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: '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: 'A Divine Evening with Charles Busch' at AT&T Performing Arts Center

John Garcia

In season four of RuPaul’s drag race when one of the contestants was eliminated, she said to RuPaul, “You have changed the world of drag forever.” I immediately thought, “No. Not really.” Why you ask? That form of drag combines heavily painted faces, extravagant costumes, wigs, and 99.9% of the time they simply lip sync to songs. Now some drag queen performers do tell jokes or do stand up in between their lip syncing numbers.

But for those in the theater world would say that it was Charles Busch who changed the world of drag into an art form that is impossible to duplicate. He blazed onto the New York theater scene in the 1970s. He does not pile on globs of makeup or wear outlandish costumes. Nor does he lip sync, he sings live. But foremost Mr. Busch is an actor. Since his childhood he fell in love with those classic films that starred such glamorous leading ladies like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, and others. He strongly felt connected to those femme fatales in those black and white celluloid films.

So with that inspiration he began his journey as a playwright to create works for himself to portray these screen stars in drag. His scripts mirrored those characters that flickered across the silver screen.

His work as a playwright is staggering and broke barriers in regards to not only playwriting but men portraying roles in drag. Now we know from our theater history Shakespeare was the first to use male actors in female roles because women were forbidden to be on stage. 

But here is where Busch stood out to show his acting craft. He never portrayed any of these roles campy or over the top. He transformed them into realistic women, in voice, body, and movement. Where he really excelled was his extraordinary comedic talents. So few actors can do what Busch can do in the world of comedy dressed as a woman. Using his face as a comedic palette, he painted subtle, yet hilarious expressions. One arch of his eyebrow to a comedic line or moment and he had the audience howling in laughter. His comedic timing, pace, and delivery is phenomenal. There is that golden rule that comedy cannot be taught. It is born in you. Busch was bathed in it! He would play all these grand leading ladies in his own plays, but slathered them in side splitting comedy. His make-up was exquisitely applied, never garish. His costumes reminded you of such film costume designers as Adrian, Edith Head, and Orry-Kelly.

As an actor and playwright he really started to achieve both critical and box office success in the 1980s with such comedy gems as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Times Square Angel, Psycho Beach Party, and The Lady In Question.

In the 1990s his winning streak as an actor and playwright continued with such mega hits as Red Scare On Sunset, Shanghai Moon, Our Leading Lady, and a revival of is his early hit, The Lady in Question.

One of his biggest hits (and this critic’s personal favorite) was Die Mommie Die! This was one of Busch’s finest comedic masterpieces. This comedy was about a former singing star named Angela Andrews, who no longer sings and is stuck in a loveless, ugly marriage to a film producer. Angela does have on the side a young lover (an out of work TV actor). She thirsts for happiness, so she plots to kill her husband and take her two children and make a new life. From there the comedy never ends from the first scene to the end. This hugely successful play was turned into an independent film that became a critical and financial hit, winning accolades on the film festival circuit. Busch won a Best Performance award at the prestigious Sundance Film festival for his work in Die Mommie Die! Another of Busch’s plays also made it to the silver screen, Psycho Beach Party (although Busch did not re-create the role he did on stage, but instead portrayed a different character for the film version). 

Recent new works that Busch has both penned and starred in include The Divine Sister, which again became a hit both with the critics and the box office. His 2011 comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs was one of the few times that Busch was not on stage, but served only as the playwright. In that play-and in many past Busch productions- starred one of Busch’s favorite co-stars, Julie Halston. 

Busch has also done a couple of times for benefits a staged reading of Auntie Mame, portraying of course the lead role. His performance garnered him heaps of critical praise, so much so that many on Broadway felt he should portray the role in a revival on the Great White Way.

Busch has had his work represented on Broadway twice. In 2000 his play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife opened at the Barrymore Theater, where it was given a sea of critical praise and became a box office smash. It ran for 777 performances and earned three Tony nominations, including one for Busch’s script. His second Broadway venture became infamous, but it had nothing to do with Busch. Rosie O’Donnell brought across the waters from England the Boy George musical Taboo. She bought the rights, became the producer and planted the show at the Plymouth Theater. She brought in Busch to rework and retool the script. But the musical was plagued with so much gossip and rumors of the battles between O’Donnell and Boy George. New York Post Columnist Michael Reidel fed on those stories like a zombie from The Walking Dead. He published so many articles about the “drama” backstage, and the show was still in previews! Sadly the musical flopped and closed after only a 100 performances. 

But Busch does not only do drag roles. His fans were shocked when he appeared in a reoccurring role in the HBO dramatic hit series OZ. In the series he portrayed a death row inmate. Busch showed a completely different side of his acting talents on the series that were astounding.

In 2006 he co-wrote with his close friend Carl Andress the film A Very Serious Person, which Busch also directed and starred in. His co-star was the late great actress Polly Bergen. The film was part of the USA Film Festival here in Dallas. Full disclosure: I was personally asked by the organizers and producers of the festival if I would serve as mediator for the Q&A session that was to be held after the screening with Busch. I immediately agreed!

Busch is also famous for his cabaret acts. New York audiences have stormed into venues and stuffed themselves like sardines to catch one of Busch’s critically acclaimed one woman/man shows. The New York critics lavished Busch’s cabaret shows with glorious praise.

Now Dallas/Fort Worth audiences have the VERY rare opportunity of seeing this legend of theater live and in person as he has brought his new cabaret show titled A Divine Evening with Charles Busch to the Wyle Theatre. 

To kick off the concert, conductor/arranger/pianist Tom Judson glided over the piano keys and sang in a beautiful tenor voice the opening song that served as the intro for the Grande dame La Busch. Judson has a background in theater as well. He has appeared on Broadway in the Roundabout Theater production of Cabaret. He was also in the national tours of Cabaret and 42nd Street. He has composed the score to Whit Stillman’s indie film classic Metropolitan and has written songs for Sesame Street, Ann Magnuson, Lisa Kron and many others. 

Busch came into the spotlight dressed in a soft, black pantsuit, a billowing shawl with fringe that was adorned with sequined appliqués. To complete the look was this massive, bejeweled necklace made of sparkling copper hued gems. His make-up perfectly applied and a copper wig coiffed to perfection.

As the music transposed from Judson’s solo to Busch’s first number, three very familiar notes pinged from the grand piano. Musical theater addicts such as myself immediately knew, “That’s from Dreamgirls. He’s going to do ‘And I Am Telling you’”, and he does! But with side splitting results. He stops midway and tells the audience he is not a soul singer, but a chanteuse. And then went into a comical first number.

Busch possesses a rich, buttery, baritone voice with a grounded vibrato. His vocal belting was right on the money all evening long.

He informed the audience that this show was a mixture of old material, new material, and stolen material! 

Busch’s music repertoire really displayed his knowledge, history, and love for music. He did songs from Sondheim, Kern, and even Paul McCartney! But here is where the cabaret had a more emotional connection from material to singer. Each song had a story pertaining to Busch’s life. From his difficult childhood to where he is today. There were songs for hearty laughs, but also touching ballads that clinched your heart.

There were many stand out numbers, but here are a couple that really stayed with me. He sang two haunting Sondheim ballads which Busch said came from an album by his close friend Julie Wilson. Ms. Wilson was one of the greatest cabaret singers who earned a Tony nomination for the musical Legs Diamond. She passed away in April of this year. Busch’s lower register within his voice achieved deeply moving emotion that flowed within the lyrics.

It was announced this week which stars would be part of Lincoln Center’s Story Songbook series. These are concerts by some of the best Broadway stars and performers. Busch was announced as one of the headliners! His concert will be on February 26. Last night he performed for the FIRST time ever two numbers that Tom Judson specifically composed for the Lincoln concert. And we lucky audience members last evening got to hear them first. One was a fantastic up-tempo number titled “Lady at the Mic” which was peppered with jovial lyrics. The second was a melodic ballad that Busch had only rehearsed for the first time that very afternoon! But as he told the audience, he wanted to try it out now. It was a resounding success! He also did a marvelous vocal job on a Paul McCartney song that you could literally feel the audience being so moved by it.

From his treasure chest of songs, he chose some very hilarious songs that were winning numbers all evening long.

But personally my favorite number was his version of the Oscar nominated song “A Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. He sat next to Judson on the piano bench and with his emotional approach to the lyrics; he transformed the song into a heart tugging ballad. His subtext and interpretation of the lyrics just moved you to tears. Judson added at the very end of the song a small, faint hint of Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” as Busch sustained the final note. Truly a magical moment.

Judson and Busch had several duets that they knocked out of the park. Their harmonies melted deliciously like buttah! Their chemistry was another major highlight of the evening. They played off each other like a solid comedic duo. Kudos to Judson as well on how connected he was to Busch. He followed him musically with sublime results. He instinctively knew where to pause or move the tempos by the emotion that Busch displayed within the song. That’s a rare gift in cabaret acts. Bravo Mr. Judson!

Busch did not just “sing” the songs, he buried himself emotionally within the lyrics of every song, be they up-tempo or ballads. He keenly understood the subtext of the lyrics. So each song (especially in the ballads) he carved deep into the subtext to bring out raw, honest emotion. When the song had a musical break and only the piano played, Busch stayed in the moment, walking back to the piano, reflecting to the lyrics and music. That is a master at work!

Within the musical numbers Busch had the audience bending over in laughter with his stories. These stories were rich with comedy. Not to give it away, but his stories about meeting his younger self, the internet, and Paul McCartney were hysterical! He had fun with the audience and would react or comment right there in the moment for laughter. He pointed out to three men sitting on far stage right and said they looked like a table of Bernie Sanders look-a-likes!

Busch also brought into his act one of his most famous and legendary characters that fans adore, Miriam Passman! As Miriam he told a story of her master class-I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say he had the audience rolling in the aisles in laughter.

Here is a great example of Busch’s comedic talents. After a song, he mistakenly skipped over something. Now we the audience would have never known that. Mr. Judson whispered to Busch, who went to the piano. Busch returned to the mic and said, “Oh I skipped a part”. From there he went into a dead on Carol Channing impersonation about forgetting where she was within in the show. I died (along with the audience) in laughter!

This is by far your typical, paint by number, seen to death, same ole cabaret acts. It has a true arc, a story full of laughter with moments of dramatic honesty. It has an artist that clearly understands what a lyric means emotionally, whether for laughs or tears. Not very many artists get invited to do a concert at Lincoln Center, but Busch was and will in February! This cabaret show has one of the greatest treasures of the American Theater giving his gifts live and in person. If you work in theater or just enjoy attending it, then you must see Busch live and in concert. New Yorkers get to enjoy Busch’s talents throughout the year. How rare it is for audiences to get that chance to see one of the most beloved, respected, artists that actually changed the art of theater performing live right here in Dallas?! Now is your chance! Because if you miss it, your only other way to see Busch live in concert is to see him in New York, but good luck in trying to get a ticket cause his cabaret shows are always sold out!


A DIVINE EVENING WITH CHARLES BUSCH
AT&T Performing Arts Center at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre

Friday, October 30 - 8pm, Saturday, October 31 – 7pm & 10pm. Tickets range from $65 to $45 and may be purchased at www.attpac.org by telephone at 214-880-0202 or in person at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Information Center at 2353 Flora Street (Monday 10am–6pm; Tuesday thru Saturday 10am– 9pm; Sunday 10am–6pm). Note: May contain adult language.

Review: 'Blithe Spirit' at Stolen Shakespeare Guild

Carol M. Rice

Noel Coward wrote his “ghostly comedy” Blithe Spirit in just six days. It was first presented in the West End 1941 and ran for a whopping 1,997 performances. A subsequent Broadway production later that year ran for 657 performances, and the play has become a staple of regional and community theatres the world over, not to mention several West End and Broadway revivals.

It’s easy to see why this is such a popular show, and not just because of the comedic plot. In addition to being relatively easy to produce on a single set, the cast of two men and five women is obviously attractive to theatre companies who inevitably have more women than men involved. This is not to say that the roles are easy to play, for they’re not, and because it’s now a period piece – that requires British accents to boot – it’s also not an easy one to direct. The comedy is hard to play with the right touch, and I’ve seen several productions over the years that just didn’t get it.

Fortunately Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s production is not one of those. It was excellent from start to finish. The beautiful set, designed by many-a-hat-wearing Jason Morgan, was elegant and exuded the perfect amount of opulence. The only thing not quite up to snuff was a black wall behind a couple of doors that were supposed to lead outside. The small bushes helped some, but because everything else was SO well done, this was a bit jarring. Bryan Douglas also brought excellent effects to life with the lights. I especially liked the subtle lighting change whenever Elvira entered the room.

Lauren Morgan’s costumes, coupled with Marcus Lopez’s wigs, were wonderful. The overall look of Elvira, especially, was spot on. The maid costume for Edith was adorable, and the other ladies looked haughtily upper-class in their lace and furs, and the men were dashing in tuxes, suits, and dinner jackets. The only costume pieces that didn’t look as though they fit quite right were Madame Arcati’s wild dresses. Her hats and the cape were perfect, however, and since everything else was so good, I wondered if the ill-fitting dresses were a choice since her character was such a, well...character.

Mary Tiner beautifully played Madame Arcati as the larger than life character that she is. She was sincere, boisterous, and a little insane, which is exactly what the role calls for. Without trying, she was able to steal every scene she was in, yet still managed to give her fellow actors their moments as well.

Stacy Cook as Elvira was beautiful, playful, and mischievous. It was obvious upon her entrance that she was otherworldly, and she played up the comedy in all of her scenes masterfully.

Jason Morgan and Stefanie Glenn were Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. These roles are often done as throw-aways, but Mr. Morgan and Ms. Glenn brought new life to the Bradmans and made them memorable and interesting.

Augusta Abene was quite funny as the always running maid Edith. Her look of constant worry and cockney accent were delightful, and since one never knew when she’d break out into another sprint, she was very fun to watch.

Laura M. Jones started off playing Ruth as a confident woman who is well aware that she may not be as attractive as her husband’s first wife, but she’s got him now so it doesn’t matter. Then as Elvira made her way into Charles’ life again, she showed a more vulnerable side in her attempts to keep him. And then, of course, by the end, she was just fed up with it all. Ms. Jones gave a finely layered performance.

Stan Graner plays Charles, an author who invites Madame Arcati over not to get in touch with his first wife, but to get atmosphere for the book he’s writing. Mr. Graner is an accomplished actor and performer and in this role he seemed to be relying on “actor tricks” to get through his scenes instead of allowing his character to grow. However, he was still quite enjoyable to watch.

Co-directors Jason and Lauren Morgan do a fine job with this classic comedy, and it was nice to hear the laughter of the nearly sold out audience enjoying it. The British accents were consistent, too, which is not an easy feat. Blithe Spirit is one of those shows that comes around relatively often, so it would be surprising if you haven’t seen at least one production of it. Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s is one of the best I’ve seen, so if you haven’t seen this classic comedy, this production would be the one to catch. If you have seen it, this would be a good one to revisit.

Review: 'Fix Me, Jesus' at Theatre Three

Charlie Bowles

What is the price of having extremist political opinions on the children of a family? If children are what they see and hear growing up, can they be faulted for the outcomes in their own lives?

It was the beginning of a recession in Dallas, which had flowered for decades with oil and real estate booms, but by the mid-80s big oil moved to Houston and real estate dried up. Ronald Regan’s presidency caused a political sea change from a strong democratic stronghold in Dallas to the solid red state conservatism that rules today. For those who were in the money and part of the Dallas political machine, the recession hit hard, financially and emotionally, and the political winds of change came as a shock.

Fix Me, Jesus is a comic look at this time of Dallas history through the eyes of author, Helen Sneed. Her own life in Texas politics gave her a unique inside view of the families who were caught up in this turmoil. Fix Me, Jesus, which premiered in late 2013 opened its Southwestern Premier at Theatre Three in the Quadrangle tonight, which is a bit surprising since the action takes place in Neiman Marcus at Northpark mall in 1986. It’s been a long time coming home.

Annabell Armstrong is trying to find independence from her family and some political power in her beloved Democratic Party. Yet in a moment of existential crisis in the women’s dressing room, she finds her political career, love life, finances, and family are failing. And in the process, she discovers a cast of uninvited and largely unwanted memories who remind her of why she’s in this situation. The lessons are comical, shocking and touching.

Emily Scott Banks directed Fix Me, Jesus. Her choices for designers and production crew created a great setting, the Neiman Marcus dressing room where Annabell spent much of her childhood. Bruce R. Coleman, as scenic designer, and his crew of builders and painters filled the stage floor with a believable dressing room. I know this because I went in some of those in my younger days in the 80s. With pink and gray checkerboard tile flooring, gray leather seating benches and urn like sculptures next to silvered floor-length mirrors, the look set an immediate tone for high decadence and consumerism that was the style of Dallas then. Is it all that different today? This setting was then filled by Jennifer Woodward, Props Master, with various design items and props that showed visually the accoutrements of Annabell’s life.

Carl Munoz’s lighting made this set very bright and brought out its subtle colors. He also created a see-through mirror in a dressing room doorway to allow characters from the past entry to the set. Andi Allen’s sound design included music of the 80s and sound effects from the mall, especially store announcements from Neiman Marcus. I don’t know who the recorded announcer was, but he was believable and his announcements provided important time and context for the story.

Ryan Matthieu Smith designed costumes with the challenge that this was Neiman Marcus, the mecca for elegant dress in Dallas, and these people used the ritzy super store like most people use Target or Walmart today. Annabell wanted to find a dress for an evening gala, and there were a lot to try on. Party dresses, luxury dresses, elegant evening gowns, fur coats, with many colors and styles, they were always coming and going and Annabell was not finding any. There was a mother, who wore various types of rich looking dresses, especially her purple silk gown with gaudy diamond necklace, and a grandmother who most always wore black, though very rich black. Annabell as a child wore numerous little pieces that told us Annabell was used to fancy clothing from the beginning.

Emily Scott Banks also cast a group of actors who could take on the personalities of these flawed characters and provide shocking revelations all the while making us laugh about them. Only Annabell and Mrs. Craig were real during the time of this play. The rest of the characters were flash-backs to as early as 1963 or as late as a few days before the night in Neiman Marcus. The director had to integrate these memory characters into the action that was happening on this night, and this mostly happened by suspending the adult Annabell, though there were times when characters played out scenes from an earlier time or even interacted with her in the current time. But the time shifting all worked, as I never lost touch with what was current and what was in a previous time.

Mother, that is Annabell’s mother, played by Sherry Hopkins, was caught up in the political machine of her own family and had to scratch for independence while living in the lap of luxury. Hopkins did a good job of giving Mother a lot of unstated resentments against her husband and her daughter, along with a rash of effects from growing up with her own mother, called Grandmother in this story. With a steady diet of criticism about weight and looks aimed at Annabell from an early age, Hopkins showed us the origin of some of the challenges in Annabell’s life, one that reared its ugly head in the dressing room in Neiman Marcus. In time, Hopkins revealed Mother’s own inner crisis and the origins of her deepest fears about her husband, as she first confides in her own mother, with disastrous results and then as she provides advice to her own daughter, again with disastrous results. But through Hopkins’ emotional range we could see her quietly seething about her life under her tough exterior.

Shane Beeson played Doctor Maxwell Feld, a New Yorker who came to Texas to put his own form of psychological therapy into practice. Feld was experiencing his own family and professional crises and those affected Annabell. Beeson played Feld as a low-key doctor-type with calm voice and minimal movement, but his therapy with Annabell changed him too and Beeson showed this self-delusion and subsequent turmoil in the doctor’s feelings for Annabell, his patient.

