Thursday, December 14, 2017

Millbrook: "A Country Christmas Carol"

Director Sam Wallace and the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened A Country Christmas Carol last weekend with a cast of fifteen actors, most of them playing multiple roles, and including some fledgling talents who show promise for the future.

This musical version of the Charles Dickens classic -- book by Ron Kaehler, music by Albert Evans, lyrics by Evans and Kaehler -- tells the story of Eb Scrooge's [Matthew Givens] overnight change from mean-spirited miser to a benevolent and generous friend to all, with the intervention on his behalf of former business partner Jacob Marley who has enlisted the Ghosts of Christmases Past [Ashlee Lassiter], Present [Roger Humber], and Yet to Come [Timothy Rotkiewicz] to turn Scrooge around.

Setting this version in the 1950s in Marley County, USA, allows for some homespun local color and recognizable stereotypes; but in a number of twists from the original, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchitt is now a single mother named Bobbie Jo Cratchitt [Chloe Prentice], who gets fired on Christmas Eve yet manages to keep the spirit of Christmas for the sake of her two children: Jane [Natalie Lantz] and Tim [Jack Walker]; Scrooge's kindly nephew Fred is now called Dwight [Steven Deloney], the beloved town drunk; and "Tiny Tim" doesn't get to proclaim "God bless us, every one".

The score is unremarkable, though there are a few moments to highlight action, theme, and character: "Angel Beside Me", "I Gave Myself a Bottle for Christmas", "Golden Idol", "Goodbye Old Dog", "Less is More", and "Life Goes to Show You" fit the bill. -- Megan Lofgren's excellent keyboard accompaniment sometimes overpowers the voices on stage.

The script is long on exposition that firmly establishes Scrooge's negative impact on the community, making much of the later hauntings feel somewhat rushed.

The production was beset with several problems during the rehearsal period, and a few last minute cast replacements made for some tentative performances. -- That notwithstanding, there are a few actors whose performances stood out: Ms. Lassiter [Lavinia and Christmas Past] and Ms. Prentice [Bobbie Jo and Belle] give solid interpretations of strong women whose time has come for recognition; and young Mr. Walker as Tim and Boy Eb gave each character distinct behaviors: if as the adage goes "half of acting is in reacting", Mr. Walker's demeanor was credible, and his in-the-moment reactions to his stage partners so natural that one could believe he was experiencing them for the first time. Bravo!

Scrooge, of course, gets most of our attention. Mr. Givens comes across as an utterly despicable tyrant at the start; he is heartless toward everyone, so his transformation is huge. And he allows the audience to track the changes at signal moments in his journey with the ghosts, even though we all know what's coming. Hats off to Mr. Givens for finding the humanity in the old miser that carries the audience to his ultimate giddy celebration of the true spirit of Christmas.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Faulkner: "Meet Me In St. Louis"

The Christmas Season is upon us with a number of productions across the River Region providing pleasant antidotes to the often mean-spirited and prurient broadcasts on reality television, in the news, and on social media. The latest -- one that hearkens back to an era of good manners, genuine family values and respect for all, a time when a chaste kiss could set romantic hearts aflutter -- is the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's charming musical production of Meet Me In St. Louis.

Adapted from the 1944 film of the same name by Patrick Quentin, with music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blanc, Meet Me In St. Louis is playing to enthusiastic crowds under Angela Dickson's direction.

There's not much of a plot here; the Smith family get caught up in anticipating the opening of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Officially called the "Louisiana Purchase Exhibition", it was touted as "the greatest exhibition of them all" when it showcased many new inventions and products: electricity in the home, airplanes, automobiles for personal use, x-ray machines, a wireless telephone, incubators for newborns, Dr. Pepper, and even the statue of Vulcan that now stands in Birmingham. -- Though we take these accomplishments for granted today, the actors in this Faulkner production seem to genuinely get caught up in the moment, allowing audiences to share their excitement and feel good doing so.

Individuals in the family have some personal matters to attend to during the build up to the Fair's opening. -- Mr. and Mrs. Smith [ Chris and Kari Kelly] try to keep an orderly household, while their son Lou [Hunter Smith] prepares to go to college, youngest daughter Tootie [Sydney Jones] plays some pretty gruesome episodes for her dolls, daughter Agnes [Lucy Wilson] seeks attention from every quarter, and the older girls. Rose [Catherine Allbritten] and Esther [Brittney Johnston] find romance respectively with Warren [Colby Smith] and John [Brandtley McDonald]. Eccentric Grandpa [Mike DiLaura] and Irish cook Katie [Mattie Earls] round out the principal roles.

There are some predictable misunderstandings among them, all of which will be remedied by the end; and all accomplished through music for which Faulkner has enviable strengths.

A few novelty numbers punctuate the action: "A Touch of the Irish" is led by the strong voiced Ms. Earls; Tootie's "Under the Bamboo Tree" showcases Ms. Jones's talent; and Mr. Smith leads a flashy dance number, "The Banjo". -- The big production numbers "The Trolley Song" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" have a lot of energy and excellent harmonies.

