Monday, December 12, 2022

Pike Road: "Elf, the Musical"

Non-stop family entertainment is on display in the Pike Road Theatre Company's delightful production of Elf, the Musical. Running at about two-and-a-half-hours [the time flies by], director-choreographer James Keith Posey has again conscripted a 50+ ensemble of local talents to bring Buddy the Elf's story to effervescent life, closing the Company's Inaugural Season with a sold-out run.

Based on the 2003 film that has become a Holiday staple, we follow the orphaned Buddy's journey as he leaves the North Pole in search of his biological father who is on Santa's "naughty list"-- You see, Buddy [Travis Clark] has been brought up since infancy in Santa's realm believing he is an Elf, but when he finds out he is actually a human...well, the rest is fantasy come true.

Santa Claus [Sam Wallace is near perfection as the "jolly old Elf"] narrates Buddy's episodic escapades that take him to New York on his quest, and where his naïveté becomes the matter for comic misunderstandings that cause him to be accepted by some and mistrusted by others, and only rarely letting disappointments dampen his ever-gleeful demeanor. And we get caught up in all of this through Mr. Clark's ebullient personification.

Walter Hobbs [Jason Isbell] is Buddy's father, a children's book publisher so fixated on his need of a new hit story that he has been ignoring his wife Emily [Stephanie Coppock] and son Michael [Griffin Isbell]; so, when Buddy barges into his life and claims to be not only his long-lost firstborn son but one of Santa's Elves as well, that becomes a bit too much on his plate as Christmas approaches. -- It will take the concerted efforts of family and co-workers to settle matters amicably.

The cast are uniformly solid in depicting an array of characters: from Mrs. Claus [Jennifer Hollett] and a small army of Elves, to a group of Fake Department Store Santas, to a coterie of corporate executives [Matthew Givens is particularly Scrooge-like as Walter's boss, Mr. Greenway], and especially to Jovie [Kristen Vanderwal] Buddy's love-interest, and an outsider, like him who secretly yearns for acceptance and human connection.

But let's not forget that this is a musical [book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar, and lyrics by Chad Beguelin] replete with solos, duets, small group, and huge neatly choreographed  production numbers, that keep the action moving with a cast of gifted singers. -- The sheer joy that opens the show with "Happy All the Time", sets the appropriate tone, and "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" just about brings the house down. A touching "I'll Believe in You" by Michael and Emily gives hope to Buddy's cause. Jovie's "Never Fall in Love" opens up her inner feelings for our hero. "Nobody Cares About Santa" is a clever twist on childlike beliefs. And "The Story of Buddy" brings the messages home.

The focus is rarely away from Buddy; it takes commitment to sustain such a gleeful role for two acts, and Mr. Clark's infectious enthusiasm carries the day, makes believers of us all, and leaves audiences with renewed commitment to family, love, and acceptance of the goodness in all of us.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Dot"

Take your pick: Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey, Buddy the Elf or The Grinch, The Muppets or Charlie Brown, "Love Actually" or "Die Hard", or countless saccharined Hallmark movies -- the Christmas Season is well underway across the River Region; and families are preparing for their annual treks to gather for celebrations that often come with challenges.

One such family gathering is currently being depicted at The Cloverdale Playhouse in their solid production of Dot [2015] by award winning actor and playwright Colman Domingo. The place is a house in West Philadelphia owned by African-American matriarch Dotty Shealy [Chrystal Bates]. -- J. Scott Grinstead's remarkable set transforms from kitchen to living room between the play's two acts, and it's worth watching the smooth scene change during the intermission.  -- It's a few days before Christmas, and Dotty's three children try to figure out what to do about their Mother's growing dementia. Not your typical Christmas fare.

Shelly [Curtia Torbert] feels overburdened and overwhelmed as her Mother's primary caregiver; son Donnie [Gregory L. Blanche] is an unemployed "musical archivist" in denial about Dotty's condition as well as his own shaky marriage to his white husband Adam [John Selden]; flamboyant youngest sibling Averie [Perci Hale] seems completely fixated on herself. Shelly's white childhood friend Jackie [Annie Gunter], who was Donnie's sometime girlfriend in high school and who still has feelings for him despite his sexual identity, is pregnant by her married lover. And Fidel [Bo Jinright] is an illegal immigrant from Kazakhstan who provides Dotty with compassionate daily attention.

Greg Thornton directs with a sure hand in this two-and-a-half-hour production, creating a tight ensemble of actors by affording each of them appropriate attention and gleaning subtly wrought characterizations. Though the script often devolves into shouting matches, and there are a number of comic one-liners and a lot of adult language in the dialogue, Mr. Thornton's guidance keeps the focus on Dotty's dementia and its effect both on her and her dysfunctional family and extended family.

Ms. Bates is most effective in her portrayal of Dotty's ever-changing demeanor and the devastating effects of old-age: forgetfulness, distraction, and frustration are counterbalanced by Dotty's recognition that she is unwell and her determination to keep her independence as long as possible while ensuring that her children comprehend it by experiencing what she is going through.

We feel for all of them. Anyone who has experienced dementia in their family can understand its effect on its younger members: denial, reluctance to find professional help, long-held sibling rivalries, as well as happier memories that surface when the situation seems unbearable. So, audiences are conscripted into this world.

Though it takes a while to unravel, and for the participants to put aside their grievances in order to agree on a course of action that is best for everyone, the evening at the Playhouse with Dot and her family should give audiences a sense of family unity for the holiday season.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Millbrook: "A Doublewide, Texas Christmas"

In case you didn't know, "Doublewide" is a fictitious unincorporated town in Texas, population 10, and named for the proliferation of doublewide trailers of the citizenry.

In this iteration of the franchise by Jessie Jones, Jamie Wooten, and Nicholas Hope -- A Doublewide, Texas Christmas --the town's eccentric inhabitants try against the odds to raise funds, increase the population, and submit legal paperwork for incorporation before a Christmas deadline to avoid being subsumed by a larger rival community.

The improbability of the plot points and antics of the assorted residents hardly matter; audiences are simply along for a silly and mostly predictable ride over the play's two acts. -- The production could benefit from quicker scene changes and more clarity in spoken dialogue.

Director Susan Chain has assembled an ensemble of Millbrook and other River Region actors who valiantly bring the familiarity of small-town Texas to unconventional and all-too-familiar life. Ginger Collum, Kisti Taylor, Ashlee Lassiter, John Chain, Pat McClelland, Bill Rauch, Marcella Willis, Margaret White, and [in the night I saw it] Michael Snead play the script's broadly comic scenes to the hilt, and deliver some sensitive moments as well.

Despite their characters' inflated egos, family strife, political haranguing, attempts at oneupmanship, deliberate sabotage, faux celebrity, and chaotic resolutions, the ending stresses the theme of the inherent good will of Doublewide's populace, their ability to respectfully settle their differences, and their camaraderie in working together for a worthy cause that will leave a warm spot in the hearts of Millbrook's theatregoers this Christmas Season.

ASF: "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play"

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 70+ years, you'll know Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life [some afficionados can quote extensively from it verbatim], so there will be few revelations in re-telling the narrative of George Bailey's Christmas Eve journey from despair and potential suicide to his reclamation through the efforts of Angel Second-class Clarence, who shows him that life in Bedford Falls would have been very different if George had never been born.

The film has been a holiday staple for decades, and staged versions have graced River Region stages twice since 2014. And now, once again here comes Joe Landry's heartwarming adaptation: It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Stage. -- This iteration re-imagines the story as a 1946 radio transmission, with five actors each playing numerous characters while also working as Foley-artists who supply all the sound effects from strategically placed props -- a lot of work. [Close your eyes for a while to get the feeling that you're listening to an actual radio broadcast -- nostalgia for some, and a new experience for others].

In a fast-paced hour and forty minutes, director Kate Bergstrom locates the script's "Playhouse on the Air"  in "ASF Studio", incorporates familiar local references as well as "commercials" for Chris' Hot Dogs and Liger's Bakery into the mix, and has us conscripted as the radio station's audience with lighted signs for "Applause" at signal moments of the plot.

An-Lin Dauber's grand, detailed, and multi-leveled set is dressed for the holidays and becomes another "character" in the staging; Val Winkelman's period-perfect costumes compliment the assorted roles each of the five actors must play, with simple adjustments or additions of hats, coats, or collars to specify a character.

