Sunday, April 29, 2018

Millbrook: "Mama Won't Fly"

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten have collaborated on several comedies [Dixie Swim Club, Dearly Departed, etc.] that have played on various stages across the River Region; another popular local offering, Mama Won't Fly, is currently on stage in Millbrook.

The premise is simple enough: oft-married Savannah Sprunt Fairchild Honeycutt [Karla McGee] has promised her brother Walker that she will travel with their mother Norleen [Vicki Moses] from Alabama to California for his wedding. The problem is that "Mama won't fly", so Savannah begrudgingly agrees to make a cross-country drive in Norleen's vintage car; yet, before they can get started, Walker's fiancee Hayley [Tracey Quates] shows up to travel with them in order to bond with her soon-to-be family.

It's pretty much a one-situation joke that nonetheless plays out in a sequence of more and more improbable predicaments: Hayley is encumbered with bad luck that is visited on them at almost every turn; Norleen and Savannah are very much alike and have serious Mother-Daughter issues; and the sheer number of eccentric strangers and relatives they meet along the way add to the mayhem.

The wacky trio are supported by an ensemble who play multiple roles each in the many vignettes that comprise the two acts. Misty Bone, John Chain, Rae Ann Collier, Carol Majors, Wes Meyer, Cheryl Phillips, Steve Phillips, Terry Quates, and Michael Snead build the lunacy of the trek across America to outrageous proportions.

And the laughs keep coming with every new impersonation. The ensemble company know how to stretch a joke and are fully committed to the goings on. In the three principal roles, Ms. McGee, Ms. Mosdes, and Ms. Quates show confidence in both speech and character; they carry the show and are a delight to watch and hear.

Ms. Majors is a standout among the ensemble for her uninhibited impersonations of the comedy's most eccentric characters: the owner of a bra museum who models a series of spectacularly bizarre undergarments, and the only Las Vegas showgirl-minister of a wedding chapel. -- You get the picture.

Deftly directed by Stephanie McGuire, Mama Won't Fly doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is: a silly romp of quirky characters in unlikely circumstances who somehow connect with audiences by tickling their funny-bones.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Fences"

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

Coincidence or not, how appropriate it is that The Cloverdale Playhouse opened director Georgette Norman's revelatory production of August Wilson's multi-award winning Fences on the same weekend that Montgomery is making international headlines for the Equal Justice Initiative's eye-opening promotion of serious deliberation of racism through the "Peace and Justice Summit," a "Concert for Peace and Justice," the "Legacy Museum," and the "National Monument for Peace and Justice." -- Visitors to the EJI's sites would be well-advised to add seeing Fences to their itineraries.

The sixth of ten plays in his "Pittsburgh Cycle", each one recounting aspects of the African American experience during a specific decade of the Twentieth Century, Fences, set in the 1950s, focuses on a 53-year old former Negro League baseball player, now working as a garbage man. Troy Maxson [Ronald McCall] resents the many racial injustices visited on him in the past; he is building a fence around his modest back yard [whether to secure the place as his own or to keep others out is debatable], but the figurative wall he constructs around himself that makes him feel he is in charge actually keeps everyone else at a distance. Although his wife Rose [Yvette Jones-Smedley] sticks by him, Troy's stubborn mindset alienates his youngest son Cory [Kendrick Golson].

The decades-long disappointment with a system that kept him from playing in the Major Leagues, and now struggling to provide for his family, causes Troy to "protect" his son from a similar fate when Cory has a chance at playing football by insisting he quit the team and focus on chores and responsibility. A lesson he gives to his son when the boy questions whether Troy likes him is : "Don't you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you," a lesson Troy learned the hard way, and which ultimately gets him a job as the first Black garbage-truck driver in Pittsburgh.

But Troy has other things that haunt him: stories that build his ego he tells to his friend Bono [Joe C. Colvin, Jr.] and anyone else within hearing distance; reluctantly lending money to his elder son Lyons [Naaman Jackson], whose choice of becoming a musician runs counter to Troy's ideas of more practical vocations; tough-love offered to his mentally impaired brother Gabriel [La'Brandon Tyre], the result of a war injury; occasional private confrontations with Death and his stalwart attempts to keep the Grim Reaper away; admitting to an extra-marital affair and the birth of a daughter Raynell [Brooke Bennett on opening night], and its devastating effect on his marriage with Rose.

