Review: Theatre Frisco Presents “A Little Night Music”

Review:  Theatre Frisco Presents “A Little Night Music”

Under the direction of Neale Whitmore, the talented cast and crew of Theatre Frisco crafted a vibrant and dynamic performance of Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated work, “A Little Night Music.” Their stunning production sprung to life with a high octane array of rich vocals and sleek choreography wrapped in the deep textures of romance and intrigue.

Read More

Review: 'Pure Country' Regional Premiere at Lyric Stage

Chris Jackson

  • Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Sure, you’ll probably know what’s going to happen next in Pure Country, and you’ll know pretty much that you’re being manipulated, but chances are that won’t stop you from having a good time listening to the music and enjoying the boot-scootin’ dances and exuberant high spirits of the production.

Our hero, Rusty, or as he used to be known back home, Del, is a country superstar who’s fed up with all the glitz and glamour of the road, and just wants to return to his small town roots where everything is simpler and purer. (Yeah, just go with it.) He goes AWOL and returns to his hometown sweetheart, and while all might not go exactly as Rusty/Del might hope, we know it’ll all turn out alright in the end, and sure enough, it does!

Based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring George Strait, screenwriter Rex McGee has rewritten that script for the stage. Composer Steve Dorff and lyricist John Bettis wrote songs for the movie, and have created a whole new score for this version. A couple of the numbers are real standouts, especially “It Ain’t Texas” which gets a great response from the audience.

The script that Mr. McGee has come up with, so far, for this incarnation, needs work if it’s to travel all the way to Broadway. A brief opening flash-back scene with young Rusty/Del that opens the show just doesn’t quite work and a better opening would probably be to go straight to the second scene, which is one of Rusty’s big concerts, which might start the show with an audience-grabbing bang.

The script, while likeable, is really predictable with not much to hold our attention or keep us intrigued about the next stage in Rusty’s life. Thank goodness the musical numbers and the fine performances and singing voices of the cast come along to lift the story and our spirits.

Director/choreographer John de los Santos works his considerable magic by keeping the pace brisk (despite the pesky scene changes) and the performances clean, clear, and sharp. The scenes build when they need to, the songs flow out of the action (mostly), and characterizations are filled out, even when the script doesn’t provide that much for the actors to work with. Dances are terrific to watch, with all participants having what appears to be a great time, loving what they’re doing. Texas line dancing has never been this much fun to watch.

As our hero, Harley Jay takes center stage first as superstar Rusty, complete with wig and Stetson, flashing lights and screaming fans, and then as his old-time, true self Del, returning to his roots, hoping to regain his love of authenticity and inspiration. Mr. Jay has a nicely commanding presence on stage, sharing his scenes with his fellow actors, appearing fully engaged at all times, with a singing voice that makes the premise believable. His extensive Broadway, TV and touring experience and having his own band make him seem right at home in this role. 

Harley Tucker, Rusty/Del’s old flame, is played by Marissa Lesch who also brings truth and credibility to her characterization. She matches Mr. Jay moment for moment with emotional truth and strong vocals. Her first number, “But I Did,” is filled with heart-felt longing. Her character arc is clearly defined and a pleasure to watch. You want the two lovers to reunite and live happily ever after. Which, no spoiler alert, they do!

Cara Statham Serber as Lula Rogers, Randy’s manager and Justin Duncan as Marty, the HBO guy are both local performers who more then hold their own. Ms. Serber appears to have a great time being acerbic and sexy and conniving all at once and sings her big number in the first act with terrific showmanship. Mr. Duncan is expectedly, comically blustering and distraught as Marty, never losing sight of where the character is going and what he wants.

Julie Johnson, a great local favorite with extensive professional credits of her own, plays Mama Ivy with her customary commitment to any role she inhabits. Fully invested, she takes the stage when it’s her turn, singing her heart out in “Pure Country” and “Prairie Rose.” Her natural affection for the other characters is never less than convincing.

Brent Loper Is Earl, Rusty’s old friend, disappointed and disbelieving Rusty’s motives for returning. Mr. Loper also has a strong professional country background and it’s evident in his smoothly done vocals and presence on stage. He looks the part and responds in ways that always seem right for the moment. His number, “Pickin’ and Grinnin’” is very well done.

As Charlie Boles, the superstar hope-to-be, Jacob Lewis is under-utilized and makes us wish he had more stage time and that we knew more about his character. The same can be said for Eli Lujan, the young actor who plays Little Del and David Lee. His duet, “Back Among My Yesterdays,” with Rusty, shows really strong vocal ability and some serious acting chops.

The entire ensemble is always engaging and a delight to watch, their singing and dancing never less than thrilling. Thankfully they are a diverse group physically and character-wise, and it makes their persona as residents of a small Texas town completely feasible. A big part of what makes this production work is the strong ensemble. 

Scenery by Randel Wright is his usual strong and pleasing product with the Prairie Rose bar setting totally convincing, looking like every great Texas bar you’ve ever set foot in, and the house exterior fully believable also. It’s a pity that the script, as written, makes some of the scene changes interrupt the flow of the show. Lighting design by Julie N. Simmons is both realistic when it needs to be and theatrical when that effect is called for. It works smoothly and effortlessly, guiding our eyes seamlessly where they need to be. Costume Coordinator Andrew Givens appears to have had a good time putting together clothes for real people and yet defining each character completely. Sound Design by Bill Eickenloff keeps the music and the dialogue clear and forward.

Eugene Gwozdz’s conducting of the on-stage band, vocal and dance arrangements and orchestrations, and his music direction of the singers pays off in a rousing swell of great sound that envelops the audience and pulls the show along, adding excitement at every opportunity.

The show doesn’t break any new ground or have any unexpected twists, nor does it shock or raise any controversial conversation. Nobody dressed like Trump gets assassinated and there isn’t any nudity or huge special effects like falling chandeliers to get the blood pumping. What the show DOES have is a fully engaged cast playing recognizable people in everyday situations with a happy ending assured from the beginning. Perhaps in today’s climate, that’s a refreshing change. “What if” is a question we all dally with from time to time, and watching the character of Rusty have the guts to give up his stardom for what he perceives as a deeper happiness, while a simple plot device, is still enjoyable to watch. We all want to root for “pure country” to triumph over sleazy commercialism at least some of the time.

Review: Spongy-Grungy 'Macbeth' at L.I.P. Service

Anna Holloway

The genius of Shakespeare is that his work delves into the human psyche (a term that did not exist in English in his lifetime) and so is translatable to a wide variety of settings and periods. Choosing a setting outside of the original (16th Century England) imposes responsibilities on directors to clarify the setting and relationships and on actors to “speak the speech…trippingly” so that the Bard’s elegant profanities and profane elegancies make sense to modern audiences.

L.I.P. Service produces an interesting take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, opening June 8 and running through June 24 at the Fire House Theatre in Farmers Branch. Set in a grunge rock-styled, dystopian universe, the production presents two hours’ worth of acceptably entertaining theatre.

The setting, a melancholy, grim space framed by dark, corrugated metal, includes a catwalk perched above the set, where characters play inches away from the lights. It inevitably suggests a backstage area. A bloody, rotating tree stump dominates the spare, grimy set, down center, serving as throne and as a screen or barrier when the director needs to emphasize separation between spaces or characters. The range of symbolic interpretations that can be applied to the stump—the only apparently ‘natural’ object on the set—is one of the production’s few exercises of intellect left to the audience’s imagination. Add the black and metal-tinged costumes on most of the cast, the bizarrely garish red and blue colored lights, and the overflow of stage fog, one has the sense of watching this story transpire among the backstage crew at a rock concert venue.

The Witches are key to any production of Macbeth; they define the contrasting realms of the plot. In the L.I.P. Service version, they appear as a trio of glam rock-style personae, costumed in feathers, chiffon, and lame in black, white, and gold. The First Witch, played with deft energy and style by Ryan Matthieu-Smith, looks as if he leaned towards full drag but stopped short, which would have made another interesting choice. The Witches exist as ‘real’ to everyone in the world of the play, not just Macbeth and Banquo in Act One.

Ideally, this combination of elements could lead to a range of potentially inventive approaches. Director Jason Levya has chosen an unsubtle and undemanding slant that is readily accessible; the predictable use of well-worn tropes and a flat emotional arc demand very little mental stretch from the audience. The wildly varying character arcs are not really ever interwoven; the best stand out, and the others simply lie there, letting the story buffet them around.

An onstage ensemble wears black with metal accents—zippers, chains, etc., with black-and-white, skull-emblazoned bandanas tied across the faces as masks, reminiscent of Old West bank robbers. This group serves as supportive chorus, at times providing an echo of significant words that tend to overpower dialogue, and at other times removing the masks to play minor roles. One notable example is Robert Dullnig, who delivers the Porter’s first speech as a sort of comic standup rehearsal, a directing choice reinforcing the backstage feel of the setting. Mildly amusing, it falls a little flat.

R. Andrew Aguilar, script co-editor, plays the title role. Beginning as a fairly balanced human being, Aguilar’s Macbeth begins to vacillate between conversation and confrontation by speaking or screaming, talking or tantrum as if at the flick of a switch. It’s not a sophisticated, nuanced performance. He does display powerful physicality; once he and Lady Macbeth begin to plot murder, his demeanor moves from lustful to bullying to downright thuggish. Approaching the play’s end, clearly in mental disintegration, he hums a recognizable tune—a creepy effect—as he slaughters people with the unnatural ease of single-minded lunacy. However, “Nearer My God to Thee” undermines the effect; confusingly, it evokes icebergs and sinking ships (think TITANIC). Aguilar’s final savage, murderous rampage as Macbeth reveals little about his sociopath mania and nothing of his desire to be the leader of a nation.

As the seductively ambitious and psychologically fragile Lady Macbeth, Dayna S. Fries hits all the right notes and drives the scenes where she appears. Her arc’s crescendo from power wife through manipulative sexual provocateur to eventual personal dissolution satisfies, tight and well pitched. In her ‘mad’ scene, the Witches control her attempts at hand-washing like puppeteers and coax her through her delusions, rendering her a victim of the same kind of manipulation as Macbeth, her partner in crime. This, her final scene, creates the most affecting moment of the evening’s performance.

Shane Beeson’s Banquo, a thoughtful, fully human friend and fatherly figure in all scenes present, merits mention and praise. Seyton, Macbeth’s henchman-assassin, played by Christopher Lew, is highly memorable as slinky and complex, no mean feat for a small role. Malcolm (Caleb Pieterse) and the efficient administrative assistant Ross (Erika Larsen) stand out as young innocents, virtuous and uncomplicated; they offer promise of something positive for the future of the bleak world created in this production.

A hint of ominous sexuality, never quite fully realized, runs throughout; we are left with the sense that these are not pleasant people. It’s hard to find even an anti-hero to root for, except possibly Macduff, cleanly realized by Henry Okigbo. He gives Macduff a full range of human emotion and defines a clear developmental arc. Even as he calls for vengeance, he projects a noble sense of duty to country and loyalty to the rightful king. Okigbo’s Macduff is a decent and fully rounded man. His portrayal lifts the production out of its stereotypical, punkish grimness.

Costumes, designed by Ryan Matthieu-Smith, are individualized while uniformly black, except for touches of red (royalty’s robes and Lady Macbeths’s wardrobe), white (two Witches and Lady Macbeth’s final costume) and a dark metallic gold for the First Witch’s glam robe. One of Lady Macbeth’s costumes, perhaps selected to suggest nakedness, reveals her undergarments oddly, visible even in the dim lighting.

Murky lighting and fog effects contribute to the grungy, backstage atmosphere. The interplay of garish blue and red lighting, especially with fog, is visually jarring, making it sometimes hard to see details of gesture and expression. Fight choreography by Jeff Colangelo and Michael E. Spencer uses the space effectively in part; executed with care, sometimes it seems overly so. The death of much heralded General Siward (Caitlin Campbell) is drawn way out and makes this presumably competent general look ineffectual as a fighter. By contrast, the fight between Macbeth and Macduff seems more a battle of equals, if ponderous.

L.I.P. Service’s adaptation of Macbeth provides an entertaining experience for those who enjoy seeing unique approaches to Shakespeare. It does not demand deep reflection over the horrors andtruths examined in this defining Shakespearean tragedy; still, it might be a fun diversion to discuss over a post-show drink with friends.