Young Annabell was played by Sydney Noelle Pitts, a beautiful, precocious 5th grader with a real sense and comfort for the stage. While characterization of Young Annabell was mostly as recipient of vitriol by her Mother or Grandmother, Pitts seemed to have a presence on-stage that allowed us to fully accept her real and imagined appearances. I particularly liked how she handled timeline shifts as she sometimes came in during an earlier time and sometime during that night in the dressing room. In some ways, the memory of Young Annabell was a comfort and advisor to adult Annabell.

Brandi Andrade played Mrs. Craig, the Neiman Marcus sales lady who had worked with Annabell and her family for decades and knew the soul of Annabell more than anyone. Andrade gave Mrs. Craig just the right amount of deference to Annabell and her family as customers and cultural superiors, but showed an equal amount of love and care, and a bit of tough love, for Annabell. Mrs. Craig was Annabell’s mentor and maybe the only one who loved her for who she was. In time we learned of Mrs. Craig’s own crisis of conscience, but we identified with her completely because Andrade infused her with the spirit of a spiritual guide, albeit one who deals in $3,000 dresses.

I think the most difficult role was played by Gene Raye Price. Grandmother was the grand dame of the family, a political powerhouse in the community. She wielded an enormous weight with Annabell as the child grew and we began to see the origin of both Mother’s and Annabell’s emotional turmoil. Grandmother was everything Archie Bunker aspired to, but was much more expansive in her prejudice against everyone. Her bible and sole example of virtuous living was “Gone With the Wind,” the true description of Southern living. Price had the challenge of saying the vitriol all of us swear we never would think in a way that was believable. I applaud her success. Grandmother’s constant stream of judgements against every group or class of people who were known in the 80s was very uncomfortable in the audience, yet there was just enough humor included in Sneed’s text that we could laugh about it a bit while squirming. I’d like to think that if you were alive in this audience, you were insulted by something she said. And Price sold it. I don’t think there was a moment of shock that I thought was a put-on by Grandmother. It all seemed to be part of her persona, and an explanation of why Mother and Annabell had such emotional scars to overcome.

Brett Warner was Annabell, the child of this dysfunctional family. The crisis of the evening was about choosing a dress, something we could laugh off if we hadn’t seen it so often in shows like Say Yes to the Dress and Hot Wives of (insert name of town here). But we learned in time that the issues were much bigger than a dress. Warner showed us the actions of a nervous and self-loathing, but up and coming, powerhouse in Dallas democratic politics. Her father, who never appears, is none-the-less a powerful motivator for Annabell’s life and actions. He’s the one she most needs to love her, though there’s a tryst with the therapist to substitute for Father. I’m not sure who was the more anti-hero, Grandmother or the unseen Father. Neither author Sneed nor Warner, in her character choices, made this clear, so we were left to decide on our own who was the biggest threat against her. But Warner played out Annabell’s meltdown, which neared death, with great passion. Annabell’s self-deprecating and painfully funny pronouncements to Mrs. Craig both revealed her underlying hurt, while making us laugh at the situation.

Perhaps a motivation of showing this play right now was the political climate we’re experiencing. For Annabelle, who is steeped in democratic politics, the major crisis came after an election in which her get-out-the-vote efforts embarrassed the family and especially her father. And yet, it was the political speech Warner gave as Annabell before a large black church that thrilled me, and maybe Warner’s shining moment. Her political speech reminded me that I wish more of our candidates talked like that. Her moment of deepest despair with a gun in her hand was also poignant, viscerally scary, and powerful as a possible outcome of any existential crisis we may experience. I think Brett Warner may have been the perfect actor to play this part. 

This story started out to be a bit fluffy, a cute little story about a funny night in Neiman Marcus. It set me back when the story turned both sad and a little dangerous. Fix Me, Jesus, was not fluffy and it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about the human side of prejudice, the dysfunction of families and the devastating effects on children. It was about political discourse and how even reasonable people can disagree violently with people they love. And it was also a funny look at a time in Dallas that wasn’t that long ago, but seems so distant now.

I don’t know how anyone else will react to this story and I think it’s open to different interpretations. But I do think anyone who sees it will walk away thinking of their own lives or those of people they know. It will cause them to think, long after it’s over. Make a date to see Fix Me, Jesus at Theatre Three.

Review: "Hello Dolly" at Theatre Arlington

Eric Bird

I saw this musical for the first time on film and was very excited to finally see it on stage. When the curtains opened with the city outline in the background the ensemble immediately caught my attention with their energetic performances. The energy kept up throughout the entire show, resulting in a very enjoyable experience with amazing dancing, incredible vocal skills and the talented designing team that went into this production.

“Hello Dolly” is one of those musical theatre pieces that has been seen and enjoyed by thousands. It is based on the play, “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. It opened on Broadway in 1964 and won a total of 10 Tony Awards. It has had three Broadway revivals as well as a movie in 1969 staring Barbara Streisand and Walther Matthau and directed/choreographed by Gene Kelly. 

Brandon Mason directed and choreographed this musical comedy. The visual imagery was impressive, with how the dancers interacted with the stage environment and also the other characters. There were a lot of very definite pictures in this production, which I especially enjoyed, such as when Cornelius and Barnaby are taught by Dolly Levi how to dance, then in Act II in the musical number “Elegance”, Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene and Minnie create delightful images from excitement to exhaustion as they travel the long distance from Irene’s Hat Shop to the Harmonious Gardens Restaurant. The choreography was lively and engaging. 

Alex Vorse served as the Musical Director for this production. Vorse had a wealth of amazing vocal talent to work with. Everyone knew what they were performing, creating a good, harmonious melody, which we first have the privilege to hear at the opening of the show and concluding with a strong Finale Ultimo. “Before the Parade Passes By” was another strong musical number where the cast performed admirably and created pleasant music.

Tony Curtis was the technical director and scenic designer for this production. When the curtains open we have the first image of a city outline in the back with the introduction of different elements for the different scenes, including Molloy’s hat shop and Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed store with a cellar, which also served as a separate entrance to the stage. The restaurant of the second act was designed with a grand entrance stairway and two covered private dining areas that are used by the separate parties. The technical elements worked very well, adding more dimension to the performance and enhancing the imagery of the show.

The lighting was designed by Kyle Harris and was very good at illuminating the characters. I especially appreciated the use of blue and red lighting and how this was very effective in highlighting the characters and setting the stage for the emotional aspect of the show. There was a flashing light that was irritating however and detracted from the scenes, but overall the design was well done. 

Bill Eickenloff and Ryan Mansfield were co-designers for the sound. I had no complaints about the sound since the music was at a very comfortable level and the actors were very easy to hear and understand throughout the performance. 

Stefanie Glenn masterfully designed the costumes, fitting in perfectly with the 1890’s time period of the show. Dolly’s costumes were very well done, starting in a travelling suit, then another period-appropriate daytime dress and transitioning to an elaborate red evening dress complete with an extravagant headpiece. The other characters also had costumes that were well suited to them and appropriate to their age and class status, as we see in Vandergelder’s business suit and evening tuxedo compared with Cornelius and Barnaby’s costumes which were less fine. The costuming was fitting with the appropriate dress styles of the 1890’s and added to the reality of the show. 

Cathy Pritchett’s props design were very well utilized and very abundant throughout the performance. The hats in Irene Molloy’s shop were elaborate, fitting in perfectly with the scenes. The instruments used by the band looked realistic, and the parasols fit in perfectly with the choreography. The dishes in the restaurant were also appropriate for the show and helped create an engaging realism. 

Persis Ann Forster masterfully portrayed the matchmaking, meddling, and opportunistic role of Dolly Gallagher Levi. Forster is very comfortable to watch performing onstage and was exceptional at creating a real personable character that immersed me into the storyline of the show. The facial expressions and well timed lines worked excellently with her character. Her incredible singing voice was especially notable in “I Put My Hand In” and “Before the Parade Passes By”. Forster helped bring me into the life of Dolly and enjoy every minute of her performance. 

Steven D. Morris was exceptional in his portrayal of Horace Vandergelder, the widowed, gruff half-a-millionaire proprietor of Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed store in Yonkers, New York. Morris has a very strong presence onstage that was immediately apparent when he performed the song “It Takes a Woman”. His gruff tone and his irritated, unhappy expression were constant throughout. Morris’ has impressive acting skills and created a dynamic, grumpy character that was enjoyable to see onstage.

Wyn Delano was very energetic and comedic in his portrayal of Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder’s chief clerk who is looking for excitement in New York. Delano is very dynamic in his performance, showing amazing vocal skill in “It Takes A Moment” to great comedic timing in the song “Dancing” where he learns how to dance. The combination of his well-delivered lines and dynamic dancing created a character that I thoroughly enjoyed. Delano portrayed a very interesting character that is low on cash, yet wants to have fun. 

Jonathan Hardin played the role of Barnaby Tucker, Cornelius’ energetic, naive assistant at Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Store. His youthful innocence was very apparent by his tone and body language in his interactions with the character Minnie Fay, portrayed by Joanna Phillips. His energy was very strong during the songs “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Dancing”. Hardin was very consistent in the portrayal of his character and always had a very distinguishable expression.

Diane Powell played the widowed hat shop owner Irene Molloy in New York that wants to return to society after the loss of her husband. Powell has an incredible voice that was very evident during the songs “Ribbons Down My Back” and “It Only Takes A Moment – Part II”. She has good acting skills, as witnessed in the courtroom scene where she responds to Cornelius in “It Only Takes A Moment – Part II”. Her interactions with Minnie Fay and Cornelius Hackl were dynamic and believable.

Joanna Phillips played the role of Minnie Fay, the naïve young girl who works in Irene’s hat shop. Phillips had a comedic entrance when she is opening the stuck door and she maintained that comedy and energy every time she was onstage. Her panicked expression when she found men in the hat shop was amusing to see and her interactions with Barnaby were very comedic and naïve, creating a plausible character.

Jessica Peterson and Zachariah Wiedeman played the roles of Horace Vandergelder’s loud, crying niece Ermengarde and the young, proud artist Ambrose Kemper, respectively. Peterson kept the crying at a constant, irritating level whenever she was onstage showing an immature young woman who wants to be free from all the restrictions her uncle has placed on her, while Wiedeman’s character constantly gave her loving, though sometimes irritated looks at all the crying. Both Peterson and Wiedeman performed admirably in their respective roles, creating an interesting couple. 

Lindsay Hayward played the scandalous Ernestina. Hayward was good at delivering her lines, showing her character’s low class and was realistic in the ludicrous things that her character did onstage, such as laying across on the dinner table and kicking her legs in the air to shock Horace Vandergelder. Hayward’s energy was constant throughout the show, making me curious about what she was going to do next to scandalize the other characters onstage. 

The ensemble was energetic and enjoyable throughout the evening, with good dancing, vigorous expressions and constant chemistry with each other as well with the main characters on the stage. This performed wonderfully, adding to the ambiance of the musical and creating a reality onstage that helped draw me in deeper into the storyline. 

“Hello Dolly!” is a fun musical that is being performed by some exceptional talent. I highly recommend checking it out. The energetic performances, with the comedic musical numbers will draw you into the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi. Her meddling in the lives of the other characters will have you enjoying every minute of the show. And who knows, if you need something found, advice, or a recipe, I’m sure Dolly will give you her card!

Review: 'Lovers and Executioners' at Circle Theatre

Carol M. Rice

Any time you’re seeing a play that’s in verse, you have to be ready to adjust your usual sense of understanding, especially in the beginning. While Lovers and Executioners is much more modern than most verse plays, having been written in 1998, it was translated and revised from a comedy by 17th century playwright Montfleury, a rival of Moliere. The rhyme and rhythm is still there, but playwright John Strand provides a much more modern feel to it.

The play begins with a rather dark scene for a comedy: Bernard leaving his wife Julie to die on a deserted island for supposed infidelity. Jump three years ahead and Bernard is planning to marry again. The woman he wants to marry, Constance, wants nothing to do with him. Her mother (never seen in the play) has made the match for Bernard’s money, and Constance has fallen for new-to-town young Frederic. Her other suitor, Don Lope, is not happy about either of these new men in her life and has no problem pulling his sword at any provocation.

Frederic turns out to be Julie in disguise, aided by her faithful friend and would-be lover Octavius. Obviously she didn’t die, and now she wants revenge. Octavius will do anything for this woman and he helps her be appointed the town judge. She then promptly arrests her husband for the murder of his wife. I’m not going provide any spoilers as to whether she executes him for his crime, thereby doing to him what he tried to do to her, or whether she forgives him. You’ll need to see the show to find out.

The supporting characters in Lovers and Executioners are the most interesting, at least in this production. Richard Stubblefield as Octavius gives by far the most layered performance. He is invisible when he needs to be, yet always completely in the scene, and his love for Julie is apparent and heart-breaking from the beginning. A truly exceptional, understated performance.

Shane Strawbridge makes the most of his role as Guzman, the clownish servant of Bernard, who for some reason also acts as Bernard’s confidante. Considering the huge class difference between these two men, this is an odd choice. It almost feels like a character is missing. However, Mr. Strawbridge’s hilarious, spot-on performance makes you glad he’s on the stage as much as he is.

Another stand-out is Eric Dobbins as Don Lope. With his Inigo Montoya-esque accent and bravado, he delivers some of the funniest lines in the play, often as asides. Brilliant. He also comes across as an excellent swordsman, but alas - he is the only one, as the overall fight choreography is woefully inadequate. In the production I saw, the actors seemed very uncomfortable with it and there were sequences where swords didn’t even meet. Admittedly, Bernard and Julie/Frederic are supposed to be lousy swordsmen, but the choreography itself seemed ill-rehearsed. Hopefully this will improve during the run as the actors become more comfortable with it.

Claire Floyd deVries’ set was beautifully simple with faux stucco, stone, and woodwork. John Leach’s lighting and Rich Frolich’s sound design were complementary and worked well with the production. The costumes by Robin Armstrong were overall quite stunning, although Mr. Strawbridge’s shapeless rags and modern loafers were a distraction. Despite the line late in the play about Guzman being in rags, I don’t think it was meant literally – especially as close as he was with the resplendently dressed Bernard.

The script itself is, perhaps, the biggest problem with the production, as it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a light comedy, a dark comedy, or a drama. The genres all seem to be present at various times and they don’t always work together. Director Robin Armstrong does what she can with it, but the second act begins to feel like a bizarre twist on Dr. Seuss after awhile, leaping back and forth between comedy and drama at will, complete with extra sing-song in the actors’ delivery.

Lovers and Executioners was the 1999 winner of the Helen Hayes Award: The Charles MacArthur Prize for Outstanding New Play, and in Circle Theatre’s production, it receives its Ft. Worth premiere. The production is well-done, so make it a full evening in downtown Ft. Worth by grabbing dinner at one of the surrounding restaurants before the show.


LOVERS AND EXECUTIONERS
Circle Theatre, 230 West Fourth Street, Ft. Worth, TX 76203
Runs through September 19. 

Actual days: Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Tickets are $ 15.00 to 35.00
For info and tix go to www.circletheatre.com address or call the box office at 817-877-3040.

Review: 'The Color Purple' at Jubilee Theatre

Charlie Bowles

Purple means royalty. But in many cultures it also triggers thoughts of spirituality, recovery and resurrection. In African Ashanti culture, it’s associated with Mother Earth and healing. It can suggest wealth, but also imply oppression. Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple, explained her use of the title. “I … noticed in nature purple is everywhere …. And in that sense, it’s like the people in the novel. You think they are unusual … but … all of the trials and tribulations of Celie are happening to people all over the planet right now.” The Color Purple is going through a reawakening. Given its message, that’s good when there’s such upheaval in the streets and women and minorities are still violently oppressed. The message of Purple struck Oprah Winfrey so deeply she became a public promoter of the story, produced a 2005 Broadway musical, as well as its return to Broadway later this year. She was lauded for her role as Sofia in Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 movie. So it’s natural when someone mentions The Color Purple, Oprah springs to mind.

The Color Purple – The Musical opened its regional premier at Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre in Sundance Square and I was privileged to see this outstanding production. If you’re longing for a theater experience with a fantastic cast, music that drives you to tears and makes you jump for joy, and a production that grabs you at the opening and sends you out the door shaking, singing and loving life, you must see Jubilee’s production. 

Alice Walker’s 1982 story is, at its core, a story of struggle and redemption in post-slavery Georgia. Marsha Norman’s book for the musical captures and distills the themes in Walker’s novel and shows these characters going through expansive transformations. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray convey emotional struggles that expose the underbelly of life in the Deep South and still celebrates the triumph of life.

Akiń Babatundé directed this production with a flair for Broadway, with spectacularly visual stage images in an intimate theater where sounds and images fill the senses. It seemed every bit as powerful as the big box theater, yet close enough to connect intimately with the actors.

Music soars in this show and Geno Young, Musical Director, took these talented singers and turned them into a powerful musical ensemble that explored the songs and deeply moving messages. Songs run the gamut of quiet, soulful ballads to foot-stomping rafter-raising full-ensemble, anthems. And then Young went upstairs and played them on his keyboard. It sounded like a band and his backing for these singers enabled them to soar. Ballsy. Powerful. Jazzy. And spiritual. Every actor sang with pure tonality and Bessie Smith type voices. Solos filled the space with soul and spirit. When two or three sang together, they balanced perfectly. But when the ensemble joined in, big lush harmonies penetrated you like a wave flowing in from the ocean.

Actors moved as they sang, both in purposeful stage movements and in dances from the early 1900s, as well as an African tribal dance. Shaté Edwards choreographed the show while director Babatundé got credit for musical staging. I’m not sure where the separation was, but the collaboration was magical. There were nineteen actors singing and dancing and moving and they always committed to their moves within the subtext of their character, creating moving stage pictures that made the scenes alive and interesting.

The stage seemed simple at first. Designed by Donna Marquet, a white painted stage floor lay in front of a large white painted backdrop, with something like a Jackson Pollack painting. Several low white platforms stacked across the floor in front of the backdrop and a couple of tall flat towers stood to either side of the stage. In time, though, platforms moved and towers became little hidden enclosures that turned and traveled across the floor. This simple setting was complex enough to be Celie’s childhood house, Mister’s farm, an African village, Harpo’s juke joint, a church, and even a town jail.

This setting was lit by Nikki Deshea Smith with subtle hues that brightened the stage and actors, but also changed color on those white surfaces. The backdrop, for instance, shifted to a light violet or a hint of mauve at times, but later shifted to a golden yellow, creating a sunny African countryside.

David Lanza designed sound with pre-show music like Willie Mae Ford Smith and St Louis Blues to set the time period. There were a few sound-effects. But what was excellent was the perfect balance between singers and music. Every word was easily understood whether in solo or as an ensemble. The tonal qualities and emotional messages were clear, without losing the power of Geno Young’s backing music.

Shows costumed by Barbara O’Donoghue are generally distinctive, unique and well-suited to every story. But this time she was inspired. A large ensemble played numerous parts and had to appear different, if only for a moment. At times they dressed as an ensemble and wore the same pieces. The overall theme was white with tans and light brown accents or counter-colors. Celie wore a poor-looking blue print dress. There was an African tribe with colorful prints and grass-tasseled pieces. Head dress adorned most actors and these ran the gamut from simple men’s panama or fedora-like hats to fancy women’s ‘crowns.’ I won’t even describe Miss Celie’s pants, which were fun and colorful and set the tone for one of the best songs in Celie’s transformation. Madalyn Russell added to this visual smorgasbord distinct and representative hairstyles and makeup that created an overall ensemble look while allowing individual characters to be distinct, changing with the passage of time and with the transformations of characters. Celie’s hair, for instance, started as short and scraggly with corn-roll pig tails, but changed over time to more mature styles until we saw her in a positively business-like cut.

