Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Wetumpka Depot: "Christmas at the Canteen"

 For some family friendly holiday Entertainment with a capital "E", Adrian Lee Bush's Christmas at the Canteen fits the bill at the Wetumpka Depot. -- A nostalgic 90-minute non-stop melange of song and dance set in a replicated World War II canteen for service men and women, this show should get everyone into the Christmas spirit.

Ms. Bush has gathered a multi-talented 13-member ensemble who weave their assorted back stories and relationships with an array of standard holiday songs and dynamic tap dances led by choreographer Daniel Grant Harms, whose mastery is evident in every step.

The recorded instrumental soundtrack could benefit from higher volume at times, especially in group numbers, to establish pitch and rhythm for the company; but that's a minor quibble in an otherwise vibrant celebration of Christmas. It is an effervescent evening out.

With its mix of reliably familiar classics, novelty numbers, comic bits, and recorded wartime messages from President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to remind us of our own need for peace and understanding, Christmas at the Canteen encourages all of us to welcome the holidays by showing humankind's best characteristics that will leave audiences smiling and happy to be in one another's company.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)"

Local theatre offerings abound for the Holiday Season, and The Cloverdale Playhouse is showing a partly scripted/partly improvised laugh-fest with Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!). This popular comic mash-up of reliable Christmas fare by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez has been making the rounds at theatre across the country since 2003.

Played by a trio of actors who each take on multiple roles -- Sarah Housley, John Selden, and Hunter Stewart -- and at the Playhouse abetted by an Australian warm-up comedian [Nick Morgan-Moore], the success of the show depends on the audience's input and participation as well as the acting and improvisational skills of its nimble cast.

Directed by J. Scott Grinstead on a forced perspective Dickensian set he also designed, with inventive costumes by Katie Pearson, zany props by Rita Tidwell, evocative lighting by Chris Roquemore, creative sound design by Jason Grinstead, and atmospheric projections by Mr. Roquemore and Clyde Hancock, the flexible nature of the script also allows for local Montgomery references and acknowledgements of current events to liven up the proceedings.

After an extended warm-up that sets a relaxed tone to the evening, the matter at hand is that one of the rag-tag theatre company members' determination to perform A Christmas Carol is continually thwarted by the others who want to explore alternate plays for their group...and we're off as they deliver on the title's promise, assisted by suggestions from the audience and a couple of audience members being conscripted to join them on stage.

With outlandish versions of and references to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Misfit Toys, A Christmas Story, The Gift of the Magi, The Nutcracker, Star Wars, and pretty much every Christmas song and every celebrity who appeared on a television special at Christmastime, the impish delight of the actors is evident throughout...and their collective skills are impressive. Several of the scripted sections are quite demanding; yet is in the improvised moments that their abilities and ensemble performances shine.

At a time when we need to laugh and forget about the world's problems, this production is a welcome antidote.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

During last year's lockdown, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival community could only download Greta Lambert's delightful one-person adaptation of the 1843 Charles Dickens novella, A Christmas Carol; this year, with all COVID protocols in place and enforced [thank you again ASF for doing your part to keep theatergoers safe], Ms. Lambert's live and in-person performance on the intimate Octagon stage will make you laugh and cry, but most of all exercise your imagination as you listen attentively to its pertinent messages of hope for humankind. 

No stranger to editing other classics [witness the numerous brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare she has developed over the years], this 75-minute version of A Christmas Carol weaves its magic and engages audiences as Ms. Lambert brings to life its narrator and a myriad of familiar characters.

While most staged and filmed productions of A Christmas Carol emphasize spectacle [nothing wrong with that], the key to Ms. Lambert's remarkable performance is storytelling and staying true to her primary source. -- Yes, Ebeneezer Scrooge starts out as a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" prone to exclaiming "Bah, humbug!" at the mere mention of Christmas, and through the intervention of the ghost of his "dead as a doornail" business partner Jacob Marley and visitations from the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to come, is reclaimed and ends up as a benevolent and generous man who possesses the true spirit of Christmas all the year long.

Ms. Lambert is so respectful of Dickens's composition that her judicious editing maintains the flow of the narrative and targets its important and essential moments. But there is more.

Dickens composed his masterpiece by dividing it into "Staves" [i.e. musical staffs] with such colorfully delicious words that Ms. Lambert speaks so eloquently, attending to the rhythms of speech and the vivid descriptions of places and characters, so that the music of the words is enhanced, and all our senses are engaged. 