For tickets: http://www.lipserviceproductions.info

Performances at The Fire House Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch TX

~~~~

Anna Holloway is a professional dramaturg and reviewer based in Oklahoma City. She writes for The Oklahoman and for the NewsOK blog, as well as makes occasional guest appearances on Oklahoma Arts Scene and Hurd and OKConstage.com. Having directed Macbeth, she is always interested in seeing other approaches to the play.

 

Review: 'Talking Pictures' at MainStage Irving-Las Colinas

Charlie Bowles

Life in Harrison, Texas moves at a snail’s pace in 1929. No one is aware of events unfolding on the world stage, with life-changing political upheavals in Europe and a world economic collapse just around the corner. Seems the main things occupying the minds of the people of Harrison is an influx of Mexicans and Baptists, the end of silent movies, impending doom of bus travel over train travel, and some guy singing My Mammy in a new “talkie” with his face painted black. “Why’d he do that?”

Horton Foote, late of Wharton, the actual Harrison, Texas, wrote about small town Texas drivel, the kind of things most of us are concerned with in our small lives. Talking Pictures fills the stage with problems that beset us all the while global events are just part of the noise we listen to. What happens to my job if busses replace trains? What will I do when I can’t play the piano at the movie house? How do you read the Bible in Spanish and, really, was Jesus a Baptist or a Methodist?

Irving Community Theatre opened Horton Foote’s Talking Pictures at the Dupree Theatre in Irving Arts Center. This Foote classic, directed by Amber Devlin, is the story of Myra Tolliver, a young single mother who plays piano at the Harrison movie house and rents a room with the Jackson family. Her son, Pete, is faced with challenges by his father, while Myra is faced with the threat that the movie house will install a sound system soon to replace her. 

Devlin’s creative team created an interesting stage picture with a framed-in Jackson house lacking any walls. The effect by Clare Floyd Devries was that we could easily distinguish a front yard outside the house while still seeing everyone inside the house in separate rooms. A living room and front bedroom were clearly visible, but we could also see down a hallway into a back room. This 3-dimensional effect provided a seamless scene change between outside and inside and between rooms, as the scene was constantly shifting between them all. Sam Nance lit the house and surrounding stage area to brighten or dim areas of this house to focus attention on various scenes. Jo Anne Hull filled this house with many props from the late 1920’s and provided evidence that this was a modest, yet comfortable lived-in house.

A large projection screen hung on the back wall over the house, showing silent movies on entry and town backgrounds during the scenes. This was understated, with hints of a music found by Jeff Mizener that gave us a concert of 1920’s music on entry, as we watched the 1925 silent movie, Ben-Hur.

Costumes by Michael A. Robinson were easily believable as 1920s, with simple shin-length floral print dresses and dark or tan slacks and shirts for the men. A gangster type character wore a zoot-suit, but otherwise all costumes were nicely understated.

It became obvious early in the story that this was going to be a love story about Myra Tolliver and her suitor, Willis. Tracie Foster played Myra, the piano teacher and player at the local movie house. She has a past to overcome, as a divorcee in a time when single mothers were somewhat ostracized. Myra has a single focus, to support her young teen son, and the closing of the silent movies is a dangerous challenge. As a renter in the Jackson house, she is also beholden to them – her future is affected by their challenges as well. Foster created this character with an ambivalence and concern we imagine for a young mother in that situation. But she also seemed to make Myra a positive and optimistic soul, one who doesn’t blame others for her worries. She was easy to like.

Willis was played by Cory Germany with a kind of aw-shucks view of the world, not dumb, just not intellectual. But Willis has fallen for Myra and he wants to overcome his own personal story, a wife who deserted him but wants to get in his way. Germany was low key, tentative, polite, a perfect gentleman. But when his wife showed up to claim Willis back, German became more forceful and assertive. Willis tries to bond with Myra’s son, Pete, with little success, though not because of Willis. We got a sense that Willis is a good man for Myra and Pete. The obstacles are big, however.

Grayson Oliver is a middle-schooler who has some theater experience and it showed. He played Pete as a young boy caught between his feuding mom and dad and a belief that living with dad and his falsely promised happiness would be best for him. Oliver’s character required several layers of sullen hurt, desperation, and anger, with the potential to turn into a quiet acceptance. It’s hard for a young boy to discover his idols are not all they seem. Oliver handled these turns well and we saw a believable Pete as a real character with real problems he needed to overcome.

The room Myra rents is owned by the Jacksons. Mr. Jackson was played by Eric Devlin, curmudgeonly old train engineer with lots of seniority, but not enough to avoid being bumped by someone older. Devlin’s appearances showed a dad you might meet in any family in America, hard-working, quiet, not given too much talk, gruff when faced with unplanned challenges, but loving of his family. Mr. Jackson doesn’t have much of an arc in this story, but his role is rock-solid in the family and Devlin gave him this quiet, comforting quality.

A curmudgeon needs a strong wife who anchors the home and sets expectations for the family, especially two daughters beginning to test the brave new world. Mrs. Jackson was created this by Rose Anne Holman. She imbued Mrs. Jackson with a kind of likable mother figure many of us grew up with, strong in her Methodist faith, quick to attack anyone with alternate views, but eventually accepting of changes she can’t control. It’s Mrs. Jackson and her daughters who say some of the most shocking things (by today’s standards) in Foote’s script, but they’re “out of the mouth of babes,” seemingly innocent. This was probably pretty innocent compared to some other things she’s had to say, but her commitment to these beliefs was important to convey a class of people that exist even today. Important also because Mrs. Jackson’s arc is what shows the audience how to become more tolerant.

Katie Bell Jackson is played by Marisa Duran and her sister, Vesta, is played by Kristi Mills. These sisters are actually the comedic relief in this show, with their wonderings about movie stars, Mexicans, and the all-important question of whether Jesus was a Methodist of Baptist. Vesta is the apparent older daughter, staying close to whatever mother believes, and thanks to Mills’ character choices, more reserved and rule-obeying. Katie Bell is the explorer, curious about the world, interested in going beyond her parents’ beliefs and testing the waters, even so much as sneaking out to a movie or striking up a relationship with a Mexican boy in town, a Baptist at that! Duran made this young girl’s curiosity fun to watch. There was looseness, a bit of wide-eyed view of the world in Duran’s choices that made Katie Bell seem innocent even when she challenged authority. We wanted to see someone in this town question the common beliefs and it was Katie Bell who brought a bigger world to Harrison.

Rhonda Durant played Gladys, the wife who left Willis for hoodlum who promised her riches, but does not want to grant a divorce. Durant wears curly red hair and dresses lavishly for this part and gives Gladys an attitude that sees the power Gladys has over Willis but also hurts for her own mistakes. It’s almost a pathetic character. There’s something truthful about Gladys – it’s hard to hate her. Durant rode this character like a roller-coaster as Gladys’ arc wound around Willis. She might be despicable, but there’s more vulnerability than bravado. 

Estaquio Trevino is the other young boy in the town, the Mexican Baptist. Elmerson Mejia is a new young actor who showed some real chops in a first major effort. His character is the most religious in the town, part of a broken family from Mexico and son of a preacher, trying to convert Mexican Catholics. This required much of this young actor, the ability to sing religious songs in Mexican, the ability to believably preach and use bible verse, and the ability to wiggle under the skin of Mrs. Jackson enough to make her like him. This young character is a culture-changer and Mejia fit into Estaquio like a glove.

Ashenback was played by Nick Forrest. The zoot-suit wearing gangster has qualities of a man who thinks more of himself than he should. Forest showed this side of Ashenback on entry, ready to talk big and brave, and kidnap Gladys back if needed, but this quickly dissolved into a puddle of doubt and self-destruction as Ashenback learns he has lost the love of Gladys and cannot deal with that loss.

Jason Oliver played Gerard Anderson, the other ‘bad guy’ in this story. Gerard is Myra’s ex-husband. He wants Pete, has a Houston family who does not, and has a problem with drinking. Oliver made this guy pretty unlikable. While Gerard’s interest in his son seems genuine, he is probably more interested in Gladys. In some ways, Oliver’s character represents the bad side of the new era of the 1930s, maybe a metaphor for the stock market crash.

Talking Pictures was directed by Amber Devlin with a keen sense of timing. Foote’s script can be very slow compared to modern sensibilities of lightning fast media, so keeping it moving is imperative to keep the audience engaged. She did that well. She also kept the cast engaged, as they all looked like they fully committed to her vision for how to tell this story.

ICT will present Talking Pictures for only one more weekend, so check the links to get tickets. Take your family. It is a great look back at our Texas history and a view of a simpler time of life.
 

TALKING PICTURES
Irving Arts Center, Dupree Theatre, 3333 N. MacArthur, Suite 300, Irving, TX 75062
Plays through June 3rd

Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2:30 pm;
Thursday June 1 at 7:30 pm.

Tickets range from $21 - $28.

Thursday June 1 from $19 - $21.

For information and tickets, go to www.irvingtheatre.org or call 972.594.6104.

~~~~

Mr. Bowles is an Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Review: 'Shrek' at Granbury Theatre Company

Nicole Mulupi

  • Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

The story of Shrek was taken from a children’s book by William Steig and became a household name after DreamWorks’ released the 2001 computer-animated version, which won the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. A fairy tale parody, the movie is still loved today for its irreverent humor, constant pop culture references, and its backwards happy ending. After the movie’s success, DreamWorks recruited playwright and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire and director Jason Moore to begin working on Shrek The Musical, with composer Jeanine Tesori joining the project in 2004. In December of 2008, after a trial run in Seattle and 37 previews, Shrek The Musical officially opened on Broadway to positive reviews, receiving eight Tony nominations, and two wins. It has been a favorite of community and school theatre companies ever since. It was my pleasure to see a fantastic production of it this past weekend in the small town of Granbury, Texas. 

Granbury Theatre Company’s Shrek The Musical is an outstanding conglomeration of talent, creativity and passion. Kyle Hoffman seems to be the best kind of director—one who attracts talent then gives them the freedom to create within a set framework. For this show, he pulled together an impressive number of talented designers. G. Aaron Siler’s excellent prosthetic design turned Shrek and Fiona into ogres without inhibiting their facial expressions. And Drenda Lewis’s costumes were dazzling. Not the thrown-together thrift store pieces that actors must so often fish for themselves, but well-tailored and colorful, they created a cohesive and eye-popping visual ensemble. Kerri Pavelick’s scenic design was equally stunning. Her bright, happy sets were crafted from a variety of materials and included full-stage painted backgrounds and set pieces, some of which were lowered from above the stage, and smaller pieces brought on stage from the wings during brief scene changes. She used sheer fabrics to make use of the full depth of stage available and used creative lighting/projections expertly designed by Cameron Barrus to create various split stage effects. Kudos, too, to Kalani Morrissette for fantastic technical direction. 

The backstage crew, under Whitney Shearon’s stage management, worked magic on the Granbury Opera House stage. There was seldom a moment during the production where I had time to realize the scene was changing, yet there was always some new visual element or new background to enjoy. The stage went completely dark between scenes, while props, mics, costumes/makeup/prosthetic changes, set changes, sound cues, and light cues were executed flawlessly (apart from one minor insignificant prop-fail involving a bluebird, which many in the audience may not have even noticed). Of course, Shrek’s and Fiona’s backstage narration of events also contributed to the sense of continuity between scenes.

Rather than employing an orchestra, Granbury Theatre Company used track accompaniment and recorded sound effects. This removed a lot of variables that can make it difficult to create a good sound mix. Where there were vocal harmonies, all parts were balanced, and the accompaniment was always loud enough but never overpowering. There must have been onstage monitors there because the performers didn’t miss a note or a beat, but I didn’t see or hear them. Great job to Sound Designer Joshua Carpenter for that, as well as to Greg Doss and Domanick Anton Hubbard, the Music Director and Choreographer. They highlighted each performer’s vocal and physical strengths, making the ensemble look and sound like a unit. While certain singers and dancers stood out above the rest for their exceptional talent, none of the cast stood out in a negative way.

This show has four lead characters: the ogre, his sidekick, the damsel in distress and the villain. The three protagonists were wonderful together, each bringing out the best in each other. In the title role of Shrek, Brian Lawson commands the stage. Surrounded by characters who are completely over-the- top, it is all too easy for this character to lose significance in his own story. But, even though Shrek’s solos are less entertaining than those of the other leads, Lawson’s solid, sincere performance gives the story its heart. Likewise, Jillian Grace Harrison gave a strong performance as Princess Fiona, the beautiful but hilariously unconventional damsel in distress who has been waiting 23 years for Prince Charming and finds herself rescued by an ogre instead. Harrison channeled her inner Carol Burnett as a comedienne, but she also showed depth in her more intimate scenes. The role of Donkey was played by Domanick Anton Hubbard. Just like his cartoon counterpart, Hubbard was lovable, comical and expressive, with an upbeat optimism and adorable smile not even an ogre could reject. He kept the audience laughing in every scene, and cheering whenever he let loose with his dance moves. But most importantly, this role is the most vocally demanding male role in the show, and he nailed it.

Cody Thomas played Lord Farquaad, the ridiculously short villain of the story who has given Shrek the task of rescuing Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded tower. The director allowed Thomas to take the role and run with it a bit, because he was obviously having fun with this character, making audience-centered inside jokes about current events (including unicorn frappuccinos, Donald Trump’s wall and the local train crossing), in addition to the hilarious lines and songs already in the script. His grotesque makeup job was part Elizabethan style and part what you’d find if you google “eyebrows gone wrong,” and his voice was a cross between a spoiled toddler and a drag queen. Just looking at him, you had to laugh (and cringe) and laugh. He was the one character who was free to engage with the audience as much as he wanted, and he did so…stroking his hair, grinning, waving, and making comments to and questioning audience members throughout most of his scenes.

The rest of the cast performed mostly in ensemble, but several actors had featured solos and duets. Most notably was Emily Warwick as Dragon. She had the best belting voice in the cast, and did an awesome job singing her solo/duet with Donkey, “Forever.” Warwick’s outstanding talent was also put to good use in the crowd-pleasing number, “Make a Move,” as one of the Three Blind Mice alongside Caitlan Leblo and Nicole Carrano. The strongest ensemble pieces were “Story of My Life” and “Freak Flag,” in which Gary Williams was featured as Pinocchio and Alyson Kessinger as Gingy (the Gingerbread Man). The cast of fairytale creatures was so good together that I wished “What’s Up, Duloc” and “The Ballad of Farquaad” had been bigger ensemble numbers, as well. The scenes in Duloc, in general, would have been stronger if more of the fairytale creatures had doubled as Dulocians and guards. Other standout performances of the night include Hannah Baker and Liz Heil with Jillian Grace Harrison in “I Know It’s Today.” I also loved The Three Little (German) Pigs, Peter Pan, The White Rabbit, The Ugly Duckling, The Pied Piper and the Rat Tappers. GTC’s production ended with a bang as the entire cast (and much of the audience) sang and danced to “I’m a Believer.” 

With an amazing crew of volunteers almost equal in number to actors in the cast, Granbury Theatre Company offers a professional quality show at an affordable price. To anybody living in the Dallas area, or far from Granbury, I’d recommend an early arrival and dinner on the square before the show. I made the mistake of driving south to Granbury through Dallas during rush hour on a Friday afternoon. It took me an extra hour to get there and find a parking spot, and I barely made it before the curtain rose. When I left the theatre, I was remorseful that all the restaurants and shops on the square were closed or closing. This was my first trip to Granbury, but it certainly will not be the last. With the level of talent at Granbury Theatre Company and its nearby neighbor The Plaza Theatre in Cleburne, my next free weekend will include two shows, a hotel booking and a good bit of shopping and dining in the delightful Granbury town square. Nevertheless, my 12-year- old daughter and I agreed that GTC’s production of Shrek The Musical was worth the drive and would do it again, even though we didn’t get home until after midnight.


SHREK THE MUSICAL
Granbury Theatre Company (Granbury)
133 East Pearl Street, Granbury, TX
Runs Through April 30, 2017

Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm
Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00pm
Tickets can be purchased at granburytheatrecompany.org

Review: 'The Pirate Queen' at the Artisan Center Theater

Joel Gerard

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Most of the time, a theatre company will put on a bad production of a good play or musical. Right now however, Artisan Center Theater is doing a good production of a bad musical, The Pirate Queen. It’s not Artisan’s fault that it’s a bad musical. The Pirate Queen is a poor knock-off of Les Miserables from the same writers and lyricists. The songs aren’t very memorable, the story is fairly boring, and the second act loses focus on the characters. None of this is the fault of the uniformly good actors and the enchanting set design on the stage.

The story is set in 16 th Century Ireland and is based on facts about a real life Pirate Queen who was an Irish clan leader that resisted the English conquest of Ireland. Grace O’Malley starts out an eighteen-year- old girl skilled in sword fighting and wanting to be a sailor and pirate on her father’s ship. At the time, women were not sailors, but wives and homemakers. But Grace instinctively takes over when her father is hurt in battle against the English. In order to strengthen the clans against the increasing threat from the English, Grace’s father Dubhdara marries Grace off to the son of their rival Irish clan. Grace protests the marriage, since she is actually in love with her childhood sweetheart Tiernan, but does what is best for her family. She is locked in war for years with the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I. These two women rulers are each trying to do what they believe is best for their countries.

The musical was on Broadway from March to June in 2007. Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg tried to create another hit show like they did with Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, minus the turntable and helicopter. But instead it’s like an Irish version of Les Miserables that falls flat. The songs are boring, overdramatic, and not very memorable. The only fun number in the show is a song called “Boys’ll Be Boys”, but it’s so similar to “Master of the House” from Les Miserables that it’s just not very original. There are several odd time jumps, spanning from one year at a time to seven years at a time that are not explained or defined very well within the plot. Act I is all about Grace and how independent she is, a natural leader, and her passion for her people. Grace’s focus in Act II is mostly about taking care of her son and saving her man. The same issues happen with the Queen Elizabeth I character. She’s a ruthless leader determined to stop Grace O’Malley in Act I, but has a sudden unexplained change of heart in Act II. Both characters have odd transformations from the feminist leaders we saw in Act I. Act II is really a betrayal of everything that came before it.

Since Artisan has double cast the show, I saw one set of actors on opening night. Mary Ridenour, playing Grace O’Malley, carries the show quite well. She’s a good actress and juggled all the elements of the show with ease. I was particularly impressed with her agility and fearlessness with the fight choreography. The role is pretty demanding and requires a wide vocal range. Ms. Ridenour sounded excellent belting out the high notes in her upper vocal register. However, I felt she lacked confidence in her lower register and some of the notes got lost. But she harmonized well with her costars and really listened to the actors around her.

I can’t say enough good things about Max Swarner as Tiernan, Grace O’Malley’s love interest and fellow pirate. He has a beautiful voice and excellent technical control of it. I could probably listen to him sing the phone book. Mr. Swarner brought strong intensity and urgency to the part that showed he was invested 110% in the character. His presence filled the stage and so did his voice. Bravo, Mr. Swarner.

On opening night, Heather Sturdevant substituted for Shoshanna Cook as Queen Elizabeth I. Ms. Sturdevant carried herself very regally and convincingly portrayed the new monarch as an ice queen out to destroy anyone who threatens her control. She has a lovely soprano voice, but occasionally some words were unintelligible when she hit the high notes. It would help if she focused a little more on her diction. Thankfully she also gets the few humorous lines in the show and delivers them with the right amount of sarcasm and wit.

Dubhdara O’Malley is Grace’s father and the chieftain of the Irish clan. Neil Rogers plays the part with a commanding presence and a warm, fatherly tone. His bellowing voice, salt-and-pepper colored beard, and long hair all added to the charm of the character. 

Ian Bridgman plays Grace’s drunken, good-for- nothing husband. He obviously relished playing the scoundrel of the show and the audience loved to hate him. Playing drunk on stage can be difficult, but he pulled it off convincingly. Mr. Bridgman was also lucky enough to have the best song in the show, “Boys’ll Be Boys”. 

The other star of the show was the scenic design. Theatre in the round can be difficult to do, but scenic designer Wendy Searcy-Woode clearly knows what she’s doing. There were so many fantastic elements on stage. One corner looked like an Irish village, complete with a large house and small model houses. The opposite corner looked like the exterior of a castle and was where most of the scenes took place in the English castle. The Queen’s throne rotated so it then looked like a turret on the castle. The walls were covered in a beautiful mural of the Irish cliffs and ocean. The main thrust of the set was the corner used as the pirate ship. The main ship’s wheel looked great in a dark wood and there were riggings and a small sail as well. The main floor was painted to look like the deck of the ship. It was an immersive experience that made me feel like I was really on a ship at times.