The Color Purple centers on the story of Celie, a young teenage girl who’s raped and abused by her step-father and then her husband after being sold like cattle. Mister publicly abuses her as a wife and drives her younger sister away. As Celie, Ebony Marshall Oliver portrayed the deep despair of an abused child and wife as well as the self-loathing which such abuse creates. But she also showed a survival spirit and transcendence to a woman of forgiveness and humanity. In a moment of deep pain, she at once showed abject joy of birthing a baby, and then total loss as Celie’s step-father takes it away. We see Celie reacting to accusations of being ugly by Pa and Mister as the skilled actress took those words and turned them into a look of self-hate. In those moments, probably more devastating than any physical abuse, Marshall Oliver showed what it looks like to experience what John Bradshaw called “soul murder.” It causes Celie to accept the abuse, as if she deserves it.

But Marshall Oliver was also an extraordinary singer. Celie sings in twenty of the twenty-nine songs and Marshall Oliver uses her vocal strength, finesse and skills to reach deep into her emotions to find Celie’s sub-text, all the while filling the theater with pure and luscious melodies. Her duets with JuNene K as Shug Avery showed the emotional growth Celie goes through as she learns from her mentor. “What About Love” is a duet that cements Celie’s and Shug’s relationship, a moment of discovery of Celie’s sexuality, and allows Celie to explore feelings of love with a woman. But the song that nails Celie’s transformation, the song that brings an audience to its feet, is her stunning solo, “I’m Here.” Marshall Oliver delivered it with power, purity, resolve, and emotional courage.

Celie encounters other women along her path who teach her lessons. The first is her own sister.

Kristen Bond played Celie’s younger, more intelligent sister, who is blessed with ambition and a desire to learn and teach. Bond did a nice job of showing us a giddy pre-teen girl innocently adoring Celie with child-like sisterly qualities. When Celie is sold, Nettie becomes Pa’s new target, but runs away. We heard in Bond’s voice a resolve to escape, punctuated by desperation, followed by fear of Mister’s violence. Bond responds to that in “Lilly of the Field” as she’s banished. Nettie reappears in “African Homeland,” as Bond narrated Nettie’s letter to Celie while the ensemble acted out life in the village. Bond showed Nettie’s maturity, teaching Celie that survival is possible.

Sofia comes from a home like Celie’s, but she learns to protect herself from abuse. She entices Harpo, Mister’s son, with her ballsy strength and open sexuality. Chimberly Carter Byrom makes Sofia strong, a bit brash, confident and demanding, the type of woman everyone, man or woman, fears a little. Byrom makes her loud, pointing fingers at the men, demanding to be respected. But Sofia eventually encounters abuse herself, by the white Mayor and his wife. In jail, for defying the Mayor, Byrom looked whipped, mentally and emotionally beaten, because Sofia’s sentence is to be a maid to the Mayor’s wife. The thing Sofia feared most, being enslaved, happens in spite of her self-protections. And Byrom’s whole body showed the shame from that failure.

Shug Avery is Celie’s mentor. A talented performer, she’s idolized by women and loved by men. JuNene K gave us a full experience of Shug’s stardom and open sexuality with a palpable sensuality that permeated Shug’s speech, songs, movements, and interactions. In a scene in the bathtub, as she’s being healed and washed by Celie, we see her connect with Celie very deeply. Celie experiences her first feelings of love through this and JuNene’s demeanor revealed how Shug loves this attention. Shug is always gentle and understanding with the hurting Celie and JuNene played this in a way that we just knew Celie would be okay with Shug. But Shug has a personal demon as well, sexual addiction. And in JuNene’s portrayal showed the pain self-abuse causes.

Shug sings eight of the songs, including duets with Celie, such as “Dear God,” “What About Love?” and “The Color Purple.” Their duets were sweet, with lovely harmonies, and revealed the messages of love and strength Shug conveys to Celie as her mentor. However, her signature song and JuNene’s spotlight stage moment, among several, was her haunting and touching solo, “Too Beautiful for Words.” This is the moment Celie looks at herself in truth. JuNene’s performance took our breath away. So powerful! It makes me tear up just remembering it.

The last important women teachers for Celie is a group who opened the show, joined the ensemble on most songs, and hovered around the action to comment on Celie’s plight. Like a Greek Chorus, they were Jarene, played by Crystal Williams, Darlene, played by Deon Q. Sanders, and Doris, played by Liz Francisco. These quintessential older church ladies with booming voices and bigger-than-life presence were not only the strongest singing voices, but also were comic relief for the story, as most of their comments brought howls of laughter. With four songs just for the group, they introduced or provided character information, such as “That Fine Mister” as Mister appears on the scene, and “A Tree Named Sofia” when we see Sofia the first time. But I think their overture moment was when they introduced Shug Avery with “All We’ve Got to Say,” a mixture of adoration and scorn. They were Odetta Holmes, Rosetta Tharpe, and Bessie Smith combined and when they sang you wanted to stand up and yell, “Amen!”

Pa, step-father of Celie and Nettie, was played by a generally scowling Selmore Haines III. He also played Old Mister, the young Mister’s elderly father. As Pa he was the instigator of troubles for Celie and Nettie. Pa fathers two children with Celie and presumably tries the same with Nettie. Haines had to maintain this ever-present forceful hatred for women and children, with no apparent back-story for why. He represented incest and family abuse. And while the audience had to hate Pa for despicable actions, Haines had to find something in this character to appreciate. This may be the hardest part of acting and I applaud him for letting us see this. As Old Mister, he played a very different role. Mister’s father, a former slave who got a plot of land to farm in post-war Georgia, sees his son’s treatment of everyone on the farm, like the hated slave owners he probably had to endure, and he is ashamed. Haines two distinctly different characters made us see the origin of Celie’s journey and connected us to the distant past.

Mister is the real villain of this story. He, like Pa, is forever angry, hateful of men and women alike, although Shug Avery is the woman he wants. Calvin Scott Roberts played Mister with a very strong subtext that allowed him to commit fully tot his role. We saw Mister’s bad attitude as he arrives to buy a bride from Pa. He wants young Nettie. He gets Celie, but reinforces Pa’s accusation that she is ugly. Roberts’ gives us this gift, this violence and hate-filled view of the world, by playing it forcefully and believably. This story required a Satan-like character. Unlike Pa, though, he finds transformation. Robert’s beautiful “Mister’s Song” in the end reveals the true character of Mister’s heart. In his strong baritone voice, he asks, Tell me how a man do good, when all he knows is bad?” It was a stunning turnaround and a song that connected deeply with the audience.

Harpo is Mister’s son who falls in love with the assertive Sofia and gives into her whims, to his father’s disgust. Gabriel Lawson played Harpo through many emotional changes, such as a puppy-love when Harpo first meets Sofia, a confused rope tugged between his father and Sofia, and as a loving husband after reconnecting with her. Lawson’s duet with Byrom in "Any Little Thing" was a sexy, jazzy romp that shows their real love. Their voices blended perfectly and their chemistry sizzled.

Finally, there were other actors who played multiple roles and filled the ensemble with serious solo talent in acting, dancing and singing. I don’t think I heard an ensemble player or minor character who could not lead a show themselves. Some had short solo parts and all were tonally precise and just as strong vocally as the leads. Each member of this cast, regardless of their part in a particular song, was totally committed to their character’s subtext. It didn’t matter which actor you looked at during a song, you felt that character’s belief in the lyrics and music. Of particular note was Squeek, played by Ja’Shaelyn Carmichael, with her very high irritating, squeaky voice as she becomes a love interest for Harpo, and Babakayode Ipaye, who preaches a sermon and commands his African tribe, both with a booming voice that rose above the music and the chatter on stage. I loved this ensemble.

The Color Purple – The Musical depicts the results of domestic abuse and incest, racial as well as sexual prejudice, and constant implied violence, but it takes these hard truths of life in early 20th Century life and turns them into a stunningly beautiful view of how people survive the atrocities and become strong and healthy. Akiń Babatundé, writes, “I am particularly struck by the symbolic meaning of the title…. I wanted to examine aspects of how the color purple is described … as the experiences to which Celie was never blind to … experiences that led to her coronation and the crowning glory of love and the awareness of self-acceptance.” That vision by the director shone through a total commitment by actors and designers as they told a story that applies to us all. 

If you want to see Broadway-quality musical theater without leaving Texas, get over to Sundance this month.


THE COLOR PURPLE – The Musical
Jubilee Theatre
506 Main Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76102

Plays through August 23rd

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 pm. Saturday-Sunday Matinee at 3:00 pm.

Tickets for Thursday evening and Saturday & Sunday Matinees are $25.00.
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $30.00.

This production contains strong language and adult situations and is recommended for audiences over 14 years of age.

For information and tickets, visit www.jubileetheatre.org or call 817-338-4204.

Review: 'Two Rooms' at Proper Hijinx Productions

Carol M. Rice

We in America tend to be sheltered from many of the horrible events going on in the world. The Internet has, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your opinion, brought many of these atrocities to our attention, but in the early 1980s, we were mostly limited to newspapers and broadcast news for our information about world events.

This is why most Americans don’t know much about the Lebanon War, a three-year event which started on June 6, 1982 and “officially” continued for three years. Officially is in quotes because there has been unrest in this area ever since, with only brief respites from fighting. Many of the people who have died were civilians.

Beirut was one of the central locations for the fighting, and it is here that the events of Two Rooms are initiated. The program doesn’t let us know the year, but because such things are still going on in the world, that could have been on purpose, making it more of an “everyman” situation. Michael, a teacher, has been taken hostage and spends his days in an empty room, blindfolded and handcuffed. He is often beat up by his guards for no reason. All of this is because he, as an American civilian, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His wife Lainie is doing everything she can to get him released, but because she’s getting nowhere with the State Department and isn’t willing to speak publicly via the press, she takes matters into her own hands in the only way she knows how – by emptying Michael’s office of furniture and attempting to recreate his empty prison cell so she can at least try to feel what he’s going through. This room becomes her safe haven, and the place where she can sense Michael and talk to him.

Two Rooms has been described as both a political play and a love story, and this is certainly true. The relationship between Michael and Lainie is extremely powerful, even before they are able to interact with each other within the play. Plus, the audience knows it’s not real when they do, which makes it even more heartbreaking.

As the imprisoned Michael, Michael McGough is physically right for the part. We as the audience believe from his gaunt appearance and the way he stiffly moves, that he’s being mistreated. The fight scenes choreographed by Jeremy Stein and effectively carried out by Mr. McGough and Daniel Faghi-isa are excellent. Mr. McGough has a tough job to do since he is blindfolded for at least 90% of the show and can’t emote with his eyes. Because of this, he needs to do more with his voice, as his delivery tends to be somewhat static, especially in the beginning. 

Meagan Joy Black portrays Lainie with the right amounts of self-determination and self-preservation. She has an extremely expressive and likable face that she uses to the best of her ability Like Mr. McGough; however, her vocal delivery could use some more passion at times.

Both Mr. McGough and Ms. Black are too young for their roles, but both do a fine job overall. Director Stephany Cambra has done a very nice job with a difficult script. However, while the show is very well-done, as a whole it suffers from a lack of intensity. The pace feels a bit slow because there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency.

Part of the lack of intensity comes from Angela Davis as Ellen, the representative from the State Department. Ms. Davis is an accomplished actress, but she is far too happy in the role. Because of this, most of the scenes she is in feel too comfortable, and because the role represents all that is wrong with the government and their lack of urgency in trying to get Michael released, this resulted in her scenes feeling somewhat flat.

Jeff Burleson as Walker, an ambitious yet possibly sincere reporter, is the strongest actor in the four-person cast. He plays Walker as both likeable and unlikeable at the same time because from the beginning we knew we probably shouldn’t trust him. He was cajoling, tentative, bold, angry, sweet...whatever he thought Lainie needed to hear from him so he could get his story. The only scene in which he was less than believable was when he was supposed to be drunk on champagne. Then he seemed to be holding back, and when he finally slips and reveals some of his true feelings about the case, it wasn’t as powerful as it could have been.

The only designer given credit in the program is Anne Marie Coleman as sound designer, and the sound was hit and miss. Sometimes we had music to depict the passing of time, but not always. What was there was good, but it just wasn’t consistent.

Kate McCay is listed as the show’s production manager, and I wonder if she is who we can thank for the other design positions. Lights were simple yet very effective – just eight stage lights on trees at the corners of the audience and one shining through a window at appropriate times. There were no blackouts and everything flowed well. Even with such few lights, the simple crossfades helped set the scenes. This is important because there really was no set. The concrete floor and white walls of the basement space at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas were perfect for this show, with the only set pieces being a mat (although a yoga mat was an odd choice) and a stool brought in occasionally for Ellen so she’d have a place to sit.

Costumes were also hit and miss, for in the early 1980s, Ellen most definitely would be wearing pantyhose, and Michael’s prison garb looked like it had merely been rubbed here and there with paint to “age” it. I did like him coming out at the end in a beautifully clean version of what he’d been wearing.

Two Rooms is a show I truly love because of its many complex layers. I have seen several productions of it, and it’s deceptively difficult to do well, but this was one of the best. Despite its flaws, Proper HI jinx’s production is well worth seeing, and I highly recommend it. The fact that this new company chose it for their inaugural production was a brave step, letting us know that they’re serious in their first foray into the DFW theatre scene. They’ve also announced a full season of three shows, also to be done in the Contemporary basement, and their choices are bold and exciting. This is a new company I will definitely keep my eye on.


TWO ROOMS
Proper Hijinx Productions
Basement Space at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. 5601 Sears Street, Dallas,75206
Runs through August 9 

Actual days – Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm. Tickets are $12.00. For info go to https://www.facebook.com/properhijinx. For reservations email properhijinx@gmail.com or call the CTD Box Office at 214.828.0094 

Review: 'Motown: The Musical' National Tour

John Garcia

Motown: The Musical (MTM) is from that never ending conveyor belt of jukebox musicals that keeps churning them out like a factory onto Broadway. Only a few jukebox musicals have achieved that rare feat of becoming both an artistic and financial success. Some receive critical approval, but lackluster box office. Or they hit the mother load with the money pouring in, but the critics rake them over the coals. This genre of musical theater definitely does produce heated discussions whether they are truly “original” musicals or not. They do have their fair share of supporters and detractors. 

MTM premiered on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April 2013, where it was met with lukewarm critical response from the New York press. The musical itself is stuffed with over 50 songs from Motown’s illustrious canon of Platinum and Gold hits. MTM was a modest hit with 738 performances before closing in January 2015. But it did receive four Tony nominations, but not for best musical. There is still talk of the show to head across the ocean to the West End in 2016. There are also rumors circulating around the Rialto that the musical will return back to Broadway next year.

The musical’s book is based on Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography- To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, and the Memories of Motown. It is Gordy in fact who penned the musical’s book. If you know your R&B history, then you know that Gordy was the creator, founder, and the master mind behind Hitsville U.S.A., a title that Motown was crowned with due to its unparalleled success in churning out hit after hit from some of the greatest artists of Soul, Pop, Rhythm and Blues. Motown also discovered their very own unique sound that no other record company could duplicate. This musical uses for its majority of its score a plethora of Motown’s classic hits. The birth for its name came from their hometown, Detroit; back in 1959 that city was the mecca for car manufacturing. Thus Gordy put Motor and Town together to create his record company’s name, Motown. Gordy’s record company signed onto its roster a pantheon of some of the greatest artists of music: Diana Ross & the Supremes, Michael Jackson & the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, the commodores, Rick James, and on and on.

AT&T Performing Arts Center has brought to the Winspear Opera House this jukebox musical’s national tour to begin its run here on Wednesday evening and running through August 16.

If there is one major element that can make a jukebox musical work with the use of published, well known songs is how to make them fit into a cohesive story with finely defined, fleshed out characters that possess a believable arc both in subtext and emotion. The music has to fit smoothly and with conviction into the book so that the audience will “think” that these well-known songs were actually composed for that particular musical. Unfortunately Motown’s book is like Donald Trump’s hair, stiff and paper thin. You get a sense that Gordy and his production team tried with all their might to shove as many songs from the Motown catalogue into the prosaic book. Characters appear oh so briefly on stage and then vanish, or they make cameos then disappear in a split second for the reminder of the night. Many of the songs are done in concert form. They are sung in the recording studio, at auditions, concerts, TV shows, and so on. Many of the songs are not sung from beginning to end. Instead we get a verse or two, or just a hint of the chorus of a song, and that’s it. While the songs are legendary, many simply do not fit into the confines within the muted book. To create dramatic structure Gordy brings in racial conflicts and the Vietnam War. Yes, they are moving to see unfold onstage, but by desperately trying to connect these issues to Motown’s history making chart hits, it creates a clunky, cluttered, and pabulum book.

To make matters worse, Gordy sugar coats his personal life avoiding some major issues within his musical book. He had three marriages and eight children. He was actually still married when he had the affair with Diana Ross. There is no mention of his mistresses or girlfriends. From all these relationships he bore children. The public did not officially know that Ross’s daughter Rhonda is Gordy’s own daughter till years later.

It is Motown legend the artistic wars that Gordy had with his stars and composers. They could not handle his Machiavellian power over their music, art, image, and careers while under contract. Many books have been written about this. I still vividly remember when the Jacksons and Ross left Motown. The press was all over that. While it is brought up in the in the stage version, it feels like an afterthought, not completely fleshed out. Gordy’s book fails to truly capture the very public and ugly battles between himself and his megastars.

On stage there are a couple of scenes regarding Gordy’s masterminding and creating a film career for his muse Diana Ross. There are a couple of brief scenes dealing with the film Lady Sings the Blues, a film about Billie Holiday, which earned Ross her only Oscar nomination (she lost the statuette to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret). But Gordy’s stage book never mentions the mega flop The Wiz. This was a $24 million dollar film based on the hit musical that flopped loudly at the box office. Many could not believe that Gordy and director Sidney Lumet thought that Ross could actually play Dorothy (she was in her mid-30s when the film was made). In fact Ross fought hard to play the role. Gordy and Universal Pictures lost a ton of money producing the film. 

Gordy’s stage book also quickly rushes over the firing of Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes. The musical Dreamgirls (which everyone knows is about Ross, the Supremes, and Barry Gordy) used this to great dramatic effect in the role of Effie White (AKA Florence Ballard). In the Motown musical Gordy’s book rapidly passes through this dramatic firing. I so was hoping the stage musical would go into much fuller detail to see Gordy’s personal point of view regarding Ballard and her being fired. Ballard actually sued Gordy and Motown (and won). Gordy should have written a scene involving Ballard’s firing, and then give her a song from the Motown canon to sing regarding her dramatic departure. 

The musical begins and ends with the infamous Motown 25th Anniversary TV special. Many of Motown’s illustrious roster of stars appeared on the telecast. It also reunited the Jacksons. By that time Michael Jackson had left his brothers and was now a solo artist who achieved mega success with his albums Off the Wall and Thriller. It has been heavily documented that Michael wanted no part of the TV special. But his parents, brothers, and others were pushing him hard to appear on the telecast. He agreed on one condition, in that he would be allowed to sing alone on stage one his current hits from Thriller. Mind you, he recorded these two solo albums without Gordy and on the Epic label. After much heated debate, it was agreed. And all that everyone can remember from that telecast is Jackson’s legendary performance of “Billie Jean” and showing the world for the first time his moonwalk dance. So it was quite puzzling and perplexing that at the end of the stage musical, there are no Jacksons and no adult Michael Jackson in his black sequined jacket and white rhinestone glove appearing with the rest of the stars on the telecast finale with everyone singing together.

All of these dramatic artistic moments of Gordy’s battles should have been fully explored within the book for his stage musical. To make the emotion have an authentic arc, you had to show warts and all, the good and bad of Gordy’s professional and personal life to truly work here.