So much of Fences hinges on an ability to acknowledge the past and accept its often cruel and uncomfortable impact, something its characters struggle with throughout. Their very human flaws, and the genetic traits inherited from generation to generation, are characteristics that make this production's actors so readily available to connect with, especially in today's environment.

The bond of friendship between Bono and Troy is unaffected, yet Mr. Colvin in the role always in Troy's shadow, can either joke with his companion, or ignore his faults, or when it comes to it, tell him straight out to save his marriage. -- As Lyons, Mr. Jackson is intimidated by Troy, yet tries to penetrate his father's stubbornness with an obstinacy of his own. -- Ms. Bennett's Raynell is the innocent new generation whose naivete allows Cory particularly to forgive his father.

Mr. Tyre draws every bit of sympathy in his depiction of the simple-minded Gabriel, an obvious symbolic creation of the Angel Gabriel: he carries a trumpet, chases the "hellhounds", and is ready at Troy's funeral to blow his horn to "tell St. Peter to open the gates" for his brother. A fine sensitive portrayal.

The interactions among Mr. McCall, Ms. Jones-Smedley, and Mr. Golson come across as the most natural and credible; they each appear comfortable in the skins of their characters, and are so convincing in their roles that we believe they are a family made up of individuals who know each other intimately. We never doubt their motives. As a good portion of acting lies in an actor's ability to listen and respond in each moment as if it is happening for the first time, these three are models of the craft. They carry us on their respective journeys, and we laugh and cry and tense up and relax and take sides as they disclose the story of Fences.

When we see Troy strut like a peacock in the comfortable sexual bantering between him and Rose, we sense the deep love they have for one another. -- When Cory tests his adolescent need for independence from the man he idolizes, we understand, and when Troy kicks Cory out of the house for disobedience and confronting him man to man, we understand both sides. -- When Troy excuses his infidelity with a cliche that his pregnant mistress gives him something different from what he has with Rose, excusing his actions by claiming he has been "standing in the same place for eighteen years", Rose is devastated; her rejoinder is "What about me?...You're not the only one with wants and needs." -- And when Rose agrees to be a mother to the innocent love-child Raynell her strength comes to the fore by stating "From right now...this child got a mother. But you a womanless man." -- Powerful stuff on all counts that these three actors' commitment to is mesmerizing.

Ms. Norman's production of such an important play as Fences at The Cloverdale Playhouse reveals so much about the world we live in today; a world with unresolved conflicts around race; a world where -- in Montgomery, at least -- the honest assessment of the past and the conversations being initiated by the EJI give some hope that we might determine a course of action to make things better.

Friday, April 27, 2018

ASF Intern Company: "Much Ado About Nothing"

When was the last time that a Shakespeare play in Montgomery was so clearly spoken, so laugh-out-loud funny, and so incredibly infectious from the enthusiasm of the actors on stage, as last week's opening of Twelfth Night?

Well, director Greta Lambert scores again with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Intern Company's edited-for-time rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, that tours to schools and has a limited run at home. Ms. Lambert's Interns played supporting roles in her Twelfth Night, but in Much Ado... the eight of them do it on their own, doubling roles, and captivating the audience for the full 90-minutes runnung time.

There was a party atmosphere in the Shakespeare Garden on a comfortably cool Wednesday night: food and drink were available, audience members brought folding chairs and blankets to sit in the amphitheater, citronella candles lent a picnic quality to the evening, and the astonishing "Gypsy Cornbread" jazz band set the tone for what was to come; the large audience punctuated the performance with loud appreciative laughs, resounding applause at several moments in the action, and a cheering spontaneous standing ovation at the end.

Much Ado About Nothing [1598/99] is one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, in large part for two memorably witty characters,  Benedick [Woodrow Proctor] and Beatrice [Katie Fanning], who spar in a "merry war" of wit throughout the play, each criticizing the other's faults and denying a romantic attraction that everyone else sees plainly. Mr. Proctor and Ms. Fanning handle the repartee with articulate confidence, scoring points against one another much to the delight of other characters and the audience. By no means alone in their facility with language, crisp physical antics, adroit posturing and facial expressiveness, Mr. Proctor and Ms. Fanning set a high bar that their six acting companions reach with equal aplomb.