I absolutely love shows with any kind of sword fighting and stage combat. There were quite a few scenes with sword fights and unarmed stage combat. The fight choreography was well done and the actors handled it with relative ease. My major complaint is that the swords used were fake. I imagine the reason they used fake weapons was for safety reasons since the audience is in such close proximity to the combat. But actual stage combat weapons provide a heft and a sound when they clash that you don’t get with plastic weapons.

I also enjoyed the dance choreography by Amy Jones and I wish there had been more of it. The Irish folk dancing and jig are fun to watch. There was also a little bit of Irish step dancing which was made famous by the Michael Flatley’s Riverdance. But since the actors weren’t wearing hard shoes, shoes similar to tap shoes that have fiberglass tips, I missed hearing the satisfying click from the shoes striking the floor when they stomped.

There were a lot of costumes in this show and they all looked fantastic. Costume Designer Jill Hall created some memorable looks for the cast. By far the most incredible pieces were worn by Heather Sturdevant as Queen Elizabeth I. She had a different gown in every scene and they each got progressively more elaborate and beautiful throughout the show. Her final look was a stunning gown with a fan-shaped headpiece. All the English men and women were dressed perfectly. Also the Irish women’s peasant dresses looked great and period specific. The Irish men’s costumes sometimes looked a little too much like a Renaissance faire outfit, but there were still some nice pieces.

The technical elements of the show were a bit of hit and miss. Lighting design by Dan Hall emphasized the warm tones for the Irish countryside and cooler tones for the English castle. Sometimes, however, the cues were a bit off and actors were left in the dark while they were still saying lines. I hope the timing will get better over the course of the performances. Sound design by Richard Gwozdz was good, but sometimes the music was either too loud or too soft and I think the actors couldn’t hear.

Director DeAnn Blair obviously has a lot of passion for this show. She made good use of the stage and directed the actors in a way that made it easy to see the action at all times. She assembled a lot of elements that made this tough show work. I applaud Artisan Center Theater for rising above the lackluster material.


Artisan Center Theater
418 E. Pipeline Rd, Hurst, TX 76053
March 24th – April 15th , 2017
Tickets: For dates, times, and ticket information go to www.artisanct.com or call the box office at 817-284- 1200.

Review: 'Singin' in the Rain' at the Plaza Theatre Company

Genevieve Croft

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Usually when one thinks of a theatrical musical, the first thing that comes to mind is the stage production, then, a film adaptation. In the case of Singin’ in the Rain, the film was actually the basis for the musical production. It has actually happened this way a few times before (Xanadu, Footloose, and Flashdance-to name a few), and Singin’ in the Rain falls into the category of musical film first; later adapted for the stage. It seems strange to think that such a beloved musical (and one starring Gene Kelly no less) started out as a film, but has come to be a part of the classic collection of film and stage musicals. With a fantastic cast (funnyman Donald O’Connor, Rita Moreno, Cyd Charisse, and the young Debbie Reynolds) Singin’ in the Rain has made its mark as a notable musical on screen and on stage.

Set in the late 1920’s in Hollywood, Singin’ in the Rain is centered on the golden age of the silent film era, just before the transition of “talking pictures,” or “talkies” as they were known in Hollywoodland. Fictional silent screen duo, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are the “It” couple-favorites among the fans, the entertainment columnists, and Monumental Pictures-the film studio who contracts them. Enter talking pictures, and an ingénue who has the most unbearable and ear-shattering voice for on-screen acting. Throw is a dose of a few comedic situations, a little romance, large musical numbers set against the backdrop of the roaring ‘20’s and you have “Singin’ in the Rain,” the perfect formula for any musical. Often times, the plot, characters and even musical numbers change for the sake of an adaptation. However, the stage musical closely adheres to the plot of the film, and tells the story of a few fictional characters, loosely based around true events in Hollywood.

Director JaceSon P. Barrus brought together a tight ensemble cast (of all ages) which worked well together, and created a fantastic concept as he bridged the film and stage versions together, while also paying the appropriate homage to the film. It was nice to see that they pledged faithfulness to the film, but, also took some creative license and made the production stand in a category of its own. From the moment the show started, the company was so fully charged with energy. I am always impressed with the creative and innovative things that the production team at Plaza Theatre Company is able to do in their theatre-in-the-round space. The cast and crew brought intimacy to the story, and allowed the audience to be up close and personal with the choreography, the humor, and the details of the story. 

Tina Barrus designed costumes that were not only appropriate to the 1920’s, but had a great attention to detail. The 1920’s are another decade of fashion that absolutely fascinate me. From the fantastic hats, to the color and texture details of each costume, the costumes were one of the highlights of the production for me. The wardrobe of the women of the decade was very much mirrored on stage, and certainly gave depth and life to these larger-than-life personalities. There were many bright colors, sequins, and fringe-elements that have become very recognizable as characteristics of the 1920’s clothing. Each piece of clothing, and accessory was very dramatic, and was everything that I would have expected to see in the golden age of silent Hollywood film. There were a lot of details that Ms. Barrus incorporated into each costume, making them visually stunning and creative representations of the 1920’s.

Matt Victory was extraordinary in the role of Don Lockwood. Mr. Victory delivered with a strong vocal presence, and was very charismatic on stage. Mr. Victory delivered a spot on, and honest portrayal of the fictional silent movie star, Don Lockwood. Not only did Victory have the look of what I would expect to see from someone in the 1920’s, but, his performance of film star Don Lockwood very much reminded me of a young Gene Kelly. It was evident to me that he was having fun on stage in this production (something that I feel can sometimes be lost in the actor’s quest to deliver a serious and respectable performance). Mr. Victory was charming on stage, and overall, delivered a fantastic performance. 

Another standout was Jill Baker in the role of Kathy Selden. Through comedic delivery, a likeable on-stage persona and an incredible vocal range, Ms. Baker brought an wonderful element of maturity to the role that was originally portrayed by a young and “squeaky” nineteen year old Debbie Reynolds on screen. Ms. Baker’s honest charm on stage was a nice contrast to the loud, and obnoxious co-star Lina Lamont (portrayed comically by Milette Siler.) Ms. Baker truly took the role of Kathy Selden and made it her own, while also paying the appropriate homage to the performance and role played by Debbie Reynolds, an actress that the film and stage community dearly misses.

This production of Singin’ in the Rain is definitely worth seeing. The attention to detail evident in all aspects of this production makes for a wonderful musical experience at the theatre. From the moment the lights go down, and the familiar cinematic score is unveiled, you will be drawn into the story.

Singin’ in the Rain at Plaza Theatre Company keeps the integrity of the film, but also takes creative risks and gives a unique, and creative stage adaptation to the comfort of Cleburne, Texas. It is appropriate for audiences of all ages, and is what I consider to be one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. It is a musical that everyone should see, and is truly a classic. Whether you have seen the film, or if you are being introduced to the advent of “talking” pictures for the first time, through the eyes of Don, Kathy, Cosmo and Lina, “Singin’ in the Rain” will leave you with an enjoyable, and entertaining event of theatrical proportions. If you are looking for classic musical theatre, look no further. Who knows…you may even be in for a surprise or two…The forecast at each performance is cloudy with a chance of rain. Be sure to bring your umbrella.

Review: 'My Fair Lady' at the Artisan Center Theater

Laurie Lynn Lindemeier

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN / Texas

In the modern day world of 2017, audiences remain thrilled to watch a man teach a woman how to speak proper English to be accepted as a lady in “My Fair Lady.” Evidence to this are packed houses around the world for this popular musical for more than 50 years. This included one in Hurst, Texas—the Artisan Center Theater which was chocked full of an eager audience on opening night.

Yes, the riveted viewers filled to capacity the main stage theater to take in what some have dubbed the “perfect musical.” The beloved show is based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and set to Lerner’s witty lyrics and Loewe’s memorable music.

Perhaps this miraculous musical’s never-ending popularity is due to the unexpected plot turns, boisterous characters, catchy tunes, and elaborate costuming possibilities. All of these elements for this story set in England were embraced and lauded at the 195-seat theater-in-the-round in this little ‘ol Texas Theater that’s been around for 15 years.

The themes are as relevant today as ever: class distinction between the rich and poor, men dominating women and women pushing back, lack of commitment in an absentee parent, Britain’s relationship to America, and the basic theme—what does one actually need to have a life that’s “lovely.”

The abundantly sexist and degrading comments made by men are overlooked and even applauded in this show. The cast, crew, costumes and set were simply quite strong in this production and reeled in theater lovers with ease. The Artisan delivered a complete package of entertainment!

The pompous Henry Higgins admirably played by Stan Graner, calls Eliza, superbly played by Amanda Hollis, “deliciously low” and “horribly dirty” and even suggests he may “throw the baggage out.” The audience was charmed and delighted. This satisfaction is due to the acting and relatively strong singing of both of these performers. Graner played the role for the Artisan in the past and returned to present it solidly again. Hollis has a strong soprano voice, delightfully expressive facial expressions and supreme comedic timing. She captured the spunk of the flower girl turned proper lady brilliantly.

Another notable character was the maid, Mrs. Pearce, played beautifully by Mary Hanna who never dropped her brogue accent and tilted her head in subtle quizzical expressions that were marvelously effective. The actor who played Eliza’s sponge-loading, drunkard father Alfred Doolittle was Tom McWhorter. He had enthusiastic and playful acting skills, but also received laughter due to his drawl repeatedly leaking into his Cockney accent. Still, McWhorter did a fine job of “Get Me to the Church on Time” with the support of an excellent chorus who danced him to the dreaded marriage with steps of great fun and encouragement.

Choreographer Amy Jones created vivacious dances and obviously knows how to corral a bunch of Texan community theater actors to fly about the stage with flurry and precision. Brava!

Costuming of both the sumptuous gowns and the plain lower-class garb added immensely to the flourish of the big chorus dance scenes. Costumer Nita Cadenhead styled flowing and effective costumes. Especially splendid were the black and white gowns and suits worn by the snobbish onlookers in the horserace scene. Megan Brady and Bonnie Ann Buswold created the ladies’ elaborate hats that an opulent touch and helped to underline the huge difference between the social classes in Edwardian England.

Freddy, Eliza’s suitor, was sonorously sung by the strong tenor Cameron Potts. His voice is solid but I would like to see gesturing while he sings “On the Street Where You Live.” There’s a great opportunity for him to express himself with his arms, yet they remained glued to his side while he strolled and sang. Still, Potts plays the enamored suitor well and has good chemistry with Eliza.

The role of the stuffy Colonel Pickering was arrogantly performed by Richard Buswold. The kindness and respect this character showed Eliza was a welcome oasis to the treatment she received from her cold linguist teacher.

The snobbish Mrs. Higgins was acted by Louise Childs, and while she has the “reserved” part of her character down pat, she needed more underlying energy. The danger in playing a reserved character is to lack a seething core of energy and distain beneath the external indifference.

In general, the chorus of servants and dancers were in character and engaged, but there were a couple who did not know the words to the songs and noticeably fudged them and/or were not engaged with the central character. Nonetheless, on the whole, chorus’ strong singing and dancing kept the audience engaged.

One chorus member role stuck out in a splendid way, like a rose in a tulip patch. That gem was Avery Withers as a servant girl. She connected well to the action and played the small role with sincerity and sweetness.

With a beautiful set, designed by Wendy Searcy-Woode, and an overall fine group of dedicated performers, I expect the Artisan will continue to fill the house throughout Valentines’ week and till closing on March 11th… deservedly so.


MY FAIR LADY
Artisan Center Theatre
444 E. Pipeline Rd, Hurst, TX. 76053
Box office: 817-284-1200.
Website: http://www.ArtisanCT.com

The play runs through March 11th. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7:30 pm, and Saturdays at 3:00 pm & 7:30 pm. Ticket prices are $10-$24. For info and tickets, call 817.284.1200 or go to http://www.ArtisanCT.com

Review: 'Arsenic and Old Lace' at Richardson Theatre Centre

Nicole Mulupi

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

I had the pleasure this past weekend of taking time out to relax and laugh at Richardson Theatre Centre’s production of the classic dark farce Arsenic and Old Lace. From set design and costumes to sound and lighting, Director Rachael Lindley, cast and crew presented a tight, polished production with some first-class onstage talent.

Joseph Kesselring’s play is about Mortimer Brewster, a theatre critic who is newly engaged to Elaine Harper, the preacher’s daughter living next door to the family home where live his sweet, charitable aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster. The hilarity ensues when Mortimer visits his aunts and discovers a dead body in the window seat and credits it to his seemingly harmless older brother, Teddy (who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt). Instead, Mortimer learns that his aunts have made a “charity” of poisoning lonely old gentlemen and burying them in the cellar, which they call Panama. They’ve recruited Teddy as their accomplice, who is convinced he is digging locks in Panama for yellow-fever victims. The plot, and the comedy, thickens when Mortimer’s older brother Jonathan comes home with a new face that “looks like Boris Karloff,” accompanied by a creepy alcoholic surgeon and a murder record to match that of his aunts…and another dead body to store in the window seat.

When it was written, Kesselring’s play was set in Brooklyn, in The Present. It opened on Broadway in 1941 and was such a hit that, after it finished its Broadway run, Warner Bros. produced the now-classic film version starring Cary Grant, directed by Frank Capra, which was released in 1944. Richardson Theatre Centre’s play is set in its original 1941 setting, in the home of the Brewster sisters.

Kevin Paris’s set design made excellent use of the space with vintage furnishings from the 1930s. The warm, rich colors and fabrics he chose brought me back to the warm, antique-filled home of my own sweet elderly Aunt Florence. Authentic, high-quality tailored period costumes further established the pre-war setting. 

Lighting Designer Richard Stephens, Sr. created a basic, effective and manageable lighting scheme, mostly for practicality. When action occurred in the dark, blue lighting was used to good effect. Wyatt Moore was excellent in the tech booth operating both light and sound, keeping transitions smooth even in scenes where cues overlapped, as in the scenes where the action occurs in the dark. 

Rusty Harding’s sound design added another layer of realism and humor to the play. Along with classic big band jazz recordings playing pre-show, post-show and during intermission, he added a bit of camp here and there with a few familiar creepy tunes. In addition, the sound mix itself could not have been better. The actors projected their lines beautifully and with strong articulation, so the overhead stage mics were hardly needed.

Among a cast that ranged from beginner to seasoned professional, several performances stood out. Karen Jordan and Fradonna Griffin were fantastic as the charitably homicidal Abby and Martha Brewster, Budd Mahan was utterly convincing as the murderous Jonathan Brewster, and Richard Stephens Jr. fully embraced his Teddy Roosevelt alter-ego. I was also impressed with Ben Richardson as Officer O’Hara, the policeman/over-eager aspiring playwright. 

Fradonna Griffin’s Martha was the perfect “cute little old lady.” Her costume, hairstyle, expressions, posture, voice…everything was exactly right. She brought most of the physical comedy for the pair. The great lines, though, went to Karen Jordan as the more dominant Abby Brewster. The two together were hilarious, especially when playing against Josh Bangle as Mortimer Brewster.

Josh Bangle was young for the part of Mortimer, but he did such a great job in the role that I didn’t mind this. He was particularly strong (and seemed to be more at home) in comedic scenes. His incredulity at all that was happening around him highlighted the irony in every situation and the nuanced absurdity in every character.

Budd Mahan played Jonathan Brewster. In contrast to Bangle, Mahan may have been a bit too old for the part. However, his deep gravelly voice and slow, even speech combined with his intimidating height made him amazing in the role. Add to that his strong acting chops, and his performance more than makes up for the unlikely age difference between Jonathan, Teddy and Mortimer Brewster.

Jonathan’s accomplice, Dr. Einstein, was played by Rusty Harding. Though entertaining in his characterization, I found that Harding’s clean-cut appearance and gray suit made him look more like a Baptist deacon than an alcoholic surgeon and murderer. If he had looked more the part, perhaps he would have been more believable. In a nod to the film version, in which his character was played by Peter Lorre, Harding adopted a similar accent to Lorre’s. Unfortunately, the accent was uneven and further brought to question the plausibility of his character. Still, Peter Lorre…I mean, who could touch that performance? Bravo to Harding for the attempt!