What does make the musical work is the music. It is an incredible, dazzling, and wondrous trip down memory lane when so many of Motown’s biggest hits are sung on stage. Every number was met with ear splitting thunderous applause, whistles, and screams from Wednesday’s audience. You just savor all that fantastic music from so many of Motown’s artists that made them legendary hits. Song and song it was like a banquet table buckling under the weight of all those mega hits. You just couldn’t get enough of them. That is what makes this musical so spectacular and heart pumping thrilling, is the music.

This national tour is loaded with some of the most lavish, soulful, and vocally powerful singing that had ever graced the Winspear stage. These magnificent vocals ebb from the artists on stage into the audience. It was hair raising, bone chilling vocal finesse. The vocal riffs, the roaring of belting with such force, the lush harmonies-it was singing like you’ve never heard before. Every single person, from ensemble to leads, had superlative vocals that just had you screaming and applauding like crazy from your seat! Combining their singing with the fantastic choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams made for sheer musical theater heaven.

The ensemble is overflowing with electrifying talent. They sing, harmonize, and pull out all the stops in bringing those classic hits to life. They portray a plethora of various characters with strong conviction, always staying in the moment. Song after song, they sell these golden hits like superstars.

Josh Tower provides a sublime performance as Berry Gordy. He commands the stage just like Gordy did with his Motown Empire. His chemistry with Allison Semmes as Diana Ross oozes sexual heat and passion. Tower’s energy never wans and his stage presence beams brightly on stage. He has several solos throughout the evening, but his real shining moment vocally is his last big solo in Act II. As the song changes keys and goes higher and with more belt, Tower effortlessly glides through the song with the vocal power of a majestic lion. 

I saw Diana Ross live on stage back in San Antonio Texas in the 1980s. A concert where she changed gown after gown, each one beaded in ways that would make Liberace green with jealousy. And each gown came with a humongous floor length coat made with yards of tulle and chiffon, covered in jewels. So in MTM, it was really a touching and exciting treat when Allison Semmes as Diana Ross recreates her concert scene singing her famous hit, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”. She did exactly what Ross did with the song. Ross (Aka Semmes) goes out into the audience and picks several people to sing the chorus. She then tells the audience to reach for your neighbor’s hands lift them up and sway them high in the air singing along with her. I still so vividly recall that moment at Ross’s concert. Semmes recreates that concert sequence beautifully. Semmes has clearly done her homework in studying Ross. She nailed down the soft voice (speaking and singing) and Ross’s mannerisms. She maneuvered her massive red, multi-tiered tulle cape just like Ross did. She achieved loud laughs when she did the hair tossing gesture that Ross actually does in real life on stage. Vocally Semmes did a flawless job singing many of Ross’s big hits, both with the Supremes and later on in her solo career. She even physically resembles Ross. Semmes delivers a tour de force performance as Miss Ross.

Jesse Nager nails Smokey Robinson’s speaking voice. That soft, raspy, slightly high pitched voice that we all have heard from Robinson Nager recreates to eerie perfection. With bouncing off the walls energy, Nager gives a crowd pleasing performance as one of Motown’s biggest stars. Vocally his shimmering tenor vocals glisten within Robinson’s many hits. Nager also adds many of the biggest laughs within the production with his comedic chops.

As Marvin Gaye, Jarran Muse delivers a raw, masculine, and extraordinary performance as the soul legend who gave us so many great hits. Muse has a stunning singing voice that just astounds you. In one song he sings acapella with vocal riffs that were just unbelievable! Throughout this song the audience kept applauding and cheering over and over again as he sang. That’s how magical Muse is. When Gaye and Gordy have a heated fight over Gaye leaving Motown, Gordy shouts that he treated Gaye like a son. Gaye screams back he has a father already. Those lines do bring a sharp pain in your heart. For as we all know that Gaye was shot and killed by his own father years later. Muse delivers a peerless performance.

San Antonio native Nathaniel Cullors steals the show from the adults as young Michael Jackson. This kid can sing, no I mean the kid CAN SING! My god I don’t think I’ve heard a young boy sing with such voracious vocals. His high golden tenor voice soars into the rafters and he belts like a tornado hitting the audience. The stage production incredibly recreates Michael and his brothers’ legendary TV appearance on the Hollywood Palace special that Diana Ross hosted. From the set to the costumes, it was perfectly recreated. Cullors sang Michael’s solos that truly reminded you of the future king of Pop. I’m sure many felt like I did watching Cullors performance. It made you think of the real Michael Jackson. Now knowing Michael’s painful childhood, his father’s beatings, the loss of being a normal boy, and his tragic death, you feel the loss of Jackson and his talents as this tiny tyke brings him back to life on stage. Cullors has no hint of stiff, childlike acting. Instead his acting craft and technique is honest and constantly in the moment. He is phenomenal.

There are so many great performances from the cast, but we must give a standing ovation to Martina Sykes as Mary Wells. She has powerhouse vocals that had the audience awarding her with deafening applause. She is utterly magical as Wells. Also kudos to Doug Storm. He achieves hearty laughs as the redneck cop doing crowd control at a Motown concert held in a Southern state. Storm’s walk across the stage yelling at the crowd was hysterical. Later on he again generates rip roaring laughter as Ed Sullivan. He magically transforms his face to resemble the legendary TV host, right down to his posture and walk!

As for the production elements, well they are AMAZING! 

David Korins’ scenic design meshed gorgeously with Daniel Brodie’s projection design. The book goes through history at a fast, neck breaking speed. We jump years and eras in a flick of a second. Thankfully Korins and Brodie aides the audience immensely with their designs to let us know where we are. 

Korins recreates several key set pieces that are exact replicas of the originals. Such as the centerpiece for the Motown 25th Anniversary telecast, the Jacksons TV debut, and so on. The set pieces are finely adorned with props and detailed in design finesse. Such as Gordy’s Los Angeles home as well as his family home back in Detroit. Korins created long strips of beams that stretch across the stage or go high into the fly rail. These beams move all evening long to create the various locations. I did miss however not seeing the backdrop of streams of crystals that was used for Diana Ross’s solo concert scene that the Broadway version had. There is also this very detailed 3-D set piece that resembles a row of homes in Detroit, they curve and float far upstage. This is not a painted backdrop, but an actual built set piece designed with eye popping results. 

Daniel Brodie’s exquisite projection design is used with stellar success here. He projects his videos and images not only onto the two massive projection walls placed directly center stage (which move all evening long), but also the side panels and even the beams that Korins has designed. Brodie uses these beams to project time periods and locations to let the audience know where we are within the story. The projections are mind-boggling! Brodie beams out video images of everything, from the 60s psychedelic swirl of colors and images to the 70s cartoonish/disco era. He also created a series of vignettes containing some of our nation’s darker periods, such as Vietnam, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the uproar of racial tension, and so on. His projections for the concert scenes also add so much to the scenic design, such as Diana Ross’s solo debut. For the finale he projects a montage of the actual album covers of Motown’s musical history of hits.

Costume design for this musical was done by Esosa. All of us who are Project Runway fans know him as Emilio Sosa, who placed second in Season 7 and on Season 2 of Project Runway All Stars he made to the finale, but sadly did not win. His costume design for MTM are works of pop art. He studied intensely not only the time periods, but also what the artists actually wore in several iconic concerts/TV appearances. He designs an array of dazzling tuxedos for the various male groups with satins of various colors. From bright yellow to midnight blue to shimmery silver. Of course his best work is for the Supremes and Diana Ross. When they are in Paris, Esosa has them in heavily beaded copper hued cocktail costumes. For their debut at the Copa, they are adorned in floor length powder blue gowns dusted with rhinestones. For another concert scene they wear these stunning sequined gowns of golds, blues, and silvers. For Diana Ross he pulls out all the stops. Her gold beaded gown for one scene is gorgeous. Sitting so close I could see the great detail that went into the formation of sequins and stones that Esosa designed within the gown. For Ross’s solo debut he designed a blinding white gown beaded beyond belief! It was pure Diva Ross fabulous! Allison Semmes (as Diana) looked just like her in this incredibly designed gown that must have weighed a ton with all that beading. Her final gown is a masterpiece. A red confection of red encrusted sequins and rhinestones, topped off with a massive billowing tulle cape! You will marvel at the artistry created by Esosa’s costume design in this musical.

One of my all-time favorite lighting designers is back-Natasha Katz! I swear this lighting designer can do no wrong! She is the lighting designer for the current critically acclaimed hit An American in Paris that I just saw on Broadway in May. Katz received this year’s Tony Award for Best Lighting design for An American in Paris-and rightfully deserved it! She first made me a fan of her work when I saw the original Broadway production of Elton John’s Aida, which earned Katz her first Tony Award. Once again she brings her prodigious lighting design to impeccable life in MTM. She uses everything that is available in the latest in lighting technology at her fingertips for her creations of light. Her color palette is rich and lush. There are gobos, ions of piercing light and specific spears of light to enhance a musical number. Observe what she designed for Berry Gordy’s final big solo, the lighting design is just so detailed for this number. The concert scenes she bathes the sets and actors in pure showmanship razzle dazzle! My coined term of “emotional lighting” she uses with first rate success here. Several ballads and full out company numbers have the emotion pumped up even higher thanks to Katz’s unrivaled lighting creations.

Overall the only major flaw here is the somber, prosaic book. Unfortunately this book is a prime example of why some lovers of musical theater hate about the jukebox musical. It is difficult to take many of Motown’s biggest hits to fit into the pedestrian book. Try as he might, Gordy alas could not create an emotional, organic, unbreakable, dramatic thread connecting book with song. 

So forget about that! What makes Motown the Musical so intoxicating is the music, the unprecedented vocals of this cast, and its exceptional production design of set, light, and costume. 

At Wednesday’s press night performance the audience went into a frenzy of shrieking screams of applause and whistles. I have not attended a national tour that received that kind of response not only after EVERY musical number, but DURING the number itself! I found myself swaying away, moving my head, and just enjoy all that great Motown music sung by this sensational, miraculous, and stupendous cast! This alone is the very reason why you need to see this production! You will not hear a cast sing like this using one of the greatest catalogues of music ever created!


MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL (National Tour)
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House
Through August 16, 2015

Center Members get first access to the best available tickets. Call Membership Services at 214-978-2888 or go to www.attpac.org/support. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased online at www.attpac.org, by phone at 214-880-0202 or in person at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Information Center at 2353 Flora Street (Monday 10am–6pm; Tuesday thru Saturday 10am–9pm; Sunday 10am–6pm). Theater located at 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201. Ticket info:
http://www.attpac.org/on-sale/2015/motown/?gclid=CJvb3Jn56cYCFQuQaQodsqkC2w

Review: 'American Idiot' at OhLook Performing Arts Center

Genevieve Croft 

 Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Based on the 2004 Green Day album of the same name, this modern-day “punk” rock opera has similar roots to The Who’s Tommy, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. All began as a concept album, with a conventional plot and complex characters telling a story through song. All have successful stage adaptations or films, and all have become popular in their own right- whether in film, on stage, or as a reference in popular culture We have seen it time and time again…ABBA’s Mamma Mia, Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out...even ELO’s score from the film and stage versions of Xanadu…American Idiot is no different. After all, what is the formula for a successful Broadway musical…a popular band, a best-selling album, and a concept from the album with the potential to take life on stage.

American Idiot is set in Jingletown, USA in the recent past (9/11 didn’t seem that long ago, did it?). Fed up with the state of the union, three friends (Johnny, Tunny, and Will) ponder their “do-nothing go no-where” lives, opting to do something about it. Johnny and Tunny depart for the city with a group of other jaded youths, while Will stays home, tied down with the ultimate responsibility-impending fatherhood with his girlfriend, Heather. American Idiot explores many of the themes associated with modern youth: love, lust, rage, and drugs. The political and social commentary of the story are set against a background of the electrifying and energetic music of Green Day, a band that epitomizes the aforementioned themes and ideals in modern music.

Director Jill Blalock Lord brought together an ensemble cast which worked well together, and collaborated with a crew who clearly took their jobs seriously and knit together scenery, lighting and sound that enhanced the story being told by these characters. This was the first time that I had seen American Idiot, and Lord did a fabulous job of casting, and creating a vision and concept for the stage-one that I had only been able to envision from listening to the album. Every aspect of this production of American Idiot did great justice to the concept that I had woven in my mind-the story of Jesus of Suburbia (Johnny) in the stage adaptation of the rock opera. What a pleasure to see such a fantastic production of this show-especially being the regional premiere. This production was so full of energy that the ninety-minute production flew by, as I waited for each of my favorite Green Day songs to come to life on stage. Set Designer Taylor Dobbs successfully transformed the very intimate proscenium stage into multiple locations. The stage and set was designed in such a way where many locations could be conveyed, without overcrowding the space. Simple use of elevated platforms, and different levels in the staging provided quick, seamless transitions from scene to scene. I especially appreciated the symbolism of the empty stage-it really gave a glimpse into the emptiness of these character’s lives. It seemed that Johnny was seeking to fill a void in his life-whether it was love or drugs, or seeking to “find himself.” The openness of the set, and the platforms really represented the ups and downs, instability and uncertainty of his life. 

Jill Blalock Lord designed lighting, in addition to directing. Lord did a fantastic job plotting lighting that was appropriate to each scene, and lighting effects that set-up the mood of each song. Through the performance, her cuing to enhance each scene was spot on. I especially liked her integration of strobe lighting and many colorful lights for each scene. It was evident that mood of each scene was conveyed nicely through the color choices used on stage. The usage of the strobe light was another touch that kept the energy up throughout the production. The use of the strobe consistently created some nice stage pictures and silhouettes. It is not often that lighting in a production moves me. However, I believe that in this production, the lighting effects used truly created the spectacle and enticed me into the world of the story.

Assisting the lighting and set, Sound Designer Taylor Dobbs carried through with his own detailing, and I especially enjoyed hearing songs such as TLC’s “Waterfalls” prior to the beginning of the production. It certainly reminded me of the early 2000’s, and was a nice touch. Sometimes, it can be difficult to find the right music to set the mood in a musical production. I think that designers might be tempted to play music from the actual production, or songs from the same artist who composed the music and lyrics. Dobbs resisted both of these temptations, and chose some fantastic cuts that brought me back to the days when I was in college. It allowed me to reminisce, and immerse myself into the production. I also enjoyed hearing snippets of news magazine programming reporting on the events post 9/11, and of the War in Iraq. Bill O’Reilly’s voice was incredibly recognizable, and was a nice touch to start out the production.

Jill Blalock Lord and Hannah Blalock Choat worked as a team and designed costumes that were very appropriate to the time period. Each actor had a distinct look, and each costume personified each character. Not only were the lighting, and the music very electrifying, but also, the costumes also assisted in making each character come alive with energy and enthusiasm. The second alternative rock movement was re-emerging during this time. These costumes epitomized how I remember stores like Hot Topic, before it became mainstream. It was eclectic and very punk rock. Costumes were fabulous in this production. 

Chris Clark was incredibly believable in the role of Johnny. Through facial expression, and body language, Clark convincingly portrayed the aspiring musician, seeking to find himself in a new generation of Americans. He never faltered in his delivery, and all interactions with other cast members were believable and spot on. I really connected with his personality-it was very real and was an excellent representation of the youth of America at that time. Clark’s performances of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” were very moving. Mr. Clark is very dynamic and talented- in his acting and in musical abilities. 

Another standout was Drew Brown, in the role of Tunny. Throughout the course of the story, audiences see a complete transformation in his character. He changes from an apathetic youth, to a military man being shipped off to war. Brown’s change in this production displayed a nice duality and dimension to his character. His performance of “Before the Lobotomy” was very expressive. Brown’s performance as Tunny was a nice contrast to role of Johnny. Both were very real, but different representations of American youth at that time.

Emma Lord skillfully played Johnny’s romantic interest, identified as Whatsername. With very few lines of dialogue, Lord gave a fantastic performance relying mainly on facial expressions and body language to tell her part of the story. I believe it can be difficult even for the most esteemed actors to portray a multi-dimensional character, and in most situations, they are given dialogue to assist them. It takes a dedicated actor or actress to convey a complicated character without much dialogue. I thought that Ms. Lord gave the audience a great deal of insight to Johnny’s character, and provided audiences with another facet of his personality. Her portrayal was a touch in a plot that was heavily dominated by male characters.

This production of American Idiot is definitely worth seeing. Not only is this the Regional Premiere of this production, but also the attention to detail evident in all aspects of this production makes for a satisfying experience. From the moment the audiences hear the opening guitar riff of “American Idiot,” the cast comes out full force, and full of energy. Audiences will be engaged and entertained all the way to the end- as the company concludes the performance with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” –a Green Day fan favorite. Whether you are a diehard fan of Green Day, or are introduced to their music for the first time, you will certainly leave the theatre with a fantastic rock opera experience. Be cautious though with bringing youth- there are several occurrences of language and adult content. You have a short amount of time to see the regional premiere of this production…you’d be an idiot to miss it!


GREEN DAY’S AMERICAN IDIOT

OhLook Performing Arts Center, 1631 W. Northwest Highway, Grapevine, Texas 76051
Plays through July 26.Fridays and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2:30 pm. 

Ticket prices are $15.00 per person. 

For information or to purchase reserved seats visit www.ohlookperform.com, or call 817-421-2825. 

Review: 'Oklahoma!' at Stolen Shakespeare Guild

 Juliana Adame

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Oklahoma! is the first of many collaborations by the unstoppable team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It is based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, and the original musicalized version opened over seventy years ago on the Great White Way, running for over 2,000 unbelievable performances, and a number of award-winning revivals in years to come. In 1955, the film adaptions, starring Shirley Jones, won an Academy Award, and in 1944, Rodgers and Hammerstein won a special Pulitzer Prize for the show. The show is also notable for popularizing the “book musical”, in which the elements of written words, dance, and music are intertwined into one musical extravaganza. Some notable performers to take part in various productions over the years include Hugh Jackman, Patrick Wilson, Florence Henderson, Alfred Molina, Andre Martin, Patty Duke, Barbara Cook, and Christine Ebersole.

Stolen Shakespeare Guild.

Stolen Shakespeare Guild.

In 1906, Oklahoma was still a mere territory with the hopes of becoming a part of the United States. In said territory, Curly, a smooth talking cowboy with a golden throat, attempts, as has become routine, to woo farm girl Laurey, who lives with her Aunt Eller, hoping to ask Laurey to the box social dance that night. Stubborn Laurey, however, refuses his offer, accepting the offer of Jud Fry, the hired farmhand, to spite Curly, despite her discomfort of Jud. Meanwhile, another cowboy, Will Parker, has just returned from the modern Kansas City, laden with souvenirs and tales of his findings, boasting of his winnings of fifty dollars at the fair, because this means that he can now marry his sweetheart, the flirtatious Ado Annie. However, Ado Annie has become enamored with Persian peddler Ali Hakim. With love triangles a plenty, and the charming folk of times of old crooning the tunes of the Broadway favorite team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma! is the timeless, classic American musical.

Directors Jason and Lauren Morgan have created a beautiful thing; granted, they had a lot to work with: a beautifully talented cast with some wonderful material. Walking in, the space doesn’t seem much, but is utilized to the very fullest: every inch of the theatre is filled with intricate set pieces; gorgeous dancing, choreographed by Karen Matheny; and some downright lovely classical singing. The crew has created some perfectly picturesque pieces, transporting the crowd into the world of early 1900s farm life. All elements of this production work together impeccably.

It’s truly a marvel that this isn’t a cast of professionals- every member of the cast shines brighter than the next. As Curly, Chris Ramirez is absolutely perfect in character, and has some powerhouse vocals to boot, reminding one of the golden vocal tones of Hugh Jackman or Seth MacFarlane. Morgan Haney’s Laurey is his perfect counterpart: she embodies all the effortless loveliness of Laurey, with the gorgeous soprano tones to match. Their chemistry can only be matched by Becca Brown and Tim Brawner, as Ado Annie and Will: she’s loveably flirty, silly, and perfect in the role, and he’s got the high spirits to match, stealing every scene he’s a part of.