But it is through the quieter songs that the characters become well defined and afford audiences the opportunity to connect with them. -- Ms. Kelly's explanation about knowing when one is in love in "You'll Hear a Bell" makes us listen attentively, and when she reprises it with Mr. Kelly in "You Are for Loving", we understand the depth of a solid marriage. -- Mr. Smith and Ms. Allbritton share a sincere moment in "A Raving Beauty".

The script is skewed to highlight the romance between Esther and John, and Ms. Johnston and Mr. McDonald deliver in spades. Their voices have never been better as the score matches their strengths. Ms. Johnston's dramatic rendering of "The Boy Next Door" is riveting, and when it is reprised with John in Act II, their partnership is ensured. The touching "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is done with simple purity. Their other duets -- "Over the Bannister" and "You Are for Loving" -- are told with such vocal assurance and clarity, and with such intensity of feeling, that the connection between these two actors holds our complete attention.

At the finale, the audience is invited to sing along; and they do. What a lovely way to end the evening on a note of friendship with characters we've known for only a couple of hours, but who seem like family.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Little Women"

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

Louisa May Alcott's 1868-69 novel Little Women is on the boards at The Cloverdale Playhouse. Having had several film and stage versions, this new "trunk-show" adaptation is by Playhouse Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton. She does not attempt to cover the entire breadth of Alcott's novel; rather, Ms. Thornton's episodic structure narrows the focus to the immediate struggles of the March family's titular "little women" in Civil War Era America, covering some ten years. It is, by turns, a nostalgic coming of age story, a touching family drama, and an early appraisal of the emerging status of women yearning to be on a par with men.

Played on J. Scott Grinstead's minimalist forced perspective architectural framework set, with an assortment of props pulled from a steamer trunk, a shadow-play curtain judiciously punctuating the story, with Temperance & Jason Grinstead, along with Danny Davidson-Cline's neutral period looking costumes that are frequently overlaid with vests, shawls, skirts, and hats to denote character changes and role-playing, and an on-stage three-piece band playing Greg Thornton's evocative score as well as a number of traditional melodies, simplicity is the key to Ms. Thornton's storytelling, allowing each new scene to describe a particular moment that contributes to the overall plot.

Her focus is on family, after all, and the love that binds them together and us to them. -- The family bond is apparent from the onset as the four adolescent girls entertain themselves by staging adventurous plays devised by Jo [Sarah Key], the tomboy protagonist who yearns for a writing career and freedom to exercise her wits as an equal to men. The girls' personalities often get in the way of a harmonious household, but their ever patient Marmee [Katie Pearson] offers sound advice and homespun wisdom to deflate any animosity among her daughters; and their servant Hannah [Teri Sweeney] bustles about.

Young Amy [Kacey Walton], a vain charmer in her blond curls, has a gift for art, though she can be vindictive when she doesn't get her way. Meg [Lauren Morgan] is the eldest daughter and also the most traditional, always aware of maintaining propriety. Beth [Valorie Roberts] is the gentle peacemaking one who never asks anything for herself.

It is a household without men; since Mr. March [Adam Shephard] is away at the war, the women are left to their own devices, and are financially beholden to their tyrannical Aunt March [Ms. Sweeney again]. -- But men are close by: wealthy next door neighbor Mr. Lawrence [also Mr. Shephard] befriends them when his young grandson Theodore "Laurie/Teddy" Lawrence [Matthew Klinger] gets to know the girls and becomes best friends with Jo. "Laurie" and his tutor, John Brooke [J. Scott Grinstead] endear themselves to the March women with kindly acts freely given to women living in genteel poverty, especially in times of distress for Mr. March and illness of the girls.

Most of the play's attention is given to Jo, whose independent spirit of adventure and curiosity feed her desire to become a famous writer; and we experience her growing maturity and that of the others in her realm through her perspective. -- Ms. Key holds our attention in every moment, whether she cajoles or comforts her sisters, or capitulates to Marmee's advice, or idolizes her father, or teases "Teddy", or falls in love with Friedrich Bhaer [Mr. Grinstead in this role also], a German professor she meets in New York where she goes to develop her writing skills, and whose gentle prompting of her talents helps give focus to her life, this is a credible performance in all its complexity.

The ensemble cast define their roles well and support one another generously. Special note ought to be given to Mr. Klinger and Mr. Grinstead: Mr. Klinger's effervescent depiction of Teddy's joie de vivre is contagious, especially in the games he plays with Jo; and his declarations of love are touching. Mr. Grinstead's portrayals of John Brooke and Professor Bhaer are quiet and intense; he appears so comfortable in the skins of each character, and his ability to generate a sincere connection to his acting partners [Ms. Morgan and Ms. Key] are the most sensitive and convincing in this production.

The two hour and twenty minute playing time could be shortened by more efficient shifting of the trunk  and small bits of furniture, and lighting that frequently leaves much of the stage in semi-darkness could better showcase the depth of the set, but this version of Little Women emphasizes the importance of family and love for our fellow human beings in such a fashion that celebrates the simple values we ought to share every day.