Julia Kendry was a dynamic Elaine Harper, commanding attention whenever she was onstage. Sometimes, perhaps, too much. Her lilting voice, amorous affectations and giddy innuendos made me think Mortimer must be just as crazy as his family. Who could bear such a woman? With that said, I must admit this minister’s daughter was exactly as coquettish as the script demanded, however annoying that might have been.

Another character who literally commanded attention—with a trumpet—was played by Richard Stephens Jr, who was delightful in the role of Teddy Brewster, the sweet, childlike brother with delusions of grandeur. He carried a toy sword made of wood, consistently interacting with others and with his toys as though he was in his own made-up reality. Even when he had no lines, he was always in character, pacing around with bravado and standing proudly with chest and chin up. 

The cast was rounded out with ensemble members who each added a lively bit of humor to their scenes. The Reverend Harper and his wife were played by Lloyd Webb and Elaine Erback, who each played dual roles as Lieutenant Rooney of the Brooklyn police and Mrs. Witherspoon, superintendent of Happy Dale Sanitarium, respectively. Richard Stephens Sr. played a lonely old man and potential victim of the Brewster sisters. And finally, the kind-hearted but incompetent police were played by Dan Slay and Jon Doege as Officer’s Brophy and Klein, Lloyd Webb as Lieutenant Rooney, and Ben Richardson as Officer O’Hara. 

Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen to date. With a witty script and skillful direction, Richardson Theatre Centre presents an entertaining production that is sure to provide lots of laughs.


ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Richardson Theatre Centre, 518 W. Arapaho Rd, Suite 113, Richardson, TX 75080
Now through February 19, 2017

Thursday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and cost $20. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and cost $22. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. cost $20. For more info, visit RTC’s website at http://www.richardsontheatrecentre.net, or call 972-699-1130.

Review: 'An American in Paris' National Tour (Dallas)

John Garcia

OnStage Texas Critic / Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for THE COLUMN

At last night’s private cast party for the national touring company of An American in Paris, I had a chance to talk with the two principals and several of the ensemble to discover some very fascinating insight in the show. The cast comes in two hours before curtain where they begin a routine of bar work, stretch work, physical therapy, and company body warm ups. Then it’s a series of vocal warm ups, stretch the vocal pipes, which is capped off with hair, make-up, body mic, and then finally they stand in the wings ready to go!

If there was a common thread in all the conversations I had with several in the cast was how they each said how much they loved and supported each other. You could truly see it in their eyes just the touching bond of friendship and family unity they have within the company. Each one spoke highly of one another. I must agree with them because it does radiate from the stage a very unified and tight cast!

It was almost a two year process of endless auditions all over country to create this cast. Over 3,000 audition. But the production team was determined to find those rare gems that are true triple talents of dance, voice, and acting chops. After last night’s performance you can clearly see they have found the crème de la crème in triple threat talent! 

The ensemble that makes up An American in Paris will completely astound you with their seamless, ethereal and athletic dance technique. Each one of them has wrapped themselves within the magnificent choreography by Christopher Wheeldon (which won him the Tony Award for Best Choreography). 

Wheeldon’s choreography is a synthesis of ballet, modern, and jazz with an added layer of gymnastics. The ensemble not only executed his visions of dance to unbelievable heights, but created bold strokes of artistry with their bodies. Throughout the evening you never saw anyone out of sync or behind a beat. Now add another coating to their talents regarding vocals. They bring fresh, strong, and stellar singing voices that make those Gershwin classic songs come to life. The final coating is their acting craft. The majority of the ensemble has no lines per se, so they must rely on their facial expressions and subtext to convey their emotions. They did just that. From the war being over to expressing great joy in a Parisian Perfume department store. 

Here is a perfect example of two ensemble members that do just that: Barton Cowperthwaite and Caitlin Meighan portray at the top of Act One a solder and his wife reuniting now that the war is over. With their dancing and acting, they create a deeply touching duet of husband and wife brought back to together after a horrific war kept them apart. Their bodies intertwine and convey honest joy and love within the choreography. It is quite moving. That’s just one example of so many within this Tony award winning musical that is currently on its first national tour. But the ensemble’s pièce de résistance is the ballet in Act Two. It is simply marvelous to see it up close and live on stage. Wheeldon’s extraordinary work for this ballet is a piece of art, and this cast are the brushes to paint in vivid, intense colors on his blank canvas. From the formations to the razor sharp placement of arms, legs, and torsos, to the high in the air leaps-it was visually stunning to observe. 

There are also praiseworthy performances by two wonderful women in the supporting cast. Emily Ferranti delivers a frothy, jovial performance as Milo Davenport, a rich, gorgeous American Philanthropist who supports the arts and rubs elbows with Parisian high society. Swathed in rich satin costumes of bold colors she oozes sultry sex appeal. Her rich, pristine soprano vocals add texture and romance to her songs. It was quite moving to see her heart break of unrequited love with just a simple facial expression in Act Two. Gayton Scott delivers some of the best laughs of the night as Madame Baurel. She is the Grande dame of Paris’s nose in the air high society. She has a great speaking voice that sounds just like a snooty society lady. Ms. Scott had that perfect comedic craft that made even her exit lines hilarious.

Etai Benson is Adam Hochberg, a veteran of the war who sadly damaged his right leg, but not his spirit. He has returned to his passion, composing. Benson has searing intensity that serves as the floor work for his subtext. Hochberg uses sarcastic, witty humor to mask his deeper emotions. Benson displays heartfelt honesty when he meets and falls in love with the ballerina Lise (Sara Esty). Benson has a hysterical scene with Esty at a swanky party where he continues to stick his foot in his mouth in trying to impress her. Benson has a robust tenor voice that shows raw heartache in the song “But Not For Me” (singing beautifully with him is Emily Ferranti).

Henri Bauerl is a handsome, optimistic Frenchman who comes from a very wealthy family. He is being groomed to take over the family empire (textiles), but Henri has a dream of being an entertainer. That is why he and Adam are collaborating on his own show. The role is portrayed by Nick Spangler, who is covered in superior talent. Spangler has a magnificent, soaring tenor voice that is so sublime that I’m sure the Gershwins would compose new songs just for him. Spangler has the 11:00 O’clock show stopping number with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. His crystal clear vocals glide flawlessly into his higher register when the music changes keys without a hint of crack. But Henri has a deeper secret that he is keeping from his family, he is gay. In the book it is not stated, but small, clear hints are. And to top it off, he is engaged to Lise. Yep, the same girl that Adam has fallen for. Spangler’s acting craft is heartbreaking and honest in the second Act where things begin to unravel. Spangler delivers a phenomenal performance.

Garen Scribiner (Jerry Mulligan) and Sara Esty (Lise Dassin) are the romantic couple who we the audience follow through in their complicated journey throughout Paris to bond in love. Garen is Jerry, an American who just got out of the war and instead of going home, decides to stay in Paris to continue his passion, drawing. He meets Lise by chance and he is smitten immediately. Jerry soon meets Adam and Henri and they soon deemed themselves the three musketeers. However, none of them know that two of them are in love and another is engaged-to the same girl! Think The Bachelorette set in Paris, but without the rose ceremony and hot tub.

Scribiner and Esty have sensual, sizzling chemistry that I’m sure has the Orchestra in the pit wiping their brows as they play their instruments. What makes this chemistry so organic and real is that both crest on an arc of sweet, innocent crush to punch in the stomach conflict, to raw sensuality in the ballet. Both have dance technique that is outstanding and jaw dropping exciting. Each has several solo dance pieces, plus duets, and leading the full company in other high energy numbers. Schribner and Esty begin the evening with several dance sequences but don’t say a word. They express it all in dance. So when both begin to sing you are actually taken aback because they both possess exquisite singing voices. To see how much detail they give to the lyrics vocally and emotionally is stunning. Their acting craft is on the same equal artistic level as their dancing and singing. They open up their hearts to the audience, allowing us to see every emotion. I mean talk about triple threats here! Their performance is what anchors this production with tour de force talent.

A standing ovation should also go to Musical Director David Andrews Rogers and his superlative fourteen piece Orchestra. Talk about the hardest working orchestra in the country right now! The Gershwin score never subsides. The strings, piano, and the other instruments create the most glorious music to fill the massive Music Hall. No electronic strings or pre-recorded music. All live and all in its splendor. The score is from one of the greatest composers ever, so to have this orchestra bring it to such luxurious life and conducted by a true maestro, well that is a rarity in today’s national tours.

an-american-in-paris-tour-touring-company-3.jpg

When I saw the original Broadway production in May 2015 at the Palace Theatre, I turned to my guest at intermission and said, “I don’t know how this can possibly tour.” The scenic design had tons of projections and videos, while a sea of set walls and pieces were mechanized to move all over the stage. With great relief this touring production has only a few minor tweaks here and there. There are still all those sumptuous projections, and the set pieces and walls move all over the stage. But they are not moved by mechanics. It was done with the cast in character, as they place a wall or set piece; they gel into dance or a pose. Who needs technology when you got talent like that! Natasha Katz’s elegant lighting design, and Bob Crowley’s sleek sets and colorful costumes are all there. The only major change I noticed involved a set piece in the number “I’ll build a Stairway to Paradise”. In an earlier scene there is a comment of Henri doing this number at Radio City Music Hall. As his dream sequence comes to life, three massive arcs fly down resembling the design of RCMH. In the Broadway version each triangle had neon lighting, so a dizzy array of colors and patterns appeared. For the tour, the arcs are there, but they are not lined in neon. Instead projections are aimed at them to create the patterns. Also the art deco skyscraper background had tiny twinkling lights; the tour’s version does not. But Dallas audiences will still get the Grande epic design that its New York counterpart had.

An American in Paris is that rare breed of musical that just practically doesn’t exist anymore. We had Twyla Tharp’s Movin Out and Susan Stroman’s Contact. But one had a single vocalist above on a catwalk singing, while the other had a splatter of singers. But both focused on dance. 

As several cast members said last night, “It’s a two hour musical with a 14 minute ballet at the end.” This musical will be literally impossible to recreate. I mean has anyone heard of Movin Out or Contact being done anywhere? Yep. Thought so.

If you have tiny kids or teens who love to dance, and we mean hardcore youth dancers, not tiny Brittany doing a little routine at the Ladies social luncheon because mother is the charity ball chairperson. If you have those hardcore dance/theater kids in your home or class or current show, you MUST take them to see this spectacular piece of musical theater heaven before they become addicted to Hamilton and rapping. They will see what it takes to be a true triple talent powerhouse once they see this cast! Or if you are married, engaged, or dating-this is the perfect treat to enjoy together. And if you are a lover of bold, dynamic new musical theater, go get tickets NOW!


AN AMERICAN IN PARIS-The Musical (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall in Fair Park
For all ticket info, dates, times, location, etc. click on link:
http://dallassummermusicals.org/tickets/ticketing-info/

Review: '42nd Street' National Tour - Dallas

Joe Gerard

  • Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

42nd Street is the kind of big Broadway musical that just puts a smile on your face. The tap dancing numbers are a pure joy to watch as chorus girls and boys dance in perfect unison. The very fine ensemble currently on stage in this touring show at the Dallas Summer Musicals gives it their all on stage. The reason this show has endured is it’s just plain FUN!

A young girl moves to the big city to pursue her dreams, gets cast in a Broadway show, and ends up becoming a star. Peggy Sawyer, a young girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, arrives in New York City in 1933 to pursue her dream of being in a Broadway show. She arrives too late to audition for the new musical “Pretty Lady” by famous director Julian Marsh. She befriends some chorus girls and ends up impressing the director. Former star actress Dorothy Brock is the lead actress in “Pretty Lady” because her sugar daddy is the primary investor in the show. The cast travels to Pennsylvania for the out-of-town tryouts and on opening night Dorothy breaks her ankle thanks to Peggy who is promptly fired. Julian and the chorus kids convince Peggy to return to the show because she's talented enough to take over as lead for Dorothy. With only two days to learn the entire show as the new lead, Peggy is put to the test, but rises to the occasion and emerges a new Broadway star.

Photo: Chris Bennion

Photo: Chris Bennion

42nd Street has some well-known classic songs such as “Lullaby of Broadway”, “We’re in the Money”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, and of course “42nd Street”. Every ensemble number is a tap-dancing extravaganza. The dialogue is actually pretty terrible and the plot is predictable, but this is above all a song and dance show. Every song is a visual treat, and well done by a talented cast of singers and dancers. 

Caitlin Ehlinger plays the young and fresh Peggy Sawyer. Peggy is the ingénue who moves to New York to be in a Broadway show. She has natural talent, but no experience either onstage or in love. Ms. Ehlinger looks the part of the doe-eyed newcomer. She actually plays the character a little too sheepish and shy. She whispered a lot of her dialogue in a breathy Marilyn Monroe way. She has a lovely voice too, but she really shines in the dance numbers. Her feet were moving faster than anyone else’s on stage and she never looked tired. 

Julian Marsh is the famous Broadway director with a hit track record. He’s a headstrong leader with a tough exterior, but actually has a kind heart and cares for his cast and crew. Matthew J. Taylor as Julian is really the best actor in the show. He finds the right balance to the character, and he has a booming voice that sounds extraordinary on his big number “Lullaby of Broadway”.

The diva past her prime is Dorothy Brock. Dorothy is using her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon, to get the lead role in Julian Marsh’s new show. Everyone knows Dorothy isn’t that talented and doesn’t deserve to act like such a prima donna. Kaitlin Lawrence plays Dorothy Brock, which is a good role for an actress. A lot of singing and not so much dancing. Ms. Lawrence looks kind of like a young Bette Midler, but doesn’t have near the vocal chops. Considering she does a lot of singing, I wish she had a voice that was a bit stronger and more memorable.

I was additionally impressed with two actresses in supporting roles. Maggie Jones is a co-writer and producer for “Pretty Lady”. She’s brassy, opinionated, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Britte Steele is a scene stealer as Maggie. She hit every punchline and every note just right. It’s a comedic role that Ms. Steele knocked out of the park. Natalia Lepore Hagan plays sexpot Annie, one of the chorus girls who befriends Peggy Sawyer. The tall and beautiful Ms. Hagan adds extra attitude and has real presence onstage. I would have actually liked to see her play Peggy Sawyer.

I can’t say enough good things about the musical staging and new choreography by Randy Skinner. Every number was full of energy and impressive tap dancing routines. It’s not easy to get 40 dancers on a stage in perfect unison, but the inventive choreography highlighted the terrific dancers. 

Costumes by Roger Kirk were also very well done. The 1930’s style costumes were flattering on the ladies and the men looked sharp in suits. The sequined costumes for the dance numbers were flashy and eye-catching. The gold and silver outfits in the “We’re in the Money” number were especially striking. Also, the lighting design by Ken Billington lit up the stage in bright colors. One song called “Shadow Waltz” used spotlights and backlighting to cast dancing shadows across the stage. It was a great effect and added variety to the staging. 

Director Mark Bramble obviously knew the strengths and weaknesses of this show. The show opens with a peek below the curtain at the chorus kids dancing legs. He staged all the dance numbers in an exciting way, and every scene change happened quickly and efficiently. Act One drags in a few places, but Act Two builds momentum from start to finish. 42nd Street is a crowd-pleasing show that will make you want to get up and tap dance out of the theater.


42nd STREET
Dallas Summer Musicals
Fair Park Music Hall
909 1st Ave, Dallas, TX 75210
June 28th – July 10th, 2016

Tickets: For dates, times, and ticket info go to www.dallassummermusicals.org or call the box office at 214-691-7200.

Review: 'Bright Half Life' at WaterTower Theatre

Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander

  • OnStage Texas Critic
  • Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

The simplest relationships can be surprisingly complex when multiple viewpoints must coexist. Bright Half Life chronicles the romance between two women, Erica and Vicky, and the transforming moments that circumscribe their relationship and marriage. The play deviates from a typical linear structure, moving backward and forward in time to show its characters and the story of their love in bursts of connected segments that illustrate all the things that keep them together and all the things that tear them apart. While the lack of chronology can be a bit difficult to decipher at first, once your mind adjusts, the obvious similarities to the way we sift through memory when we find ourselves at a relationship crossroads and begin wondering how we got there make the lack of chronology a powerful device.