Leonato [Collin Purcell], the governor of Messina welcomes Don Pedro [Ithamar Francois], the Prince of Aragon and his retinue of soldiers back from the wars, inviting them to stay in Messina for a month. Along with him are his bastard brother Don John [Josh Cahn is significantly oily in his depiction of the villain], the aforementioned Benedick, and the youthful Claudio [Colin Wulff], who is smitten with Leonato's daughter Hero [Lara Treacy].

Mr. Wulff and Ms. Treacy depict an innocent romance in complete contrast to Benedick and Beatrice; both couples are destined to be together, though there will be plenty of obstacles and deceptions in their way. -- Don John plots to prevent the marriage of Claudio and Hero, and is only caught out by the clownish constable Dogberry [Brian Ott is an outrageously comical buffoon] and his partner Verges [Ms. Fanning].

As Benedick rails against marriage, claiming he will be a "professed bachelor" until the perfect woman comes along, one who is "rich, wise, virtuous, fair, mild, noble, of good discourse, an excellent musician, and hair of what color it please God," and Beatrice will have none of him, the others plot to get them together; the plan is to have Benedick and Beatrice individually overhear conversations that say that each one has confessed love for the other, thus planting seeds for confrontations to wrest admission of love from each.

Don John's devious suggestion that Hero is unfaithful gets Claudio to denounce her at the altar, and it is announced that Hero died as a result; another clever ruse resolves this catastrophe, and all ends happily with singing, dancing, and forthcoming marriages...yes, even between Benedick and Beatrice, who persist in fighting against admitting their love until the end, and receiving generous applause at their capitulation.

Though there are some blatant misogynistic attitudes about women in the script, and characters are too willing to believe the worst in others on flimsy evidence [still too much with us, I fear], the sheer good will of this remarkable ensemble, their effervescent performances, and the air of forgiveness that reclaims the villain, mark this Much Ado About Nothing as a highlight of this season's offerings at ASF.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

ASF: "Twelfth Night"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night opens with a striking balletic prologue -- a storm and a shipwreck -- that segues into Shakespeare's Act I, Scene ii where Viola [Marina Shay] believes her twin-brother is drowned, and with the help of a Sea Captain [Colin Wulff] determines to survive by disguising herself as a young man in clothes just like her brother's and offer her service to the local Duke.

The Festival stage then magically transforms to Illyria's exotic Turkish-inspired palace [James Wolk's scenic designs are atmospherically lush and the draping of Pamela Scofield's romantic costumes exude character-specific relaxed comfort or uptight rigidity], where lovesick Duke Orsino [Charles Pasternak] speaks one of the Bard's most famous opening lines: "If music be the food of love, play on."

Be prepared: there's a lot of music in director Greta Lambert's inspired production. Capitalizing on Shakespeare's frequent references to music in the dialogue, and to the many songs written into the text, Ms. Lambert's able actors accompany themselves on live instruments and sing a range of styles from melancholy ballads to raucous drinking songs, all of which enhance the mood or reveal the inner feelings of the characters.

There's music in the language too: rhythmic iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, extended vowel sounds, colorful images in even the prose sections that enchant the ears of the listeners and carry audiences along for the ride. -- And as Elizabethan audiences went "to hear a play" rather than "to see it" as 21st Century audiences do, Ms. Lambert takes great pains to have her actors deliver the lines with enviable clarity of speech that makes plot, background information, and meaning easy to follow. From audience responses, it is evident that they grasp details as well as the comic intentions of the script.

There's a lot to keep track of in the merry mixed-up world of Illyria. Viola's predicament in falling in love with Orsino that can't be expressed while she is disguised as the youth "Cesario" is further complicated when she becomes Orsino's emissary to woo the Countess Olivia [Ginneh Thomas] in his place [Olivia has rebuffed Orsino's courting because she is in mourning for her brother's untimely death], only to have Olivia fall in love with "Cesario." And when Orsino begins to have feelings for "Cesario", audiences delight in their discomfort brought on by gender confusion; after all, we know the truth that they do not.