The versatility of the acting company is on full display throughout. William DeMeritt [George Bailey +], Evan Andrew Horwitz [Clarence +], Jimmy Kieffer [Mr. Potter +], Madeline Lambert [Mary +], and Cassandra Lopez [Violet +] are a fine-tuned ensemble who tell the story with heartfelt aplomb. They are abetted by Brooke Morgan as the Station's Production Assistant, Belinda.

As George's predicament is told in flashback sequences from his childhood on to the present, we see his unfulfilled dreams, and the sacrifices he made that bring him to the brink of bankruptcy and despair, believing he is worth more dead than alive. But there are lessons to be learned through laughter and tears that his kindness to others and being a man of principle compel the community to rally around him in his need and show him that he is "the richest man in town".

Friday, October 14, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Shape of Things"

On stage, as in real life, "things aren't always what they seem". So it is at The Cloverdale Playhouse's provocative production of Neil LaBute's 2001 The Shape of Things, in Sarah Kay's crafty debut as a director. 

Performed on J. Scott Grinstead's inventive set with its many moveable parts [a now signature component of his designs], it is an efficient intermissionless 90-minute production. 

LaBute's tersely colloquial language and episodic structure afford glimpses into the public and private lives of the play's four characters, while also contesting the nature of art, the moral responsibilities of the artist, and an analysis of what some people are willing to do for those they love. And the opening night audience was conscripted into these themes so that conversations and debates continued after the performance ended...a measure of this production's success.

In it, Evelyn [Dominique Taylor] is a self-assured graduate student Art major working on her thesis project and caught in an attempt to deface a piece of sculpture by Adam [Graham Butler], a nerdy undergraduate English major and a part-time museum guard. There seems to be some sort of mutual attraction between them that grows more intimate over time as she encourages subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Adam's behavior and appearance that result in his willing participation and gradually developing self-confidence.

Adam introduces Evelyn to his outgoing best friend Philip [Hunter Stewart] and his more demure fiancé Jenny [Dawson McLean], whose eccentric wedding plans provoke some disagreements between the couples.

The gifted ensemble creates nuanced characterizations with subtle changes over the breadth of the play's numerous scenes, as their discussions about what comprises "art" intertwine with each one's perceptions of their own accountability to themselves and others, and whether or not they are obligated to say and do what is right.

Mr. Stewart starts as a good old boy, but has deeper feelings and ideas. Ms. McLean's sensitive portrayal of Jenny veils a more assertive nature. Mr. Butler's persona as Adam undergoes so many changes in convincing and heartbreaking measures. And all their relationships with Evelyn hinge on her ability to distance herself from them while simultaneously controlling every moment. -- In short, we feel for them and the circumstances they are compelled to face.

As much as Ms. Taylor's Evelyn has the capacity to get the others to reveal their most intimate beliefs and behaviors and manipulates their actions and various relationships, she herself remains a cipher, and even says "It's hard to read me" when she regularly fends off any attempt to get her to divulge specific information about her background or purposes until the end. 

While the script provides many hints as to its devastating ending, most in the Playhouse audience were caught off-guard by its revelations, leaving them to address the themes of The Shape of Things in their own lives.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Pike Road: "Nunsense"

A perennial favorite, Dan Goggin's musical comedy Nunsense has been staged frequently in the River Region since its 1985 Off-Broadway debut, the latest spirited iteration being staged by the Pike Road Theatre Co., directed and choreographed by James Keith Posey.

In it, five of the Little Sisters of Hoboken are planning a fund-raising talent show. It seems that some 56 of their convent were accidentally poisoned, having consumed tainted vichyssoise prepared by one of the nuns. They had buried 52 of them when Mother Superior [Jan Roeton] purchased a state-of-the-art television and they ran out of money. The four remaining corpses have been literally "on ice" till now. -- Imagine what happens next.

Mother Superior hogs the spotlight, though competitive Sister Hubert [Tara Fenn] and streetwise Brooklynite Sister Robert Anne [Michon R. Givens] both vie for attention and higher places in the talent show and in the convent's hierarchy. Novice Sister Leo [Tiffany Presley] always wanted to be a ballerina, and wacky Sister Amnesia [Savannah Bowden] -- her name tells you most of what you need to know -- also performs with a foul-mouthed puppet.

That's the set-up; there's very little else in the plot...but the evening is really about entertainment, a number of Dad-jokes, some audience participation that goes on a bit too long, all of which demonstrate the assorted talents of this able ensemble of actors.

Individually and as a group, they continually ramp up the energy and commitment with dynamic showcasing of their talents in some 18 songs [and quite lot of dance as well], engaging the audience at every turn.

Goggin affords each character some moments to shine, and each member of the company takes the spotlight confidently in character, and in good voice. -- Ms. Roeton amps up the energy in "Turn up the spotlight"; Ms. Presley's charming "Benedicte" endears us to her; Ms. Bowden's "So you want to be a nun" and "I could've gone to Nashville" are hilarious and heart-rending in turn; Ms. Givens steals the show with "Growing up Catholic" and "I just want to be a star"; and Ms. Fenn brings down the house with "Holier than thou".

Another enjoyable production of Nunsense puts the Pike Rod Theatre Co. firmly on the local map.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Way Off Broadway Theatre/Prattville: "The Outsider"

With mid-term elections on the doorstep, Prattville's "Way Off Broadway Theatre" is currently skewering the American electorate in Paul Slade Smith's 2015 satire The Outsider, a two act romp performed by an impressive acting ensemble under Melissa Strickland's confident direction.

Set in the present day in the governor's office of an unnamed  small state, and taking care to remain neutral regarding political parties, Smith's script centers on the figure of Ned Newley [Roy Goldfinger], a man who had just been sworn in as governor because the previous incumbent had been ousted for philandering. The problem is that Ned is painfully shy in front of the media, giving the impression that he's incompetent, and his staff attempt to save his administration by coaching him for an immediate media appearance.

Though second in command Dave Riley [Jason Bush] and pollster Paige Caldwell [Ashley Nicole Portis] try their best, with ditzy "temp" secretary Louise Peakes [Stephanie Higley] muddling things up, they are at their wits end, and conscript CNN spin-doctor Arthur Vance [Douglas Dean Mitchell] to take on the task of turning things around.

The challenge is not merely in getting Ned to be comfortable in front of a camera; it's far more contrived than that -- The philosophical issue is focused on what voters want and/or deserve from their elected officials. Do they want "an actual leader who looks like an idiot", or do they regularly vote for and get "an actual idiot who looks like a leader"? We often hear candidates claim that as "outsiders" from the political elite, they are the best candidates. Conversely, voters also say they want experienced candidates. -- Points to ponder these days; and it doesn't matter which side of the political divide you support: finger pointing can be made in both directions.

Into the mix come TV interviewer Rachel Parsons [Kristen VanderWal] and cameraman A. C. Peterson [Drey Nelson] as counterpoints to the main plot who also manage to shed some important light on its serious outcome and messages.

And there are a lot of serious messages amidst the comic mayhem: "People will vote for anyone if they think that person will get them what they want;" often, "people who know nothing about government actually run the government;" "no sane person wants to work in the government;" "government makes a lot of noise;" "most of us view government as something we'll never understand;" and perhaps most importantly, a democracy "government is what all of us collectively have made a decision to do together because we can't do it order to benefit all of us."

Appearance and reality are regularly at odds in The Outsider. Without giving away the various twists and turns of events -- and there are so many unexpected and outrageously comical elements on display -- audiences are invited to laugh at themselves throughout the fast moving two-and-a-half hours playing time. 

The satirical bite is handled masterfully by this slick ensemble of actors, each of whom defines a memorable persona, establishes convincing relationships that make us care about them, moves with purpose, and articulates the glittering dialogue with credible assurance. 

Provocatively funny, and skillful throughout, The Outsider is a welcome addition to this theatrical season.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Millbrook: "Clue on Stage"

First, there is Clue -- the Hasbro board game, a whodunnit, in which players are meant to figure out whether a murder was committed by Miss Scarlet-with a wrench-in the dining room, or by Col. Mustard-with a rope-in the study, know the drill. This was followed by Clue, the Musical, Clue, the Movie, and now showing in Millbrook is Clue on Stage which was adapted in 2018 from Jonathan Lynne's screenplay, though it is not a slavish replication of it.