Developed during residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference in 2014, Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life is a relative newcomer to the stage, premiering at The Women’s Project Theater in NYC last February. Playwright Tanya Barfield is a 2007 Pulitzer Prize nominee and the assembled artistic and technical team for the NYC run of Bright Half Life included some of the most active names in theater, which should give you an idea of the level of interest the play engendered.

Kenneisha Thompson and Kelsey Leigh Ervi in BRIGHT HALF LIFE. Photo: WaterTower Theatre

Kenneisha Thompson and Kelsey Leigh Ervi in BRIGHT HALF LIFE. Photo: WaterTower Theatre

Because the play runs 75 minutes long with no intermission and both characters continuously share the stage, the roles require actors with stamina, superb timing, and palpable chemistry. Kelsey Leigh Ervi and Kenneisha Thompson, who embody the roles of Erica and Vicky at WaterTower, are strong in all of these. Kenneisha Thompson, as Vicky, masterfully shifts gears between segments with intensity. When a time-switch is occasionally confusing, we are often able to regain our footing based on small changes in Thompson’s delivery and body language, which change as Vicky ages. Throughout her performance, Thompson emphasizes Vicky’s ambivalence toward relationships, but her Vicky is not flighty or uncommitted. Rather, she is so acutely sensitive to social politics in the world around her that she sometimes errs on the side of security. Thompson is an expert at mixing analysis and raw emotion, easily modulating her voice and facial expressions to instantly switch from one to another and illustrating how, over time, both take their toll on Vicky.

Kelsey Leigh Ervi plays Erica, a would-be writer and teacher, who appears to be a bit more adventurous in relationships than she is in other aspects of life. I admit that I am biased against Erica’s initial character type, so it surprised me when I found myself sympathizing with Erica later on, and I suspect Ervi is mostly to blame for making me re-evaluate similar individuals in my life. Although Erica could be accused of lacking follow-though and a harboring a childish inability to empathize, Ervi’s Erica is unfalteringly earnest and unflinchingly honest, which makes her hard to dislike; she seems simplistic, but has hidden complexity. Ervi is at her best when attempting to (often awkwardly) express how she feels about Vicky, whether at the office where they first meet or during a marriage proposal. And she has a particularly strong during physical scenes with Vicki, during which she reveals vulnerable tenderness.

Costume changes occur on stage and are minimal but effective. Each character has her own style; Vicky wears professional clothing with more traditionally feminine tailoring, while Erica dresses in jeans and a t-shirt with a more traditionally masculine button-down shirt and occasionally a blazer.

Costume changes are assisted through two coat racks placed at either side of the stage. The additional set, designed by Bradley Gray and Director Garret Storms, appears simple, yet is effective. It consists of a backdrop constructed of interlocking wooden blocks and embedded with a constellation of lights, and several minimalist wooden benches that the actors move to represent different locations—Vicky’s apartment, the office where they meet, an elevator, a Ferris wheel. At the end, the set reveals itself to be not quite so simplistic after all, which elegantly mirrors the subject matter of the play.

Shifts in time and emotion are indicated through subtle shifts in lighting, whether through gels and dimming, or small changes in the constellation of lights that form the backdrop of the play and the handful of lights dangling from the ceiling. Additional indicators of time changes occur through sound effects, with an occasional progression of chords again mirroring the play’s content. Given the small space and excellent vocal projection of the actors, microphones are not required.

One of the questions asked throughout Bright Half Life is, “Knowing what you know now, would you do it all over again?” As relates to seeing WaterTower’s production of the play, my response is a resounding yes. Bright Half Life takes advantage of the dream-like jumps that sense memory imparts on our interpretation of our own experiences and invites us to apply them, which results in something fascinating: many people will have wildly differing conclusions after watching this play. It is this universal appeal and invitation to interpretation that make for a thought-provoking evening of theatre, and WaterTower’s production alluringly magnifies these.


BRIGHT HALF LIFE
WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX 75001
Runs through June 12th.

Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees on Sunday at 2:00pm. Additional performances on Thursday, May 26 at 7:30pm and Saturday, June 11 at 2pm.

Ticket prices for regular performances are $28.00. Tickets for the May 26th and June 11th performances are $22.00. Groups of 10 or more receive $3.00 off the cost of admission. Student rush tickets cost $12.00 and are available 15 minutes before curtain time (subject to availability).

For information and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.watertowertheatre.org/, or call the box office at 972-450-6232.

Review: 'Cabaret' National Tour at AT&T Performing Arts Center

Joel Gerard

  • OnStage Texas Critic
  • Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

 

“In here, life is beautiful.” The performance of Cabaret currently on tour at the Winspear Opera House is also beautiful. This is simply the finest production of Cabaret I have ever seen. It’s a classic show that has received a raw and emotional revival for this tour.

The setting is Berlin, Germany in 1929-1930. Berlin at the time was an exciting city filled with free-wheeling parties and sexual liberation. However, the Nazis were coming into power and freedom was replaced with oppression and fear. Based around the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, the main story involves an English cabaret performer named Sally Bowles and the American writer Clifford Bradshaw with whom she meets and develops a relationship. Some of the other situations involve a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, her suitor Herr Schultz, and the other residents in the boarding house. The enigmatic Emcee oversees all the action and looms over the proceedings.

Randy Harrison, who is mostly known for playing Justin on the acclaimed Television series “Queer As Folk”, presides over the drama as the Emcee. He’s a mischievous figure that weaves in and out of scenes playing different parts. Most of his songs serve as a metaphor for the current political climate in Germany. Mr. Harrison is extremely impressive in this leading role. He has a rich, booming voice that caught me by surprise. At the start of Act II, he comes out and does a bit of improvisation with the audience which made everyone laugh. He dances, sings, and nails every emotional moment.

Sally Bowles is a complicated character. As headliner of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally parties and drinks and bounces from man to man. Her bold and effervescent way with people masks her pain. She hides from the real world and tries to remain oblivious to the changes happening in Germany and around her. Andrea Goss tries her best with Sally. She has a good voice, but she doesn’t really get a chance to let loose. “Maybe This Time” is one of the best songs in the show and she just doesn’t quite nail it. I’ve heard other actresses sing it better. I’ve heard the title song, “Cabaret”, sung strictly as a bouncy up-tempo song and also in a slow sad version. Ms. Goss does something somewhere in between, and with a touch of anger. It was her best moment in the show, but the rest of her performance felt a little off.

Clifford Bradshaw is the American writer who comes to Berlin to be inspired to write a new novel. He gets seduced by the glitz and the parties of Berlin, but he is also very aware of the impending Nazi takeover. Even though he’s been with men in the past, he’s drawn to Sally and tries his best to be in a relationship with her. Cliff is actually a bland character on paper. But Lee Aaron Rosen injects charm and passion to Cliff that I’ve never seen anyone do before. He made a weak character come to life and made us care about him.

The boarding house in Berlin where Cliff stays is run by Fraulein Schneider, and older spinster woman who never married. She develops a flirtation, and then real feelings for one of the tenants staying there, Herr Schultz. Herr Schultz is the Jewish owner of a fruit shop in Berlin. Though he was born in Germany, his Jewish faith puts him in danger from the Nazis. The subplot between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz has always been my least favorite part of Cabaret. Even though their relationship is central to the theme of the show, I’ve always found it to be the least interesting aspect. I would much rather spend time with the dancers and performers in the Kit Kat Klub. However, major kudos to Shannon Cochran as Fraulein Schneider. She was by far the best actor in the show. Her voice and talent really sold every moment and showed great depth. Mark Nelson was also wonderful as Herr Schultz, the most innocent character in the show. He played well opposite Ms. Cochran and their bond was the most believable.

One of the best parts of watching Cabaret on stage is the Kit Kat Klub Band. These people play every instrument in the live band onstage, then they move downstage to sing, dance, and act in many scenes as the scantily clad boys and girls of the Kit Kat Klub. They are the real triple-threats and an extremely talented group.

The costumes by William Ivey Long are sublime perfection. Mr. Long has been nominated for 15 Tony awards and won 6 times. There is no one in the business who does it better. The Kit Kat Klub girls are dressed in revealing lingerie and the boys in open vests and trousers. Sally Bowles wears a divine fur coat most of the show. The Emcee also wears mostly revealing outfits such as crisscrossed suspenders, a black trench coat, and even a sparkly dress or two. He understands every character and dresses them just perfectly.

The set design by Robert Brill is fairly simplistic in its design but very functional. Center stage has three doors used for various scenes such as the boarding house and the Kit Kat Klub. Two spiral staircases lead up to the second level where the orchestra is suspended over the action downstage. A large picture frame highlights any action on the second level. The large stage and the spacious Winspear Opera House strangely made the show feel less intimate. Cabaret truly works better in an actual cabaret style setting. A smaller audience and more confined space would make you feel like you were actually in the Kit Kat Klub.

The direction and choreography is stellar courtesy of the original Broadway veteran directors Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes. For a show that runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes, it moves very briskly and doesn’t drag. The directors made some great choices and one mildly confusing one. The song “Two Ladies” is now done where one of the ladies is a boy in drag. It was funny and added a fresh take on the song. One of the other well-known songs, “Mein Herr”, is pretty famous for the choreography using chairs by the legendary Bob Fosse. This version doesn’t use the chairs at all, and I kind of missed that fun visual to go along with the song.

The choreography and assistant direction for this national tour was recreated from the original by Cynthia Onrubia. For you fans of TV’s “Dancing With The Stars”, she is indeed the regular judge on the hit ABC series. She also was one of Madonna’s dancers for her world tour titled “The Girlie Show”. She in fact was the nude dancer with chopped hair that made her look almost bald who slithered and glided sensually on a high rise stripper pole at the beginning of the show. So to be erotic and uninhibited on stage fit perfectly with her background to create the debauched and lascivious world within the Kit Kat Klub.

The final image of the show (which I won’t spoil) is striking and haunting. I wasn’t expecting it to punch me in the gut that emotionally, but it did. This is a masterful version of Cabaret co-produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. In fact, this is the second revival of this particular staging. You won't want to miss it.

Review: '[title of show]' at the Firehouse Theatre

Mark-Brian Sonna

OnStage Contributing Critic from The Column

~~~~~~

FARMERS BRANCH, TX - [Title of Show] is a show about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. This simple but clever premise provides much comedic fodder. Not only is the show about creating a show but serves as commentary about the process of mounting a musical, the ups and downs of creativity, the dependence on others to make a show successful, and the trials and tribulations surrounding the production of a show. It’s a show with many fun one liners, comedic songs, and it pokes fun at audiences, producers, casting, composing music, writing lyrics and creating the book of a musical. It is all done with much good natured humor. The show isn’t heavy on plot, deep meaning, or high drama. At least this is the version that The Firehouse Theatre is presenting under the capable direction of Lon Barrera. From my understanding there is another version that is laced with profanities, and more edgy humor. This is the family friendly version. 

With a musical like [Title of Show] the creative team must decide how to present the material. Like many Neil Simon’s plays the option is to play it straight which makes the comedy sharper and the play more poignant, or to play it broadly to garner more laughs and amusement while downplaying the dramatic impact. This production presents the latter way. While my personal preference would have been the former, nonetheless [Title of Show] is thoroughly entertaining and worth attending.

Lon Barrera does marvelous staging. He creates many sight gags that constantly surprise the audience and induce laughter. To name them would spoil the fun because part of the joy is in seeing what he will happen next. He keeps the pace of the action brisk, and his staging is infectiously energetic. The five performers he chose are exceptionally talented and fulfill his strong vision.

Musically the show is superb. While the songs may not have memorable melodies that audiences will find themselves humming afterwards, each song is performed flawlessly. This isn’t just due to the talent of the singers, but it is due to the strong musical direction of Andrew Friedrich. Harmonies are realized effortlessly. Tonality, emphasis, and tempos are spot on. Considering that the score requires only a piano and four voices, the music fills the theatre. Andrew Friedrich plays the piano throughout the show, along with playing the small role of Larry, and his piano skills, comedic timing and musicality is impressive.

The four main cast members that carry the show are sensational. It is doubtful a better cast could have been assembled. Because this musical references itself in the dialogue and breaks the fourth wall, it requires a strong set of actors to make it clear to the audience when the action is self-referential, when a book scene is happening, and when audience asides are occurring, it could be very confusing for an audience to follow. This cast untangles it all and there is never any confusion as to when, where, and what is happening.

Jeff and Hunter, played by Cody Dry and Joshua Sherman respectively are two peas in a pod. They are best friends. Hunter is the catalyst of the duo as he is the person who first brings up the idea of creating musical for a festival within three weeks. Hunter is also the one that is also the one who pushes for changes in the show when the opportunity arises to mount the show on Broadway. Jeff doesn’t agree with the changes Hunter makes and this disagreement threatens to rip apart their friendship. Because Dry and Sherman present their characters so one dimensionally by the time the rift occurs, it fails to pull at the heartstrings of the audience. But this isn’t detrimental to the production because the audience knows based on the way that the characters have been presented that it will all work out and a happy end is coming, and as an audience member we are eager to see how they will work out their differences. Dry and Sherman have great chemistry on stage and play off each other exceptionally well. It’s as if both actors have been playing these roles for a long time; they are so comfortable with each other on stage. Vocally their voices blend beautifully and at no point in the show does one upstage the other. For the show to work they need to be seen as a unit, and they succeed. 

Heidi, as played by Noelle Mason, is the most dimensional character in the production. Whereas everyone else seems more like a caricature, she is the most real. Vocally, she has a stunning voice and she is able to add nuances to her songs illuminating the subtext behind the lyrics. As a performer she seizes the stage when required by her part, and then generously relinquishes it to become part of the ensemble. Her initially strained relationship with the character Susan eventually evolves into a genuine friendship. The arc of her character is believable and is a testament of her acting prowess.

The funniest character in the show is that of Susan played by Elisa Danielle James. Her droll deliveries peppered with her unexpected quips are flawlessly executed. Like Ms. Mason she understands the need to shine when required and then work her way back into the fold of the ensemble. For the character to succeed the audience must love not liking her, which is a complex task to pull off properly, and Ms. James nails it. 

With such brilliant performances on stage it was slightly disappointing to see some of the technical elements of the show not reach the level of the performers.

The choreography by Shannon Walsh was a mixed bag. Nearly every number was accompanied by choreography. At times I wanted the singers to simply stay put. The lyrics and melodies were clever enough; there was no need to add so much dancing. This isn’t to say that some of the dance steps weren’t effective. She borrows from the Broadway cannon of famous dance steps/sequences and introduces them into the musical numbers to add to the comedy. To see the performers execute them, at times with some struggle and trepidation which added to the laughs, was a joy. But these choreographic comedic ploys get overused, and the impact is lessened.

There is no credit given to whoever came up with the costuming. The characters are to remain dressed the same throughout the show, so it shouldn’t have been a difficult task. While the character Larry was appropriately dressed all in black as a musician, and Jeff and Hunter were dressed in t-shirts and jeans which was serviceable to the characters, the roles of Susan and Heide needed definition. The musical is set in New York and the dialogue references the women as one being downtown and the other being midtown. Neither woman was dressed accordingly. They looked suburban. It wasn’t as detrimental for the character of Heidi, but for the role of Susan to be dressed in a soft pink and white top with blue jeans did not capture the harder edge that the downtown Manhattan neighborhoods like Tribeca, Chelsea, and the East Village, have. Since the characters are basically stereotypes, their manner of dress would have added to the zaniness of the show.

The set designed by Kevin Brown was confusing. Because the dialogue in the play also mentions that the set is supposed to be made up of only 4 chairs and a piano, to see a stage be saddled with an elevated platform in a room with a long wall full of show posters, it caused confusion as to where the play was taking place. Based on the dialogue the audience knows that sometimes it’s at Hunter’s apartment and at other times at Jeff’s apartment, and the well done lighting design created by Kyle Harris helped establish these areas by delineating with light sections of the stage. But the room encompassing the stage didn’t indicate if the other scenes were in a rehearsal room, a stage, in an apartment, etc. And why a platform? It’s never used. Aesthetically the construction of the back wall wasn’t well done because the seams of each wall panel could be seen. The set felt like a confusing add-on. A blank stage would have sufficed.

Another strange add-on to the set was the use of projections at one point in the show created by Tyler Jeffrey Adams. I’m not sure what the point of it was for it added nothing of substance to the show and proved to be distracting.

The sound design by Mark Howard had sound mixing issues with the mikes during the songs. It was a slightly muddled. Fortunately, the diction and clarity of the performers was so strong that they were still intelligible but their vocals lacked crispness. Because the piano was set on the platform, the hollow of the platform augmented the volume of the instrument and frequently nearly drowned out the singers. Fortunately, these outstanding singers remedied the problem when it occurred and they belted out their songs to compensate for the volume disparity and to insure that the lyrics would be heard.

I must commend the properties designer Connie Hay. Though the show doesn’t require that many props, there is one sight gag regarding programs of Broadway Shows. It is inconceivable that she found all the original playbills, which means Hay had to recreate them. Well done!

[Title of Show] is a feel-good musical. The strength of this show is in the clever story within a story within a story and it requires an ensemble of talented actors and singers, and a very good piano player to pull it off. It doesn’t depend on the technical elements for the show to succeed. The Firehouse Theatre accomplished this task by finding 5 outstanding performers, a very capable director and insanely talented musical director/piano player. Go see it.


[TITLE OF SHOW]
The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas 75234
Now through May 1st, 2016

Performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30PM, and Sundays at 2:30PM. For information and tickets visit www.thefirehousetheatre.com or call 972-620-3747.

Review: 'Wicked' National Tour at Dallas Summer Musicals

John Garcia

OnStage Texas Critic

~~~~~~~

DALLAS, TX - Say what you will about Wicked, but this is one of the very few musicals in theater history that did not need awards or waves of critical acclaim to survive the blistering cold, business world of Broadway in becoming a hit.

