Wednesday, July 31, 2019

WOBT: "Oklahoma

Rodgers and Hammerstein's first hit musical Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944, has had countless productions worldwide since then, recently won a 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and is currently being directed by Sam Wallace at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville...75 years, and it has lost none of its charm and vigor.

Set in the Indian Territory a few years after the turn of the 20th Century, the farmers and cowmen of the soon-to-be State of Oklahoma have their disputes, but eventually set aside their biases and come together in unity [an example we could follow today].

While we are gently and humorously reminded of their feud during the two-hour stage time, the play's focus is on two love-triangles: farm-girl Laurey [Sarah Olguin] is being wooed by cowboy Curly [Gage Leifreid] and his lonely obsessive rival Jud [Josh Williams], who works on Laurey's Aunt Eller's [Ashlee Lassiter] farm; a comic counterpart romance pits cowboy Will [Hunter Lee Smith] against Persian peddler Ali Hakim [Braden Fine] for the attention of Will's flirtatious fiancee Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd].

With its catalogue of now classic songs that are early examples of how lyrics became integral to the storytelling and character development, Mr. Wallace's energetic cast deliver each one with clear understanding. -- Mr. Leifreid opens the show with "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'" that sets the tone for an optimistic future of Statehood, and woos Laurey with "Surrey with the fringe on top"; Mr. Smith's dynamic presentation of "Kansas City" [with the assistance of the ensemble] is a paean to 20th Century progress and his duet with Ms. Rikerd in "All er nothin'" balances her earlier "I cain't say no" -- one of the best renditions in this show.

As everyone prepares for the annual box social, the romantic denials in "People will say we're in love" are beautifully rendered by Mr. Leifreid and Ms. Olguin, whose stage chemistry is palpable. -- As Curly tries to dissuade Jud from dating Laurey in "Pore Jud is daid", their rivalry comes to a head and almost ends in disaster.

Threats of a shotgun wedding for Ali Hakim and Ado Annie, a sympathetic telling of "Lonely Room" by Mr. Williams that provides some complexity to Jud's obsession with Laurey, a knife fight, a wedding, and final wrapping up of the love stories, end with a celebration of Statehood in the rousing title song, "Oklahoma!" and reprise of "Oh, what a beautiful  mornin'".

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The True Adventures of Pinocchio"

J. Scott Grinstead, Technical Director at The Cloverdale Playhouse, continues to impress local audiences with his detailed inventive scenic designs, and his abilities as a director. Now at the helm of The True Adventures of Pinocchio, the supporting evidence of his skills is once again on display. -- The show is about to end its two-weekend run, but its effect will surely last.

Not a Disney-animated version of Carlo Collodi's story of the irrepressible title character, this translation/adaptation by Louis Lippa, stays closer to Collodi's series of stories, adds some contemporary references, includes touches of ironic humor, and clearly targets several life lessons that must be learned by the puppet who wants to be a real boy that could benefit all of us.

Played by an ensemble of youth and adult actors, most of whom play numerous roles throughout the two-hour running time, director/scenic designer Grinstead and his remarkable team have created a stunning and surprisingly complex Puppet Theatre stage, scenic artistry [Sarah Kay and crew], a series of delightful puppets [Summerlinn Clark], evocative and character driven costumes [Beth Shephard and her able team], and minutely detailed props [Rita Pearson Daly] that afford the acting ensemble the best of possible worlds in which to bring the story to life.

At the outset, a group of actors escaping conflict at home one Winter, stumble into an abandoned puppet theatre where they meet the Old Man [George Jacobsen]who tells the children the story of Pinocchio [Jason Grinstead], a story "...more than true; it's real...when I tell it, it happens". The adventures both delight and bewilder young Elena [Hannah Worley] and Silvia [Olive Henninger], who question and comment at every turn; much like a Greek Chorus, they serve as the audience's mouthpiece.

The Pinocchio story has been retold so many times, that today's audiences are familiar with many of its facets: the mischievous wooden puppet who comes to life through the carving of a piece of wood by Geppetto [Mr. Jacobsen], and who wants more than anything to become human. But his lies make his nose grow longer, and he gets into so many scrapes on his journey with flim-flam artists, con-men, and  assorted animal creatures, that one wonders if he will ever succeed.

But we are on his side and we too listen to the sage advice of the Talking Cricket [John Sluis]: be honest and generous, obey your parents, reap the benefits of schooling, don't be greedy or fall for get-rich-quick schemes, don't be afraid to be a fool, and most of all care about others.

In an ideal pairing, George Jacobsen and Jason Grinstead carry the play on their capable shoulders. Mr. Jacobsen is an adept storyteller for both the on-stage and off-stage audiences, taking on other roles to complete the Old Man's story; and young Mr. Grinstead's powerful presence as Pinocchio delivers the character's contradictions and genuine ambitions with clear intentions and a strong voice [he is one to watch for future stage work].

There are a number of surprises in store by the end [but no spoilers here]; you'll have to catch the last performance to find out. -- There is a lot of magic on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Wetumpka Depot & High School: "Big Fish"

In a largely successful collaboration between the Wetumpka Depot Players and the Wetumpka High Theatre Guild, the musical version of the fantasy-drama Big Fish has been playing to enthusiastic full houses at Wetumpka High School.

Based on Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel, it had a short Broadway run in 2013 starring Norbert Leo Butz in the role of Edward Bloom [Chris Kelly here], a man nearing the end of his life whose incredible biographical stories have bewildered his son Will [Michael Armstrong] who needs to resolve an estranged relationship with his father before it is too late.

Best known to local audiences from Tim Burton's 2003 film that was made almost entirely at locations around the River Region, this production of the John August and Andrew Lippa musical does not replicate the movie, though it retains the essences of the novel, and tells the story by switching between the present day and the young-Will's [Shep Grier] childhood.

This is an ambitious undertaking that is a bit uneven at times, though it succeeds on many levels: confident and inventive directing [Kristy Meanor], assured musical direction [Randy Foster], clever choreography [Daniel Grant Harms] that includes a rousing show-stopping tap dance number at the top of Act II, stunning production values (costumes, sets, props) overseen by Technical Director Jeff Glass, and a large cast of veterans and neophytes who tell a clear story and create memorable characters in a family-friendly excursion that celebrates life.

There are several songs that punctuate and comment on the action; among the memorable are the "Witch Sequence" with Desirae Lewis invigorating the eponymous role of the Witch, "Red, White and True" [that tap-dance number], "Stranger" sung by Mr. Armstrong, "Two Men in My Life" and "I Don't Need a Roof" performed with passionate commitment and effortless singing by Patty Holly as Edward's wife Sandra, and Mr. Kelly's omnipresent central character whenever he takes and commands the scene.

And, while the actors in the focus family are on point throughout, among the supporting roles of Karl the Giant [James Rigby], Ringmaster and sometime werewolf Amos [Cushing Phillips], Edward's nemesis Don Price [Damian Bowden], almost-girlfriend Jenny [Kari Kelly], and Will's intelligently patient and pregnant wife Josephine [Lizzy Woodall], there is a consistent and credible foundation to the story. -- And they are backed up by an energetic ensemble.

What holds this production together is the conflicted Father/Son relationship. Mr. Kelly's Edward is genuinely authentic in his commitment to family and love of storytelling [no matter how confusing his bending the truth can be to others], and Mr. Armstrong's passionate longing as Will to understand his Father leads eventually to an acceptance of one another and a celebration of the enduring love of family.