As Jud, Neil Rogers takes on this complex character with skill and booming vocals, making his journey as a character both scary and heartbreaking. But perhaps the scene stealer of all scene stealers is in Lana K. Hoover’s Aunt Eller: she’s the feisty glue that holds the people of the territory together, and perhaps no one is funnier or more attuned to the role as she. All in all, this is an outstanding cast and notably glorious production. 

Oklahoma! is a musical theatre classic for all ages. Stolen Shakespeare’s production is one for the ages and is most definitely not to be missed: it’s beautiful, creative, and downright wonderful.


OKLAHOMA!

Sanders Theatre
Fort Worth Community Arts Center
1300 Gendy Street
Fort Worth, TX 76107-4036

Runs through July 26th, 2015

Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2PM

Tickets from $18-$20- see site for details

For information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.stolenshakespeare.org, or call 1-866-811-4111

Review: 'Pippin' National Tour at Dallas Summer Musicals

John Garcia

I am addicted to the work of genius Bob Fosse. From the second I first did Damn Yankees (as Applegate), for research I watched the movie version and immediately zoned in to the unique choreography, which was by Fosse. That kernel of interest bloomed even bigger when I connected the dots that he was the director and choreographer of Chicago, starring the legend herself, Chita Rivera. I have read every book about Fosse’s life, watched every clip of his work on YouTube, his movies, etc. even saw the original Broadway production of the Tony Award winning musical Fosse. This musical was an evening built around his iconic choreographic masterpieces of dance. For a Fosse fanatic like myself, that musical was like a drug feeding my addiction.

In my personal conversations and interviews with Chita Rivera, she went into great detail about Fosse’s approach to the work, his approach to directing and choreographing a show. She was there in fact when he had his heart attack while they were working on the original production of Chicago. I devoured every story and antidote she told, I mean this was musical theater history being shared on a personal level to me! His heart attack is a major plot twist in Fosse’s autobiographical Oscar nominated film, All That Jazz. I just recently finished reading the latest biography on Fosse by Sam Wasson, a 589 page memoir that is a must read. I learned so much more about Fosse’s creativity, how his personal life connected to his work, and of course about the history and backstory of Pippin.

This musical opened at the Imperial Theater on October 23, 1972, and ran for 1,944 performances. It received eleven Tony nominations, winning four, including Best Director and Choreography for Fosse. Pippin lost Best Score and Best Musical to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. With his Pippin Tonys under his belt, Fosse was the first artist to win an Oscar (Directing the film Cabaret), an Emmy (for Directing the TV special Liza with a Z), and the Tony (for Pippin) all in the same year!

In Wasson’s book I discovered delicious bon-bons regarding the creation and backstage story of Pippin’s journey from paper to the Imperial Theater! 

When he took on Pippin, his original concept became a never ending battle with Composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson. Fosse wanted the piece to be much darker in theme and emotion, especially the ending. All dripping in sexuality. When John Rubinstein (who originated the title role) first got the script, he realized it was a mess. He had dinner with Fosse who first brought up that the show had a disastrous book. They discussed at great length ideas on what to fix, change, and edit the unbalanced book.

When rehearsals began Ben Vereen had issues with his role (which originally was titled “Old Man”). In early drafts his character simply was a narrator for the musical numbers, nothing else. At the read through Vereen was just not thrilled and brought his concerns to Fosse, who told Vereen (they had worked already together in the film version of Sweet Charity) “not to worry”. Vereen and Fosse together transformed the role into a new character with a new title “Leading Player”, and made him resemble the devil in trying to lead Pippin into his world of darkness, emptiness, and devoid of any love. This fit so much more into Fosse’s dark subtext and themes he wanted, they built and added so much onto the role resulting with Vereen winning the Tony for his efforts. 

It was during the chorus auditions for Pippin that Fosse would meet a woman who would change his life, Ann Reinking. She would not only become Fosse’s lover (he and Gwen Verdon had divorced by then), but his new muse.

During the original run Irene Ryan, who created the role of Berthe had a stroke after a performance and was rushed to the hospital, then flown to Los Angeles for treatment. Sadly she died just six weeks after her stroke. 

Schwartz and Hirson’s battles with Fosse were endless. For example for the number “War is a Science” Fosse added “Ha-chas, yuk-yuks, yeahs, and skiddos” which drove the future composer of Wicked crazy. During rehearsals for “With You”, Fosse threw out Hirson’s book and created a very raw, orgiastic sex sequence that caused the producers and production to have heart attacks. This infamous artistic battle was re-created in the film All that Jazz with the number “NY/LA/ Come Fly with Us”. 

During previews in Washington their biggest fight over the book was the final line. Originally Catherine, Pippin, and Theo are alone on stage and Catherine asks, “How do you feel?” to which Pippin replied, “Trapped”. Early audiences recoiled at that line. But in Fosse’s dark pathos world it fit perfectly. Then Rubinstein one night added after saying “Trapped” a new line, “But happy”. It completely changed the audience’s reactions and the show received rapturous reviews. This stayed in the show till previews in New York where Fosse panicked and second guessed himself, he wanted the bleak ending back in, so he instructed Rubenstein to cut “But happy”. Fosse hated the fact that musicals always had to end with happiness and all the loose ends sweetly tied up with a big, sugary finale. They fought over this, but Rubinstein regretfully did as told. The reviews were mixed at best when it opened on the Great White Way.

In Wasson’s book he writes Fosse was never completely happy with Pippin. He wished he stuck to his guns for the darker subtext. In fact the ending has been changed yet again for the 2013 Broadway revival.

Ticket sales for the original run were brisk at best. That is when Fosse came up with the idea of a commercial for TV. No Broadway production had ever done that. So Fosse personally directed and edited the commercial which contained only Vereen and two female dancers writhing in Fosse’s choreography from the number “Glory”. This commercial caused ticket sales to soar. Pippin would also become the first ever musical to be videotaped in 1981. Directed by Kathryn Doby (who served as Fosse’s dance Captain in the original Broadway production), it starred Ben Vereen, William Katt (who played Tommy Ross in the 1976 film Carrie), Martha Raye, and Chita Rivera. This VHS cassette sold over a million units!

Pippin would not return to Broadway until March 2013 as the first ever revival, playing at the Music Box Theater. During its run original Pippin cast members Priscilla Lopez and John Rubinstein join the revival company (as Berthe and King Charles respectively). This new revival would earn ten Tony nominations, winning four, including Best Revival and Best Director. It closed in January 2015. Once again there are changes within the book and score. The song “Welcome Home” was cut and added was Theo singing a reprise of “Corner of the Sky” at the end of Act II.

Now this revival is on a national tour, which Dallas Summer Musicals brought to the music hall, opening Tuesday evening.

Pippin is a staple for many theater companies (equity and non-equity) to insert into their seasons. I’ve lost count how many I’ve already seen of it (and did the show twice myself). Some productions I’ve seen were terrific or others that arrived dead on arrival. Others have simply copied the video version. 

Director Diane Paulus has created with unbelievable magic an original, new, transcendent production of Pippin that I have EVER seen. It is easily the BEST interpretation of Pippin to be mounted onto the stage boards. No wonder she won the Tony for directing this revival! She has planted the show into a bigger than life Cirque du Soleil spectacle with endless, jaw dropping magical illusions. After all the first song is titled “Magic to Do”-and sweet Houdini do they ever in this musical! But even with all these dazzling effects, tricks, and feats of gravity she kept the gripping dramatic (yet comical) subtext and truth of the piece at the forefront. Both the book and the score have been greatly freshened up, tightened, with the staging and acting overflowing with gobs of subtext originality. This is not by ANY means the usual “been there, seen that” version of Pippin. Her direction transformed this into a completely reimagined musical that has never been seen!

Aiding her immensely are two other major contributors: The circus creations by Gypsy Snider, who is the co-founder/co-director of Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers). His company brought to the Winspear a couple of seasons ago the exciting production titled Traces. The other is Paul Kieve’s illusions. These two bring wave after wave of heart pounding, thrilling, and jaw dropping feats with their creations of defying feats of acrobatic and circus themed assortment of tricks, leaps, flips, aerial choreography, etc. They use flying rings, ladders, strips of silk, balls, and other forms of suspending apparatus. And those magic illusions! I was seated only four rows from the orchestra and I could not see at all how they did it! I will not spoil any of the spectacular creations these two put the cast through. You need to be as surprised and shocked as I was because you NEVER expect to see what they achieve here. All evening long around me the audience gasped, cheered, whistled, and went into a frenzy with what you see on stage. There are moments where you are twisting and wringing your Playbill because you are so tense and scared by the acrobatics and aerial sequences. 

My first experience to see Chet Walker’s work was when he served as co-conceiver/co-choreographer of the Broadway musical Fosse, which I was so lucky to see with the entire original cast still in it. Walker is one of the very few left that truly understands Fosse’s work. After all Walker was in the original casts of four Fosse musicals: The Pajama Game, Sweet Charity, Dancin, and of course Pippin. Suffice to say the man knows how to bring back to life Fosse’s original choreography! And with this revival of Pippin he does it in abundance. But he also adds his own original dance creations sprinkled within Fosse’s work. I sincerely hope that audiences are realizing that they are seeing the brilliance of Fosse’s work re-created down to the “it’s like your holding soft boiled eggs in your hands” gestures. That is a term Fosse always said in rehearsal. Walker beautifully choreographs several iconic numbers from the original Broadway production. Such as the trio during “Glory”, the dazzling “War is a Science”, “Spread a little Sunshine” and others.

I was very relieved that Walker kept the sexual rawness and sensuality for the numbers “With You”, “Spread a Little Sunshine”, and the hilarious, yet sexy dance section when Pippin and Catherine make love. Many productions water this down as to not offend. But this is Fosse’s world! When he was just a young boy he actually performed in strip clubs and burlesque dance halls. The strippers practically adopted him and revealed not only flesh but their lives to him. These worlds of nudity and sexuality made a major impact on such a young lad that is stayed in Fosse’s mind his whole life, that’s why you see so much of this in his work. You have to remember, Pippin is trying to find purpose in life, and part of that journey is sexuality-as we all have. Walker does not shy away from this, thank god! You need this subtext to truly understand Pippin’s inner battles of finding himself. It was so refreshing to finally see the original Fosse approach to this section with Walker’s recreations as well as adding acrobatic and aerial feats to really seal in the erotic lust that these numbers demand.

I must applaud Nadia Digiallonardo for her musical arrangements and Larry Hochman for his new orchestrations. They stripped the score from its original 1970s grip and gave the score enthralling vitality from today’s world of music. They added much more music to expand several company numbers for the acrobatics, aerial feats, and fantastical illusions, which fit like a white Fosse glove over Stephen Schwartz’s original music. From the percussion to the live strings they dusted off the score and created such a wondrous, freshly minted score.

Scott Pask has designed a pastel, color bursting set for this new world for Pippin. What a stroke of genius was him to create a bland, colorless front drape that the audience sees when then walk into the theater. But when the number “Magic to Do” starts to kick up the tempo, this drape strips away in pieces to reveal the inside of a circus tent, swashed in blinding colors! There are ladders and rings floating all around. Center stage is a mini stage with a balcony; this center set piece serves as the entrance to the circus tent that is ornate in design and draped in heavy wine colored curtains. Pask uses within this set piece a parade of very detailed, ornate painted backdrops; everything from the King’s palace, to the chapel, to Catherine’s humble home. All evening long he has other set pieces brought in to add excitement.

The lighting design by Kenneth Posner blazes in loads of color! From using a dizzying array of gobos, and cascades of lighting that moves all around the stage, swirling and changing color that is mind blowing from the first song to the last. He trimmed the iron circles that hold the tent up and the two massive stair cases with lighting fixtures. Even the circular centerpiece brought in to use for the finale has lighting all around it that flickers! Hell, even the curtain call has a delicious splatter of greens and yellows with gobos of stars bathing the cast. Each musical number and scene Posner paints with emotional lighting, be it bright and pouring in color, or dark and moody when the emotion demands that. Just pure razzle dazzle creativity is brought by Posner.

Sitting so close I was able to see the magnificent detail in Dominique Lemieux’s out of this world costume design! The ensemble (both male and female) have incredibly muscle toned bodies, so their tight costumes resembled second skins to show every muscle flex. Their costumes were painted in bright, fantastic shapes and patterns in a sea of colors. Your eyes go everywhere trying to soak in it all in! Lemieux used a scrumptious array of colors, fabrics, beads, sequins, and rhinestones to create her magic of costume design. The leading player is in all black, from her shimmering tights, to her soft, velvet vest. There is a great hint of foreshadowing that Lemieux designed for Pippin and Catherine. He wears a lavender, billowing shirt throughout the show, while Catherine appears in Act II in a shimmering lavender gown dipped in silver sparkling dust. King Charles is dressed in regal robes and knee length shirts that are lined with sequins. The massive robe that he wears in the chapel has a beautiful trim of ornate gold. Lewis (Pippin’s step brother) wears a gold skin tight top with black tights in which the material has a subtle, yet really interesting design. But wait till you see what Lemieux created for Fastrada! I’ll say no more, you have got to see it to believe it!

As an actor, as well as an audience member/theater critic, I have seen and done so, so much theater. I have covered Broadway, national tours, productions from various states, and of course the Dallas-Ft Worth area. Seen the best, the worst, the so-so, and the mediocre. This Pippin national touring cast contains some of the most incredible and astonishing talent that you have ever seen. What makes this cast even more unique and special is that several come directly from the Broadway revival, and one is from the actual original Broadway version. In all sincerity, this is a one of a kind cast you will NEVER see again. They are all that special!

The chemistry and collaboration of the entire company is unparalleled. You can see each of them connect to the score and book like emotional Velcro, but also to each other throughout the evening. What makes them even more special is that every single cast member has their own individual moment on stage, from ensemble to principals. That is RARE in musicals. But each one brings to the artistic table such special talent that they are each given their moment to shine in the spotlight. That is why every member of the company gets their own individual bow topped off with their own unique lighting! And they rightfully earned it!

NOTE: On press night Sasha Allen was out, so I was very fortunate to be invited back to see Ms. Allen’s performance on Wednesday evening. So in all fairness I reviewed both actresses who portrayed the leading player.

Tuesday night understudy Lisa Karlin went on for the Leading Player. Ms. Karlin is a physically striking actress with a killer bod! I must comment that her stage make up is beautifully applied, especially her eyeshadows and lashes, it made her eyes pop with pizzazz! At the Tuesday night cast party she and I discussed her approach to Fosse’s choreography. She stated that they worked hours upon hours perfecting it. Karlin stated that Choreographer Chet Walker said in rehearsal if you feel that you are working hard on executing it, then you’re doing it right. Karlin executed Fosse’s dance creations superbly. She is extraordinary in the iconic trio dance break of “Glory”. I was floored when she told me her background and career first focused only on dance. That is very obvious by her slick, powerful approach to the choreography which she does to perfection. But her singing voice……..WHOA! She has a set of lungs that will blow you away! Her belt is one of the strongest within the cast. With a solid vibrato underneath she belts with full force in several songs. Most who tackle this role don’t have that kind of voice, so Karlin made each song sound so new and amazing. Karlin keeps the original undertone of the leading player being the devil, which I love! She laughs with a sinister, almost demonic overtone. Her facial expressions vividly show the leading player’s intentions toward Pippin. But Karlin also brings big, strong laughs in several key scenes. She balances the comedy and dark overtones of her characterization with outstanding success! 

Wednesday night Sasha Allen was back in the show. Many will immediately remember her from the cult classic hit film Camp, in which she sang several powerful songs. I am devoted to NBC’s The Voice. On season four Allen auditioned, achieving the rare feat of all four judges turning their chairs. Allen made it to the top five. Personal opinion here, but she should have won. Just go on YouTube and see her powerhouse vocal attack on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. She also toured with several major pop stars around the world as a backup vocalist. At Wednesday’s press junket I asked her how she approached the score since her background is rooted in pop and soul, and yet she also did Broadway in the revival of Hair. She stated that she was so blessed and lucky to have composer Stephen Schwartz actually giving her full artistic freedom to add her own personal, artistic stamp in regards to her songs and interpretation. And does she ever!

Allen adds these powerful vocal riffs in several songs that l almost leaped up from my seat and scream like a crazy fan at a Beyoncé concert! Her vocal approach to the score is OUT OF THIS WORLD! By the way the girl can belt-and I mean belt! Her approach to the role was quite sensual, sexy, and alluring. This was so fascinating to me. Instead of being demonic, she made the leading player more of a seducer towards Pippin. She nailed the subtext on pushing Pippin closer and closer to the grand finale; it was riveting to observe her acting craft. Even her attack to the Fosse choreography had sensuality dripping all over it. I bet Fosse would have loved that! Ms. Allen is physically one of the most beautiful women to ever step on the music hall stage. Those gorgeous eyes immediately forced the audience to fall into her web of sensuality. Her comedic craft was met with soaring success. The girl knows how to knock a joke or a one liner straight out of the ballpark. At the press junket she talked on how much she respected and loved Ben Vereen (who originated the role), and that the role is always played by a male. So she knew as a woman and actress, she had to create her own interpretation of the role. She admitted it scared and excited her all at once. She went on to say it is the greatest challenge she has ever had as a performer. Well Ms. Allen you succeeded on so many levels. She delivers a performance that will stay with you long after the curtain call, she is that incredible!

Sam Lips portrayal in the title role can be wrapped up this way: It is a revolutionary, one of a kind performance that shatters the mold in which this character has been caged in forcing many actors to repeat the same carbon copy performance like others in the past. Lips comes directly from the Broadway revival where he understudied the role. He completely and totally steers far away from the way this role has been played in the past. He’s the first actor I’ve seen who has added layer upon layer of hysterical, side splitting moments and comedic line delivery. He has that magnetic stage presence that forces you to constantly watch him, even when he is not the focus of the scene or number. He achieves some of the largest, robust laughs of the evening. I laughed so hard watching how he made Pippin trying his best to do the choreography, for example in “War is a Science”. Lips/Pippin tries his best to stay in sync, only he is always a beat behind or looks clumsy trying to do the choreography. So it is a major, delightful surprise in the number “On the Right Track” he magically transforms into a sublime dancer and executes the choreography with awesome precision and out of this world energy. 

As the leading man in this musical he doesn’t rely on his athletic swimmer’s build and pretty boy looks. He relies on his tour de force talents. His comedic timing, pace, and delivery combined with his body movements and facial expressions shakes the music hall in laughter. Lips characterization and acting craft to Pippin’s journey and subtext is peerless. He rises to the challenge to show in raw honesty the dark pathos and inner emotional battles Pippin has regarding his purpose in life. His Act II dramatic scene work will break your heart. Lips truly understands Pippin’s emotional pain, it is a poignant performance Lips brings in Act II. Vocally, it’s another level of finesse and artistry that Lips provides. A flawless, beautiful tenor voice that contains a shimmering falsetto. For “Corner of the Sky” he belts with muscular vocal force and then subsides with gliding ease into the falsetto. In “Morning Glory”, he actually changes the key and goes up into a higher register (which I have never heard before), belting full out, without a crack. 

I met him privately Wednesday after the show and I asked him how he felt performing the role in front of the man who originated his role on Broadway almost forty years ago. Lips said he was blessed to have a director allow him to find his own voice, characterization and journey with the role. He said Rubinstein never once told him how to do the role, but instead has been so supportive and that it is a bit surreal to be sharing the stage with him.

Lips creation of Pippin is like nothing you have or will ever see again. It is that one of kind performance that leaves you speechless and floored by the talent that radiates from this insanely gifted actor.