I hit the yellow brick road to New York to see the original Broadway production of Wicked the very week after it opened back in 2003 at the gargantuan Gershwin Theatre, starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth. A fun fact about Menzel, when she went to the original callbacks, she cracked badly on the high note of "Defy Gravity". She went home in tears for she felt she lost the role. But Director Joe Mantello found that moment at her callback endearing, and she got the role that would lead her to a Tony award.

Since savoring the original Broadway version, I have seen this mega hit musical not only again in New York, but in several national tours.

Tackling the role of the girl with green skin, I've seen Stephanie J. Block (who did Elphaba in the first workshop), Eden Espinosa, Shoshanna Bean, and Dee Roscioli.

Wafting in Glinda's bubble I've enjoyed the work of Annaleigh Ashford, Kendra Kassebaum, Alli Mauzey, Kate Reinders, Jenn Gamatese, and Megan Hilty (who was a powerhouse!).

At the 2004 Tony awards, Wicked stepped into Radio City Music Hall with 10 nominations. Everyone predicted that it would win Best Musical. But in a major shocker, it would be the puppets from Avenue Q that would take home the Tonys for Best score, book, and musical. Wicked took home three Tonys (Sets, Costumes, and Best Actress for Menzel).

Back in 2003, the week before I saw the original production I had read the mixed reviews that the New York critics gave the musical. I must admit I do agree with some of the problems they addressed in those reviews. The book has its moments of becoming lost, sluggish, and struggles to find its footing in several key scenes. Winnie Holzman's book actually steers away from the darker overtones of the novel. But where she fails the most is in fleshing out several supporting characters that are major plot points. Such as Madame Morrible, Nessarose, Boq, and even the Wizard. These characters serve as major influences and story plot twists in regards to the journey that Elphaba and Glinda take not only with each other, but with the audience as well. But Holzman's lethargic book fails to fully explore and flesh out both the subtext and characterization of these roles. It doesn't help that Stephen Schwartz did not compose at least one major, full solo song for the majority of these characters to sing. 

The problems that I saw in 2003 are still there. The musical screams for Madame Morrible to have one good song to explain her hidden motives and personal history. Another great moment lost was a good ballad for Boq to sing in regards to his tragic outcome in Act II. And still to this day I just feel that the second act song sung by the Wizard ("Wonderful") just stops and kills right in its path the dramatic intensity that Elphaba had created prior to that scene. The song does not move the story or emotion whatsoever. It's roadkill that forces the deeply moving emotion to stop dead in its tracks.

But none of this matters, for Wicked did not need any silver, spinning medallions or praise from the critics, the musical has gone on to still have sold out houses, not only in New York, but with its national tours. It has shattered several box office records and has become of the biggest grossing musicals of all time, with no hint of slowing down.

When mega hit Broadway musicals repeat and return on tour, slowly you will see a physical change from the first national tour to the current one on the road. A great example of this is Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The 1st national tour had an exquisite castle, tons of scenery, special effects, costumes, and a large cast. But as it toured over and over through the years, the tour slowly transferred into cheaper looking sets or major set pieces becoming painted backdrops. There were less special effects, the costumes looked lifeless, and the cast shrunk in size.

Thankfully 99% of Wicked has remained intact after all these years. They have kept all the glitz, sparkle, and lavish design as both the original New York version as well as in past national tours, with only a few minor tweaks. You still see the extravagant costumes by Susan Hilferty, the grand scenic design by Eugene Lee, and the sublime lighting design by Kenneth Posner.

As mentioned earlier, I have seen the original Broadway production, then returning twice to see it again in New York, and saw every national tour of Wicked that came through Dallas. This time around I did see a few scenic changes. For instance, when we arrive at Shiz University, originally the upstage set piece was a miniature of life-like buildings where light shined through the various windows. This time it is now a painted backdrop (but it still has lights pouring from the windows). Another set piece change was the Bridge. Both in New York and in the majority of the tours, various characters and scenes took place on the actual bridge. Originally Elphaba hid under the bridge as Glinda and Fiyero on the bridge kissed, which led to the song “I’m Not That Girl”. In this current tour the bridge is there, but no longer has the walkway. But a new set piece has been added in the Castle where Elphaba hides. There is now a decaying wishing well with branches, which is used for a great moment towards the end of the show. But again, minor changes that for any first time audience member would not even notice.

I was extremely surprised and found exciting the slight changes in the orchestrations. It was like a nice new coat of paint was splashed onto the score, giving many of the songs a new energy. The diehard Wicked fan will get a wonderful thrill in hearing the changes in tempos, instruments, volume, and twists the orchestrations now have. I discovered that this really made the score fresh and grand! 

One of the greatest thrills I get in reviewing Wicked over and over again is seeing how both the leads and ensemble tackle the show, not only vocally, but in their acting craft and approach to the characters. Sure, not everyone saw the original production, but so many have the cast recording that I’m sure they have listened to non-stop. This musical has become so iconic now that each actor has the challenge to create their own version of those roles. As stated before, I’ve seen quite a few in these roles that made them their own. This current touring cast not only met the challenge, but achieves resounding success!

A touring company will go all around this country. So to do the same show/role over and over again, well it can cause casts to go into auto pilot and just go through the motions. I’ve seen here and there other national tours of mega hit musicals have this touring fatigue show in their work. Not with this cast!

Kudos must be paid to the ensemble. Their energy was magnetic and they set the tone for the evening right out of the gate with the opening number. Their vocals were so tight, crisp, and clean. I particularly loved the new vocal moment the ensemble have in “No One Mourns The Wicked”, in that they decrescendo right on vocal cue, and then belt in full unison. They play a variety of roles all evening long, and instead of blending, you clearly see they each have their own character. They may not say a word, but their body movements, facial expressions, and commitment to scenes really made them all stand out. They also execute Wayne Cilento’s musical staging beautifully, particularly in “Dancing Through Life”. This ensemble glittered brighter than any emerald gem.

As Madame Morrible, Wendy Worthington served up a delicious plate of evil and comedy. This immensely talented actress seemed to channel Dame Helen Mirren as The Queen with a dash of Dame Edna thrown in with her portrayal of a professor who becomes the Wizard’s press secretary. Her facial expressions were priceless and her comedic zingers were perfection. Ms. Worthington is a prime example of why that role so desperately needs a terrific solo musical number of her own. 

Stuart Zagnit is charming as the Wizard, even though we know he has a darker mission for Elphaba. Megan Masko Haley’s approach to Nessarose was so, so, much better than in past actresses who have done the role. Haley gave her more warmth and shyness, which made the audience show great compassion for her. Haley’s emotional change in Act II in a dramatic scene involving Boq and her sister, had a darker subtext that has not been there in past performances of other actresses. Sam Seferian gives a fascinating new interpretation of Boq. Past actors seem to aim their interpretation of Boq going gaga over Glinda. But Seferian instead shows deep, true love for her, not some college boy crush. But where Seferian really shines is in the aforementioned scene with Nessarose and Elphaba in Act II. He does not go for the obvious jokes regarding what has happened to his life or his people the munchkins. Seferian instead gives the role vivid anger and resentment. But once he sees what Elphaba has done for her sister, Seferian shows heartfelt happiness. He smartly does not allow the weakness of the book to affect his performance; he rises so high above it and delivers a much more grounded and fleshed out role than what I’ve seen in some past actors who have portrayed Boq. Jake Boyd portrays Fiyero, the spoiled rich playboy who arrives at Shiz University with a hangover. Book wise, you see and feel the struggle Holzman dealt with in making this character work. I’ve seen some past actors (both on Broadway and on tour) either win or strike out in this role. It takes a capable, vigorous actor with a sharp set of acting tools to make this character not only come alive, but to build a solid character that is not on paper. Mr. Boyd accomplishes that so superbly; that he delivers the BEST performance I’ve seen of this role ever. He so smartly avoids of staying in the paint by number framework of frat boy that others have done with this role. He builds instead a boy who becomes a man. He doesn’t just flirt with Glinda, Boyd shows that Fiyero really is falling for her, that is until a very special moment. Sitting so close to the stage it was a terrific treat to see the intimacy and internal moments involving the triangle of the three principals (Elphaba, Glinda, and Fiyero). When Boyd (as Fiyero) touches Elphaba’s hand for the first time, his facial expressions showed right then and there his heart had been moved by this green girl. Boyd physically is tall with handsome model features, all wrapped up in a galvanizing stage presence. His chemistry with Emily Koch (as Elphaba) is sensual, erotic, and passionate. I’ve never seen this before in past productions, not even in the original. This is a family friendly musical, but I actually thought this raw chemistry between Boyd and Koch so invigorating. The Act II scene between Boyd and Koch as they sing the duet “As Long As You’re Mine”, they reconstructed this number to have sizzling, sensual heat. Boyd displays his subtext throughout his performance. He possesses an extraordinary tenor voice that makes all his songs quite memorable. His vocal belt is robust with a vibrato that grips his tenor vocals firmly. His Act II scene work is outstanding in that he shows his heart battling between the two women in his life, while is mind struggles with his royal position as Captain of the Guards of Emerald City. I’ve never seen an actor dig deep into this particular role to make it so layered, fresh, and much more complex. Boyd’s performance is phenomenal. 

Kristen Chenoweth added her own special comedic timing and delivery to slay the audience in laughter. All the past Glindas have been wise not to recreate Chenoweth’s performance. Amanda Jane Cooper is no exception. This powder keg of comedic power explodes within Cooper’s performance. From Chenoweth on, they all have inserted ad-libs and new comedic bits, suffice to say Cooper does the same thing. This girl knocked the audience to ground, howling in laughter due to her comedic chops. Her song “Popular” is a major showstopper. She creates this musical number to become so hilarious with an amalgamation of physical comedy, side splitting facial expressions, and vocal inflections. Her comedic timing, delivery, and pace is like observing a master class in comedy. 

When it is time to switch into the darker, dramatic overtones of the character, Cooper is flawless. Her discovering the betrayal of Fiyero with her best friend, Cooper breaks your heart due to her acting craft. Her chemistry with Koch in Act II in the castle is devastating and so emotionally strong. Cooper and Koch sing with stellar success the well-known duet, “For Good”. Cooper has a vocal range that can go from pop straight into crystal pure operatic soprano at the drop of a diamond tiara! She delivers a commanding, superior performance as Glinda the Good.

As Elphaba, Emily Koch is a magical, superlative discovery! As in every actress who has taken on this mammoth role, the first thing you have to find out if the girl can sing- Ms. Koch sings like a vocal tornado. She smartly knows where to sing in softer tones within her songs, or when to let out that massive belt that washes over the audience. She easily turns the 11 O’clock number “Defy Gravity” into the humongous showstopper that it is. But she also brings down the house (no pun intended) with “No Good Deed”. Her soprano voice reaches its highest range and she holds that note for endless measures with an iron clad vibrato. One of the best discoveries is how Koch has changed the music to work within her vocal range. For example in the soft ballad, “I’m Not That Girl”, normally Elphaba ends the song in her lower register (Alto). Not Koch, she instead goes up a key to finish the song in a higher vocal note, which honestly makes the song sound so much better. She sprinkles throughout her musical numbers key changes and volume to make these numbers her own, and she triumphs in every single song.

Her chemistry and character subtext connection with Cooper (Glinda) and Boyd (Fiyero) is peerless and sublime. Koch’s acting craft and subtext ebbs within her performance when it comes to the man who stole her heart and her best friend. She emotionally glides from hating this blonde hyper roommate to becoming her true best friend. It moves the audience so much to see this transformation. She goes from a timid girl into a woman with power and magic. With Fiyero she displays in organic honesty a woman falling in love. As stated before, her chemistry with Fiyero (Boyd) in Act II is so hot it would melt that metal gold robotic face of the Wizard! Koch has to carry the show on her shoulders. It falls to those who portray Elphaba to deliver the goods. Koch delivers a tour de force, dynamic, spectacular performance as the Wicked witch of the West. 

As someone who has seen so many productions of Wicked, this is one of the finest, first rate companies to being to life the magical world of Oz. But what gives this company and especially the principals such high praise is how they have created a completely new version that is out of this world! So follow that yellow brick road to the Music hall. Believe me when I say, you have not seen nothing like this before thanks to this sensational 