In a secondary plot, Olivia's drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch [Timothy Carter] supports his inept friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek [Billy Finn] in his pursuit of marriage with Olivia. While they carouse with Olivia's gentlewoman Maria [Toni DiBuono], Olivia's pretentious household steward Malvolio [Jay Russell] calls them to task...and they, along with Fabian [Collin Purcell] and Olivia's jester Feste [Louis Butelli], vow revenge. -- An elaborate scheme tricks Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him, and while we approve of Malvolio being taken down a peg or two, the trick goes too far, and the pranksters  attempt an apology.

And what of Viola's brother Sebastian [Sean Hudock]? Believed to have drowned, he was in fact rescued by Antonio [Rodney Clark], who must keep a low profile in Illyria because of a past altercation there. -- Shakespeare's device is to keep brother and sister separated until the penultimate moment, but the comedy is furthered when Sebastian is occasionally mistaken for "Cesario".

The acting ensemble are in top form. Mr. Carter's Sir Toby is a roguish lovable drunk who goes too far in taking advantage of Sir Andrew and admits his excess in punishing Malvolio; but his good-natured joie de vivre is infectious. The naivete Mr. Finn brings to Sir Andrew, and the willingness of the character to overcome obstacles gain audience sympathy; and Finn's physical dexterity is impressive. Mr. Purcell is a controlled rascal as Fabian. And Ms. DiBuono imbues Maria's cleverness with a confidence touched with coquettishness that breathes life into all the trickery she invents for this rag-tag team to act in harmony.

Mr. Russell creates a Malvolio that audiences enjoy seeing ridiculed. He sneers at just about everyone, and is so pretentiously aloof in his position in Olivia's household, that his pride and desire to rise above his station cry out for a comeuppance. -- This opens the door for him to be duped by the machinations of the pranksters. He interprets a letter he presumes to be from Olivia as an invitation to be her suitor; "Some are born great, some achieve greatness. and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" does the trick, and when he follows the letter's direction to smile and to wear yellow stockings and be "cross-gartered", he is presumed to be mad, and is then further taunted by Feste disguised as Sir Topas. Mr. Russell delivers on every nuance of the role, making us care about him while simultaneously laughing at him; well done.

There's a lot of chemistry at work among the pairs of lovers, as all the right notes are hit. Mr. Pasternak is the epitome of the conventional unrequited lover: barefoot, clothes askew, hair a mess, thoroughly disheveled, he seems to love the exaggerated posture and indulges it for all it's worth. This appeals to Viola; Ms. Shay is so conflicted in her attraction to him, yet must do her duty as "Cesario" and woo Olivia in Orsino's place; so when she speaks her own mind to Olivia's prompting, she is so articulate in defense of love that it is easy to see how Ms. Thomas' Olivia falls for the youth: her demeanor changes in a twinkling from haughtiness to ardent passion; even her clothes change from demure black mourning garments to more revealing and colorful attire. So, when Sebastian arrives on the scene looking every inch like "Cesario", and Olivia proposes marriage, Mr. Hudock's confusion is won over by the attentions of a beautiful stranger;  and we approve the match. -- It is unmistakable that each couple is fated to be together, and all the discords must be resolved.

To make this happen, Shakespeare [and Ms. Lambert] recognize that Feste the Fool is the ideal interlocutor who is able to participate in all manners of conversations, and guide the characters and the audience through the complexities of the plot via direct address. asides, narration, commentary, clever twists of language, and numerous songs. Mr. Butelli is perfectly suited to the role. His voice and body are supple, his manner invites the audience to be co-conspirators, his subtle glances suggest that though he knows Olivia is disguised as a boy, he will keep her secret, and the very fact that as an "allowed" Fool he is permitted to tell the truth makes Mr. Butelli the one person who should always be taken seriously.

As traditional comedies have happy endings featuring marriages, singing, and dancing, Feste leads the company in a rousing finale that concludes the evening with good-spirited celebrations.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Wetumpka Depot: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is perhaps best known for the 1975 film version that made Jack Nicholson a household name for his portrayal of the rebellious central character, Randle P. McMurphy; but within a year of the book's publication, Dale Wasserman had penned a stage version, the one now playing on the Wetumpka Depot's stage.