Played largely for laughs by an ensemble company of twelve actors, and filled with every stereotypical cliche of the genre, director Brady Walker capitalizes on the text as given: characters trapped in a mysterious country house, a storm, a conniving host, a supercilious butler, a contrived challenge to the guests, and multiple murders, to provide audiences with an evening's entertainment.

The dinner party guests are greeted by the butler Wadsworth [Brandon Shearin] and a French maid Yvette [Tammy Arvidson]; each is given an alias and sworn to secrecy, and we find out that each is being blackmailed by their host, Mr. Boddy [Kaden Blackburn], who offers them a way out: either pay him double, or kill the butler with a weapon for each as a gift.

In a 30-minute Act I, we see Mr. Green [Eric Arvidson], Mrs. White [Bre Gentry], Mrs. Peacock [Tammy Lee], Professor Plum [Dean Miller], Miss Scarlet [Taryn Watkins], and Col. Mustard [Scott Rouse] try to outwit one another without exposing their own secrets until first Mr. Boddy and then the Cook [Amy Lynn Miller] are both murdered. -- Act II serves to unravel the plot and discover the guilty party.

Of course, not everything is what it seems, and there are several "red herrings" along the way. A few twists by the end [a singing telegram [Maggie Kervin] and a stranded motorist [Gage Parr] add to the mix], do resolve the conflict with the help of one character's divulging their actual identity.

The detailed set provides an effective atmosphere, and costumes by Angie Mitchell describe each character in turn, but all-too-frequent straight-line staging looks awkward, and much tentative dialogue makes important information hard to hear, and clever jokes and double-entendre fall flat.

That notwithstanding, the audience seemed to enjoy themselves as they embarked on the familiar Clue journey.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Theatre AUM: "Cross Cast: acting showcase of songs, scenes, and monologues"

At the start of each academic year, Theatre AUM produces an Acting Showcase, affording student actors opportunities and experiences in presenting short selections that demonstrate their individual strengths. 

This year's title is Cross Cast, with selections performed by an ensemble of eight actors -- all male -- performing [with the exception of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from the musical South Pacific], some 16 selections written for female characters.

As an exercise, there are a number of challenges, not the least of which is to bring a fully realized character to life in an excerpted monologue from a play, without the luxury of developing a role over two full acts; in addition, in order to make a significant impact, each selection needs to stand on its own in a clear moment independent of the play's context; ideally, in both monologues and scenes, there ought to be clear beginnings, middles, and ends; and they should be presented with full-on energy and clear diction from the very start, and end on a strong note.

There is a range of acting talent in this group, and not every selection hit the challenges above.  Yet, there is strength in both individuals and in shared selections.

While several pieces were excerpted from familiar plays like Crimes of the Heart, Nine to Five, and A Chorus Line, the less familiar scripts made us listen more attentively -- and guess what? In almost every selection performed in just 45-minutes, one could almost forget that men were playing female roles; the subject matter hit on topics that are more universal: "Am I ok?" in this world today; "What is my worth?"; "Do we succumb to outside pressures?" -- quite the accomplishment.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Nora's Playhouse at the Sanctuary: "Ashes & Ink"

 The World Premier of emerging playwright Martha Pichey's potent Ashes & Ink opened at The Sanctuary in Montgomery to a welcoming opening night audience.

Produced by New York based "Nora's Playhouse", an organization dedicated to "creating opportunities for women theatre artists", the play focuses on addiction and mental health, topics which many people find difficult to address, especially when they impact immediate family.

Sensitively directed by "Nora's" founding Artistic Director Caroline Reddick Lawson, the two-act play's episodic structure shows us how these issues impact the developing relationship between Molly [Mariah Reilly] and Leo [Michael Buchanan], each of whom has lost a spouse and are now made to face their respective sons' issues, as well as their own.

There's a lot packed into the two-hour running time: various forms of addiction, enabling and denial, good intentions with questionable results, control vs. freedom, trust issues, parental roles and children's needs, the difficulty of being honest about one's self and others especially under stressful circumstances.

Molly's almost adult son Quinn [Chason Marvin] is an aspiring actor who has been in treatment for drug addiction, and whose clashes with his Mother shift on his good and bad days. -- Leo's young son Felix [Austin Wendell] has difficulty expressing his needs and feelings about the loss of his Mother, though he and Quinn manage to strike up a bond.

Molly's blind sister Bree [Meghan Yapana Ducote] helps catalogue recordings of bird songs for Molly's research project, and becomes a sounding board for Molly's challenges.

And Molly and Leo -- polar opposites in personality [she gets frustrated easily, and he is calmer, even as he pursues a PhD] -- try to make their relationship work while attempting to manage their sons' problems.

The journey isn't easy for any of them. Or for the audience. The ensemble of actors dig deeply into their characters, sometimes exhibiting raw emotions that can't help but impact anyone with a compassion for the problems facing their fellows.

Played on Rita Pearson-Dailey's finely detailed unit set contrasting Molly's city apartment with Leo's rustic country place, that allows for smooth transitions; and with Katie Pearson's well-chosen costumes, the action only occasionally slows down during scene changes.

Ashes & Ink provides a powerful evening in local theatre, with attention to difficult subjects made accessible through an intelligent script and a strong acting ensemble.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Wetumpka Depot: "Fair and Tender Ladies"

Adapted by Eric Schmiedel from Lee Smith's novel, with music and lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell, Fair and Tender Ladies debuted at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the late 1990s, and is being given a sensitive re-boot at the Wetumpka Depot.

Under Kim Mason's astute direction [Ms. Pell is also the Musical Director of this production], the key to Fair and Tender Ladies is in its ensemble performances. -- Central to it is the character of Ivy Rowe [Adrian Bush], whose lifelong journey of dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, of mistakes and compromises, and of lessons learned and taught, is told through a narrative of flashbacks to her youth in an impoverished backwoods community that eventually lead her to leave, seek out new and sometimes illicit experiences, marry and have numerous children, and finally recognize that the bonds of family and life's simple pleasures are more fulfilling than any grand endeavor. And, Ms. Bush has the wherewithal to imbue Ivy with a natural sensitivity that allows audiences to get caught up in her life.

Through the play's two acts, she interacts with a catalogue of family, friends, and neighbors, all played by two principal actors and an ensemble: Leanna Wallace plays her mentally slow sister Silvaney and cousin Geneva; Sarah Housley plays impatient sister Beulah and three other roles; Ms. Wallace's welcome return to the stage affords her the opportunity to deliver a luminous depiction of Silvaney that is balanced by the no-nonsense Geneva; Ms. Housley's chameleon-like changes of character bring insights and subtleties to each.

The remainder are played by the on-stage musicians. Amanda Borden, Lee Borden, Tim Henderson, Lloyd Strickland, and Matt Wallace masterfully play some ten musical instruments among them, while depicting the ensemble characters in Ivy's life. -- Each character is clearly delineated in the performances, and indicated by Carol Heier's period and character driven costumes that contribute significantly to this production.

The music and lyrics from the aforementioned trio captures both the rural-country flavor of period and place, as well as the poetry of language that captures simplicity of speech with vivid images and insightful and sometimes profound commentary. 

Despite a disappointingly small opening night audience, a few tentative moments, and an all-too-steady pace that cried out for some variety to move the narrative more quickly, the Depot's Fair and Tender Ladies ought to make its mark in the annals of River Region theatre.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

ASF: "American Mariachi"

Part family drama, part dementia themed, part conflict between patriarchy and new feminists, part LGBTQ concerns, part history lesson, part cultural diversity study -- all infused with dynamic live mariachi music -- Jose Cruz Gonzalez's American Mariachi closed its run at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival last weekend.

That's a lot to pack into a mere 100-minutes in a play that could benefit from editing/expanding to achieve a clearer focus.

Tia Carmen [Erenidra Izguerra] haunts the memory of Soyla [Gloria Vivica Benevides] who is suffering from dementia and under the care of her daughter Lucha [Elizabeth Romero] while her father Federico [Ricardo Gutierrez] supports the family as a mariachi musician. -- Lucha wants to start her own mariachi group, but it is 1970, and women traditionally don't play mariachi.