Review: 'The Little Mermaid' National Tour

Nicole Mulupi

Associate Critic for The Column

~~~~~~

DALLAS, TX - 

Disney’s The Little Mermaid is the story of Ariel, a young mermaid princess who feels out of place in the ocean and misunderstood by her powerful father Triton, the Sea King. When she rescues sea-loving Prince Eric after he is thrown from his ship in a storm, Ariel falls in love and determines that she will one day be “part of his world.” Learning of her hopeless situation, the power-hungry Sea Witch, Ursula, tricks Ariel into trading her voice—and possibly her soul—for a pair of legs and a chance at love.

The book for Disney’s Broadway show was adapted by Doug Wright from the 1989 animated movie, written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, and based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale of the same name. The stage musical includes all seven original songs from the film version composed by Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, as well as ten new songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, the show opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on January 10, 2008 under the direction of Francesca Zambello. It was met with mixed reviews and did not perform well at the box office, compared to its popular predecessors, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It closed after one year—a mere 685 performances—to make way for The Addams Family. 

Now reimagined and revamped, this production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, brought to town by Dallas Summer Musicals, is a real treat for spring audiences at the Music Hall at Fair Park. The musical mélange features a score that crosses cultural borders and costumes that span centuries. It is directed by Glenn Casale, whose ongoing revisions to the original have been the definitive basis for all major licensed productions of the show worldwide since 2012. Some of these changes include the use of aerial effects, plot revisions, a reordering of scenes, and replacing Ursula’s song “I Want the Good Times Back” with the hilariously disturbing “Daddy’s Little Angel.” The changes have made the show so much better than it was, though a bit more work could be done to fill in the one or two remaining plot holes. Regardless, Casale’s direction and innovation, and his recruitment of Broadway-caliber talent, has turned Disney’s The Little Mermaid into a must-see theatrical phenomenon that, despite a few imperfections, is sure to find its way back to Broadway before long.

The performance I attended was outstanding. Passing through the lobby as I entered the Music Hall, I journeyed through the ocean of theatre-goers, families, lots of little girls in dresses and mermaid costumes. Shiny aqua-colored jellyfish were hanging from the ceiling everywhere. Within the hall, the audience waited for the performance to begin, chatting with their friends and families, with the gentle sound of rushing water accompanying them in the background. Later, the water effects were joined by the sounds of twinkling chimes. I suppose the chimes were meant to fill the room with magic and wonder, but they grew old quickly. Nevertheless, I couldn’t keep the flutters of anticipation from building up inside of me. 

Finally, the house lights dimmed and the overture began. The orchestra, conducted by music director Colin R. Freeman, performed with excellence for most of the show. The overture was underwhelming because the arrangement was ill suited for an ensemble of only fourteen musicians; the performers played the right notes, but they lacked precision as an ensemble. The softer pieces, like “If Only,” “Her Voice” and “Sweet Child” were played to perfection.

Photo: Bruce Bennett

Photo: Bruce Bennett

Sound and soundscapes were designed by Julie Ferrin and Gareth Owen, respectively. Tech artists aim to add value to the production without taking the audience’s attention from the characters and plot. In this, the sound designers were successful! The only effect that stood out was the deep thundering that occurred whenever King Triton raised his voice in anger. Otherwise, I forgot the effects were there (so they must have been great, or their absence would surely have been noticed). I’m sure they added realism, drama and humor to the show. As most performers and tech artists will agree, any time you can get through an entire show without technical difficulties, and with the tech artist remaining all-but-invisible, that’s a good thing; and there were no major issues here. With that said, I have to mention, the default mic volumes were set so loud to begin with that I had to brace myself before every crescendo. Decibels matter, Sound Guys! (Yellow=good, red=bad.) Likewise, the mic volumes should have been adjusted for vocal ensembles. There is no reason to have five or more microphones turned all the way up when the performers are singing simultaneously. 

The lighting design by Charlie Morrison was breathtaking. All of the special effects, costumes, scenery, soundscapes, hair & wigs, makeup, orchestrations, flying sequences, choreography—even the acting—were brilliantly enhanced by Morrison’s spectacular and creative lighting cues, projections and sequences. From the blues and greens of the ocean depths to the orange and pink sunsets at its surface, and back down, deep into the dark purple and lime-green black lights of Ursula’s lair, there was not a moment that the light design was anything but stunning. I loved the use of gobos on Ursula at center stage in her show-stopper, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The yellow gobos shone upon her costume and gave the sinister impression that her tentacles were stretching and flowing in all directions. The choices of reflective fabrics and materials used on stage were inspired.

Instead of using stationary painted waves (like many set designers use when creating water), Kenneth Foy’s scenery design uses translucent set pieces of blue and green bubbles to create the appearance of water onstage. Foy’s water beautifully reflects both the warm oranges and pinks of the afternoon sun and the moonlit night flooded in blue light. The placement and size of the bubbles gives the illusion of motion at the water’s surface, and they serve the practical purpose of concealing the characters’ tails (and legs) beneath the water—when they are at the surface, that is. When characters are above the surface or on the beach, you can see the painted façade of Eric’s storybook castle in the distance, exactly as it looked in the movie. That was a nice touch. Most of the action takes place either on the ocean floor or on land, though. The sets were not as elaborate as they could have been. They consisted mostly of relatively small, easily movable pieces. But, I expect it would have been difficult to transport a big, bulky set. At any rate, there is already plenty enough eye candy on stage to fill anyone with wonder. 

The entire show was a delight to the senses. The magnificent retro-inspired costumes by Amy Clark & Mark Koss and out-of-this-world hair and wig designs by Leah J. Loukas made every character simply burst with life, color and personality. Most impressive were Ariel’s gorgeous mermaid dress, Flounder’s fantastic blue-and-yellow getup with matching Mohawk and makeup (I love the blue lipstick), Flotsam and Jetsam’s glittering, glowing, scaly-looking eel costumes and electrified hair, Sebastian’s formal red 18th century wig, suit and elegant claws, Scuttle’s and seagull friends’ full-body bird costumes, complete with multi-colored vests and downy cravats, and—of course—Ursula’s massive dress of tentacles and messy white up-do. Some of the costume choices were peculiar, but they were still fun to watch. In “Under the Sea”, the dancers are wearing headdresses of feathers and skin-tight, colorful leotards made of thin, silky fabric. They looked more like a Cirque du Soleil cast or a Brazilian carnival than marine life. (You don’t expect to see feathers in the ocean.) Other oddities were the extremely poufy Renaissance-style pants worn by Chef Louis, the oversized floppy burgundy hats of the other chefs, and the lightweight bouncy underskirts, that looked like giant fur balls, worn by the castle’s female servants. Honestly, they looked ridiculous, but they added another level of comedic value to the show.

There is no way the ocean setting would have worked without Paul Rubin’s spellbinding flying sequence choreography. It added multiple layers of depth and dimension to the show, both literally and figuratively. He obviously took great care in devising movements that would appear as realistic as possible, and he achieved his goal. The characters looked lifelike as their tails powered them through the “water,” and the movement of the wires were perfectly timed with the actors’ choreography. Often, the actors swam between layers of what looked blue tulle, with light effects helping to create the illusion that the audience was viewing the scene through water. This was especially effective in the scene where Prince Eric falls into the ocean. The way his body floated down was incredibly realistic.

When characters were not on wires, some suspension of disbelief was required from the audience. The eels were on Heelys, and Flounder was sometimes on a RipStik, but the rest of the cast mostly walked, and danced, on the ocean floor. Their feet were disguised as well as they could be, and they undulated constantly to give the effect that they were treading water (even when they were beneath the surface). Only twice did the undulations distract me, and that was when they were either too minimal (Flounder) or too exaggerated (one of the mersisters). 

The show was choreographed by John MacInnis, who entertained with dances corresponding to the smorgasbord of musical genres represented in the show—most notably the show-stopping dance to Calypso-inspired “Under the Sea,” which has been infused with some Afro-Cuban percussion and Latin jazz that was not in the original arrangement. The choreography for Ursula’s sidekicks, Flotsam and Jetsam, was also extensive. The two move on Heelys, gliding across the stage and intertwining as they move. MacInnis effectively managed to make them look like they move with one mind, much like they do in the animated movie. Two other particularly fun choreographed numbers were Scuttle and seagull friends’ tap number, “Positoovity” and the over-the-top slapstick fiasco, “Les Poissons (Reprise).”

Photo: Bruce Bennett

Photo: Bruce Bennett

Julia Flores is a genius. Her casting could not have been better. If I ever get the chance to direct, I will be calling her to be my casting director. The characters not only have the appearances and personalities right for their roles, but they have voices to match. In none of the recorded versions of The Little Mermaid have I seen or heard a cast that can compare to this one.

As the title character, Ariel (the little mermaid), Alison Woods is charming and witty. She has none of the saccharine affectations that drip from the fake smiles of most Disney princesses (including those who usually play Ariel). Rather, she has the same fun-loving manner and youthful spirit as her cartoon counterpart. She even manages to stay in character while swimming through the air on a harness and singing. Her youthful soprano voice resonates with beauty and sincerity, much like Jodi Benson’s did in the animated movie. An added bonus, Woods reveals a penchant for physical comedy that is evident when she tries to walk on her new legs, combs her hair with a fork, and attempts to win Prince Eric’s attention by batting her eyes and puckering her lips excessively. She got a lot of laughs for that. 

Ariel’s mersisters, played by Kim Arnett, Kristine Bennett, Marjorie Failoni, Melissa Glasgow, Devon Hadsell, Amanda Minano and Tro Shaw, each have their own unique voice and personality, but they function as a group throughout the show. They are like a cheerleading squad full of beautiful girls who are each striving to be the most popular. In this case, they are competing with Ariel for their father’s attention. 

King Triton, played by Fred Inkley, is an impressive figure. He stands at least several inches above every other cast member, with a strong build and kingly features, complemented by costume and hair designs that are the very definition of perfection. Inkley manages to find the right balance between majesty and tenderness to be both believable as Sea King and relatable as a father. His stirring, heartfelt lament, “If Only” was so sad and lovely it brought tears to my eyes. 

Melvon Abston plays the royal court composer, Sebastian the crab. In his performance, Abston brings the movie Sebastian to life. It is remarkable how crablike he manages to look, just by holding his elbows up and reaching his claws out daintily, scurrying sideways to and fro across the stage. Abston is one of the only performers I’ve seen who could make a cartoon crab come alive so naturally, as an actual character, rather than a mere caricature. And, his vocal prowess was more than sufficient to do justice to the classic movie favorites, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” He has a nice baritone voice, and a huge vocal range, but his powerful falsetto is simply amazing. His performances far surpassed the originals, which were already awesome.

Adam Garst’s Flounder is Ariel’s best friend. He mostly follows Ariel around, trying to hide the fact that he has romantic feelings for her. He has a fair share of comedic lines and physical comedy, always delivered with impeccable timing in a very funny high-pitched nasal tone. 

Tracy Lore plays Ursula, the Sea Witch. With her deep, breathy speaking voice, a strong mezzo belt and biting sarcasm that practically drips through her tentacles, she is the ideal Disney villain. Lore made the role her own by laughing self-indulgently at her own jokes, and her comedic timing drew a lot of laughs from the audience. 

Ursula is nearly always accompanied by two henchmen, her electric eels played by Scott T. Leiendecker and Jeffrey Christopher Todd. Leiendecker and Todd performed brilliantly together. They moved in harmony with each other as they “swam” around the stage in Heelys. When they weren’t swimming around, they were hiding in Ursula’s tentacles, manipulating them so that they looked mobile. Performing their complex choreography with ease and fluidity, they created quite an impression in their glowing green costumes and spiked hair. Their performance of the haunting duet, “Sweet Child” was riveting. Todd’s rich tenor vocals wound seamlessly through Leiendecker’s electrifying countertenor as their voices handed the melody back and forth, then began gliding off smoothly into eerie harmonies. 

Jamie Torcellini is Scuttle, the optimistic Brooklyn seagull with the spurious vocabulary who, unfortunately, teaches Ariel everything he knows. Torcellini’s comical characterization, complete with flying, tap dancing and a birdbrained slaughter of the English language, make his Scuttle one of the standout comic performances among the cast. Michael McGurk, Dennis O’Bannion, and Robbie Rory join in as Scuttle’s seagull buddies in the jazzy song-and-dance number “Positoovity.” 

The role of Prince Eric is expertly performed by Eric Kunze, who even looks like the charming Disney prince, with his costume and hairstyling. His ethereal voice resonates so sweetly, it’s no wonder Ariel falls for him! Kunze first captures the prince’s vitality as he expounds on the glories of a life at sea, chasing the voice on the wind. Then, he brings a gentle warmth to his scenes with Ariel, as he teaches her how to communicate through dance. 

Eric’s elderly adviser, Grimsby, is played by Time Winters. He fully embodies the character, complete with fatherly affection and distressed anxiety at Eric’s refusal to choose a wife and accept responsibility for the kingdom. 

Jeff Skowron plays the pilot of Eric’s ship in Act I, but he steals the show in Act II as Chef Louis in “Les Poissons.” His physical comedy, facial expressions, exaggerated movement, and comedic timing had the audience in stitches throughout the entire song. 

The mermaids and gulls double as ensemble members. Joining them are Jeff Skowron (Chef Louis/Pilot), Ashley Anderson, Marco Ramos, Aaron Ronelle, James Shackelford, and Brian Steven Shaw. The women serve as maids to Ariel in “Beyond my Wildest Dreams” and the men serve as chefs (who unwisely attempt to serve boiled crab for dinner) in “Les Poissons (Reprise).” The ensemble brings the stage to life in high-energy songs like the manly sea shanty “Fathom’s Below,” the retro-flavored pop tune “She’s in Love,” and the original Little Mermaid favorite, “Under the Sea.” 

For a heartwarming musical about a rebellious teenage girl who falls in love with a handsome prince, this show is surprisingly male-friendly. It’s one I would recommend for the whole family. I can guarantee, if you haven’t seen Disney’s The Little Mermaid, then you have never seen anything like it. It is a sensory feast of colors, textures, and dimensions that will have you laughing and crying, and send you home singing.


DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals at The Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210
Runs through March 27, 2016

Evening performances are Wednesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through March 27, and matinees are at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 24 and on Saturdays and Sundays through March 26. Ticket prices range from $21-$111 and can be purchased at the DSM Box Office, Online at www.dallassummermusicals.org, ETIX at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849) or at the Music Hall Box Office 1.5 hours before a scheduled performance. Purchasing tickets from any other seller runs a high risk of receiving fraudulent tickets.

Review: 'Thoroughly Modern Millie" at The Firehouse Theatre

 Ryan Maffei

Readers will likely agree that if Chekhov and Stanislavski hadn't opened the floodgates for theatre's ability to believably evoke human experience, the performing arts would be a great deal less rich. And though I'd take an evening with Albee over one with Webber any day, you'd probably also agree that without the long preservation of huge, stylized Broadway tradition, the performing arts would be a hell of a lot less delightful. Still, when trying to bottle full-tilt Great White Way fizz in the innately intimate confines of a repurposed fire station, you have to watch your levels extra carefully. And I have to admit: throughout the epic first number of Firehouse's warm, exuberant staging of Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Janelle Lutz almost bursting out of her skin as the titular small-town transplant, I felt nagged by a certain… stridency.

With her distinctive cheeks, sad eyes and gigantic, unimpeachable voice, Lutz hammered every line with that cute, exaggerated, trope-fond intonation by which one identifies original cast recording collectors. Watching her belt in front of a gently art-decofied minimalist set you wouldn't think out of place in a high school production, the giant goofy wink of it all felt overbearing for those first few uncertain minutes. Millie is an enormous, ebullient caricature of a musical – an all-stops homage to Broadway's obligatory BIGness, replete with '20s-via-'60s bad race and gender politics, and no actual modernity threatening the fun. Lutz, a born star, burned the song down, but the capital-letter conviction with which she poured herself into its readymade silliness, seconds after a groany intro from an ersatz Jean Hagen, had me prepared for two hours on annoyance's precipice. It's obscene how wrong I was. 

The party kicks into high gear once the stage floods with Lutz's buzzy cabal of cast mates, every member flawlessly deployed down to Alena Cardenez's arch sniffing and Jocelyn Draper's killer stone faces. Clad in a fabulous parade of cat's-pajamas costumes (like a vivid fever dream of the Fitzgeralds' armoire contents) and enlivened by a spirited band that are, as the adage goes, close enough for jazz, you'll be inextricably enveloped in their joy well before the proudly convoluted plot has been set in motion. Thoroughly Modern Millie itself hasn't been a classic for long; for 30 years it was a mostly unthought-of 1967 Julie Andrews movie, before Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) and Dick Scanlan (Everyday Rapture) decided to affectionately send it up at the beginning of our dark new century. The songs are patently short on hard sarcasm, but they nibble when they can (love that randomly interjected "jazz hands!" in the opener), and even sting here and there.

The story is your basic fish-out-of-water-finds-luck-and-a-beau fare, seasoned with a drop of red herring proto-feminism. The t.m. Millie of the title hails from the proverbial sticks, enamored into expatriation by Manhattan's mythos and the romance of its chaotic capitalist clamor – and by a fabled new class of women called "moderns", new-world bastions of ruthless, mold-defying ambition. Naturally, the all-business route the preternaturally clever Millie charts to her ideal destiny lacks – for conflict's sake – some insight and nuance. Millie needs love! says a show both from and about eras when the end of the stick women typically get remained egregiously under fought by the U.S. populace. Still, though the Firehouse Millie's tongue is mostly inconspicuous behind its cheery widespread cheeks, the team responsible for it constantly and intuitively deploys the subversive irony imperative for a moderately reactionary fable in which a faux-Asian antagonist switches L's and R's.