The action takes place on Kristy Meanor's impressively antiseptic set -- the day-room of a hospital psychiatric ward -- and is peopled by patients with either acute or chronic illness, all of them under the strict control of Nurse Ratched [Julie Janson] and her coterie of aides and junior nurses.

Director Cory Lawson's guides his effective ensemble of actors who are convincing in showing various aspects of mental illness: Martini [Bill Nowell] is subject to hallucinations; Cheswick [Frank Salvatore Monte] is much talk but little action; Ruckley [Brad Sinclair] imagines himself crucified to any wall available and speaks only with a repetitive vulgarity; Billy Bibbit [Marcus Clement] is a shy virgin who  is dominated by his mother and is afraid of the world outside the hospital; Scanlon [Blake Robertson] fantasizes on blowing things up; Dale Harding [Lee Bridges] is a repressed homosexual and leader of the patients' Council; together, they react and respond to McMurphy's rebellious attempts to help them regain a sense of self. -- The hospital's Dr. Spivey [Will Webster] and assorted nurses and aides all either succumb to Nurse Ratched's influence or behave with sadistic glee when they taunt the inmates. -- And the two whores McMurphy imports for a nighttime party booze-up -- Sandra [Samantha Inman] and particularly Candy Starr [Elizabeth Bowles] who is conscripted to have Billy lose his virginity -- bring evidence of an outside world as corrupt as the world of the hospital.

The story is narrated by Chief Bromden [Emile Mattison in an impressive stage debut], a Native American long-term patient whom everyone believes to be deaf and dumb, a ruse he uses to disguise his feeling of inadequacy; yet, this giant-of-a-man's journey to regaining a sense of himself as a person not defined by the emasculating calculations of Nurse Ratched, and his ability to tell us about his own hallucinations, the inhumane conditions at the hospital, and the impact of McMurphy on everyone's lives, is central to the issues of the drama.

McMurphy's entrance [we hear him before we see him] announces an immediate challenge to Nurse Ratched's rigid control. Scott Page commands attention from the outset; having conned his way into the hospital by feigning insanity, thinking a six month stay in the hospital would be easier than serving that time at a prison work farm [he fights a lot, and gambles, and brags about his sexual conquests], he stands against everything Nurse Ratched designs to emasculate and destroy the self-esteem of the patients under her control; and despite warnings from the inmates not to cross her, McMurphy bets them that he will be able to "get to her" and make her drop her cool and calculating demeanor and show anger. In a series of scenes where Mr. Page dominates the action by gambling at card games, narrating a World Series game on a blank television set, or disrupting Nurse Ratched's control over patients' meetings, the last straw is when he attacks her and accuses her of causing Billy's suicide.

Mr. Page's charisma as the swaggering non-conformist McMurphy who represents the self-determination, freedom, and sexuality that the other inmates lack, creates a perfect foil to Ms. Janson's sterile mechanical Nurse; she has an icy and insinuating demeanor that gives her an air of an angel of mercy, but her patronizing and manipulative facade, and the knowledge that she controls both the inhumane "treatments" [electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy] and the duration of all her patients' time in the hospital, eventually takes its toll: ironically, as McMurphy's influence helps others to find their own voices and get stronger and bigger, his actual and figurative stature gets weaker and smaller.

The only way McMurphy can remain a hero to the inmates after Nurse Ratched orders him to be lobotomized is for Chief Bromden to smother him and escape from the hospital, having regained his sense of self and his ability to tell the story.

Mr. Lawson's sensitive and impactful direction, combined with the clarity of storytelling and the riveting characterizations of his actors, make for a provocative and challenging theatrical event.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

AUM: "Measure for Measure"

Long regarded as one of William Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure is officially classified as a comedy, but is ambiguous in combining raucous comic elements with a darker psychological assessment of morality, justice, and mercy.

Director Mike Winkelman's production at Theatre AUM gives the comic elements a boisterous clownish touch that contrasts with the more somber moments; Val Winkelman's costumes that combine modern clothes with suggestions of indeterminate period attire, along with contemporary musical selections, allow audiences to readily connect with subject matter that resonate some 415 years after Measure for Measure was first performed -- topics such as moral hypocrisy, sexual harassment, and the dichotomy between the letter of the law and clemency, that leap off the front pages of our media.

