Thursday, December 15, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South"

First seen in GRITS: the Musical a while back, Adrian Lee Borden, Desirae Lewis, Kim Mason, and Cindy Veasey are reprising their roles at the Wetumpka Depot in Erica McGree's Cinnamon GRITS: Christmas in the South. "Girls Raised In The South" explains the acronym of the title, and director Kristy Meanor takes audiences on a two-hour jaunt into the sometimes outrageous Christmas reminiscences of these four redoubtable women.

Staged on several holiday-decorated area platforms and an open space, the GRITS narrate several humorous situations that are familiar to us all, interspersed with traditional songs and carols, some of them given updated or inventively comic lyrics.

We know these women and their stories, and you don't have to be from the South to appreciate many of them...the predicament or challenge of "Re-gifting" is given an outrageous twist or two; "The Crazy Aunt Blues" capitalized on the women's abilities to impersonate all the cliche-ridden characteristics of eccentric relatives decked out in garish costumes; and "The Twelve Yummy Days of Christmas", featuring "five bourbon balls"  to a predictable drunken end, is a show-stopper.

There are touching sentimental reminiscences as well with such numbers as "I Never Knew Life Without You" and a few readings from Scripture, along with a medley of traditional carols to signal the true meaning of Christmas.

The ensemble actors have individual shining moments, but the key to this show is the feeling that they are good friends having a good time to celebrate their friendships. It's contagious. There is such a warmth coming from the stage, that audiences can't help but respond in kind....a fine way to usher-in the Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Each time director Geoffrey Sherman stages his adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, he tweaks the script a bit, adding or removing portions of the plot, elaborating characters and their relationships, while remaining true to the spirit of the original source. So, while the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's reclamation from miserly and mean-spirited to generous and gregarious holds no real surprises, there is always something in Sherman's bag of tricks to  grab the attention of repeat audience members.

There is still magic in the air -- both actual magic tricks and terrific special effects,  and the magic of ghosts who teach Scrooge the value of charity and the true meaning of Christmas -- on Paul Wonsek's idyllic Victorian set and with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes; and Sherman moves the action quickly to punctuate the key moments in Scrooge's magical night with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come.

Paul Hebron assumes the role of Dickens, an amateur magician and narrator of this rendition of Christmas Carol, who also takes on the roles of good-hearted Fezziwig, Scrooge's one-time employer, and Old Joe, a dealer in stolen or ill-gotten goods and properties. -- Mr. Hebron makes each one a distinct and memorable creation, and when he shares a scene with Rodney Clark's Scrooge, there's a bit more magic in watching two artists at their best.

Attention is focussed on Scrooge for virtually the whole two-plus hours playing time. From the moment we first see him -- so dismissive of Christmas and so rude to everyone (street urchins and businessmen, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit [Billy Sharpe] and his nephew Fred [Jackson Thompson], are all treated alike) -- Mr. Clark commands the stage. Until, that is, he meets the first Ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes] who astounds him and sends him on a journey that restores him to the brotherhood of humankind. Mr. Berkes is a frightening specter whose pain in his condition of bridging the worlds between life and death has never been better realized.

A luminous Ghost of Christmas Past [Ann Flanigan] takes the reluctant Scrooge into his own past where he is shown his former self as a boy and youth, his delight in Fezziwig's generosity [Mr. Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as Mrs. Fezziwig are a delight in their dancing at Christmas], his first love Belle [Alice Sherman] and the break-up of their relationship as Scrooge becomes more enamored with money than with her -- though it does seem a strange choice to have Mr. Clark actually participate in the various goings-on, when the novel and this production's second act take great pains to state that Scrooge is an invisible spectator to all the events of the past, present, and future.

James Bowen's version of the Ghost of Christmas Present has never been so jovial as in this year's show. A scene at Fred's Christmas party, with Mr.Berkes as a flustered Topper and Alice Sherman sharing a comical "meow-duet" with Megan Woodley, keeps a light tone. Yet, he shows Scrooge the impact of his miserliness on the Cratchit family, a group of optimists in a world that does them no favors. Mr. Sharp and Greta Lambert as Mrs. Cratchit are the ideal couple who raise their children to live good lives even in miserable financial straits in some of the most touching scenes in this production as they anticipate the end for their crippled child, Tiny Tim [Gavin Campbell].

As the final act's Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come [Joe O'Malley] frightens Scrooge (and us) with its silent gestures, Scrooge comes face to face with the reality of his life choices, especially in a scene where Old Joe and Mrs. Dlilber [Diana Van Fossen] haggle over the goods she has pilfered from Scrooge.

And when he awakens on Christmas morning, the magic of the previous night comes full circle. He is a changed man who keeps Christmas as it ought to be. The delight we see in Mr. Clark's transformation is infectious, and the audience cheers the outcome along with Tiny Tim's "God Bless Us...Everyone".

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "My Three Angels"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

In an anniversary tribute to a production 40 years ago at the Montgomery Little Theatre, Eleanor K. Davis is directing a charming family-friendly staging of Samuel and Bella Spewack's 1953 My Three Angels at The Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Her ensemble of ten actors includes four who are new to the Playhouse, though they are no strangers to the stage; they represent an ever expanding number of River Region artists who ensure a healthy theatre community.