But Lucha persists, challenged by finding other women to join her despite the patriarchy that dominates their individual lives and their Mexican American culture, challenged by having to split her time between caring for her mother and pursuing her dreams, challenged by the mysterious rift between her father and Uncle Mino [Bobby Plasencia]...and we follow her growth as a musician and as a young woman to an eventual empowering resolution of both her private and public lives.

There is a mix of humor and pathos -- and some touching scenes that develop an understanding between generations and how to deal with afflictions. 

At the forefront is the music: first, the solemn and passionate violin of Tia Carmen; then the solo and group of mariachi men; and eventually the blossoming of a female mariachi unit. All of which carries audiences forward in the story of the fulfillment of achievable dreams.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Treasure Island"

Aaaarrrgh! Ahoy, mateys! Shiver me timbers! -- At the penultimate performance of the Covid-delayed Cloverdale Playhouse production 0f Treasure Island, energy was high on stage and the audience was enthusiastic in its response.

Bryony Lavery's adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th Century classic novel takes a number of liberties with the plot and characters, offering up a version that switches genders and infuses a lot of comic elements into the tale of Jim Hawkins's adventures in search of a lost pirate treasure.

Jim [Olive Henninger] serves as the play's narrator, taking audiences on a quest for Captain Flint's buried treasure with Squire Trelawney [Noah Henninger], Doctor Livsey [Bella Dennison], Captain Smollett [Landon Perdue], the nefarious Long John Silver [John Selden], and a mixed bag of pirate ruffians and a few good guys.

Director J. Scott Grinstead also designed an ambitious set complete with a revolving stage and a lot of other moveable parts that sometimes distracted from the smooth advancement of the plot. 

Costume designer Katie Pearson and her able team provided clever outfits appropriate to each character: memorable in this regard were for Mr. Selden's Long John Silver [with a couple of nods to Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean], Black Dog [Mike Winkelman], Bill Bones [Jacob Holmberg], and Blind Pew & Ben Gunn played by Jason Grinstead.

While the familiar story was given a rousing interpretation, a lot of important expository plot details were hard to hear due to rapid speech and "pirate" gravel-voices, as well as noisy stage business.  

These quibbles notwithstanding, the ensemble nature of the actors and the enthusiastic commitment to their roles helped to make this version of Treasure Island a pleasant Summertime entertainment.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

ASF: "The Marvelous Wonderettes"

Now playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, The Marvelous Wonderettes is a jukebox musical featuring songs of the 1950s [Act I] and the 1960s [Act II] as performed by the eponymous "Wonderettes" Missy [Andrea Dotto], Cindy Lou [Meadow Nguy], Betty Jean [Alanna Saunders], and Suzy [Leanne Smith], a quartet from Springfield High School conscripted as substitute entertainment for their Senior Prom, and later entertaining at their 10-year reunion.

Written and created by Roger Bean, this 1999 script has developed into a small cottage industry of later iterations of these women's escapades. -- For audiences hooked on nostalgia, there is a lot to entertain: all those familiar songs ranging from "Mr. Sandman" to "Lollipop" to "Lipstick On Your Collar" to "Dream Lover" get the picture. -- And Mr. Bean's slight script lets us into the young women's personalities, relationships with men and rivalries with one another; all fairly predictable.

But the story is not the main thing that keeps audiences engaged. It's the music.

Director and choreographer Melissa Rain Anderson sets a lively pace throughout, and challenges the four actors to give it their all over the two acts. And there is a lot of talent on the Festival stage that hooks us into their stories and focuses attention on dynamic delivery throughout the two hour running time. -- Just sit back and enjoy the ride that the quartet delivers with enthusiasm and energy. It's non-stop entertainment of dozens of songs interspersed with laughter and tears as they discover and develop their friendships over time.

Adam Koch's scenic design replicates a polished high school gymnasium decorated for Prom, and costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis dress the characters in period looking outfits with matching dresses and shoes. Rob Denton's lighting keeps things brightly upbeat, and Lindsay Jones's sound design ups the volume to engage audience participation [several in the audience could be heard singing along with some of the songs].

The Marvelous Wonderettes is a welcome respite from more serious matters facing us today. 

Wetumpka Depot: "The Trip to Bountiful"

Horton Foote's award winning 1953 play The Trip to Bountiful has opened at the Wetumpka Depot under the confident direction of Cushing Phillips, whose solid ensemble actors and design team sustain Foote's atmospheric study of old age with gentle naturalism.

Familiar to many from the 1985 film with Geraldine Page's Academy Award winning performance, the play recounts Carrie Watts's [Teri Sweeney] escape from the Houston, Texas apartment she shares with her son and daughter-in-law in order to return to the rural town of Bountiful where she was raised just one more time before she dies. -- Along the way, she encounters several characters who collectively ensure her journey is complete.

Carrie's son Ludie [Douglas Mitchell] is concerned about his Mother's declining physical and mental health, but is thwarted by his wife Jessie Mae [Laela Bunn] who clearly dislikes her Mother-in-law and who exerts every means possible to run the household and rein-in Carrie with constant instructions to "walk, not run" and to stop humming religious hymns around the apartment. It's no wonder that audiences are immediately on Carrie's side. -- Mr. Mitchell's performance demonstrates admirable vocal and physical comfort, and Ms. Bunn deftly skirts the limits of a petulant harridan with an occasional hint of compassion for Carrie.

When Carrie maneuvers her escape -- without money, but with a lot of gumption; and her pension check in hand -- she travels by bus near enough to Bountiful to fulfill her dream. An assortment of ticket agents, a local sheriff, and a kind-hearted younger woman named Thelma [Amy May shines in a couple of scenes] get her to her destination. But Carrie's romanticized recollection of bygone days is doomed to disappointment: old friends have died, the town is deserted, and Carrie's homestead is a dilapidated ruin. Nonetheless, her resolute demeanor has got her where she wanted to go, and she and her family make a few compromises for the future.

All eyes are on Ms. Sweeney as she inhabits the role of Carrie with subtle nuances of vocal and emotional range, garnering every bit of sympathy from audiences as she rarely appears to be "acting". Hers is a masterful performance; even the occasional abrupt shifts of temperament are grounded in the truth of the moment.

Charles Eddie Moncrief III's distressed black and grey moveable set pieces enable the Depot stage to depict numerous locations; he is abetted by Thomas Rodman's lighting design in creating an atmosphere that compliments the narrative and the character relationships.

The Trip to Bountiful is a solid production without flash or exciting action, but a gentle reminder of the value we ought to give to the needs of our older generations.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Lesson Before Dying"

After a well-earned standing ovation at the sold-out opening night performance of A Lesson Before Dying at the Cloverdale Playhouse, many members of the audience sat down again in respectful silence to reflect on the blisteringly powerful production they had just witnessed.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival commissioned playwright Romulus Linney to adapt Ernest J. Gaines' award winning novel in 2000, and the play has gone on to numerous productions, winning several more awards along the way. -- It recounts the story of a quasi-literate Black man sentenced to death in rural Louisiana in1948 for a crime he did not commit, and his Godmother's attempt to get him to face the electric chair with dignity.

Played on J. Scott Grinstead's exquisitely designed set [another triumph], with period character driven costumes by Cameron Wasner, BTW Magnet high school student Noah Henninger's evocative period appropriate sound design, and inspired lighting by BTW students Eboni McCoy and Princess McDaniel and their instructor Rita Tidwell, the collaborative effort seamlessly integrates with the script.

Director Georgette Norman guides her uniformly eloquent ensemble of seven actors through the complexities of plot and character with such naturalistic force that we never doubt that these could be real people. Tension builds through the play's two acts as they transmit their beliefs and doubts, their frustrations and faith, their acceptance and rejection of racial stereotypes, their trust and questioning of an inequitable legal system in the Jim Crow South; and Ms. Norman's directorial wizardry fixes our attention, requires our emotional participation, and challenges all of us in the audience to admit that the same demons impacting the characters on stage still resonate with us today.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned, though there are no easy answers. There's a lot still to do.

