Review: OC's Chance Theater Presents Stirring Production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE

Michael L. Quintos

To those familiar with the exceptional work of award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter, you have no doubt noticed that the accomplished wordsmith truly has a soft spot for writing intriguing, tortured, and emotionally-damaged everyday people that feel completely real and relatable despite being caught in some rather challenging, highly melodramatic circumstances. These full-bodied characters were beautifully displayed in his beautiful plays REST (2014) and the Drama Desk/Lucille Lortel award-winning THE WHALE (2013), both of which were recently produced in superb fashion at Orange County's South Coast Repertory. 

But it is with his earlier off-Broadway play A BRIGHT NEW BOISE that the Idaho-bred writer first truly got significant notices for creating such complex, compelling characters, which later culminated in his receiving of the distinguished Obie Award for playwriting in 2011. Full of Hunter's amusingly observant and stirringly poignant portraits of ordinary people in extraordinary flux, this early-career play from his repertoire also happens to be the latest terrific production currently in performance at Orange County's Ovation-winning Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills through October 25.

Like his other Idaho-set plays, Hunter's A BRIGHT NEW BOISE similarly focuses an empathetic spotlight on characters wracked with debilitating inner turmoil. In this case, the character most in need of serious therapy—or, at the very least, an Oprah-sized hug and a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear—is timid, conservatively-dressed Will (Casey Long) who, at the start of the play, is interviewing for a menial part-time position at the local Hobby Lobby store, the real-life discount arts-and-crafts retail chain that recently found itself scrutinized in the national media for its Christianity-affiliated corporate practices.

Right from the start, one can sense that there's something a bit off about the guy—that he's feeling troubled, maybe lost.... perhaps even a bit broken. Remarkably, though noticeably uneasy, Will is still hired on the spot by the hilariously cantankerous, cuss-spouting store manager Pauline (scene-stealing Karen Jean Olds), whose only corporate-dictated mandate seems to hinge solely on Will's assurance that he complies with the company founder's Christian values and, of course, to ditch any thoughts of unionizing. Without hesitation, Will accepts the terms and, yes, the position.

Getting the job is a bit of a lucky break for Will, considering what he has suffered through and what his short term goals are for being at this seemingly dead end job. As suspected, there is much, much more to Will beneath that cloud of secrets only hinted at in his bashful mannerisms. 

We soon find out that the middle-aged, super religious Will—newly escaped to Boise from an undisclosed location—came with an ulterior motive for securing a job at this particular Hobby Lobby all along: to meet and to connect with a teen co-worker named Alex (perfectly angsty Andrew Guerrero), who—surprise!—happens to be Will's long lost biological son. In a painfully awkward, rather abrupt confession, Will claims that he and Alex's young bio-mother reluctantly gave infant Alex up for adoption years before. 

The out-of-the-blue news, naturally, comes as a shock to poor, already vulnerable Alex, who himself quickly admits to this new stranger that he is afflicted with debilitating anxiety and bouts of panic attacks. Though he doesn't trust Will's declaration in the onset, Alex's curiosity is nonetheless piqued—even as he is overcome with anger about the news.

"You gave me to assholes!" Alex bellows to Will about his adoptive parents John and Cindy. "[They] said my dad was a child-beating neo-Nazi."

Well... far from it. Besides the revelation that Will fathered a baby that eventually grew up to be Alex, a bit of internet Google-ing from Alex's feisty, over-protective foster brother Leroy (David Christian Vera) helps expose additional info about the Hobby Lobby's mysterious new employee. Already weary of Will's intentions toward the fragile Alex, Leroy—a perpetually pissed-off budding anarchist-slash-artist, who enjoys making customers and Will uncomfortable—is even more enraged once he digs up a few more alarming details. 

That previous life Will is running away from? Well, it turns out that (*spoiler alert*) Will used to be a member or an ultra-religious, mega-doomsday cult that gained some notoriety in the press for all sorts of out-there beliefs, which may or may not have contributed to the death of a young parishioner. Will, according to Leroy's "research," was essentially the "number 2" guy in the organization, even though Will has sworn to the contrary with the authorities and the nosey press. Will obviously ran away to Boise hoping for some anonymity and a life reboot.