Recognizing he has been lenient in enforcing the law, Duke Vincentio [David Wilson] purports to leave Vienna on a diplomatic trip to Poland, commissioning the strict enforcement of the city's laws to Angelo [Neil David Seibel], a man of untarnished reputation, and second-in-command Escalus [Teri Sweeney]; but unbeknownst to all but one, the Duke will actually stay in Vienna disguised as a Friar to observe what happens in his absence.

In quick order as the townsfolk carouse noisily, Angelo arrests the drunken pimp Pompey [Sam Wallace], closes the brothels much to the dismay of Pompey and Mistress Overdone [Elizabeth Woodworth], and has Claudio [Chris Mascia] arrested for impregnating his espoused wife Juliet [Cathy Ranieri], a capital crime. -- Claudio enlists his friend Lucio [Kodi Robertson] to ask his sister Isabella [Sarah Walker Thornton] to plead to Angelo for mercy.

Isabella is set to become a nun, and is the most morally upright character; she is appalled at Claudio's sin, but she agrees to intervene with Angelo to save her brother's life. And the play turns rather abruptly in tone to a debate wherein both characters have solid arguments: Angelo responds to Isabella's passionate request for a merciful punishment with "It is the law that condemns your brother, not I", insisting on the letter of the law to be enforced...a topic Shakespeare addressed also in The Merchant of Venice, and which has classical connections to the arguments in Sophocles' Antigone.

Angelo knows he has power, and yet, Isabella seems to make him relent a bit. "A virtuous maid subdues me," he says, attracted also by her beauty, before offering leniency for Claudio in exchange for having sex with Isabella. -- When she threatens to tell the world what Angelo proposes, his "unspoiled reputation...austere life...and place in the state" give him the upper hand as he exclaims: "Who would believe thee?" knowing that "My false o'erweighs your truth."

On telling this to Claudio, he begs her to "let me live", but she will not give up her virtue and risk eternal damnation for both herself and Claudio by doing as Angelo wants.

Meanwhile, the Duke still disguised as a Friar has been observing everything, and comes up with a remedy: have Isabella agree to Angelo's demands, but insist their assignation be at night and with no talking; then switch places with Mariana [Brittany Vallely] who was once engaged to Angelo, though the engagement was broken off, and thereby placing Angelo in the same predicament as Claudio under the law against fornication.

All appears to go as planned until Angelo determines to have Claudio executed no matter what and there is a head-substitution plot to save him. -- And the Duke must return to reveal all.

The comic scenes are played with gusto that often interferes with clear communication of words audiences need to hear about plot and character; but they are entertaining. -- And while we might question the Duke's deceptive disguise, Mr. Wilson clears up much of the plotting.

Audience focus is solidly on Angelo and Isabella. As a credit to Mr. Seibel and Ms. Thornton [both Equity actors], neither of their characters can be seen here as completely evil or completely good. Mr. Seibel lends a truthfulness to his initial attraction to Isabella, and a stoical acceptance of his guilt at the end; we understand his letter of the law stance even as it encumbers him. Ms. Thornton's portrayal of Isabella grows in her convictions while she agonizes on the effects her steadfast beliefs; her deliberation on her choices involve audiences to do the same. -- They are the solid center of this production.

As happy endings are conventions of comedies, Measure for Measure satisfies up to a point. There are several marriages on hand, to be sure -- though it is questionable whether any of them will be particularly happy -- and there is some sense of justice tinged with mercy by the end. But so many issues [or "problems"] remain: how to justify the Duke's deceptive behavior and the pain it inflicts on innocent people; the contradictions within the character of Isabella [her steadfast morality countered by her willingness to deceive Angelo]; the imposition of marriage on unwilling partners; and Isabella's silence at the Duke's marriage proposal makes her decision unclear [though in this production's last moment, Isabella is alone on stage and removes her nun's veil].

