Saturday, October 16, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

"Everyone should go to the theater. Because it is there that we see the struggles of those we might otherwise misidentify as 'other.' It is there that we go to see ourselves." [Playwright Theresa Rebeck on the NYTimes Opinion page A17, Friday, October 15, 2021]

The opening night audience at the Cloverdale Playhouse clearly saw themselves represented on stage as they laughed, cried, applauded, and cheered throughout The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, who made history in September as the first Latino to win in the "Best Play" Tony Award for The Inheritance.

Not so long ago, and before "Ru Paul's Drag Race" became mainstream, it would have been problematic in River Region theatres to feature actors in drag, or a loving mixed-race couple, but in ...Georgia McBride they are both depicted successfully and without editorial comment.

Casey [Jay Russell] is a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator at a Panama City, FL bar called "Cleo's". With overdue bills to pay, and impending eviction by landlord Jason [Michael Buchanan] for missing rent payments, and his African American wife Jo [Lavia Walker] announcing her pregnancy, Jason breaks the news to her that he has been fired from his Elvis gig by bar owner Eddie [Chris Roquemore], and relegated to bartender.

What he doesn't tell her is that Elvis has been replaced by a drag show featuring flamboyant Miss Tracy Mills [David Rowland] and her unreliable stage partner Rexy [John Selden]...and that he has been conscripted to join the show. -- Much to resolve in the two hours' traffic on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

Lopez's script has an improbable plot, underdeveloped characters, and several songs that are a lot of fun to watch though they do not otherwise contribute to the action, yet audiences get caught up in the show largely due to its exuberant performances, sensitive attention to significant social issues, some technical wizardry, and the spot-on direction by Eleanor Kerr Davis and Scott Page.

Davis and Page [sounds like a vaudeville double-act, doesn't it?] keep the action moving at a steady pace, finding a rhythmic mix of comedy, pathos, social insights, and dynamic lip-synched songs. -- J. Scott Grinstead again impresses us with a minimalist set design that evokes specific locations and utilizes  a revolving stage for the first time at the Playhouse. -- Costumes by Ms. Davis and Beth Shephard and their team contrast working class characters with spectacular drag personae. -- David Rowland [wigs, make-up, choreography] adds a drag-professional standard that impacts the signal moments in the play; his alter-ego is, after all, the inimitable Chloe Von Trapp.  -- This is a fine collaborative effort that supports the play's themes and the ensemble cast's many talents.

Each of the characters is on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. -- Mr. Buchanan's good-old-boy Jason seems oblivious of others' needs at first, though he ultimately admits to a regretful decision he made in the past. -- As the narrator/emcee and tunnel-visioned bar owner, Mr. Roquemore is a delight as he slowly accepts both the economic impact of the drag show to his business as well as the "otherness" of the divas.

In her Playhouse debut, Ms. Walker delivers a quietly natural quality in Jo. If "quiet ones often go unnoticed", that is not so here. Ms. Walker is an "other" force to deal with when she discovers Casey's lies; it is his lack of trust in her that must be remedied, and she knows it. And, as much of the play emphasizes the importance of love of all sorts, she becomes the catalyst for it.

Mr. Selden's Rexy [full name Anorexia Nervosa; "It's Italian", she quips] bears the brunt of early derision as the bitchy drunkard; yet Rexy consistently returns from stupor to claim a place in the show, and in an Act II confessional provides the most compelling back-story of a violent teenage assault on someone who appeared as "other" to the perpetrators and that garners compassion. Indeed, "Drag is not for sissies."

The biggest journey of self-discovery resides in Mr. Russell's Casey, abetted by Miss Tracy Mills. -- Miss Tracy questions Casey's abilities as a drag performer, but recognizes his potential and determines to mentor him, exercising both maternal concern and realistic expectations. Whether delivering sassy repartee, or offering necessary advice to "find yourself and be true to it" or to "make fewer messes in your life", or performing several show-stopping numbers, Mr. Rowland's Miss Tracy is, in a word: dazzling!

Watching Casey's transformation under Miss Tracy's tutelage lets audiences into both the sense of "otherness" Casey feels when he first dons women's clothes, and the gradual comfort as he assumes the role of country music diva Georgia McBride. Mr. Russell inhabits the role so that audiences might share with him their own discomforts with "otherness" of any sort, and to be able to join with him and the entire cast at the Finale's rousing celebratory dance party.

At a time when intolerance and misunderstanding abound, when LGBTQ-bashing rears its ugly head all too often, when anyone perceived as "other" becomes a victim of hate crimes, when bias and prejudice are excused in the name of exercising one's rights, or when one refuses to listen to an "other" point of view, The Legend of Georgia McBride points the way to rectifying such issues as cast and audience join together to celebrate their unique differences and common humanity.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

WOBT: "The Addams Family: a new musical comedy"

First-time director Hunter Smith cut his performance teeth at Faulkner University, and furthered his acting career at the Wetumpka Depot, The Millbrook Community Players, and others; so he shows up here at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre to deliver a well-crafted, energetic production of The Addams Family: a new musical comedy.

Abetted by spooky costumes [Kevin Mohajerin] and set pieces [Tanner Parrish], strong musical direction [James Keith Posey], and vibrant choreography [Alex Rikerd and Mr. Posey], as well as strong performances by his 22-member acting company who are only occasionally placed in overcrowded staging, it looks like Mr. Smith is off to a good start.

As a lead-up to Halloween, The Addams Family is an appropriately ghoulish selection for the season, and WOBT has taken appropriate COVID measures to ensure the safety of its limited audiences in this sold-out run.

Based on cartoon characters created by Charles Addams, and the cult-classic television show, the sometimes plodding plot/book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa are filled with both the familiar characterizations of the principal characters and clever dialogue references to contemporary social concerns.

The characters, for all of their otherworldly eccentricities, have always been rendered as "normal"; their domestic lives are much like ours, but with a tongue-in-cheek stamp that is meant to make us reflect on our own eccentricities. -- So, when Wednesday [Kristen VanderWal] falls for the normal Lucas Beineke [Tanner Parrish], and invites him and his parents Mal [Eric Arvidson] and Alice [Kayli McNally] to dinner at the Addams' home...well, you can imagine the result.

But we discover, as do they, that "normal" is a part of shared family values, and not the exclusive domain of regular folks like the Beinekes. Just like the Beinekes, Gomez [a charismatic James Keith Posey] and Morticia [Alex Rikerd reprises the role with comfortable pizzaz] have trust issues; Pugsley [Amy Lynn Miller] has a teenager's doubts; Grandma [Melanie Boulware] is unabashedly frank; Wednesday and Lucas are challenged by meaningful conversations about their relationship; and Fester [Sam Wallace gives a touching idiosyncratic performance as a "moonstruck" devotee]. Even the silent Lurch [Connor Carraway] gets a moment to actually speak.

Musical numbers serve to both comment on and move the action forward, and are mostly delivered with assurance, especially by the principal actors. Ms. Rikerd and Mr. Posey have a fine chemistry, and their talents are showcased in numerous songs. Ms. McNally's confession in "Full Disclosure" is powerful. Ms. VanderWal and Mr. Parrish are at their best in "Crazier Than You". And Mr. Wallace will steal your heart in "Fester's Manifesto" about love and Act II's declaration of his love in "The Moon and Me".

The ensemble of Addams Ancestors are given individualized roles to play, and the group numbers show off their ensemble skills.

Though there are obstacles in the way of Wednesday's and Lucas's romance, all will be resolved by the end [it is a musical comedy after all], and audiences should exit the theatre feeling just a little bit better about returning to the "normal" world.