But Will perseveres, still desperate to form a connection with Alex—even going so far as to try to like the things Alex enjoys (which includes music and poetry). In the meantime, Will is sadly living out of his car and sneaking into the break room after-hours to steal the store's weak internet connection so he can continue writing his online blog stories about Armageddon—his only tie to his previous proclivities which he still somehow considers as his own brand of escapism from the harsh realities of the world he lives in.

Will is so disheartened by his current state on Earth that he actually prays feverishly for the Rapture to arrive and for the wondrous event to wipe it (and him) all clean—not only to start his life with a fresh slate but to also prove to himself—and, by extension, to Alex—that his faith is still worth holding onto despite all the hardships he's had to endure.

It is during these nocturnal hours in the break room that he meets the equally awkward co-worker Anna (Alex Bueno), who often hides out in the quiet of the empty store to read her fantastical novels as her means of escape away from home and her own humdrum livelihood. The two swap cute stories of where and how each of them chooses to hide until the store closes.

In ordinary circumstances, the two seemingly kindred spirits who just shared a meet-cute (albeit a super awkward one) are pretty much perfectly suited romantically (cue the violin strings). But Hunter and the audience can tell right at the get-go that the two of them are just far too broken even for each other.

Directed with thoughtful pacing and natural sensitivity—yet also with a tense air of volatility—by Trevor Biship, Chance Theater's admirable production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE is an intriguing slice-of-life portrait of people just trying to make the most of what life has handed them. And here, like Band-Aids being yanked swiftly with little warning, each character's inner truths unfold just as rapidly and painfully in much the same way.

As an effective contrast to the heightened drama of the play, Bruce Goodrich has designed a meticulously functional break room set that echoes the purposely drab, commonplace lives of the characters that spend a lot of time there. Surrounding the perimeter of the break room are gray slabs of concrete that form the parking lot just outside the Hobby Lobby, where many a heart-to-heart takes place between the newly reunited father-and-son (and where Will and Alex each have their ugly-cry breakdowns and angry, one-sided shouting matches with non-responsive deities). 

Here, in the outdoors amongst the same shades of gray broken up only by the uniformly painted parking lines on the ground, it's neutral territory for the reunited pair, in a way. Both Alex and Will also have different usages for the lampposts that soar high-above the parking lot—the production's not-so-subtle proxies for heavenly guidance that both characters desperately seek (extra special kudos to lighting designer Tim Swiss, sound/video designer Jeff Polunas, and costume designer Christopher Scott Murillo for helping to complete the illusions).

Additionally, more than anything, A BRIGHT NEW BOISE ponders the lengths one goes through to prove the validity of long-held beliefs, often to the detriment of forward momentum and environmental acceptance. Shame and guilt are pretty darn powerful obstacles one must surpass in order to achieve a fulfilling life. As we observe in Will, especially, they are also achingly debilitating.

At the heart of the story is a broken, stilted man whose very faith is tested while literally wading aimlessly in a world hell-bent (so to speak) to snap him back to reality. The play is a great testament to the introspective prowess of Hunter's writing—as well as the incredible actors that have slipped into these characters—in that we as an audience are able to feel empathy for a man whose extreme beliefs and ideas may not necessarily coincide with our own world view.

As tortured Will, Long (who normally appears in the much more chipper role as Chance Theater's Managing Director/Opening Night greeter) gives a stunning performance, providing a great job of balancing the emotional roller coaster of a vulnerable guy engaged in his own tug-of-war between his faith and his ultimate fulfillment and happiness—which apparently may not be able to co-exist without harming or threatening the other. His desperation for any kind of connection (even an initially one-sided one) with Guerrero's exemplary portrait of the equally-tortured Alex is quite heartbreaking. The fear of loneliness both Long and Bueno beautifully infuse into their respective, emotionally crippled characters is also so achingly heartfelt.