Jefferson [Chason Marvin is mesmerizing in his transformation] appears in chains for almost the entire play; he is shackled during his term in jail, and shackled by society's and the law's insistence that he is less than fact, his own defense lawyer had referred to him in court as a "hog", an appellation that Jefferson recognizes as an insult but insists if "that's what they say I am, that's what I'll be". -- His elderly Godmother Emma Glenn [a sympathetically steadfast Chrystal Bates] trusts that his former teacher Grant Wiggins [Gregory L. Blanche's inner conflict is palpable] is the only person who can get through to him: "You're a teacher...teach him to die like a man", she insists. But Grant, who questions his abilities as a teacher, has doubts that he can be effective. And when Reverend Moses Ambrose [an unswerving Joseph Trimble] challenges them all to try to guide Jefferson to save his soul by trusting God, both Jefferson and Grant are made to face their own atheism.

When Grant admits to his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste [Tunisia Thomas in a distinctively subtle characterization] that he does not want to go back to help Jefferson, and that he wants to get far away from the town, she tells him that he needs to "stand up like a man too", to help a man he knows is innocent. Risking their relationship, she even calls Grant a coward, and decides that she must do something herself to help Jefferson.

While Sheriff Sam Guidry [a matter-of-fact Chris Roquemore] insists on the letter of the law in the treatment of his prisoner, jailer Paul Bonin [a sensitive John McWilliams in a pivotal role] becomes more sympathetic as he witnesses the various interviews and visits from the others. And even the Sheriff relaxes the rules a bit.

As the action draws to its inevitable conclusion, signaled by the date and time of the execution getting nearer and nearer, there are several breakthrough moments for each of the characters. Central to this is the introduction of a notebook in which Jefferson is encouraged by Grant to "write what you feel deep inside you", to which Jefferson responds: "You make me think I'm somebody", and his transformation is complete. -- Though we do not witness the actual execution, the gut-wrenching denouement hinges on what it means to be heroic, where teachers are taught by their students what it means to be a dignified man.

This provocative production of A Lesson Before Dying demonstrates the very highest achievements in River Region theatre.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pike Road Theatre Company: "Oliver!"

The River Region welcomed its newest community theatre last weekend: the Pike Road Theatre Company opened with director James Keith Posey's ambitions production of the popular Lionel Bart musical Oliver! in the Pike Road Intermediate School auditorium. -- And there's a lot more to come in its inaugural season.

The 45-member acting ensemble [35 of them from Pike Road] performed in front of an enthusiastically supportive audience comprising families and several local dignitaries. -- This support, as well as participation and encouragement from across the River Region, is essential in developing this fledgling organization who are currently on a shoestring budget and operating without much of the requisite theatrical equipment. -- But this has not deterred them in the least from offering a lively and polished production that is full of energy and talent.

Based on the Charles Dickens classic 1837 novel Oliver Twist that contains some of English Literature's most enduring characters, Bart's score contains many of musical theatre's memorable songs that develop plot and character relationships while providing opportunities for actors to showcase their singing and dancing skills.

In Oliver!, we are introduced to young Oliver Twist in an orphanage, and follow his many escapades over two acts where scheming adults and clever children teach him how to survive in the larger Victorian London world of duplicitous grown-ups, rascal street-gangs, petty thieves, hardened criminals, and occasional sympathetic benefactors who ultimately discover his parentage and restore him to a loving family.

In the title role, Griffin Isbell immediately steals our collective hearts with a plaintive "Please, sir, I want some more" -- gruel, that is -- after the orphan chorus got the action going with a dynamic rendition of "Food, glorious food"; and is confronted by Sam Wallace's bravura depiction of Mr. Bumble and his flirtation with the Widow Corney [Mara Woddall], his partner in crime, who sell Oliver off for a profit ["Boy for sale"]. -- The Sowerberrys [Kevin Mohajerin and Savannah Bowden -- both in good voice in "That's your funeral" and with slick characterizations] are the nefarious purchasers of the boy, and set him to work at their funeral parlor to garner sympathy from the mourners.

Unhappy with his new position, Oliver sings "Where is Love" bemoaning the loss of his Mother in his solitude and mistreatment; so when he is taunted about his dead mother and placed in a coffin as punishment, the boy manages to escape and winds up on the street where he is befriended by the Artful Dodger [Zaylon Johnson: a major talent to watch out for in future]. -- Dodger brings Oliver to Fagin's den of street urchins, where he is immediately welcomed to the gang ["Consider Yourself"], and schooled in the art of pickpocketing handkerchiefs ["Got to pick a pocket or two"] by Fagin [Matthew Givens bridges between comic and sinister with ease; and whether he changes his ways at the end is inconclusive].

Most of this has been played for well-earned laughs in Bart's sanitized version of Dickens' grim satirical depiction of London's criminal underworld and mistreatment of orphaned children, but when Bill Sikes [Gage Leifried] shows up, things take a darker turn. Mr. Leifried strikes a threatening figure when he demands payment from Fagin for items he has stolen, and his demeanor colors much of the upcoming action, especially his violent domineering relationship with Nancy [Kaylee Baker in fine voice], a woman of the streets who has a soft spot for Oliver ["I'd do anything"].

When Oliver is captured on a pickpocketing escapade, Act II is mostly about finding the boy, but the Nancy/Sikes relationship gets a significant amount of attention; when Sikes hits Nancy and she defends him in "As long as he needs me", we see how abused women often defend their abusers in hopes that their love will make things better. Unfortunately, Nancy pays with her life when she tries to protect Oliver by standing up to Sikes.

Mr. Brownlow [Eric Arvidson] takes the injured Oliver into his home where a series of incidents shared by Dr. Grimwig [Jason Morgan], Mrs. Bedwin [Connie Carraway] and Old Sally [Elana Woodall] discover to them that Oliver is Brownlow's grandson...and all ends well.

The two-and-a-half-hours with the Pike Road Theatre Company is time well-spent. Songs resonate long after exiting the theatre, memorable characters have come to life and garner respect for the acting company, Raquel Whitehead's lively choreography keeps moments well in hand with full commitment from the ensemble, costumes [Emily Blossom] provide a clear delineation of time and character, and the whole of Mr. Posey's fine production of Oliver! shows promise of even better things to come.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

WOBT-Prattville: "Proof"

David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play Proof  [2000] is finishing its run at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre this weekend. 

Arguably the most polished production at WOBT in a long time, with first-time director Sandra Hataway guiding a stellar four-member ensemble of actors through the complications of its plot, the naturalism and credibility of each of the performances from start to finish warrants praise.

Catherine [Alex Rikard] has dropped out of college and sacrificed a promising career in mathematics to care for her math-genius father Robert [Jason Bush], who is seen in flashbacks and in Catherine's imagination, and whose mental instability suggests to Catherine that she might have inherited both his mathematical abilities and his mental problems. Her sister Claire [Kristen VanderWal] has had a successful career and paid the household bills, and returns for Robert's funeral and shows concern for Catherine's welfare. Robert's protege Hal [Jay Russell] has been studying his mentor's notebooks, wondering whether they might contain some "proof" about prime numbers that indicate the man's genius had not left him.

There's not much physical action in Auburn's intelligently cerebral script, though the conflicts between siblings, potential romance between Catherine and Hal, and a deftly managed parent-child relationship provide ample tension and cause for audience engagement and emotional connection with the characters.

When, at the end of Act I, Hal's study of a notebook indicates a landmark mathematical proof that would both rescue Robert's reputation and ensure Hal's own career advancement, Catherine claims that she wrote the proof herself. -- And we watch as she attempt to assert her own mathematical abilities while still questioning whether her father's mental health will likewise impact her. -- Though not completely resolved at the end, at least Hal is willing to listen to Catherine's arguments.

With a company of actors who preserve the integrity of a masterful script, and a finely tuned investigation of universal human relationships, Proof at WOBT is one of the most satisfying productions recently in the River Region. 

Theatre AUM: "On the Verge"

Eric Overmyer's On the Verge [or the geography of yearning] hasn't been seen in Montgomery since the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's brilliant production a few decades ago; but Theatre AUM, under Neil David Seibel's carefully nuanced direction, has mounted a remarkable show that challenges actors and audience as they come to grips with the adventures of three Victorian women explorers trekking through terra incognita [the unknown] both in space and in time.

