relationship between Belle and the Beast that takes center stage. Ms. Rothenberg's portrayal makes Belle a modern woman who is devoted to her father, has a mind of her own and won't tolerate rude behavior either from Mr. Martin's swaggering Gaston or Mr. Mendoza's rough and demanding Beast. -- Though the Beast has been under a spell for a long time, Belle casts her own spell on him through her goodness and ability to see beyond the surface of his ugliness to the inherent goodness within.

The singing is uniformly excellent from the company, as well as from the principal actors, whether Mr. Martin's baritone that matches Gaston's powerful characterization, or Mr. Mendoza's gruff Beast whose inner temperament is displayed in the introspective "How Long Must This Go On?" and "If I Can't Have Her", or Ms. Rothenberg's clear soprano in virtually all her numbers. And, Ms. Broughton's title number "Beauty and the Beast" is confident and touching.

In all, the ASF production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast has audiences in its thrall; thoroughly entertaining, it is an enchanting Summertime delight.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Millbrook: "Anne of Green Gables"

Anne of Green Gables, a play based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved 1908 novel about an orphaned girl whose intelligence, independence, and imagination help transform a small rural portion of Canada's Prince Edward Island, has finished its run by the Millbrook Community Players.

John Chain directed seventeen actors through the play's numerous scenes over two acts that recount Anne Shirley's [Lily Hillman] arrival at the farmstead of middle-aged brother and sister Mathew (sic) [Michael Snead] and Marilla [Sarah Missildine] who were expecting to adopt a boy from a Nova Scotia orphanage to help them on their farm. Through a mix-up, the orphanage sent a girl, and they reluctantly agree to let Anne stay on a trial basis that somehow lasts for years.

There is an instant kinship between Anne and Mathew, as he responds to her spunkiness and allows himself to indulge her whims, whereas Marilla's insistence on a kind of Puritan upbringing is tested at all turns by Anne's unpredictable personality and behavior.

These relationships develop over time, and Marilla gradually softens her stance; and along with an instant friendship between Anne and schoolmate Diana [Amber Gay], these are some of the strongest scenes in the Millbrook production.

A litany of familiar character types is present as well, among them a gossiping neighbor Rachel [Emily Burdick] whose constant refrain, "If you want my opinion, which I'm sure you don't", prefaces most of her appearances and garners expected laughs; a stern school teacher Mr. Phillips [Greg Fanning] is contrasted with a compassionate teacher Miss Stacy [Jennifer Gay] who mentors Anne to excel at her studies and win a place for further education; and a local school boy Gilbert [Micah Holley] who is both a scholarly rival and a reluctant romantic interest for Anne.

Ms. Hillman and Ms. Amber Gay give credibility to the bond between young girls; Mr. Holley's adolescent teasing of Anne for her red hair and freckles mostly disguises the respect he has for her that comes out only towards the end of the play; Ms. Jennifer Gay's portrayal of the encouragement for Anne's development is sincere; Ms. Missildine's gradual adapting to Anne's challenges and her acceptance and love of the young girl in her charge are subtle and truthful; and the comfort between Ms. Hillman and Mr. Snead is evidenced from the start of their relationship and is the most convincing in this show.

Though the play runs long due to constant blackouts between every scene, and due to a steady but slow pace, Anne of Green Gables remains a heart-warming story that tells of the better nature of humankind from which we can all take example.

Faulkner: "Oklahoma"

"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", the opening number of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 multi-award winning musical Oklahoma!, establishes Blake Mitchell as a rising talent in the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre production.

With his boyish good looks, an engaging smile, an aw-shucks attitude matching his strong singing voice, an ability to deliver old-fashioned dialogue credibly, and to connect truthfully with virtually all the ensemble actors and generously share the stage with them, keeps audiences riveted to his character Curly in his innocent attempts to woo the beautiful but aloof Laurey [Hanah Darrough] away from rival suitor Judd [Joshua S. Fullman] against a 1906 backdrop of the Oklahoma Territory on the brink of Statehood.

Statehood is brought up a few times in the script, but doesn't hold a prominent position for our interests; rather, a lighthearted (everything's up to date in) "Kansas City" shows the advances of a growing urban era against the unsophisticated rural landscape; and a perennial feud between "The Farmer and the Cowman" insists in an upbeat way that they actually can be friends. Even the Persian (cf. Iranian) peddler Ali Hakem [Tony Davison] is accepted by the community, if only as an intriguing outsider and not a threat to the community.

So, it is the love stories that are projected front and center. Curly and Laurey are the "innocents" here, as they deny their obvious attraction to each other in "People Will Say We're in Love", Mr. Mitchell's braggadocio countered by Ms. Darrough's naive posturing. Laurey's Aunt Eller [Rhonda Cattley] is the stalwart voice of reason here, as she gently advises them to come to grips with their romance.

In contrast, Will Parker [Hunter Lee Smith] and Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd] are more comic and worldly, though similarly confused by their emotions. Mr. Smith shows Will's ineptitude in holding on to the $50 that he needs to win the hand of Ado Annie and get the approval of her gun-toting father Andrew [Michael DiLaura], and Ms. Rikerd delights in the contradictions of commitment in "I Cain't Say No"; but together, the ultimatum of "All Er Nuthin" sets them on the right track.

The love stories come to a head at the local picnic where the men bid on picnic hampers to win a date with the women who made them. When Judd outbids Curly -- after their rivalry is made more potent when Curly visits Judd's room and attempts to change him in "Poor Judd is Daid" -- the fight is on to the finish, with catastrophic results that are saved in a quick "trial" that clears Curly of murder and allows his marriage to Laurey to bring a happy ending.

As one of the earliest American musicals to fully integrate song lyrics into plot and character development, and to fuse dance as another integral element of the overall design, director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears guide their 31-member ensemble through their paces. Ever cognizant of serving the community, and offering opportunities to many of its constituencies, it is a mixed-bag of talent on stage, with principal roles going to veteran actors, and minor roles in the ensemble filled out be younger less-experienced players.

For an old fashioned plot, delightful characters, iconic music, and a touch of nostalgia, Oklahoma! is a fine Summer offering from Faulkner.