And though they both enter scenes mostly for some intermittent respites of comic relief, Vera and Olds also bring outstanding exagerrated drama to their reenactments of the people in our lives who step in to fulfill a specific role normally occupied by people with biological ties with us. Such people who enter our lives—via random circumstances or even dumb luck—often resemble archetypes normally reserved for family (in a way, they become familial proxies themselves). In that sense, sometimes the lady across the way—like foul-mouthed store manager Pauline—can't help but end up being a motherly figure without you even becoming aware of it. In the case of Vera's rule-breaking Leroy, you're handed a big (sometimes meddlesome) brother who's got your back no matter what.

Curiously, A BRIGHT NEW BOISE is described—in marketing language—as a dark comedy. But I humbly disagree. Though there are certainly plenty of moments of odd, eccentric amusements (particularly ones featured overhead in the flat screen monitors), for me, Hunter's play is actually an impactful, emotional, dramatically searing character study of alarmingly relatable people that seemed trapped at rock bottom, either settling for their positions in abject surrender or struggling desperately to pull themselves out—but fail time after time. Things don't get wrapped up in neat little bows as the play slowly unravels to its almost briskly stunted ending. Much like real life, things are left disturbingly in melancholy flux.

My only real gripe about the production is its choice for conducting the play in the round. As stylistically interesting as it is to experience this production in this manner, your reactions to the drama at hand is primarily determined by the position of your seat. I feel that my reserved critic's seat (fortunately) afforded me the luxury of witnessing a lot of specific beats and expressions from actors that my fellow audience members seated way far across on the other side of the "stage" may not have had the same privilege to see (and, perhaps, vice-versa). In a play where mere outward expressions speak volumes, it's a bit disappointing to wonder if you're not getting the whole picture.

Nonetheless, this minor attribute still doesn't take away from the overall raw power of Chance Theater's first-rate production. There is no denying the reach of this play's palpable catharsis of faith and fate, especially given the intimate setting of the theater itself. 

Every character seems fearful of facing the reality that they may be settling for their places in the world. It's certainly a universal fear some of us loathe, while others blindly embrace with nary a qualm. It's good to know that whatever belief system each of us subscribes to, ultimately, we all can agree that—above all else—we all deserve even the slightest bit of happiness.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ. Review originally published in OnStage.

Photos from Chance Theater's production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio. 

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Chance Theater's Production of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE continues through October 25, 2015. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.

Review: New Compact HAIRSPRAY A Rousing Winner at OC's Chance Theater

Michael L. Quintos

Ever since its celebrated Broadway debut back in 2002, the hit Tony Award-winning musical comedy HAIRSPRAY continues to be a critical and popular favorite, particularly as even more regional theaters across the globe mount their own local versions of this delightful stage adaptation of John Waters' 1988 cinematic cult classic (which itself was also re-adapted into a big screen movie musical hit in 2007). Not surprisingly, larger theaters—armed with larger crews, larger spaces, and larger budgets—have usually given it a go at some point, producing mostly laudable efforts that more likely mirror the original beloved production as faithfully as possible. 

So to hear that Orange County's bold, award-winning Chance Theater is producing its own "intimate" theater iteration, I was more than excited about the prospect of what a spunky little company like this could do with a widely popular property like HAIRSPRAY. Knowing the proven, exemplary capabilities that these excellent troupe of creatives have consistently demonstrated with their own versions of other "large-scale" shows, the expectations for this one has been—pun quite intended—enormous.

Well, this critic is ecstatic to report that Chance Theater's new, more compact production of this big fat musical hit—which continues its limited run at its Anaheim theater space through August 9—is an absolutely undeniable, all-around rousing winner. Wonderfully faithful material-wise, but executed with lots of giddy audaciousness and inventive re-staging to fit its specific parameters, their resulting show continues the musical comedy's track record as a crowd-pleaser full of terrific music (courtesy of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and witty outlandish comedy (courtesy of book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan). 

And with this new local revival, it's harder to deny this stage musical's prowess as a sure-fire entertaining show, one that's able to transcend production (and, perhaps, even budgetary) constraints when executed effectively. So, bravo to Chance Theater for taking on this mainstream hit and making it actually feel like a fresh, awesome little indie.