The challenges come in many guises: except for a quick costume change, each of the three women is on-stage for the intermissionless hour and forty minutes; the script is clever and at times erudite in its mix of colloquial and esoteric language, and there are countless anachronistic references in it; the women encounter a wide variety of bizarre characters whose appearances challenge credibility; their journey begins in 1888 and takes them to 2022; popular culture references bridge through the time periods; and the play presents themes about independent women, the risks we take in our quest for knowledge, and how we contribute to the future of the human race -- in short, the actors have to be at the top of their game, and audiences need to pay strict attention to all the details that pass by so quickly.

Youthful Alex [Yahzane Palmer] often confuses the meanings of words and is curious about new opportunities for women; Fanny [Tabitha Neyerlin] is the more traditionally proper Victorian woman; Mary [Karian Warrington] documents everything and is the most used to traveling solo; together, this trio serves to compliment each other, bringing out the best in their companions while developing their mutual means to press forward despite the obstacles in their way.

The encounters with several characters [Overmyer's original plan was to have a single actor play all the roles, though in the AUM production they are distributed among individual actors] drive them forward from 1888 to 1955 to today, challenging their beliefs and either assisting or placing obstacles in their way.

Mike Winkelman's multi-leveled set is complimented by Val Winkelman's period and quirky costumes and Brandon Baggin's evocative sound design; together with an array of props and witty and informative [though uncredited] projections, they complete the collaborative project.

There is hope at the end of the women's journey through terra incognita, and while we might not know what lies ahead, we are continually on the verge of discovery -- about the world and about ourselves -- and that is exciting.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

ASF: Freedom Rider"

Another "World Premier" at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and with a total of only twelve performances, Freedom Rider opened in front of several of the original Freedom Riders and other dignitaries on Friday night. 

Co-produced with New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company, and directed by one of its founders, Ricardo Khan [his production of Fly at ASF in 2018 was a powerful depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen], this new play tracks the lives of these heroic Civil Rights activists in 1961 as they made the decision to protest segregated bus terminals and restrooms and lunch counters in the South, trained in non-violent behavior, and learned along their journey from Washington, DC to the Deep South that their mixed racial groups made a huge impact on both the movement and on their individual lives.

As our country has become so divisive on racial issues, it is imperative as ASF Artistic Director Rick Dildine reminded the opening night audience that "we have to tell our stories" lest they be forgotten or reduced to historical footnotes.

The episodic script is a collaborative effort by Mr. Khan, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Murray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson, and Nikkole Salter. Filled with many familiar protest songs and period references, and with lengthy exposition that verges on a history lesson for audiences to absorb, its major strengths are demonstrated in intimate scenes between teenaged "riders" and their parents and peers where they are forced to confront their purposeful decisions to embark on the trip South and defend their need to carry on the legacy of their recent ancestors. -- What started for some of them as simply the right thing to do gradually becomes a more dangerous reality that will test their commitment as well as their purpose.

Played on Beowulf Boritt's open-space set with moveable furniture that accommodates numerous locations, with Myrna Colley-Lee's period costumes, and stunning archival projections by Katherine Freer, the production's simplicity allows us to concentrate on the serious events and the real people involved.

The acting ensemble representing the Freedom Riders, their families, and assorted people on both sides of the racial divide, are a fine-tuned group. Individual characters may be sympathetic or detestable, and their interactions garner appropriate reactions, but our attention is focused on the play's subject matter and the fact that these important accomplishments in the 1960s have yet to be completely resolved. As one character remarks: "What happens to us once the freedom fighters leave?" Stay tuned.

Monday, March 7, 2022

ASF: "Little Shop of Horrors"

Warning: "Don't feed the plants!" -- After a "sudden eclipse of the sun", the entire human race "suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence". Quite an opening gambit in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's dynamic production of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken musical: Little Shop of Horrors.

Based on the 1986 film that took the Off-Off Broadway show into mainstream American consciousness, it recounts the story of nebbishy Seymour [Kelly Autry], who works at Mr. Mushnik's [Allen Fitzpatrick] "Skid Row" flower shop, alongside Audrey [Lauren Nicole Chapman]. Right after the "eclipse", Seymour discovers a mysterious plant he names Audrey II, being too shy to declare his attraction to Audrey, whose sadistic boyfriend Orin [Andrew Samonsky who plays several other roles as well] is a motorcycle-riding dentist who loves to inflict pain, both physical and emotional on everyone he encounters.

"Street Urchins" Chiffon [Elexis Morton], Crystal [Crystal Sha'nae], and Ronnette [Danea Osseni], reminiscent of "The Supremes" and other popular girl groups, serve as a kind of Greek Chorus, driving and participating in the action in song and witty dialogue, abetted by Lindsay Renea Benton's imaginative choreography. They are an exceptional trio.

And then, there's the plant: Audrey II -- designed by Monkey Boys Productions, voiced with growing sinister intent by Michael A. Shepperd who takes full advantage of the dark comedy in the script and lyrics, and masterfully manipulated by puppeteer J. Scott Grinstead in Audrey II's assorted iterations.

After all, Audrey II simply wants world domination, and utilizes cunning tricks on an unsuspecting Seymour, promising him fame, wealth, and the real Audrey's love in return for his cooperation. The catch is that Audrey II needs human blood in order to survive and grow and grow and grow; its voracious appetite eventually devours numerous characters despite Seymour's attempts to resist its demand to "Feed me".

And, while Little Shop of Horrors blithely and hilariously satirizes 20th Century science fiction, B-movies, and the traditions of musical comedy, one can't help but recognize a Faustian connection where a person sells his soul to the devil for temporary earthly rewards and its correlation to much of today's political spectrum.

The actors are a uniformly tight triple-threat ensemble of actors-singers-dancers, ably discovering subtle qualities in their various personae. We might gleefully hiss the villain Orin while we admire Mr. Samonsky's agility to somehow be likable at his demise in the song "NOW [It's Just the Gas]", eliciting spontaneous gasps and laughs; and he adapts so many other parts with equal clarity. "Mushnik and Son" shows Mr. Fitzpatrick's flexibility to demonstrate both the demanding and softer sides of his character. As romance builds between Seymour and Audrey, Ms. Chapman's tough exterior disintegrates in her touching rendition of "Somewhere That's Green", and their love duet "Suddenly Seymour" deserves its rapturous reception by the audience.

Confidently directed by Rick Dildine, the Octagon stage has been transformed to Mushnick's "Skid Row" flower shop and multi-level environs through Adam Koch's evocative detailed scenic design and Cory Pattak's inventive lighting design. Theresa Ham's by turns gritty and glamorous costumes enhance every moment. Lively Musical Direction by Joel Jones blends Motown, R&R, and Doo-Wop styles that are at once nostalgic and contemporary. Melanie Chen Cole's Sound Design blasts through the Octagon at every turn, complimenting the musical score and vocals, and keeping audience engagement. -- And a big shout-out to Katie An Siegel and the Stage Management team for smoothly co-ordinating the production's gargantuan technical cues.

ASF's production of Little Shop of Horrors is an example of Musical Theatre at its very best: an exceptional collaboration of a gifted company both on-stage and off.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Millbrook: "Deliver Us From Mama"

"Road trip...!" -- Mama's hitting the road again in the Jones-Hope-Wooten comedy Deliver Us From Mama, currently playing in Millbrook. -- For those who are familiar with the trio's Mama Won't Fly or Dearly Departed, prepare yourselves for raucous goings-on during the play's two acts.

Mama [Vicki Moses] and her daughter Savannah [Karla McGhee] travel cross-country from Birmingham, AL to Los Angeles, CA to surprise son Walker [Bill Rauch] and daughter-in-law Haley [Tracey Quates in voice-overs, though she never appears on stage] for the birth of a grandchild, only to find that Haley has gone to Mama's home; and now Mother and her two argumentative adult children are forced to drive back to the South in time for the delivery because an air traffic controllers strike has grounded planes.

On the way, they face a lot of obstacles: strange car mechanics, hippie wedding planners, storms, barge trips across the Mississippi River, eccentric family in New Orleans, and bossy hospital staff --- all these characters played by a coterie of actors in multiple roles apiece. -- John Chain, Marcella Willis, Logan Preston, Connor Carraway, Pat VanCor, Connie Morrow Carraway, and Pat McClelland manage quick costume changes and bizarre behaviors much to the audience's delight.

Stephanie McGuire directs with attention to the outlandish displays of the characters, and garners abundant laughs throughout the performance. -- Some tightening up on the sound and lighting cues could smooth out the sometimes lengthy scene changes, and a few members of the acting company speak so quickly that their lines are blurred and we miss the jokes.