I had the wonderful opportunity to see twice the original Broadway production of Ragtime. On my second visit I got to see John Rubinstein portray father (giving a marvelous performance). Rubinstein originated the role of Pippin and has now come full circle. He first joined the Broadway revival cast portraying King Charles, and now he’s in the tour. How many lucky audience members can say they saw the original Pippin now playing the King? Like the others within the cast, Rubinstein transforms and creates a completely, spanking new interpretation of the King. All I can say is that you better be careful, his performance is so FREAKING HILARIOUS that you might tinkle right in your seat from laughing so hard! His comedic timing, pace, and delivery is like NOTHING I’ve ever seen come from this role before. This Tony award winner knows how to wring a laugh from every single line and scene. His facial expressions are like custard pies flying out into the audience smacking you in the face, and you will devour every single slice of that comedy brilliance he serves. Rubinstein added some delicious new lines and comedic bits that just made the audience howl in laughter. He is a treasure to the American theater and how lucky we are to see him here in Dallas.

In the 1981 video version of Pippin, Broadway legend and Fosse muse Chita Rivera portrayed the role of Fastrada. For this national tour it is Sabrina Harper who now takes on the role. If Rivera saw Harper’s performance she would indeed give Ms. Harper her blessing, a big hug, and great praise. Harper has the kind of body that makes men melt and weak at the knees. When she looks out into the audience with those beguiling, come hither eyes she hypnotizes every male mortal and would do whatever Harper asked them to do. This gorgeous vixen informs the audience “I’m just a simple, ordinary housewife and mother, like all you housewives and mothers out there.” To have this sexy goddess say that just had the audience guffawing. Harper’s big number “Spread A Little Sunshine” is a double entendre full of wickedly delicious innuendo. Harper is aware of this and sells the number into a major showstopper. Walker again recreates Fosse’s fabulous choreography for Harper to dance here, and the girl goes full out! Those long legs for days go straight up with ease and grace, and she brings every gesture, pelvic thrust, and flick of the hand as Fosse would have her do. Her chemistry with her leading men-her husband (Rubinstein), her step son (Pippin) and her son who is her favorite Lewis (Erik Altemus) is sublime. But wait till you see what she does within her big number. It made the audience gasp loudly and applaud. I’ll leave it at that! 

There is another actor from the Broadway revival that is in this cast, Erik Altemus. He originated the role of Lewis in the revival. At the cast party I asked him how long he played the role, he stated he stayed in the Broadway revival for over a year! Then returned to do the national tour. He stated it was like starting completely from scratch because it was a totally new cast and he fed off on this new chemistry and energy from his fellow cast mates. It shows! Like his co-stars, Altemus achieves that rare quality in that he has reconceived this role into a totally different character that is wonderfully original. Lewis is always played as a whiny, momma’s boy who sucks his thumb and goes into childish tantrums. Not Altemus. This tall, devilishly handsome man with great biceps portrays Lewis as a very masculine, commanding, and power hungry heir to the throne. He wants that crown and become King. He thirsts for war and blood, which Altemus relishes in the number “War is a Science”. He has the perfect dancer’s body that matches up beautifully with Harper who portrays his mother. His execution of the choreography in “Spread a Little Sunshine” is athletic, precise, clean, and doused in masculine sensuality, with a solid dash of comedy. He and Hunter are immaculate in the number.

Altemus’s comedic craft is superlative. His facial expressions just made me hold my sides from laughing so much. Observe him during “War is a Science”, it will have you laughing non-stop. His chemistry with his mother (Harper) is riveting. Gone is the momma boy’s aura, but instead two power hungry adults willing to do anything for money and the crown. This is also the first time to see Lewis in more of the full company numbers. For example, Altemus is one of the three scene stealing pigs in the number “extraordinary”. Altemus executes the choreography as though he was Fosse’s own son that was blessed with those genes. He gives an unrivaled performance as Lewis.

Finally we have Kristine Reese as Catherine and Adrienne Barbeau as Berthe. I sound like a broken record, but here yet again are two incomparable actresses that produce two redefined performances that are devoid of any traits from the carbon copies of past performers in these roles.

Reese, who is a breathtaking beauty portrays Catherine, a widowed single mother who owns a lot of land. Director Diane Paulus smartly gives us great foreshadowing by having Reese intertwine with the cast in several musical numbers and scenes, but always letting her stand out with a prop or stage movement that forces Pippin to look at her. Sam Lips (Pippin) and she look at each other briefly, but you already see the seeds of chemistry bloom with those glances that really ground their chemistry in Act II. I’ve never seen an actress bring out so much comedy from this role and she does that all evening long. Most actresses pigeon hole the role into the typical love interest ingénue. Reese has exceptional comedic talents that generate massive laughter. This girl knows her comedic timing, giving just the right amount of beats before hitting a home run with a zinger. The infamous bed scene between Pippin and Catherine is one of the funniest scenes of the entire show. They are aided by a male and female acrobatic duo to really seal in the laughs of a couple making love for the first time. Reese and Lips just bring the house down in laughter in that scene.

She and Lips have warm, loving chemistry that radiates on stage. It is quite moving and deeply touching when the darkness of the piece begins to pour into the show like a foreboding mist of sadness. Both show deep compassion for each other. Their duet “Love Song” is so warm and endearing to observe. Reese also sings (with a divine soprano voice) “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” that will put a lump in your throat. She gives a consummate performance.

Adrienne Barbeau has had a long and distinguished career in film, stage, and TV. She is after all the original Rizzo from Grease and was Maude’s daughter! Like the rest of the principals, she too revamps the grandmotherly role of Berthe into a totally fresh and authentic character. Barbeau almost steals the show with her big show stopping number “No Time At All”. She strips off her colorful print, grandmother costume to reveal a hot to trot body in a pink/turquoise rhinestone corset and black tights! Then with a tall, muscled man they rise high above holding on a large ring, where upon Barbeau does these AMAZING tricks, adding delectable humor, and even sings full out hanging upside down! The audience went berserk in wild applause when she did this! She, like her co-stars deliver the laughs that had the audience rolling in the aisles. This role is always played as an old broad who “thinks” she’s bawdy. Barbeau is NO old broad, but a sexy, hot woman who knows how to use a muscle stud like a toy boy, while singing full out!

But this revival would not be the impeccable, world class, stand out production it is without the members who make up the ensemble . A majority of them have backgrounds in acrobatics and aerial from such companies as cirque de L‘Odyesse, Cirque du Soleil, National Centre for Circus Arts, and so on. But they also can sing with vocal beauty and execute Fosse’s choreography flawlessly. They do high in the air tricks, or use the two towering poles, ladders, balls, and other pieces to create eye popping, incredible feats that will give you goose bumps. And they bring the comedy constantly throughout the show. In every musical number they provide hysterical moments that kill you over in laughter. These men and women have bodies that are chiseled from pure muscle. They have the bodies that make you regret ever eating a piece of cake. I mean what do they live on, carrot sticks and water? 

This preeminent, stupendous ensemble that are called the players in Pippin consists of Andalousi, Bradley Benjamin, Kevin Langlois Boucher, Mark Burrell, Mathew deGuzman, Sammy Dinneen , Henry Gottfried, Viktoria Grimmy, Kelsey Jamieson, Preston Jamieson, Anna Kachalova, Alan Kelly, Anna Schnaitter, Katie Smith, Kate Wesler, and Borris York.

There are revivals, and then there are REVIVALS! I know I am in the minority here, but I am bored to death of the war horse musical when recreated in the same way. I have to be now drugged and dragged screaming in having to see yet again a war horse musical. So VERY few artists, from the production team to the cast are willing to step WAY outside of the box. Who wants to sit through yet another sleep inducing , paint by number musical you’ve seen a million times? This imposing revival of Pippin was a dream come true for me. Lovers and performers of musicals will devour, savor, and relish every moment of this production. You will NEVER and I mean NEVER will see a version of Pippin like this again. It’s that unique and special. Nor will you see a cast brimming with so much blinding talent as this company possesses. I promise you, you will deeply regret not seeing this production of Pippin.

I can see Bob Fosse up in the heavens looking down on this national touring cast and production of his creation. I honestly believe he would softly put out the cigarette that is always dangling from his mouth, and then tip his iconic bowler hat to this cast and bow to them, thanking them for making his vision of Pippin so different and unique, but keeping his original honesty and subtext. For this production of Pippin is a masterpiece. Period.


PIPPIN
National Tour
Playing at Dallas Summer Musicals through July 19, then at the Bass Hall in Fort Worth July 21-26.

Single tickets from $25-$98 (pricing subject to change) at www.DallasSummerMusicals.org by phone at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849), and at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane, Suite 542 in Dallas, TX. Groups of 10 or more receive a 15% discount, priority seating, and many more benefits. Please call 214.426.GROUP (4768) or email Groups@DallasSummerMusicals.org. 

For Fort Worth tickets: Single tickets are now on sale from $44-$132 (pricing subject to change) and are available online at www.basshall.com over the phone at 817.212.4280 or in person at the Bass Hall Box Office. Groups of 10 or more receive a 10% discount. For group sales, call 817.212.4248 or email groupsales@basshall.com.

Review: 'Mass Appeal" at Circle Theatre

Charlie Bowles

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis is a play that appeals to people who have grown up in a church, which probably means most Americans. It doesn’t have to be a Catholic church, but knowing the social struggles that occur in church communities which spill over into a pastor’s office, and the humor those bring to the ministerial profession qualifies us to enjoy this comic look at Father Farley’s church. 

Father Farley is a parish priest with a long history in his church. He knows what his parishioners want, what they’ll stand for, and how to herd them along the narrow path. His history with them makes him popular, but may hinder his ability to challenge their thinking and habits. One day, a young seminary student comes into his church, interrupts his special dialogue sermon, and quickly becomes the priest’s responsibility. Mark Dolson, that seminary student, is a passionate firebrand ready to take on the shortcomings of Catholicism and breathe a new passion into Father Farley’s church. Along the way, there are serious philosophical questions to answer and allegations of personal sins to address. While these are very serious, the conflict between an old staid priest and the young firebrand is hilarious.

This juxtaposition between serious subject matter and hilarity takes a strong Director. Alan Shorter took Davis’ text, which is mildly amusing in the reading, and turned it into a laugh-out-loud comedic look at these subjects on the stage. Through design production choices, casting good actors, and directing their comic timing, he proved that “you can best address thorny subjects with honey.”

Circle’s stage was turned into a church office with a slide-out pulpit to make it into a sanctuary. Designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, the large ¾ thrust stage floor was covered in deeply colored wood planks with a couple of large oriental rugs. This floor abutted a rear wall, half-wood paneled with brick fireplace and wooden built-in book case under a couple of stained glass windows. Candelabra bulbs, pictures of The Pope and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a cross adorned the wall. With Father Farley’s desk in one corner and a small bar in the other, the set allowed for a great degree of movement around the stage. Props covered the desk and bar with books, a telephone, wine bottles, and a small 70’s era portable tape recorder. Hannah Law added these and many other touches to enhance the office setting. The stage had a warmth and comfort that made an audience feel peaceful. John Leach created a bright overall wash to eliminate shadows. This lighting supports comedy and probably should have telegraphed the nature of the show, though I didn’t get comedy from the promotions. At times the pulpit slid out and Leach darkened the stage to shine a spotlight on it, which infused a sense of gravity and solemnness into the story. This also elevated and exalted the priest without raising him and turned the stage into a sanctuary that included the audience. 

David H.M. Lambert designed a small set of believable sound effects appropriate for an office. What really stood out for me was the luscious sound track he created. Music from “The Lakehouse” by Rachel Portman and “Doubt” by Howard Shore created a deeply spiritual atmosphere which interrupted the levity of the story and said, “Yes, but remember, this is also a serious subject.”

Sarah Tonemah clothed the two actors in costumes you’d imagine a priest and young student would wear. Father Farley changed between priestly robes and a black clerical suit for priestly daily wear. His young protégée began in casual youth clothing, including a running suit and casual street clothes, but then he donned his own black clerical suit when he became a deacon. What I remember most was the beauty of Father Farley’s robe of forest green over white with a golden braid design that looked like a piece of art. This choice for Father Farley added to his overall warmth through the colors, but that majestic art made him a force to be heard.

Father Tim Farley was played by Jakie Cabe. This consummate professional actor got to use his comic timing skills a lot in this play, as nearly every line was a comment on the church, his bosses, his parishioners, or his young student, comical with serious overtones. Whether it was a phone conversation with his secretary, members of his flock, or in the midst of arguments with the young seminary student, Cabe delivered his lines with strength and brevity, letting the text deliver the priest’s message and the laughs. Cabe also allowed his lines to breathe, which gave the audience time to digest the message, then laugh, and then reconsider. This is the real talent of a comedic actor and Cabe was a pleasure to watch.

Cabe didn’t just deliver lines, though. Father Farley goes through a serious personal challenge in his relationship with his student. Beginning as an experienced leader of a congregation he knows well, he is informal, jovial, non-confrontational, and ready to bend under pressure from the more vocal members. But his student’s challenges to his beliefs affects him and he examines his own motivation for being a priest. This changes him. Cabe created clear character choices for Father Farley that showed us this arc from his initial casual attitude about the role of a priest to his deep soul-searching of his reason for existence. In the end, there’s a different Father Farley because Cabe’s whole physical countenance changed. Dolson challenges the priest at every turn and we could see the Father’s frustrated reactions through Cabe’s body and face. It was this constant irritation by Dolson combined with witty remarks about the kid’s arguments that was so funny. Eventually we all need redemption and have to find humility. Cabe’s delivery of a final sermon was powerful and revealing of what Father Farley may have been like in his own seminary days. Dare I say it was Christ-like? And like his young student?

Justin Lemieux was the hot-headed young seminary student and fledgling priest, Mark Dolson. As an SMU MFA student himself, Lemieux may have related to the sentiments of the young Dolson, ready to take on the world, willing to challenge the old guard, and unwilling to compromise principals for the “tact and grace” Father Farley wants Dolson to learn. Lemieux was intense. He always faced Cabe squarely when he talked, intently watching him. His voice had a tension, almost a pleading, for understanding. For the most part his body was straight, unmoving, with feet solidly on the floor. This gave the perspective of Dolson as serious and unyielding. The arc for Dolson is much narrower, but after so many seething challenges against his mentor, in a moment of deep sorrow, Lemieux converted Dolson into the comforting, healing pastor we all crave at times. It was a touching moment that showed Lemieux’s range.

Mass Appeal addresses many of the well-known challenges to the church; women priests, “song and dance theology,” sexual ambivalence and gay priests, alcoholism, and fear of upsetting the parishioners. Yet the message might be about finding the balance. Dolson wants to be a priest because, “I know what (the parishioners) could be.” Father Farley counters with, “But what about what they are?” There was a lot to chew on here, but it was much easier because of the light-hearted approach by Bill C. Davis and Alan Shorter. 

The themes intended by Davis are there for Catholics, and likely all other denominations of church goers as well. But for me, as a theater lover, I felt the weight of a quote by Shorter in his Director’s Notes, a theme I believe is true in all the best productions. “The darkened theatre has become a sanctuary wherein we are given the rare opportunity to focus, a quiet place in which we can examine the heartfelt convictions of two individuals…and ourselves.” With this warm set, Lambert’s wonderful music, and a communion with these two actors, I found myself sitting in the empty theater afterwards, absorbing the experience. That’s the power of theater, and sanctuary.


MASS APPEAL
Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th Street. Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through July 18th

Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm.; Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm.
Tickets for Thursday evening and Matinees are $20-$30.
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $25-$35.
For information and tickets, visit http://www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040.

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

Genevieve Croft 

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Premiering on Broadway in 1977, Annie is based on Harold Gray’s comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, a little red headed orphan and her adventures with dog Sandy, and benefactor, Oliver Warbucks. Little Orphan Annie inspired a weekly radio serial in 1930, and a popular film version in 1982, starring Broadway legends Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, and Tim Curry. In 2014, a dismal, loosely based adaptation of Annie starring Jaime Foxx, and Cameron Diaz introduced new audiences to Annie, in a modern re-telling of the story. Annie has also been integrated into other areas of pop culture. In one episode of the witty sitcom, Frasier, Frasier Crane anxiously awaits his turn for a caricature portrait of himself. In his haste, he insists a young girl take her incomplete portrait and leave. She quips, “But I don’t have any eyes.” Frasier replies, “Neither did Little Orphan Annie, and she got her own Broadway show!” No matter what medium, audiences have been entertained by this optimistic orphan, and her quest to find her parents for over 90 years.

Annie is set in New York City in December 1933. The large ensemble cast includes a wealth of talent of all ages. The musical is a lengthy two and a half hours, however, the high energy and recognizable songs allow the audience to pay no attention to the time, and to quickly get drawn into Annie’s story. It was the quickest two and a half hours I have ever spent in a musical theatre production. Audiences are quickly swept into Annie’s quest to find her parents, and the symbolic locket she wears as her only connection to her missing parents. Set during Christmas, and on the cusp of F.D.R.’s New Deal, audiences are given an appropriate history lesson of The Great Depression, though the eyes of young optimist Annie.

Director Martin Charnin brought together an ensemble cast which worked well together, and collaborated with a crew who clearly took their jobs seriously and knit together scenery, lighting and sound that enhanced the story being told by these familiar characters. It was a great pleasure to see a production directed by Charnin, lyricist of the original musical team. What a privilege for audiences to see the original lyricist of the production, in the role of the director. If anyone had a director’s vision for this production of Annie, it would be Broadway legend, Martin Charnin. It is not very often that audiences are able to see the work of a lyricist and director in the same production. What a treat! 

Set Designer Beowulf Boritt successfully transformed the proscenium stage into multiple locations. In a story with so many locations, each one was designed and conveyed with precision for detail. I was impressed with Boritt’s attention to detail in each location and especially the usage of the color gray to convey the bleakness of life in the orphanage during the early part of The Great Depression. In contrast to the bleakness of the orphanage, each room displayed in Warbuck’s home was very colorful, grand, and gave the audience the air of luxury. The stage was transformed into several large rooms (living room, Warbucks’ business office, and entry foyer-complete with a grand marble staircase). This was achieved with very little set dressing/furniture, and the use of painted screens with painted windows, doors, and decorative pieces of art were able to transition from each location in the large mansion seamlessly, and quickly-never stopping the energy or action of the production. The design of Warbucks’ house was exactly what was needed for the action that would ensue there. The office was very detailed. I especially appreciated the stained glass window, and the painted autographed portraits of former presidents that adorned Warbuck’s office. The street scenes of New York were also very detailed. It was a nice effect to see the Brooklyn Bridge, and the buildings that form the New York City skyline in silhouette. This attention to detail was one of those things that would not have been missed had it not been there but added an element of legitimacy to the set.

Lighting was designed by Ken Billington. Billington did a fantastic job plotting lighting that was appropriate and never cast distracting shadows. Through the performance, his cuing to enhance each scene was spot on. I especially enjoyed how the lighting complimented the scenic design, giving the impression of different times of day (sunrise and dusk) over the Brooklyn Bridge, and through the windows of the Warbucks’ home. One element of surprise was the illusion of snow falling through the windows on the evening of Christmas Eve in the moonlight. It was a fantastic effect, and really brought the lighting and the scenic designs together, creating a lovely effect in the background.

Assisting the lighting and set, Sound Designer Peter Hylenski carried through with his own detailing, and I especially appreciated the use of appropriate live sound effects in the NBC radio studio, during the Hour of Smiles radio program with Bert Healy. I also really felt a part of the radio audience when we were asked to applaud at appropriate moments and when prompted by the applause sign. It was a nice touch that added depth to my experience of the production.