Throughout, the imaginative set pieces with which director Derek Whitener and choreographer-performer Christina Kudlicki Hoth stuff their bonanza couldn't be bee's kneesier, and they strike gold with their leads. Lutz, her versatile visage especially equipped for withering deadpan, nails Millie's self-negating self-assurance. When she does strength, she's Patti LuPone; when she does pratfalls, she's Lucille Ball. And the primary conduit to the show's satiric core is Rebecca Paige. Her Dorothy, a sweetly unenlightened aristocrat and Millie's foil, is so immaculately irreverent Paige can set off a long, rolling laugh just by standing there in character. They're deftly supported: Whitener knew he could trust himself for the sweet buffoonery of the tycoon Millie spends the play chasing; Marilyn Setu robs every scene she's in with cartoon majesty, right from her silent, scowling intro, when she's rolled onstage in a swivel chair; Tyler Jeffrey Adams lacks Lutz and Paige's charisma and command, but has a charming restraint, and is very affecting wrapping his larynx around a lovely duet on a high-rise window ledge; and main understudy Ally Van Deuren contorts her arresting face like a master technician for three distinct supporting roles. 

Only two actors don't wholly assimilate. Kimberly Oliver, stunning stage presence a sumptuous parallel with her glorious voice, offers a faint and disengaged performance between songs. And though I can imagine Sarah Comley Caldwell finding her stride and then some since the show I saw last Friday, her manifestly effortful performance as scene-swallowing villainess Mrs. Meers (whose "Chineeeerse" accent can't shake Texan and South Parkian overtones) is the only case in which the amplified scale is a touch too much. The role is fashioned to leave patrons in stitches, but Caldwell's boldness overwhelms, a miscalculation of exactly how much thickness to lay on. Most of this Millie thrives on doling a bull's-eye wink to its audience; Caldwell ostensibly aims for the people across the street. Nevertheless, her scenes strengthen from her rapport with a pair of henchmen, Mark Quach and Hunter Lewis, game handlers of the musical's stereotyping of stereotypes. Quach in particular flips between bewilderment and tenderness with beautiful acuity.

Still, it's absurd to get itchy over a creaky cog or two in a contraption as dizzyingly intricate, and ultimately rewarding, as this one. At the end of the show I was applauding with equal vigor for every player and well-executed big idea, the scant miscalculations (like making Dorothy Parker a sputtering slob – she was a rapier wit before she was a lush, you know!) forgotten in the haze of the champagne-like high the Firehouse team had so strenuously engineered for us. After all, our current modern times can be thoroughly discouraging, and there aren't many sights as spiritually restorative as watching artists work this hard to cheer you up.


THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE
The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Dallas, TX 75234
Runs through March 6th

Performances are on Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM and on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $24.05 for adults, $22 for seniors and $19.90 for students and first responders, and are available at http://www.thefirehousetheatre.com. For handicapped seating and additional information, please contact the box office at 972-620-3747.

Review: Blasting Bogosian: BITTER HONEY at The Wyly in Dallas

Alexandra Bonifield

Eric Bogosian is a blast. If you miss the chance to see him perform BITTER HONEY: The Best of 100(Monologues) at the Wyly Theatre, with two shows concluding the solo run on 2/13 (7pm and 10pm), you just missed the chance to see one of the best performances to grace any Dallas Arts District stage to date…Dallas doesn’t recognize its good fortune. Bogosian doesn’t tour any more. Dallas got the nod, out of his fondness for the burg from Talk Radio filming days in Las Colinas.

Four different shows create unique, jaw-dropping evenings, each carefully constructed out of this Pulitzer-nominated playwright-monologist’s seminal compendium of contemporary monologues, replete with well-integrated verbal and visual vulgarity. Structured to look improvised but not…nary a comma, raised eyebrow, or pause appears out of congruence. It’s genius at play. Like he’s just some dude who wandered in from the street and decided to engage an audience by enacting a story he just made up. Or maybe he’s actually one of those weird guys he portrays, or seven of them, or all one hundred. No wonder Joseph Papp and Oliver Stone got behind this artist when they encountered him in the 80’s.

Witness a virtuoso, snapshot immersion in satire and sardonic life perspective that reveals a helluva lot about the human condition and social convention…one that will make you wince, laugh, cry, tingle, start, and wonder about the permeable boundaries between life and art. Every so often during each show, Bogosian shares a brief glimpse of himself, that manic man peering out from behind a curtain of mask and magic, eyes shining like a small boy about to share the best secret ever. With every single person in the audience, privately.

Tonight’s shows: At 7pm his performance focuses on material from Pounding Nails In the Floor with My Forehead (1994). His 10pm late night set, adult-oriented and the most controversial in content, will draw from material from all four shows, plus a bit extra thrown in for spice. “I like to perform off balance, not get tied down too neatly. Saturday night late you’ll see all the bits I have the most fun with. My solos are always about the core element in theatricality, raw and visceral.” Maybe I’ll see you there.

Eric Bogosian: Bitter Honey The Best of 100(Monologues), directed by Jo Bonney, runs February 11 and 12 at 8pm, and February 13 at 7pm and 10pm at The Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora Street, Dallas TX. Part of the “Off Broadway on Flora” Series.

Review: 'Clever Little Lies' at Circle Theatre

Elaine Plybon

Seeing beauty in the mundane is an endeavor often missed by those with hurried lives and heavy responsibilities. While Billy in Clever Little Lies is struggling to see the beauty in his life, the talent in Circle Theatre’s production of the recently closed off-Broadway play is easy to see.

The regional premiere at Circle Theatre opened on the tails of the final show in New York on January 24. During its off-Broadway run, starring Marlo Thomas in the role of Alice, the play enjoyed favorable reviews in part because of the talent behind the script, Joe DiPietro. The play, which is set in modern day, provides a glimpse into the life of four people – a mother and father (Bill and Alice), their son, Billy, and his wife, Jane. The play opens in a locker room with father and son having a conversation following a tennis match, where the younger Bill reveals a secret despite being warned by the elder Bill “your mom has a way of extracting information from me.” As can be predicted, the secret isn’t protected for long and during an evening of cheesecake and drinks, the two couples learn more about each other than they had planned. The script is funny, yet thought-provoking. The expert writing was complemented well by the strong talent and crew during the opening night performance.

There were three locations for all of the action, the locker room, a car, and Bill and Alice’s living room. The clever little set design, by Clare Floyd DeVries, consisted of multi-use furniture and a very nicely designed wall that began as a wall of lockers then neatly changed into the back wall of the living room with a set of hinged pieces that folded to hide the lockers. Furniture was used in multiple ways to represent the interior of an automobile, the benches in a locker room, and a coffee table and seating in the living room. This quick-changing set was helpful to keeping the pace by refraining from lengthy set changes while providing a realistic backdrop to the events being portrayed.

The cast consisted of only four actors, two men and two women. The quartet meshed smoothly with each other and their professionalism made the opening night performance seem easy and well-rehearsed. 

In the role of Alice, Linda Leonard convincingly paraded across the stage, orchestrating each interaction as a conductor at a symphony. With an always-appropriate attitude, highlighted with raised eyebrows and sidelong glances, Leonard’s portrayal counted nearly as much on her body language as the delivery of lines. Her performance was solid and convincing.

24397215810_d3a2f8a68d.jpg

The younger wife, Jane, was played by Kelsey Milbourn. I have seen Milbourn in even lighter fare, and it was a delight to see her in a role that showcased a portion of the range of her talents. The choices made by Milbourn delivered a strong and complex characterization. With slightly disheveled hair and long sweater, Milbourn appeared as a woman who is beautiful but does not have the time to tend to that beauty because of a new baby and an often-absent husband. Milbourn’s facial expressions were pleasant and apprehensive at the same time, which was exactly what the script demanded. 

Jake Buchanan’s portrayal of Billy encouraged me to dislike Billy and be hopeful for his future at the same time. A cocky gait about the stage and self-assured demeanor solidified the strength of this performance. Buchanan and the Bill Jenkins, playing the elder Bill, Sr., had a remarkable familiarity on stage – the relationship on stage appeared as a natural father and son relationship. The ease and comfort with which they bantered with each other was a tribute to the superb casting and direction of director, Steven Pounders.

My favorite performance of the evening, as a whole, was that of Jenkins. The character bears the weight of the entire secret. Jenkins delivered an astounding performance that was marked by impeccable timing when delivering the lines sure to evoke a chuckle from the audience. He also utilized the most telling of facial expressions, whether in response to a surprise or a revelation. The strength of Jenkins in the role of the patriarch resulted in the entire group operating as if a well-oiled machine.

The script is delightful, the performances spot on, and the crew exceptional in Circle Theatre’s exploration of a modern-day comedy. Clever Little Lies is a cleverly executed dive into love and marriage with a message that left me with something to think about.

The action runs for 90 minutes with no intermission. There is some strong language and adult situations.

Reviewed by Elaine Plybon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Review: Tragedy of Convention: Cara Mia Theatre’s BLOOD WEDDING

Alexandra Bonifield

Federico Garcia Lorca. Blood Wedding. Cara Mia Theatre Company. Duty v. Desire. Moments of breath-taking beauty implode into explosions of anguished desolation throughout the tragedy, burning deep into the senses of those who attend this morality masque, a ritualized soul cleansing with proto-feminist overtones. Through December 13 at Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center.

An internationally recognized avant-garde Spanish poet, playwright, theatre director and impassioned advocate of the theatre of social action, Federico Garcia Lorca railed against urban capitalist society, and his later works reflect these beliefs. His most famous play Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding), first performed in Madrid in 1933, focuses on destruction wrought by society’s repressive conventions. An evocative, experimental clash of drama with non-metered poetry, even the play’s form seems at war with convention. Drama certainly contains poetry, but how well does descriptive poetry lend itself to drama? Lorca stated, “theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.” Throughout Blood Wedding, sensation and emotion take precedence over action and thought, lending the work a disembodied, static quality. The tragedy’s catalyst to action, and destruction, is the only character Lorca gives a name: Leonardo, the horseman. Their societal station names all other characters: The Bride, The Bridegroom, Leonardo’s Wife, Mother, 1st Woodcutter, etc. It’s a tough play to produce with its anti-realistic nature and intense flights of poetry. Cara Mia Theatre Co.’s adaptation, directed by David Lozano, with original music by S-Ankh Rasa, uses the poetic aspects effectively as context against which Leonardo’s conflict, duty v. desire, plays out vividly to violent conclusion. Experimental and remote on one level, the work leaps to life with a visceral urgency under Lozano’s direction, “rises from the book”, in time with the offstage sound of Leonardo’s horse’s fast galloping hooves as he pursues forbidden love. Cara Mia’s production speeds along, blazingly tortured; whipped fast and hard, it’s like a noble horse run to death, as societal convention wreaks havoc and kills or destroys the hearts and souls of all its characters.

Blood Wedding: From L – The Bridegroom (Ivan Jasso), The Madre (Frida Espinosa-Muller), Leonardo’s Wife (Caroline Dubberly), The Padre (Rodney Garza). Ben Torres photo.

Two different men, each approaching convention from totally disparate viewpoints, each desiring the same woman, provide the play’s conflict and illustrate the playwright’s enormous disdain for the “conventional”. The Bridegroom appears early in Act One, in a scene with his mother, played by Frida Espinosa-Muller speaking mostly in Spanish. Brow-beaten and coddled by her in turn, the Bridegroom wears the mantle of a man of convention with ease, trusts that all will be right with his world if he follows the rules.

Cara Mia company member Ivan Jasso plays the Bridegroom clean-shaven and with ready smile, a simple warmth to his demeanor, trusting that all will go well on his wedding day. When the Bride deceives him at the wedding and runs off with the other man, the Bridegroom becomes consumed with self-righteous anger and sets out on an ill-conceived, tragic mission of revenge. All his pleasing plans, all his playing by the rules, come to nothing. Jasso imbues the Bridegroom with ready conviction and eager sweetness; he reveals his character as a simple man who learns too late that rules are made to get broken. His sin? Trusting. His response? Revenge. His reward? Death. Society’s curse. He is the play’s most innocent victim, caught up in convention’s web of deceit.

The other man? The play’s powerhouse catalyst. Wracked with biting disdain, pacing like a caged lion, lashing out with explosive outrage born of anguish after years of self-torture in the service of prescriptive “duty” in a loveless marriage, Leonardo represents the ultimate proto-feminist sacrifice: the seemingly all-powerful male, straight-jacketed into a repressive life of convention, with his only viable emotion rage. Director Lozano cast Cara Mia Theatre Co. newcomer R. Andrew Aguilar as Leonardo. An actor of imposing stature and presence with commanding voice and focused intensity, his Leonardo epitomizes the dominant man convention seems to worship on one hand.

He chafes against that convention, Duty, as his inner nature drives him to abandon all obligations for his true love, the Bride. Aguilar’s scenes as Leonardo convincingly crackle with seething, unpredictable energy as he drives the play forward into tragic descent, creating a fierce, terrifying portrayal of a man surging towards his own death, dragging everyone else along on a downward spiral.

Women figure prominently as a bloc and as individuals in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, some more predictably than others, all with dark aspects. No one evades convention’s wrath in this nihilistic tragedy. The women live in a world of dependency on men, for status and respectability, as well as for survival. All have premonitions of doom as they traverse the play. The Bridegroom’s mother expresses dark concerns about the girl he is about to marry. Leonardo’s Wife, played with elegance and grim backbone by Caroline Dubberly, sings a haunting, melodic lullaby duet to her sleeping child with the Mother-in-Law (rich-toned Lorena Davey) while they await Leonardo’s arrival. The words of the lullaby prophesy death and destruction, instead of hopeful reassurance to the child. Both fret about Leonardo’s return home from one of his mad gallops, which prove to be justified as he rages, threatens and demeans them. Dubberly matches Aguilar’s untamed forcefulness as Leonardo with calm, erect bearing and regal, deliberate response. Lorca did not write her as a cowed, broken woman, and Dubberly makes that clear. Her Wife seems proud, almost flaunts the duty and convention that she manifests, which she knows Leonardo hates. Her strength repels him bounding back out into the night, as she refuses to treat him as a self-styled demi-god.

Even the Neighbor/Servant woman (Lulu Ward), the play’s effective comic relief, strains to maintain a happy demeanor while helping the Bride dress for her wedding. Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso plays the Bride as a fully emotionally developed character. Her Bride seems to intend to go through with the wedding, as convention dictates, but hates the idea with despairing reluctance. She clearly doesn’t love the Bridegroom, deceives him and his family into thinking she is content to marry him. Locked in by convention, Jasso’s Bride appears resolved to make the best of a bad situation. When Leonardo appears at the wedding, she follows her heart and her nature and runs off with him, destroying her respectability and acceptance by conventional society. The Bride and Leonardo’s fates function as poetic symbols for Lorca, representing what happens to the individual in a society of ironclad convention.  Jasso’s Bride transcends the symbolic by responding to Leonardo’s incredibly passionate, if almost archetypal, embrace with deeply human tenderness: part passion, part grief, part pity and resignation. She conveys simply, with a gentle touch and long, intense kiss, that their fates are sealed by society’s impending response to their actions. Jasso’s vibrant portrayal of emerging modern woman in the Bride, unwilling to give up her choice as an independent woman, even if it means supreme sacrifice, reflects Lorca’s commitment to liberation of the individual.

The adaptation’s second act gains momentum and delves deeper into the symbolic as the action moves to a nearby forest.

Three Woodcutters emerge (Jeffrey Colangelo, Amir Razavi and Rodney Garza) to describe the lovers’ flight, almost a Greek chorus. A ghastly masked Beggar Woman (Frida Espinosa-Muller, in a captivating second role), representing Death, welcomes doom and destruction, urging a mesmerizing silver-clad human manifestation of The Moon (Adam A. Anderson) to shine brighter so the escaped lovers can be more easily caught. The play ends with only the women surviving, gathered in church, respectable ones on benches, the Bride crouched with face hidden in shame on the floor behind them, her dress covered in her dead lover’s blood. They speak defiantly of survival, but will they? No one evades the wrath of convention in Blood Wedding.

Bob Lavalee’s expressive scenic design reinforces the austere, dreamlike quality of the work and keeps transitions simple and quick. Three monolithic flats of sandstone slab float in and out and across each other depending on a scene’s setting requirements. The dank forest evoked by the Beggar Woman appears as a giant cutout curtain of trees erected instantaneously on a fly rail partway upstage. Original music enlivens the show in an unworldly, indigenous style, with S-Ankh Rasa playing live drums and chimes, and Armando Monsivais playing live guitar. Sound designer Trey Pendergrass recorded Rasa playing didgeridoo, singing bowls, and percussion, then treated the recordings and designed the soundscapes that play throughout the final act. With costumes by Niki Hernandez Adams, dance choreography by Karen Bower Robinson and fight choreography by Jeffrey Colangelo, light design by Aaron Johansen. All reinforce the works themes, moods and the play’s action with well-conceived precision. Ensemble includes Shauna Davis and Kristen Kelso.

It’s a daring choice to mount Lorca’s Blood Wedding, given its complexity and convoluted, symbolic nature. This production marks a crowning creative achievement for Cara Mia Theatre Co. in its 20th Anniversary season, one of consistently outstanding artistic performance. The ensemble honors Lorca’s statement that “theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.” A rare beauty of a production, full of lyricism, passion and societal relevance. Human enough.

The adaptation of Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca runs through December 13 at The Latino Cultural Center.

www.caramiatheatre.org 214.516.0706

Mercado Bilingue Talkback, Sunday November 29, with Philip Morales: after 2:30pm matinee

Photos by Adolfo Cantú Villarreal – TZOM Films unless otherwise noted