And there is an important overall message mixed in with the silliness of Deliver Us From Mama: we all need to try to get along better, put aside our self-centered approach to life, and learn to live as family. Not bad advice.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Wetumpka Depot: "A Storm Came Up"

An important new play receiving spontaneous standing ovations has opened at the Wetumpka Depot. Kristy Meanor's assured adaptation of Doug Segrest's debut novel A Storm Came Up tackles sensitive subjects that were prominent in the Jim Crow South, issues that unfortunately are still too much with us.

Set in the fictitious town of Takasaw, Alabama in the 1960s, the racial divide and the Civil Rights Movement may be ancient history to some, but for those of us who lived through it, our collective memory will be triggered by this play.  

References to such things as George Wallace's "segregation forever" narrative and the deaths of the "four little girls" at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, as well as various details of Alabama's rural places, keep the play's fiction firmly within the realm of possibility. And the presence of KKK members depicted on stage, and characters conflicted by the imminent de-segregation facing them, vividly show what many people might want to forget: that enablers can be just as guilty as overt racists in promoting hatred and bigotry.

We know the place and the people. And we ought to be uncomfortable with its truth-telling, despite the misinformed Critical Race Theory rhetoric from some of our leaders.

The plot centers on the lives of three teenage friends -- boys who witnessed a brutal murder of a Black man, and who promised to keep it secret for the rest of their lives out of fear of repercussions. Cousins Braxton [David Shelnutt] and Andy [Jay Russell] are white, and Moses [Drey Wingate] is Black. They seem to be living an idyllic life, but the times are changing.

A few years after that traumatizing event, the world is transforming around them: a bi-racial committee has been organized to propose among other things that the local high school be integrated. Some of Takasaw's citizens resist change peacefully while others are in denial regarding their own deep-rooted prejudices; and others are active Klan members. The boys' individual actions that go beyond their adolescent dreams of football victories or romantic conquests impact their families and friends as they are confronted by the choices they will have to make in order to survive into adulthood.

The plot is narrated by Rufus [Tony Davison], the local gravedigger who serves as a kind of all-knowing and ever-present Greek Chorus. Ms. Meanor cleverly intertwines non-dramatic narration with Rufus' gradual direct participation in the story, and Mr. Davison keeps a calm note amidst the two acts' growing tension.

Ms. Meanor directs her cadre of actors who create credibly detailed characters in support of the main plot, and help illustrate the play's messages. -- There is no "star" in this production, rather, a fine tuned ensemble whose task it is to tell a nuanced story through their relationships and actions; and in this they succeed, by mixing serious and gently humorous moments that are true to life.

And she clearly trusts her audiences: the script does not flinch from using offensive racist language or adult subject matter, both of which are integral to honestly portraying these very real subjects; so while we may occasionally be jolted out of our comfort zones, we also can drop our objections and consider the weight that the past still imposes on our 21st Century behavior. 

We are clearly meant to take sides with the decent folks in Takasaw: Braxton's parents [Douglas Mitchell and Leslie Blackwell] and Moses's grandmother [Adele Burks] and mentally challenged brother [Johntavious Osborne] are people who live by a moral code in a world growing dirtier by the minute, pitted as they are against the hypocritical Klan leader [James Ward] and his ilk who have enticed Andy to join them in burning churches and meting out their form of terrorist justice on people of both races who resist them.

There are several scenes that sensitively show how Black and White families who have lived closely together as equals and who would come to one another's aid in times of need, might drift apart because no matter how close the friendship, they can never quite understand that race and racial discord impacts them differently.

Ms. Meanor and Mr. Segrest do not resolve the issue of racism in A Storm Came Up -- indeed, it is too much with us in 2022. But there is hope at the end of the play. Hope in second chances. Hope that if we agree to do what is right, we might emerge better. Hope that we should not be afraid of change. Hope that people can and ought to be judged by their character and not their skin color. Hope that we might be able to face a future without regret.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

With today's worldwide tumultuous state of affairs, it seems that we could all use a good laugh. And the Cloverdale Playhouse delivers in spades as they open their COVID-cautious 11th Season with actor-comedian Steve Martin's outrageous Picasso at the Lapin Agile, its first appearance in the River Region since its debut in 1993.

Sam Wootten's stellar debut directing project since taking the helm as the Playhouse's Artistic Director is a fast moving, inventive 80-minute romp that taps into the improbable premise, the witty dialogue, and the headier themes of Martin's script. 

He is abetted by a collaborative design team -- J. Scott Grinstead/Set, Rebecca Huguet/Costume, Mike Winkelman/Lighting, Clyde Hancock/Sound -- whose combined efforts create a remarkable mise-en-scene for the actors to inhabit.

It's 1904 in Paris -- a fin de siecle moment almost at the end of "La Belle Epoque" -- set in a bohemian cafe called the Lapin Agile, where Martin imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein [Kevin Mohajerin] and Pablo Picasso [Kendrick Golson] when both geniuses were in their 20s and were on the brink of making/changing history with the "theory of relativity" and the tradition-breaking "cubist school of art". Their questioning of what the future holds, and their debate on whether science or art is the most important contributor to mankind's progress, ignites in Messers Mohajerin and Golson their characters' youthfully passionate defenses of their respective fields, yet they ultimately realize that they can live in harmony and align their ideas as a new way of looking at the world.

But, in comes larger-than-life "inventor" and self-proclaimed "genius" Schmendiman [John Selden] to steal their thunder as a third person needed to save the world through commercial enterprise as well as science and art; and in an antic display reminiscent of Martin's "wild and crazy guy" routine and John Cleese's various Monty Python personae, Mr. Selden's too-short stage time ups the ante of comic possibilities.

A talented acting ensemble of Playhouse veterans and neophytes portray a host of other eccentrics whose lives intertwine at the cafe, and who keep the comic dimensions on track: Freddy [Bo Jinright] who runs the cafe with his girlfriend Germaine [Katie Schmidt] who has had a relationship with Picasso; Gaston [George Jacobsen] who suffers from prostate problems but has a straightforward attitude to both art and science; Suzanne [Valorie Roberts] who has recently had an affair with Picasso and comes to the cafe to meet him; effete art dealer Sagot [Chris Roquemore] who claims that the only paintings people won't buy depict Jesus or sheep; the Countess [Annie Gunter] who is there to meet up with Einstein; and Schmendiman's Female Admirer [ Dominique Taylor] with a slight case of mistaken identity.

There's something else up Martin's sleeve when he introduces a hip-swiveling, blue-suede-shoes-wearing,  time-traveling Visitor [Gage Leifried] to tell them what the future has in store. Kind of a let-down from the charming witty contrivances of the early Twentieth Century fiction we have come to enjoy.

Whether people prefer to see themselves as forward looking ["Neo-"] or reflective looking ["Post-"] change-makers, there is no doubt that this current smart and silly production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile will make its appeal their own. And that's a comforting thought.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

WOBT: "Anatomy of Gray"

Set in rural Indiana sometime in the 1800s, Jim Leonard, Jr. follows his award-winning play The Diviners with another story of mysterious healing after the loss of a loved one in Anatomy of Gray which opened this weekend at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville.

Directed by Brady Walker, the action is bookended by its narrator June Muldoon [Margaret Lind] who begins the play with a fairy-tale opening line "Once upon a time..." to preserve for her baby sister the memory of her journey out of the town of Gray, Indiana, a place she calls "the most boring place in the world". She is mourning her father's death, and yearns to leave the town, praying to God to deliver a doctor to them so no one will ever die again. So, when a tornado conveniently delivers Dr. Galen Gray [Kevin Morton] by way of a hot-air balloon, June anticipates a way out. The town is no longer boring.

An ensemble of local residents' lives, both religious and secular, are heavily influenced by Pastor Wingfield [Eric Arvidson], who prefers faith healing to medical science. But the largely uneducated townspeople seek Gray's expertise when his treatments cure their various ailments, even though he is often misunderstood. -- And when mysterious "markings" appear on their bodies, and several of them die as a result, the citizens turn on Gray and accuse him as the cause of the plague. [No spoilers here, but the actual cause is revealed late in the second act].