Suzy Benzinger designed costumes that were not only period appropriate but had a fine attention to detail. The orphan girls each had a unique, drab costume, while Miss Hannigan appropriately dressed better than her little girls. I enjoyed seeing the women of the cast in extraordinary 1930’s hats- a fashion trend that I wish would make a recurrence today. Everyone in the ensemble had extremely different costumes, and there was never a point in this production when I felt that costumes were similar to one another. Each ensemble player wore a unique costume (for each role) adding to their importance to the story. All this added authenticity to their roles. Costumes were visually appealing, while also giving an accurate depiction of their character’s personality, and life in 1933.

Issie Swickle was incredibly believable in the role of Annie. Through facial expression, and body language, Swickle convincingly portrayed the optimistic eleven year old seeking to find her parents, and to provide a little hope to those around her. Her role was very loveable, and her enthusiasm and honesty on stage was nearly constant, having appropriate interaction with her young ensemble members, and lovely on stage relationships with Miss Hannigan, Mr. Warbucks, and Grace Farrell. Swickle never faltered in her delivery, and all interactions with other cast members were believable and spot on.

Oliver Warbucks was played by Gilgamesh Taggett. Taggett was very convincing through facial expressions and body language. In one specific scene, Taggett and Swickle were engaged in a very tender moment, while waltzing in his office-demonstrating his true affection for Annie. In this production, Warbucks was very soft, and likeable. A difference that I very much enjoyed in comparison to the movie role, portrayed by Albert Finney, who was very stern, and somewhat less loveable. I thought that the duality between Warbuck’s businessman persona and his desire to become Annie’s father was a nice contrast, and provided depth to his character.

Lynn Andrews, in the role of Miss Hannigan was skillful in portraying the mean-spirited matron of the orphanage. Through facial expressions, and a larger than life personality, Andrews’s performance was appropriate to the role. Andrews provided humor to her musical numbers (“Little Girls” and “Easy Street”) with her movement, and apparent dedication to the character. “Little Girls” was by far my favorite adult number in this production of Annie. 

Another standout was Lilly Mae Stewart, in the role of youngest orphan, Molly. With her delivery and facial expression, Stewart was convincingly cute and provided an appropriate touch of humor through her presence on stage. Stewart did an excellent job in her portrayal of Molly. As Miss Stewart matures and expands her resume, she will certainly become a well-rounded actress.

This production of Annie is definitely worth seeing. The attention to detail evident in all aspects of this production makes for a satisfying experience. From the moment the overture begins, and the recognizable songs are previewed, you will be enthralled. Not only is it an excellent history lesson for audiences of all ages, but also, it is an excellent way to introduce Annie’s story to first time theatergoers. Whether you are the young, or the young-at-heart, Annie will tug at your heart, and leave you with an excellent theatrical experience. Hurry, you have a short time to see Annie at the Winspear Opera House. Take a break from the “Hard Knock Life,” and see these “Little Girls!”


ANNIE
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201
Plays through July 5.

June 24, 25, 26, 27, 30 at 8:00 pm/ June 27, 28 at 2:00 pm/ June 28 at 7:30 pm
July 1, 2, 3 at 8:00 pm / July 4 at 1:30 pm and 6:30 pm/ July 5 at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm

Ticket prices range from $30.00-$120.00, depending on day and seating. For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.attpac.org call the box office at 214-880-0202 or go to the AT&T Performing Arts Center Information Center at 2353 Flora Street (Mon. 10 am-6 pm, Tues.-Sat. 10 am-9 pm, and Sun. 10 am-6:00 pm). 

**Please Note- Buyer’s are reminded that the AT&T’s Performing Arts Center Information Box Office is the only official retail ticket outlet for all performances at the Winspear Opera House. Ticket buyers who purchase tickets from a ticket broker or any third party should be aware that the Winspear Opera House is unable to reprint or replace lost or stolen tickets and is unable to contact patrons with information regarding time changes or other pertinent updates regarding the performance.


Review: 'DIRTY DANCING THE MUSICAL' at Dallas Summer Musicals

John Garcia

The creativity machine that vicissitudes motion pictures into stage musicals continues its metamorphosis, churning, whizzing, and cranking out each season at least two or three of this genre. The end result for them is quite vast in terms of artistry and the box office. Just this past season Broadway brought An American in Paris, which was one of the most artistically ravishing musicals transferred onto the stage that I have ever seen. When it comes to bringing celluloid to the stage boards, they can go down drastically different paths. They may not receive huzzahs from the critics, but the audiences flock to it regardless due to their love for that particular movie. Or it does receive critical praise, but suffers at the box office. Or they hit the gold mine when it is met with raves from the critics and the audiences come in droves. The more familiarity that the film has and a devoted fan base, the better chance it has a life on the stage. Dallas Summer Musicals brought Tuesday night the latest movie becoming a stage musical with Dirty Dancing.

In 1987 a cast of unknowns traveled to Lake Lure North Carolina to film a low budgeted film titled Dirty Dancing. The screenplay was by Eleanor Bergstein, which was based on her childhood. She was the youngest daughter of a Jewish Doctor who took the family to the Catskills for summer vacation. Bergstein was actually called “Baby” by her family. Director Emile Ardolino and Choreographer Kenny Ortega (who would later achieve great success with Disney’s High School Musical trilogy) sought out dancers who could act. They immediately agreed on Tony/Oscar winner Joel Grey’s daughter Jennifer. For the role of Johnny they needed an Italian with dark exotic features. They went with Billy Zane, but the screen test between Zane and Grey bombed due to zero chemistry and Zane’s very limited dance background. A second round of auditions brought Patrick Swayze.

Swayze’s mother was a dancer & choreographer, so it was already in his genes to become a dancer. But the casting of Swayze came with baggage. Grey and Swayze worked previously in the film Red Dawn and did not get along while working on that film. But their Dirty Dancing screen test sizzled with chemistry immediately, and Swayze got the role (who was changed from Italian to Irish). Others in the film’s cast included several Broadway stars. Such as Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago, Kelly Bishop who originated the role of Sheila in A Chorus Line and Lonny Price. Price was in the original cast of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. He would achieve greater success as a director with such productions as Falsettoland, Company, and the 2007 revival of 110 in the Shade starring Audra McDonald. He also co-wrote, directed, and starred in A Class Act (based on the life of Edward Kleban, who wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line).

Jillian Mueller as Baby and Samuel Pergande as Johnny in "Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story On Stage" at National Theatre. (Matthew Murphy)

Jillian Mueller as Baby and Samuel Pergande as Johnny in "Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story On Stage" at National Theatre. (Matthew Murphy)

During filming the relationship between Swayze and Grey went hot and cold. Director Ardolino pushed his cast to improvise and ad-lib. One the film’s most famous scenes came out of that. It was when Swayze was teaching Grey the choreography and his hand went down Grey’s arm, but instead of it becoming sensual, Grey kept breaking character and giggled over and over, which infuriated Swayze. Those images you see in the film are real reactions of Swayze’s anger and Grey’s laughter.

This low budget film became a box office sensation. When it went to video (ah, remember VHS?) it was the first film to sell over a million copies. The soundtrack went platinum several times over and also had several hit singles. The song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" won the Academy Award for Best Song. So with all that background, with a mega hit soundtrack and lots of dancing, well this film was practically tailored and gift wrapped for it to become a stage musical.

But it was not given its debut in America, but instead in Sydney Australia in November 2004 at the Theatre Royal. The musical went on a massively successful tour through Australia and New Zealand. The production shut down after that to make changes and retool some of the book, resulting in a new production opening in Hamburg Germany in March 2006; during its run there it broke box office records by achieving the highest advance in ticket sales in European history. The musical then went to the London’s West End in October 2006 with a staggering £11 million advance which resulted in it becoming the longest running musical in the history of the Aldwych Theatre (where it played). The musical ended its West End run in July 2011 and went on a two-year UK national tour and then returned back to London for a strictly limited season at the Piccadilly Theatre. During this time there was major talk and buzz to bring the musical to Broadway, but it never came to fruition. Thankfully Dallas Summer Musicals brought it to the Music Hall Tuesday evening (running through July 5th).

Let’s get the problems within the show out of the way. The book, which is by Eleanor Bergstein took her screenplay and planted it right on stage. Several scenes were verbatim like her screenplay, such as the scene between Baby on the porch telling her father “But Daddy you failed me too”. The book is choppy and disheveled. It desperately tries to recreate frame by frame the screen version onto the stage boards. At times it works somewhat well, but then it becomes clunky and the emotion really doesn’t translate well. Several of the classic film scenes are on stage. Such as the progress of Baby learning the choreography, including the scene where she dances alone on the dock. The scene of Johnny and Baby on the huge log and learning the lift in the water is there too. Bergstein tries to add dramatic conflict but the end result looks like she’s desperately trying to squish a square peg into a tiny round circle, it just doesn’t fit. She has added dialogue that has some of the summer staff who are college boys going to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement. A campfire scene is added to explain this with a voice over of Martin Luther King’s I have dream speech while the cast sings acapella bits of patriotic songs (This land is your land, etc.). It just does not come off genuine or authentic. 

She tweaked some changes within her screenplay as well. No longer is it an elderly couple that are the pick pocket thieves, but instead just one elderly man. The role of the Vivian (the Milf who chases Johnny) has been whittled down so much for the stage. So much so that when she strikes back at Johnny for pushing away her advances (first displayed way into Act II), it comes out of nowhere because it was never established from the get go.

Samuel Pergande (Johnny) & Jenny Winton (Penny) in the national tour of Dirty Dancing (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Samuel Pergande (Johnny) & Jenny Winton (Penny) in the national tour of Dirty Dancing (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

The scenes seem to either move so fast without a solid transition or it seems to sputter and clunk out to get to the next scene that it becomes confusing and not fluid.

When the musical begins we see Baby packing for the family summer vacation, dead center is a massive scrim where from behind we see the bodies of dancers are writhing and dancing. She looks at them, and we start hearing a female voice sing. But it is not Baby singing, if fact no one is on stage. It takes you a few minutes to realize it’s an offstage voice singing. Thus begins the second major problem.

I completely get what Bergstein and the production team were going for here with so many of the songs sung off stage. I am pretty sure that at times they used the actual recordings of the original songs in some scenes. This “theme” reminds me of the Tony Award winning dance musical Contact (which I saw on Tour). 

In Dirty Dancing, the center panel on the set would rise into the fly rail to reveal the live band and singers off and on throughout the evening. This brought back memories of when I saw on Broadway the original cast of Twyla Tharp’s masterpiece Movin Out. This musical had the dancers do choreography all evening long, but never sang. Instead placed above the cast was the entire rock band and a lone male vocalist (Michael Cavanaugh) singing solo & playing the piano all evening long. The score came from the music catalogue of Billy Joel. Cavanaugh even earned a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his efforts. 

These are methods that are created for Dirty Dancing. It looked and felt bizarre, strange, and weird that neither Baby nor Johnny sang a single song. Nada. Zilch. Zero. The majority of the songs were sung off stage, or the original recordings, or other characters sang live on stage. A couple of songs were sung by Tito the band leader. All of the songs sung on stage were done by the same male and female cast member (who are given credit in the Playbill as “specialties”). You desperately wanted Baby and Johnny to at least sing “I’ve Had the Time of My life”, but they don’t. In another head scratching moment, one of the film’s most famous songs, “She’s Like the Wind” is not sung whatsoever. It instead becomes orchestration background to help move the dramatic conflicts that occur on stage. This song SCREAMS for Johnny to sing on stage. It doesn’t happen.

What does help make the material work here is the extraordinary cast. I will say it was perplexing on how small of an ensemble this national tour has. Normally national tours have over a dozen members to make up the ensemble, here it looks like 6-8 total. Nonetheless they do a fantastic job of having to play a plethora of roles all evening long. They bring bubbling, thrilling, sexy, and wild energy to the execution of the choreography. This chorus also is one of the sexiest group of ensemble members within a national tour! The men and women of this ensemble are physically gorgeous looking that they all could be sensual runway/print models! Their big choreographed numbers are some of the best moments of the evening, especially the finale. The members of this slinky and steamy ensemble are John Antony, Rachel Boone, Amanda Brantley, Rashaan James II, Joshua Keith, Phoebe Pearl, Virginia Preston, Adam Roberts, Jennlee Shallow, and Christopher Tierney.

Providing first rate performances include Mark Elliot Wilson and Caralyn Kozlowski as Baby’s parents; Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as the band leader Tito Suarez, Scott McCreary as the slime ball Robbie (the college guy that knocks up Penny), and Ryan Jesse as Neil Kellerman, the nephew of the owner who is learning the ropes of management. Emily Rice who portrays Baby’s older sister Lisa did a hysterical rendition of the Hawaiian theme song titled “Lisa’s Hula” for her audition to be in the resort’s talent show. She in fact achieves bigger laughs than the film version of this number.

It is a shame that the role of Vivian Pressman was not fully fleshed out and given a solo number. Amanda Brantley who is in this role is full of Va-Va-Voom sexiness. Now, the actress in the film was older, while Ms. Brantley is clearly much younger in the stage production. With her blonde wig and sexy curves, she honestly looks like Marilyn Monroe. In fact when she is costumed in a black sparkling cocktail gown for one scene I swore she looks like Megan Hilty as Monroe doing a number from the TV series Smash! Brantley still delivers the goods even though the book and lack of score lets this character stay in the sidelines.

Herman Petras provides a big dose of comedy as the wallet stealing octogenarian Mr. Schumacher. When he auditions for the resort talent show he achieves some of the biggest laughs of the night.

Jenny Winton portrays Penny Johnson, which Cynthia Rhodes created for the silver screen. Ms. Winton has the body and looks that cause men to bump into walls because they can’t take their eyes off of her. This exquisitely looking girl has a pair of legs that go on forever. Her performance causes the audience to fall in love with her. So again, it is a major disappointment her character is not given a single solo. Thankfully we have Winton’s flawless dancing to enjoy. Her execution of the ballroom and Latin choreography is spectacular to watch. When she throws that leg straight up and then spins with soft ease, it is breathtaking to watch. Her dancing reminds you of the MGM dance goddess Cyd Charisse. 

The two stand out performances from the supporting cast are easily Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter. Ms. Shallow is part of the ensemble, but she is the sole female singer who sings live on stage several numbers. She possesses a creamy, sensual, and belting soprano voice that explodes with song throughout the evening. Several of her solos were met with loud applause and cheers from Tuesday’s audience.

Doug Carpenter portrays Billy Kostecki, who is a co-worker and close friend to Johnny and Penny. Carpenter is encased in riveting stage presence. This highly talented actor is stuck in a thread bare book that doesn’t give him much to work with on paper, but his acting craft ignores that and instead he creates a fully fleshed out character. Now, I could be wrong be here, but I can only go by what I am assuming Bergstein was trying to explore and show to the audience (what very little there was in dialogue). But it looked from my point of view that Billy (Carpenter) had a serious crush or was in love with Jennlee Shallow’s ensemble character. There was a scene where he approached her to dance only to be beaten to the punch by another male asking her to dance. He then sings atop of a staircase looking at her the familiar ballad, “In The Still Of The Night”. 

Carpenter’s vocal rendition of this classic pop song becomes the showstopper vocal number of the evening. He has a superior tenor voice that sails into his upper register with remarkable clarity. Then at the end of the solo, he belts a long, sustaining tenor note that caused the audience to reward him with deafening cheers and applause.

Carpenter and Shallow also sing the duet of the Academy Award winning song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” which is the finale. These two dazzling performers sell that song to make it the showstopper number that it demands. Their harmonies are lush with divine, soulful vocal riffs sprinkled throughout the duet. It was so refreshing that these two wisely chose to create their own vocal interpretation of the classic song instead of copying the original. When these two took their curtain call, they were met with a wave of vociferous, wild applause, cheers, and whistles from Tuesday’s audience. Carpenter and Shallow so deserved that response.

Gillian Abbott (as Frances “Baby” Houseman) and Samuel Pergande (as Johnny Castle) have the immense pressure to bring to life the roles that became iconic celluloid performances by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Abbott and Pergande achieve glowing success in creating their original characterizations of these roles. Their chemistry is aphrodisiac and romantic. They connect with unbreakable believability. Abbott clearly displays the growth of a young girl in her first serious relationship, while Pergande provides honesty care and protection of this girl giving up her virginity to him. It is tastefully done on stage, but still drips with eroticism. 

Abbott is a physically beautiful girl who does slightly look like Jennifer Grey. Pergande’s tightly toned, muscular dancer body and exotic features makes him look like he walked out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. In several scenes he is shirtless and barefoot, causing several women to start fanning themselves with their playbills!

Both dance superbly, especially with the ballroom and Latin choreography. When they do the well-known dance duet at another resort (Baby offered to replace Penny due to her medical condition), it is a major dance highlight of the evening. They burn the dance floor as they stick like gum to the percussion within the music. 

These two explode with energy and dance with one of the most well-known choreographed numbers put on the silver screen, which is the finale with the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. When Johnny (Pergande) says the famous line, “No one puts Baby in the corner”, the audience immediately roared with screams and applause. These two (and the ensemble!) bring the house down recreating live that magical dance number. Abbott and Pergande’s execution of the choreography makes you deliriously happy to enjoy from your seat. And when they do the iconic lift (given an extra boot with special lighting design for that moment), well the audience went into frenzy, wild ecstasy of applause, whistles, and cheers.

Samuel Pergande has a background of ballet and dance, and who was in the first national tour of Billy Elliot (as the older Billy doing one of the most beautiful numbers of that musical titled “electricity”). His dancing technique made the evening for me. He truly is the star of the production. He has a dynamic, commanding stage presence that never wains. For Dirty Dancing he has to do an assortment of dance techniques, and he executes each one with superlative results. Be it ballet, ballroom, Latin, or contemporary, he is just incredible to observe as he leaps high into the air, spins, and lands on one knee with finesse. Pergande’s dancing and originality of the character in this production makes you forget Swayze’s wonderful work in the film. Pergande makes it his own, which results in a scene stealing performance.

With all this talent that Abbott and Pergande possess, it is so frustrating that they did not have a single song to sing. No solo or duet. Why? These are the two leads and their characterizations DEMAND to have something to sing. It is a major, major flaw within the book and score that they were not given anything to sing. You could clearly feel the audience leaning in their seats waiting for them to sing. Sadly it never happened.

Samuel Pergande (Johnny) & Gillian Abbott (Baby) in the national tour of Dirty Dancing (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Samuel Pergande (Johnny) & Gillian Abbott (Baby) in the national tour of Dirty Dancing (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

The choreography by Michele Lynch, which was based on the original film choreography by Kate Champion is fantastic. She brings many of the original dance pieces that made the film such a hit, but also adds her own creativity in dance resulting in outstanding choreography that is executed by a first rate ensemble.

Special applause should also go to the Ballroom and Latin choreography created by Craig Wilson. His work in those numbers transformed those dance sequences into hugely successful dance sequences.

What truly helped in making the problematic book work was the design elements. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s terrific scenic design immediately created the perfect mood. He created a massive fly in center wall that resembled window shutters. These panels created a variety of angles to aid the audience in what area of the resort we were in. On the sides he had panels, and for the ballroom scenes he created a long moving Plexiglas floor unit that moved and turned on its own center stage. This piece was perfectly used for the finale dance duet. He also designed various set pieces that whisked in and out to create the perfect environment. Jon Driscoll’s Video and Projection Design was eye catching sensational! He used the side panels, and dead center was a massive LED projection set piece on which he created a myriad of moving images that truly helped in making the book work. He projected various locations within the Kellerman resort. From the pool, to the golf course, to the guest cabins. Driscoll also has this beautiful lavender sunset that was projected on the video screens. 

Lewis and Driscoll were on the same artistic page when it came to create the famous log and river scenes from the film. In the film Johnny and Baby go out to the river and dance on a massive log, then to learn the famous lift they do it right there in the water. For the stage version Lewis designed a massive actual log while Driscoll projected water and tons of green shrubbery. For the river scene Driscoll created a marvelous projection of moving water. Sound Designer Bobby Aitken then added very realistic sounds of water and splashing. The craftsmanship and attention to detail for those two memorable scenes are just superbly designed here.