Leave it to now frequent Chance Theater director Kari Hayter—a proven, smart expert at taking large musicals and scaling them down snuggly into a smaller footprint—to once again take the reins and reinvent how a Chance Theater production is presented. Keeping the lesson-laden intent and the ribald, cheeky spirit of HAIRSPRAY intact, Hayter stages the show in a semi-theater-in-the-round style with very minimal set pieces and props, allowing the show's message and whimsy to (literally) surround the audience via its likable ensemble cast whom, at times, stand just inches away from theatergoers.  

Don't get me wrong, though. Just because the footprint of Chance Theater's space is smaller does not mean that this HAIRSPRAY's scaled-down theatrics sacrifices the musical comedy's enjoyability. Just like the problem its perky main character tries to endure, you certainly can't judge a book by its cover: though the show begs for big production numbers and complex sets (and set ups) as it was originally presented, it does not mean a small-scale production can't do the show justice. Just because this production doesn't have huge TV studio cameras to indicate that part of the show takes place inside a local TV studio doesn't automatically render it from telling its story effectively.  

While at first you do somewhat miss all of the eye-popping bells and whistles and visual pow of previous larger, full-scale productions of the show, Chance Theater's iteration proves to be quickly as endearing (if not more) once the opening number sets up the saucy amusements that are about to explode, reminding one and all that the show's story, characters, and music are truly what makes this such an all-around favorite in the first place. 

Still, it is quite a savvy production nonetheless, featuring minimalist scenic designs by Matt Scarpino that serve as a contrasting canvas for Bradley Lock's colorful era-appropriate costumes, Matt Schleicher's impressive lighting designs, and the peppy, pulsating choreography of Kelly Todd and Christopher M. Albrecht. 

Hayter's guidance allows for some imagination to fill-in-the-blanks, so to speak, without looking like they simply just skimped on the production. Actually, more than anything, this minimalist approach and the closer proximity between audience and actors prove to be its best asset: the immersion within the narrative feels like the audience is even more in on the jokes and the emotional dilemmas, making the whole enterprise a shared, communal activity for all to enjoy. By the time certain audience members are actually pulled in to join the cast during the climatic finalé dance number, this HAIRSPRAY successfully morphs into an all-out dance party that simultaneously celebrates one's unique individuality as well as the integration of diverse sets of people. How can you not love that?!

Most of the glorious action of Chance Theater's HAIRSPRAY happens right smack-dab in the center of the space, with audiences mostly seated in either the left or right side and a few lucky more (with, let's face it, the best seats in the house with full, comfortable view of every part of the show) seated directly opposite a raised "front" stage that holds the splendid house band/orchestra led by musical director and principal accompanist Robyn Manion (huge shout out as well to sound designer Daniel Tator for the excellent sound mix that found the perfect right balance between the voices and the live band). 

Though I half-expected the seats to be bleachers like you would find in a high school gymnasium or football field, I was still very much sold on the idea that this boxed-in theater space housed Baltimore in the 1960's. At times, these energetic cast members are sprinting all around the space, and even singing and dancing boisterously behind audience members, increasing the fun and party atmosphere even more than has already been embedded in the material. In this harmonious ensemble's hands, the show's memorable songs such as "Good Morning, Baltimore," "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now," "Welcome To The 60s," "Run And Tell That," "I Know Where I've Been," and, of course, the seemingly non-stop "You Can't Stop The Beat" are vigorously performed.

Another bonus: the proximity to the fun actually makes the cast accountable for everything they do while performing or while leaping and shimmying behind us—because it's all there, exposed and so close to us. This staging is pretty brave, in that sense.

And so, yes, with less attention paid to the show's visual aspects as one might expect in a larger-scale production, it certainly helps when the casting—by default, the show's other most glaringly out-front asset—is given due diligence to effectively make this story come to full-fledged life. In this outstanding production's case, the Chance Theater really lucked out by finding two very excellent lead actors in their mother-daughter Turnblad pairing.