Though modern medicine was still in its infancy in the 1800s, it is easy to see in Anatomy of Gray a corresponding reluctance to trust experts in science and medicine during the current COVID pandemic. Rumors spread from ignorance and fear lead to a lynch-mob mentality in the play that must be diffused; and it doesn't help matters when it is revealed that Dr. Gray is Jewish, or that he has an unexplained aversion to blood, or that his unconventional and experimental treatments test the fundamentalist beliefs of the townspeople. Nonetheless, June falls for Gray and becomes his medical assistant.

Some of the doctor's practices are played for humor, especially a hilarious treatment for the Pastor's kidney stones; but most are given more serious attention: June's mother Rebekah [Tammy Arvidson] is pregnant with her late husband's child and wants an abortion which Dr. Gray, having fallen in love with her, refuses on moral grounds; Belva and Crutch Collins [Janie Allred and Rodney Winters] don't understand their conditions; the Pastor's sister Tiny [Bre Gentry] succumbs to a fever; church choir director Maggie [Jan Roeton] is in denial, proclaiming "I can't be marked...I've not done anything wrong".

The only ones not afflicted are June, who so admires the doctor that she mimics all his medical precautions, and Homer [Gage Parr], a boy who has a crush on June and drinks only soda-pop. -- It is up to them to continue the circle-of-life, and the play ends as it began with June once again addressing the audience with her story.

Played on a simple open platform set with a rural painted backdrop, Mr. Walker's emphasis is on the inherent messages of the script that has compassion without passing judgement on its characters. Indeed, we could all benefit from trusting the experts and trying to understand one another better.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

ASF: "Macbeth"

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair" is a refrain often repeated or suggested throughout the Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth, showing on the Festival Stage for the next two weeks only. This all-too-short run of the Bard's shortest tragedy, called "the Scottish play" by many superstitious theatre folk, and often considered a compliment to England's first Stuart monarch: James I [James VI of Scotland] who reigned when the play was written c.1606, is an action-packed, visually stunning foray into the realm of a power-obsessed couple that resonates in the 21st Century.

Adroitly directed by Rick Dildine, whose "goal of creating a timeless folktale" is reflected in a mixture of music choices that underscore or compliment the action and costume choices that approximate a number of time periods, this Macbeth's focus on the seductive corruption that power inflicts on its hero can't help but connect us to heads-of-state who are willing to sacrifice anyone who gets in the way of their quest to rule.

Though audiences today say that they go to "see" a play, Elizabethan audiences went to "hear" a play in order to submerge themselves in the sounds and poetic rhythms of the dialogue; so it is a pleasure to hear Shakespeare's words spoken with confidence by such ASF veterans as Greta Lambert, Chris Mixon, Ann Arvia, Chauncy Thomas, and Christopher Gerson -- words that advance the plot, develop character relationships, stress the play's themes, and stimulate audience imagination. -- And this, regrettably, is the only time in this ASF Season to "hear" a classical play.

The "fair is foul" theme contrasts appearance and reality in so many ways: Do the Witches [Ann Arvia, Greta Lambert, April Armstrong] control or merely prophesy events that lead battle-triumphant hero Macbeth [Benjamin Bonenfant] and Lady Macbeth [Meghan Andrews] to murder King Duncan [Christopher Gerson] and set them on their disastrous course? The Macbeths' plan to "...look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under't" underscores the theme. The Witches' prophecies appear to be impossible, but are ironically accurate; and their proclaiming that Banquo [Cordell Cole] is "Lesser than Macbeth and greater./Not so happy, yet much happier/ [because]Thou shall get kings, though thou be none" infects Macbeth and urges him on. Even Duncan's description of Macbeth's castle at Inverness paints a bright and welcoming place that makes the dark and sinister murder even more impactful. Strategically placed just after Duncan's murder, the drunken Porter [a masterful portrayal by Chris Mixon], equivocates with a series of perhaps the first "knock-knock jokes" that testify to the unnatural behavior of the protagonist, and mark a turning point in the action to follow.

As the power-couple, Mr. Bonenfant and Ms. Andrews have a vibrant chemistry; it is clear from the outset that their passions and mutual understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses seem to mark them for greatness, but as their choices to eliminate anyone who gets in their way -- Lady Macduff [Laura Darrell] and her family, for example -- drive them to their respective tragic ends, we witness the numbing effect of their actions, and are horrified by the disintegration of their marriage. Ms. Andrews' "sleepwalking scene" and Mr. Bonenfant's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech encapsulate the degree of their collapse.

As Scotland is falling apart under Macbeth's sway, opposing forces gather; and in a striking scene that elevates them to potential heroic status, Macduff [Justin Blanchard] urges Duncan's heir Malcolm [Anthony Michael Martinez] to take up arms and set things aright, at the same time he hears of the slaughter of his family. -- And the climactic battle makes Macduff victorious and restores the crown to Malcolm, its rightful owner.

Played on a stunning but simple platform set designed by William Boles that affords maximum fluidity of the action, and with dynamic fight choreography by Paul Dennhardt, Mr. Dildine's exciting production of Macbeth provokes ASF audiences to engage with Shakespeare's words and ideas, and to think about them as they apply today. And that's what good theatre ought to do. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Theatre AUM: "Good Trouble: A Showcase"

Theatre AUM's Good Trouble: A Showcase had an all-too-short run last weekend. Short in two senses: only five performances, and each performance running between 20-30 minutes. It featured AUMcappella vocal group under Dr. Mark Benson's direction, and a five person acting ensemble who presented an assortment of monologues, songs, and quotes in tribute to Civil Rights icon John Lewis and the importance of his challenging message for people to get into what he called "good trouble" as a moral obligation to say or do something to help correct the racial inequities in America.

Directed by Val Winkelman, and strategically produced just before Black History Month, much of the content of the brief selections might be well-known to the audience [John Lewis's words, references to "Black Lives Matter" and the Pulse nightclub incident, To Kill a Mockingbird], and some not quite so familiar [Paul Robeson, No Place to be Somebody].

Bookended with songs: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around" performed by AUMcappella, and "Glory" from the film Selma performed by the acting troupe, there are some powerful moments that resonate over time that amplify the necessity for change in our society.

With COVID protocols in place [both actors and audiences wore masks], the challenges for the actors to speak slowly, distinctly, and energetically were not always met, leaving audiences struggling at times to hear the words and receive the impact behind them. Nonetheless, the young ensemble were committed to their roles, and delivered an important message for all of us to do better.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Wetumpka Depot: "Popcorn Falls"

For its 42nd Season opener, the Wetumpka Depot is showing the 2019 Off-Broadway hit Popcorn Falls, by James Hindman. -- Following in the long tradition of the Greater Tuna franchise and The Mystery of Irma Vep, two actors play numerous characters in madcap antics, and keep audiences entertained and impressed by their skills for a masked COVID-safe evening's entertainment.

In this case, the actors under Cushing Phillips' confident direction are two veteran Depot stalwarts: Jeff Langham and Kim Mason, whose award-winning acting and directing credits in Wetumpka and across the River Region are admirable. Their reputations will continue to be lauded with this production that showcases their ample talents.

The premise [as in many farcical enterprises] is convoluted: the fictitious town of Popcorn Falls is bankrupt, its namesake waterfall is dry, the town's boundaries have been re-drawn to benefit a corrupt businessman who is willing to destroy the town and build a sewage treatment plant, and even though  there is a connection to George Washington there, the only way to save the town is for the mayor and citizens who call themselves Popcorn Falls "kernels" to utilize an almost forgotten financial grant to put on a play in seven days.

With no theatre experience, but with a lot of passion, the mish-mash of eccentric townsfolk go on a roller coaster ride of writing and auditioning roles for the show, lots of trial and error, wide-eyed optimism, weather disasters, personality conflicts, tentative romantic interludes, and the deadline drawing ever closer as rehearsals fall apart. 

So, there is some tension in the script, but our attention is riveted on the actors. Their ability to transform into so many distinct characters by simply switching hats, coats, or eyeglasses, and by deftly changing vocal textures and physical postures in the blink of an eye, and occasionally playing more than one character in a scene, Mr. Langham and Ms. Mason provide an impressive master-class in comic performance. 

Popcorn Falls is a welcome respite from the Winter doldrums; it lifts our spirits with its messages that "everything happens for a reason" and that "theatre brings us together".