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Faulkner: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"

Philip Sprayberry, Stephen Elrod, Sam Wallace, Jason Clark South, Angela Dickson.....Marilyn Swears, Randy Foster.....Matt Dickson, Jason Lee, Tony Davison.....Carolyn McCoy -- The 30-year success of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre is due in large part to the luminaries listed above; and yet, the department is shutting down with its final production: Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's multi-award winning musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

A reliable source of family entertainment for a wealth of subscribers and occasional visitors, and a springboard for graduates seeking professional careers in theatre, the departure of Faulkner's theatre department will leave a significant gap in the Montgomery area arts and education communities.

But, they are going out in style in a version that retains the flavor of the 1960s-1970s youth culture. -- Director Angela Dickson guides a rag-tag group of entertainers who recount the Bible story of Joseph, Jacob's favorite of his twelve sons, his gift of a spectacular "coat of many colors", the brothers' jealousy and their getting rid of Joseph, his rescue in Egypt where he becomes Pharaoh's favorite, and the ultimate reunion of Joseph and his family...all of which is done through song [there's hardly a line of dialogue in the 90+ minute production with masterful accompaniment by Randy Foster].

The able cast is comprised of students, alumni, and community guests, who appear to be genuinely engaged in the action. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and the singing is accomplished in solo and group/production numbers [a continuance of quality that is expected in Faulkner musicals].

Narrative lyrics that contain important expository information are sometimes hard to hear because of sound balance issues or stage action that overpower individual voices, but when they are in sync the result is excellent. Strong singing voices and harmonic blends enliven the lyrics and clearly communicate the plot and themes.

Some highlights are "One More Angel in Heaven" featuring Hunter Smith, Matt Dickson's Elvis inspired Pharaoh, Chris Kelly's leadership in "Those Canaan Days",  and Tony Davison's amusing "Benjamin Calypso".

But, central to the production's success is the character of Joseph in the person of Brandtley McDonald.  The vocal clarity he brings to each number, and the credibility he brings to interpreting lyrics, are the bedrock of the play. He bookmarks the evening with "Any Dream Will Do", and shines especially well in "Close Every Door"...and virtually every moment he is on stage.

And by the end of the evening, patrons leave the theatre happy to have been in company with a group of actors who have shared their talents and their passion for theatre, and who celebrate the thirty year Faulkner program with genuine affection.

Friday, April 13, 2018

WOBT: "Crimes of the Heart"

Beth Henley's multi-award winning Crimes of the Heart is a perennial favorite, having had numerous showings across the River Region since its 1979 debut at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently playing at Prattville's "Way Of Broadway Theatre" under Brady Walker's gentle direction, Henley's Southern tragicomedy offers a glimpse into the lives of the Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi on eldest sibling Lenny's [Haeley DePace] 30th Birthday, when boozy middle sister Meg [Ashlee Lassiter] returns from Hollywood at Lenny's request to help out with youngest sister Babe's [Glory Bush] arrest for shooting her high-powered lawyer husband Zachary because she "didn't like his looks".

It seems that almost everyone is having a bad day: the sisters' Old Granddaddy is hospitalized after a stroke, Lenny's horse just died, the sisters are haunted by their mother's suicide years ago, Babe is closed-mouthed about shooting her husband because she is "protecting someone", social-climbing cousin Chick Boyle [Lolly White] is more humiliated than concerned about Babe's indiscretion, Meg's singing career has dried up and she tries to rekindle a one-time relationship with now happily married Doc Porter [Josh Reese]...and Lenny's only birthday present is an out-of-date box of chocolates from Chick.

Into Babe's defense steps eager neophyte lawyer Barnette Lloyd [Sam Elsky]. Smitten with Babe, Barnette also has a "personal vendetta" to settle against Zachary. But when Babe's secret is made known, and incriminating pictures could ruin any case she might have, decisions have to be made.

Mr. Walker keeps his actors moving at a steady pace, giving each character his or her moments to shine. They work as a tight ensemble, and while their interpretations are clear, they should develop greater variety and subtleties as the run of the play continues.

The set by Mike Proper and Brady Walker -- a kitchen in the sisters' grandfather's home -- is rendered with attention to detail, making it a livable and familiar place for the characters to inhabit, and adds to the overall naturalism in this quirky comedy.

We get caught up in the bizarre happenings in Hazlehurst, laughing and crying at the mishaps, confusions, sibling rivalries, romances, and legal twists and turns; but what holds Crimes of the Heart together is the bond of family that can assuage almost any hardship.