She invites us to visualize the details of Victorian London and such characters as the diminutive cripple Tiny Tim, the effervescent Mr. Fezziwig, and Scrooge's ever optimistic nephew Fred; we can almost taste the meager banquet at Bob Cratchitt's table and the opulent array of foods surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Present; we can smell the roasting chestnuts as well as Old Joe's dank backstreet shop; we shiver in the winter's cold and warm ourselves by a toasty fireside, and tremble along with Scrooge as he awaits his fate; we hear the crunch of footsteps in the snow and the joyous peal of church bells on Christmas morning. -- Truly, music to the ears of the opening night audience who were wrapt with attention to Ms. Lambert as she recounted Ebeneezer Scrooge's journey.

With nuanced direction by Rick Dildine, and with a set and lighting by Jeff Behm and sound design by Melanie Chen Cole that become the play's supporting characters without intruding on the narrative or performance, Ms. Lambert triumphs in her masterful version of A Christmas Carol, one which leaves us with hope for the future and a challenge to all of us to witness Tiny Tim's prayer: "God bless us, every one".

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

ASF: "Cinderella"

Thank you, Alabama Shakespeare Festival -- keeping safety first with mask mandates, proof of a negative COVID test or COVID vaccination documentation, and digital programs only -- about the only infectious thing about the opening night production of Cinderella was the collective actor and audience enthusiasm and sheer joy of a live in-person performance after an 18-month hiatus. If only more public places would do the same.

Though there were a few technical glitches during the two-and-a-half-hour playing time [Artistic Director Rick Dildine announced that it was the first time the company had been able to run the entire show], the on-stage magic, melodic score sung by the gifted actors, dynamic choreography by Dell Howlett, stunning costumes by Lex Liang, evocative lighting by Alan Edwards, and clever storybook sets by William Boles were all brought to delightful fruition by Director Shelley Butler and Music Director Angela Steiner and her 15-piece pit orchestra. 

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was given a 2013 updated script by Douglas Carter Beane, retaining the essence of the traditional story [the heroine is still put upon by her miserable step-family, her Fairy Godmother weaves her magic to enable Ella to go to the Prince's ball and find her true love, and yes, that glass slipper], but this is a Cinderella with a difference: she is, in the person of ASF newcomer Alexis Sims, a modern woman with a purpose -- to bring about needed social and political changes through kindness and concern for all citizens. 

Ms. Sims' brightness and nuanced soprano commands every moment in the central role, and her Ella's modern approach to romance includes several challenges to Prince Topher [Andrew Brewer's naïveté gradually diminishes in a subtle performance] that ultimately teach him to find the courage is so desperately needs to stand up for himself [and for all the citizens of his kingdom] against the wiles of major domo Sebastian [Robert Mammana gives us a two-faced villain] who has been manipulating the Prince for much of his life, along with his duplicitous henchman Lord Pinkleton [Brian Klimowski].

Back at her home, of course, Ella has been reduced to servant-status and is harassed by her stepmother Madame [Anne L. Nathan depicts a person we love to hate, and she delivers her caustic lines with impeccable comic timing], and stepsisters Charlotte [Alexis Tidwell's aggressive attempts to win the Prince threaten to bring down the house], and Gabrielle [Lauren Elder turns out to be a confidante and co-conspirator to Ella]; Gabrielle falls for local revolutionary Jean-Michel [Pedro Ka'awaloa], whose frustrations in politics and love make a nice counterpoint to the Ella/Prince duo.

And then, there's Ann Arvia as the eccentric Marie who changes before our eyes into Ella's Fairy Godmother. Ms. Arvia's return to ASF is most welcome, as she shrewdly controls the destinies of most of the principal characters. -- As she weaves her magic transformations of animals, a pumpkin, and Ella into footmen, a golden coach, and an elegant lady, there's little doubt that all will be set aright by the end.

While the production values are top notch, the 14-strong ensemble of dancers/singers play a multitude of roles and impress us all with their dexterity, precision and energy in interpreting the show's many dance numbers.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's reminiscent score features such familiar songs as "Me: Who am I?", "The Prince is Giving a Ball", "In My Own Little Corner", "Impossible", "Ten Minutes Ago", and "There's Music in You", all of which contribute to the plot and character relationships. With committed energy from the principles and chorus, this is a win-win combination.

ASF's Season is off to a fine start with Cinderella, a show that promises to engage audiences of all ages with its infectious spirit of kindness, a magic that is so needed today.