With Ed Fieder's detailed set and Danny Davidson's exquisite period costumes, audiences are transported to Christmas 1910 on a tropical island where the temperature is 105 degrees, and where shop owner Felix Ducotel's [Scot Purkeypile] generosity is exploited by just about everyone as he extends credit to the pretentious Mrs. Parole [Rachael Dotson], and rarely even checks his books. His wife Emilie [Mariah Reilly] tolerates his good nature, and daughter Marie Louise [Cathy Ranieri] is more intent on seeing her fiance who is set to return to the island.

When they discover that Felix's cousin Henri Trochard [Adam Shephard] and nephew, Marie Louise's intended, Paul [Bo Jinright] intend to bilk Felix of home and property, no one knows what to do.

Enter the "three angels" of the title -- convicts from the local Devil's Island penal colony who are on work-release repairing Felix's roof -- who, having overheard their predicament, descend from above and determine to help set things aright. After all, these modern Magi might  have committed crimes, but have a sense of justice and altruism.

Joseph [Mark Hunter] is an adept forger and adroit con-man, while Jules [Scott Page] and Alfred [Tate Pollock] are both murderers; yet, their good-humored sense of honor and compassion for good people who might be hurt by the nefarious dealings of greedy relatives get audiences on their side immediately. They make no bones about the crimes that put them in prison, but as Jules says at one point: "Our world is just like yours, except we got caught" -- a refrain that could be applied to much of what is going on in the world today.

The play's fairly long exposition is handled well by Mr. Purkepyle, his lack of business acumen is matched by a distracted air that one can't help but to feel sorry for Felix and his predicament; and the clear affection he shows for his wife and daughter makes us wish him to succeed. -- In contrast, Mr. Shephard's Henri is so arrogant and ruthless from the start, getting us to root against him and even more for Felix.

As it becomes clear that Paul is no longer interested in Marie Louise [and convict Alfred is], the convicts become even more dedicated to helping the Ducotel family. -- This wily threesome are a delight to watch as they cleverly insinuate themselves into Felix's shop and family affairs, all the while taking no credit for anything. Mr. Page and Mr. Pollock are understated in their performances, and there are some sweetly innocent romantic scenes between Alfred and Marie Louise and between Jules and Emilie. The wholesomeness of these scenes is touching.

Mr. Hunter's depiction of Joseph's many skills in "salesmanship", presented with a self-assured posture and off-the-cuff delivery of his character's witticisms, take focus for much of the plot contrivances and humor. One of them many highlights of this delightful production.

Of course, the bad guys get their comeuppances [with the help of the three angels and a pet snake named Adolph]; and Mr. Jinright almost steals the show with his lengthy and physically impressive death-scene. -- With Henri and Paul out of the way, and Felix's business seeming to gain a foothold under Joseph's guidance, all that is left is to find a suitable mate for Marie Louise. Though this is not assured, the unexpected deus ex machina entrance of a handsome Lieutenant [Michael Buchanan] wearing a dress white uniform signals an instant spark of interest from Marie Louise.

Ms. Davis directs this determinedly heart-felt script with an affection that is contagious. Whether we believe that the ends justify the means, the unabashed good nature of the story and of the actors who perform in it under her guidance have audiences laughing and cheering the results.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Red Door: "In-laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should be Shot)"

Director Tom Salter has a mix of Union Springs newcomers and veteran actors in the Red Door Theatre's production of Steve Franco's comedy In-laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should be Shot). And this is good for the development of an already vibrant company as it encourages new talent on stage.

Franco's large cast of characters calls for a wide range of ages for both men and women, and while most of them are on stage a lot, there are several minor roles to provide experience and exposure as they contribute to the whole picture.

The play is set on a snowy Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, NY [Southern accents abound in this production] where a dysfunctional family gather for dinner, only to be held hostage by a pair of inept criminals whose frustrations build as the assorted family air long-held complaints and engage in verbal barbs with one another and with nosy neighbors.

Though much of the script stretches credibility to the extreme [everyone seems to accept the hostage taking with barely a flinch while they continue their idiosyncratic behavior as if nothing had happened; and there are several opportunities for individuals to either escape or to call the police while they are not being watched], Salter's actors achieve notable characterizations and keep audiences engaged for the play's short two acts.

While the ensemble display each of their characters' specific quirks clearly, there are some standouts: as Beth, Caroline Gables captures the sullen sarcasm of a young teenager who barely tolerates adults, but whose common sense clears the air several times;; Charlotte Phillips plays neighbor Mrs. Draper with absolute confidence, her matter-of-fact pronouncements are refreshing reminders that some people don't need to disguise their feelings to be politically correct.

What carries the day in this production are the combined efforts of the two criminals -- Tony [Alonzo Russell] and Vinny [Eric Arvidson] -- as they take over the household and are increasingly frustrated by the antics of the family. Mr. Russell is the one in charge [he has the gun, after all], and Mr. Arvidson is the "second banana" who follows orders and takes things literally, and whose vegetarianism ingratiates himself to similarly inclined Beth.

In the spirit of the Christmas season, the family come to the aid of their captors when the police arrive, as they have learned that Tony had lost his job and had stolen the money to provide Christmas for his family. -- Forgiveness, after all, is an important message at any time of year, and helping those in need is generally more pronounced at Christmas.