As Tracy Turnblad, the story's plucky main hero and expected revolutionary, Taylor M. Hartsfield's adorable demeanor and spot-on vocals make you wholeheartedly root for her and her mission to "eat some breakfast and change the world"—which, in this case, involves first breaking into The Corny Collins Show, a local TV teen dance show as their first full-figured "council member" and then, later, to once-and-for-all help integrate the show itself so that both the white and black kids can dance together. Hartsfield, for her part, sells the character with lots of heart, a natural bubbli-ness, and unabashed goofiness.

Similarly compelling and incredibly hilarious is Chance Theater newcomer Joe Tish as Tracy's mom Edna, also a big gal with an even bigger heart—particularly when it comes to protecting her daughter from the ugliness and judgments of the world—something she's quite familiar with in her own life. Riveting to watch with every appearance, Tish—continuing the tradition of having a male actor in drag play the role—is equally at ease playing both deeply vulnerable and outwardly sassy, and he and Hartsfield wonderfully play off each other. Tish has similar, palpable chemistry with Robin Walton, who plays Edna's adorkable, still-madly-in-love husband Wilbur, the lovable, judgment-free owner of the local Har-Dee-Har Hut Joke Shop. The two sincerely steal the show in the second act with their winning duet in "You're Timeless To Me," which, frankly, I wish would have gone on longer than it did (the original and subsequent productions allowed the actors playing the couple to riff and improv a bit more during this number).

Another scene-stealer is the super funny Sarah Pierce, who plays Penny Pingleton, Tracy's ever-loyal, gum-chewing dim-bulb best friend who falls head-over-penny loafers in lust over the studly Seaweed J. Stubbs, the African-American dance phenom with a penchant for getting school detention, played with plenty of seductive smolder by the velvet-voiced Xavier J. Watson. Together, both actors have great rapport and superb comedic chops. 

Other cast standouts include the lovely and comedic Ellie Wyman as Tracy's shade-spewing arch nemesis Amber Von Tussle; youthful Cody Bianchi as teen heartthrob (and Tracy's crush) Link Larkin; the quirky Corky Loupe who plays several amusing male characters; Karen Webster who gamely plays several female characters; the sarcastic Jordan Goodsell as wide-smiling TV host Corny Collins; The Voice's riff-tastic Timyra-Joi as super talented Little Inez; and LaJoi Whitten as rhyming "Negro Day" D.J./host (and mom to Seaweed and Little Inez) Motormouth Maybelle.

And, finally, quickly becoming a favorite featured actress in the Chance Theater productions I have seen is Camryn Zellinger, who is just absolutely, wickedly terrific here as Velma Von Tussle, Amber's openly-bigoted, former beauty queen mom and the snobby producer of The Corny Collins Show. With a voice (speaking and singing) and attitude that's perfectly bitchy and scary at the same time, Zellinger is just oh so deliciously evil in this one—and I could not get enough of it.

I must say... this cast's charming enthusiasm is infectious. It probably helps that the show itself is so much fun to experience, that it's natural to assume that it is quite fun to perform as well—and you can see that in the hearty performances of this hard-working ensemble. But as uproariously hilarious the show is, at its core is a very poignant, thought-provoking narrative that's essentially an open call for tolerance and acceptance. In an eerie parallel, the show's themes of racial integration and fairness is still a much-discussed topic in 2015, not only in this country but also still within the turbulent streets of Baltimore as well.

This is exactly why HAIRSPRAY will forever remain one of the best musicals of the new millennium. After more than a decade of productions both touring and regional, it is still a perfect blend of story, laughs, music, heart, and soul... that aims to blanket the audience with its pertinent pro-integration, pro-acceptance themes that is alarming resonant even today. And with Chance Theater's impressive, rousingly effective smaller-scaled "intimate" vision, one can surely attest to the fact that size definitely doesn't matter. It is, as they say, what's inside that counts.


Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ. 

Photos from Chance Theater's production of HAIRSPRAY by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio. 

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Chance Theater's Production of HAIRSPRAY continues through August 9, 2015. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.