Tim Mitchell’s lighting design is another layer that greatly supported and helped in achieving the success for those two scenes mentioned above. Throughout the production Mitchell’s designs set the mood with astounding success. Tons of gobos, lighting movement, and framing with light several important moments within the musical are all contained within Mitchell’s fascinating lighting design. His pièce de résistance is the finale. A dizzy swirl of colors, LEDs, Gobos, and special lighting equipment made that final number a phenomenal success! He even has lighting changing colors from inside the Plexiglas moving floor piece!

Dirty Dancing the musical does not try to become that piece that will change the art form of musical theater. If you love the film, then go with that open mind that this is what the creators of this musical want to provide for the die-hard fans of this beloved film. And they do achieve that here. It’s a fun evening with two amazing leads, a dynamite group of supporting players and a fabulous ensemble. They are surrounded by splendid design elements. While I had great issues with the bland, weak book and the confusing decision to not have the principals assigned songs baffling and irritating, it still was a sweet, charming musical that brought to life a beloved film on those stage boards.


*DIRTY DANCING THE MUSICAL (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall
Plays through July 5, 2015

Single tickets from $20-$93 (pricing subject to change), are online at www.DallasSummerMusicals.org by phone at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849), and at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane, Suite 542 in Dallas, TX.

Groups of 10 or more receive a 15% discount, priority seating, and many more benefits. Please call 214.426.GROUP (4768) or email Groups@DallasSummerMusicals.org

*The production will then go to the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth to play July 7-12.

Review: 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST' at Theatre of North Texas

 Angela Newby

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the breakout production of Theatre of North Texas. The theater has many talented and experienced people working with them and produced an amazing show! 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest first premiered on Broadway on November 12, 1963 and ran until January 25, 1964, and starred Kirk Douglas as McMurphy. The play has since had two revivals, an off-Broadway in 1971, featuring Danny Devito as Martini, and then a Broadway production in 2001 with Gary Sinise as McMurphy. The film version was released in 1975 and was based on the novel, not the play. 

Director Dennis Canright did a marvelous job bringing this play to life. From the cast to crew, everything worked in sync with one another and the outcome was absolutely fantastic. 

 One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Leslie Boren (UrbanPhotography)

 One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Leslie Boren (UrbanPhotography)

Dennis Canright and Jason Leyva’s set design and Ellen Shaddock’s properties worked in sync to set the time period and location, and support the elements of the play. While the set was fairly basic, a stark white institution, the attention to detail was exactly what was needed to show the clinic feel of the play without being outright about it. 

Branson White’s lighting design was spotless and uncomplicated. Through the simplicity of using full lights or a single spotlight, White was able to completely change the dynamic of the room with a single flip of the switch. It was in the single spotlights that the audience was able to relate to the characters, and then was quickly transitioned to the next scene in the play. White did a remarkable job with lighting that only enhanced the show. 

Nita Cadenhead made wise choices with her costuming for the show, fitting her design in perfectly with the time period that the play was set in. I especially loved the crisp clean white uniforms of the hospital staff. The patients’ costumes were each based on beige scrubs, and then embellished for each character through a different shirt on top of it, a bathrobe, or even a hospital gown. Cadenhead’s costumes successfully created the depth of the characters to aid the story. 

Sound design by Joshua Hahlen and Dennis Canright was phenomenal. Hahlen and Canright developed a sound design that will give you chills, and then have your heart racing. It was thorough and every second of the show was perfectly timed to create an outstanding result. This show was only enriched through this creative duo. 

Playing Chief Bromden, R. Andrew Aguilar was the epitome of a mental institution patient. Aguilar’s use of heavy feet, crossed arms, silent blank stare, and his grasping as his shirt sleeves all allowed for the audience to see one part of his duel personality character. Yet it was when Chief Bromden comes to life that Aguilar’s talent was truly displayed. His powerful speaking voice with an edge of shakiness allowed for the passion to flow over the audience. Aguilar did such an amazing job of displaying these two personalities that there was never a question of what state of mind Chief was in. 

Leslie Boren played Nurse Ratched and was the head nurse of the institution. Boren’s steely gaze and perfect posture only enhanced her characters no-nonsense ways. Though it was Boren’s perfectly paced speech with her tone that showed the depth of her knowledge of her character. Her proper demeanor and facial expressions never faltered and she was always on point, which only showed the strength of Boren as an actress. 

Randle McMurphy, played by Jeff Burleson, was emotional and moving. Burleson easily had down the cocky McMurphy with his swagger and hands in his pockets. However, Burleson’s used a wavering voice and keen eyes showed the depth of who McMurhpy was as he interacted with Chief. These multiple facets of McMurhpy were easily distinguished through the mannerism and vocal inflection of Burleson which only made the show that much better. 

Steve Cave as Dale Harding was the voluntarily committed patient that holds a degree of order over the other patients. Cave’s vocal inflections were superb. His purposeful steps and dignified mannerisms heightened his characters calm demeanor. Cheswick, played by Shawn Gann was the nervous patient that tried to be everyone’s friend. Gann’s frantic movements and squeaky voice coupled with his wringing hands perfectly portrayed this. This was enriched only through his pulling at this hair, and wide eyes. 

Billy Bibbit was played by Zachary Leyva a young man who has mother issues. Leyva was able to nail Billy’s personality through his downward looks, and soft deep vocals with a stutter. Yet, Leyva was also able to show his character’s brighter side with his jovial smile, bright eyes, and puffed out chest. Martini was played by Danny Macchietto. Macchietto’s high pitched voice and rapid movements were equally shown with his reserved manners that showed the dichotomy of his character. Macchietto’s nervous gestures were spot-on. 

Harry Liston as Scanlon was a dry character. Liston revealed this through his dry laughs, even-toned speech, and facial expressions, such as rolling his eyes. George Spelvin as Ruckley was care-free and that was displayed through his fluid movements and loopy grins. It is Spelvin’s non-verbal acting that truly exhibited his characters diminished functionality.

The professional staff is rounded out with Dr. Spivey played by Derek Lorin and Nurse Flinn by Hillary Brainerd. Lorin played this doctor perfectly with his professional mannerism and confident vocal inflections. Brainerd portrayed her skittish nurse through her flurried movements and quick paced vocals. 

Eduardo Serna, Jonathon Huggins, and Kwame Lilly are the three Aides in the institution. Serna and Huggins use of laughter and wide grins only boosted the joy that their characters had in their job. It was when they had to be forceful that Serna and Huggins were able to show the depth of their skills with red faces, breathy vocals, and rushed movements. Lilly was the night aide that helps McMurhpy and the patients in a late night party. The aide’s laid back personality was shown through Lily’s slow paced speech, and easy movements.

Monalisa Amidar as Candy Starr along with Katy Pearce Hill as Sandra were the two party goers that McMurphy brings into the institution. Amidar and Hill are perfectly cast as the party girls evident through their energetic smiles, slurred speech, and wobbly steps. 

Theatre of North Texas opened their first season with a strong production that makes me look forward to what’s coming up next. I highly recommend this show as an excellent piece of theater which will leave you feeling more compassion for those that you meet in your life.


ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

Theatre of North Texas
2535 Valley View Lane
Dallas, TX 75234

Runs through June 28th 

Friday-Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

Tickets are $12.00 for adults, and $10.00 for children. 

For information and to purchase tickets, go http://www.theatreofnorthtexas.com/ or call the box office at 817-380-5456.

Review: 'Les Misérables' at Casa Manana

 Daniel Solon

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Alan Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s international juggernaut Les Miserables storms onto Casa Manana’s mainstage, opening their 2015-2016 Broadway series. The 1980’s mega musical, based on the 1860’s mega novel by Victor Hugo, romanticizes French turmoil and feudal suffering while centering on a quashed student-led insurgence following the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque.

As the world’s longest running musical, Les Miserables (or Les Mis as mega fans call it) has a permanent home in London’s West End and has returned to the Broadway stage after numerous national tours and regional productions. Last year, Dallas Theatre Center presented a contemporary reinterpretation by Liesl Tommy featuring automatic weapons and dreadlocks - Casa’s production is decidedly more in line with the safer, musket and wig historical piece that audiences have come to cherish. 

And this is a production to cherish. Packed with extraordinary vocal and acting talent, this Les Miserables fits perfectly on Casa’s thrust stage. Adam Koch’s versatile set design relies on two giant rolling walls with drawbridges, passageways and crannies that the cast adroitly cross over, climb on and emerge from. The second act brings us the appearance of the barricade - a design spectacle that’s a favorite of audiences. Koch has kept with tradition, creating the effect of a haphazard pile of disused furniture, driftwood and spinning wheels. He’s then painted the mass in black, leaving the would-be revolutionaries’ red vests and white sleeves to pop against the darkness as they scramble up the pile with guns and flags. 

Kudos here to lighting designer Samuel Rushen whose nuanced, dynamic design supports a sense of space as big as the emotions at hand. Bright shafts of brilliant color shoot across the space, landing onstage to define intimate playing areas. Attention to contrast was especially welcome, evoking the visual language of French painters who similarly sought to capture the scale of societal revolution while highlighting individual struggle. The war-like storming of the barricade was achieved by an impressive array of moveable, flood and strobe lighting. Clearly, Rushen knows how to the make the most of a formidable lighting grid.

Michael Hunsaker, Mary Michael Patterson and Stephanie Umoh. Photo Credit: Samuel Rushe

Michael Hunsaker, Mary Michael Patterson and Stephanie Umoh. Photo Credit: Samuel Rushe

Every good period drama deserves extravagant costumes, and Tammy Spencer has delivered in spades. Consider that this show demands outfitting street urchins, prostitutes, the working poor, soldiers, posh students and the considerably wealthy. The result is a rags to riches treat for the sartorially inclined. Les Mis poster girl Cosette gets the best of it, as she is consistently outfitted in stunning gowns. A wedding in the second act takes the cake as Cosette’s bridal gown sets a new standard for opulence as men in tuxedos and women in frilly dresses waltz around her. 

At the heart of this show is its popular, bombastic score known for its pounding anthems and reflective lyrics. At the reviewed performance it was conducted ably by music director James Cunningham. His orchestra was in rare form, though I occasionally was too aware that his pit comprised of four keyboards and no violins. Synthesized instruments often succeed where their low-fi counterparts can’t (this musical was written in the ‘80s after all). Lise Engel’s cello provided a warm aural base, but the synthetic strings sounded strained at their top end, leaving unsupported vocal climaxes to powerhouse tunes like “Stars”, “Who Am I” and “I Dreamed a Dream”. I can only assume this is a cost cutting measure, but I will always champion the value of paying full orchestras to perform live theatre. Actors, musicians, and production crew are professional artists and employing them properly can only make for better art. 

More than eight members of this cast boast Broadway credits. Before local unions cry foul, it’s important to note that former Casa Kid Mary Michael Patterson returns to this Equity house to play Cosette. Ms. Patterson makes a more than welcome turn with her gently powerful voice. Her upper range is sublime and I could easily imagine why Broadway tapped her for Christine in Phantom of the Opera. It’s a shame that the adult Cosette never really gets her own song, but in “A Heart Full of Love” Ms. Patterson’s clear tones could be heard to float above harmonies with ethereal grace. 

Kirstin Tucker’s Eponine infuses the stage with the volition of a street savvy con-woman and the youthful longing of unrequited affection. Look no further than showstopper “On My Own” to get the full effect of Ms. Tucker’s brilliance. She masterfully delivers this stirring anthem for the love-lorn. With emotions running this high, it’s easy to understand why such an otherwise capable young woman is unable to win the object of her affections. She loves with true emotion, but wrestles with the intellectual reality that she will never fully know the intimacy she desires. 

Indeed, Eponine has her work cut out for her, as Ian Patrick Gibb offers a charmingly befuddled Marius. From Gibb, we get the perfect young revolutionary tourist: full of passion, purpose and prospect, but unable to seal the deal due to gallant bashfulness. But as is the way with the best coming of age tales, the optimism with which he woos Cosette in “A Heart Full of Love” gives way to tragic reckoning as he mourns the dead in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. This is a beautifully performed scene, again explicating the discrete pain that lives among communal tragedy. 

Over the course of “Lovely Ladies”, Stephanie Umoh’s Fantine is subjected to every degradation and humiliation that the Parisian sewers have to offer a fallen woman. After all, she’s just lost her job and has a child to support. Ms. Umoh convincingly conveys the kinetic panic of a single mother’s struggle. Yes, she’s willing to sell her own body so that her child will know a better life. In “I Dreamed a Dream”, Fantine reminisces of the good times before love turned into desperation. Ms. Umoh gives us that emotional journey, and in doing so, she substantiates Fantine’s hyperbolic suffering, making her demise even more lamentable. 

Daniel Rowan should be famous. His powerful voice and piercing eyes nearly inspired me to bound onto stage and join the revolution. As Enjolras, Rowan is charged with rallying the troops and keeping young hearts (and bodies) focused on the task at hand (nothing less than overturning tyranny). I never once doubted Rowan’s sincerity and I fully believed this charismatic revolutionary could hold his own at the barricade. Rowan was ablaze with drive and purpose as he led the students from “Red and Black” to “Do You Hear the People Sing”.

James Zannelli and Cheryl Allison were despicably delightful as the Thenardiers - Paris’ worst babysitters and innkeepers. These are tricky characters that must be simultaneously loathed as the thieves and child abusers they are, but also embraced as darkly functional clowns - exposing the rise of petty blackmail and opportunistic bourgeois Capitalism over moral integrity. “Master of the House” was a raucous joy rife with pickpocketing drunks, stealing from blind men and wonton philandering. Ms. Allison’s two-faced Madame Thenardier is wonderfully cringe worthy. Only more despicable is Zannelli’s Thenardier who, after the fall of the rebellion, combs the sewers in search of valuables in the pockets (and mouths) of the dead. 

If anyone can bring order to this chaos, it’s meant to be David McDonald’s Javert. It’s important to remember that this police inspector was born inside a jail and has a somewhat unhealthy bias against inmates. McDonald manifests the stern severity of a man on a mission. He is an obelisk, calling for order amid chaos. When he sings, “I am Javert,” I believe him and that the mere mention of his name brings criminals into child’s pose. But what makes this character, and this performance, so powerful is the tension between Javert’s need to create order and his compassionate instincts. The struggle is real, and McDonald exposes the pain that comes with compromise from duality. 

And then there’s Jean Valjean. There’s always Jean Valjean. There’s a lot of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is equal parts martyr, criminal, escapee, hero, industrialist, father, soldier and coward. It’s a lot to manage and Michael Hunsaker is up for the job. Unlike other characters who age over the course of Les Miserables, Valjean is deftly played by the same actor over three decades. Hunsaker’s Valjean begins the show as an impetuous, jaded convict who has been brutally punished for his good intentions. As the show closes and he drifts into death, he has aged considerably and gained the lessons of experience. Beyond the greying of his hair, he has come to know the value of love, connection and yes, the human spirit. 

It’s a lot to achieve in one show. Tim Bennett’s confident direction and choreography shine through as this three hour epic never drags or yawns. Each new moment feels fresh and rich with dramatic intention. The show is forever moving, maintaining the signature cinematic pacing that made this sort of musical so successful in the ‘80s. Bennett hasn’t chosen to reinvent the wheel, but he has created an environment in which actors appear empowered and present. Special thanks is offered for a notable lack of insincere accents. It’s a small choice, but an important one, to allow actors to use their native inflections when creating a role. This is an international show and Bennett has offered us a strikingly talented, diverse cast that appropriately favors talent above all else.
 

LES MISERABLES

Casa Mañana
3101 W Lancaster Ave.
Fort Worth, TX 76107

Runs through June 28th 

Performances: Friday, June 19 at 8:00pm, Saturday, June 20 at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday, June 21 at 2pm and 7:30pm, Tuesday, June 23 at 7:30pm, Wednesday, June 24 at 7:30pm, Thursday, June 25 at 7:30pm, Friday, June 26 at 8pm, Saturday, June 27 at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday, June 28 at 2pm and 7:30pm

Tickets range from $41 - $91 and can be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or by visiting www.casamana.org. Tickets are also available at the Casa Mañana Theatre box office, 3101 W. Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth.

Review: 'West Side Story' at Garland Summer Musicals

Daniel Solon

/Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Garland Summer Musicals and Eastfield College present the American musical classic West Side Story. Developed by visionary choreographer Jerome Robbins with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a very young Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is the once-fresh retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet transposed to 1950’s Manhattan. 

West Side Story is also easily one of the most loved musicals of high schools, colleges and community groups. Every year, hundreds of productions will hit America’s stages and all of them will abide, near slavishly, to Jerome Robbins’ angular hop-and-snap choreography. They’ll all feature racially inaccurate casting. And the audience will be treated to inconsistent attempts at New York and Puerto Rican accents. 

And while this clearly a talented group of young performers, this production doesn’t go far enough to break through these trappings. 

As romantic lead Tony, Equity performer Max Swarner’s voice is clear and robust. He emanates youthful innocence, but I was less convinced of his credentials as the leader of a hardened street gang. Perhaps this is the point - that these are children entering into a world much rougher than any had experienced. 

Maranda Harrison delivers a musically sound Maria with her strong, legitimate tones. Maria is a deceivingly tough role. Harrison does well transitioning from wide-eyed ingénue to rage-fueled woman. From “I Have a Love” to the heartbreaking finale, Harrison delivers confident dramatic force.

There is a good amount of humor, passion, and beauty to be found on this stage. And this production is to be commended for the quality of its talent. Jerome Robbins’ choreography looks super sharp and this show is at its best during company dance numbers. Dancers exude enthusiasm and land their marks with precision. Crowd favorite, “Dance at the Gym” was especially invigorating. The house crackled with kinetic energy as dancers twirled about the stage singing, “Mambo!”.

But with directing heavyweight Buff Shurr at the helm, I was hoping for new moments of revelation. No one could predict that the small Texas town of McKinney, just miles from the Granville Arts Center, would become the international focus of America’s contemporary struggles with authority and race. But this production seems so very far from the real-life drama unfolding on the streets outside the auditorium that I wondered for whom this show existed.

Is it good enough to produce good-enough carbon copies of stage classics? Or, are we missing opportunities to reinvigorate the popular stage with interpretations that are savvy to contemporary audiences?

This potential seemed to materialize briefly in Act 2 as the “Dream Ballet” and “Somewhere” merged into an extended contemporary dance sequence that was stylistically so disconnected from the rest of the show, that I felt robbed of a key emotional moment. As Rodney Dobbs’ serviceable set disappeared, the stage was reduced to an overly-bright recital featuring the entire cast (including two blood-soaked characters who had previously died). The “fantasy” here is that everyone dresses in earth tones and smiles a lot… like, a lot. 

In a different production, one rich with investigation and interpretation, this sequence may have proved very successful. But that wasn’t the context in which it existed. The result was jarring, rendering aspects of the surrounding show dated and inauthentic. 

Still, some of the old-time charm did shine through. The Jets nailed “Gee, Officer Krupke”. This second act comedic number playfully explores the failings of the child welfare system. As characters get passed from cops, to parents, to doctors, to social workers, it becomes more clear why they’re in a fix. Stephen Raikes offers a standout performance as Action, playing the most maligned of the Jets. 

This production evokes much of the relevance and electricity one might have felt when West Side Story first opened in 1957. But some opportunities were lost in sticking to convention. Jets and Sharks still live on our cities’ street corners and their faces and struggles have changed. The theatre needs to change with them.


WEST SIDE STORY
Granville Arts Center
300 N 5th St, Garland, TX 75040

June 19, 20 at 8:00pm, June 21 at 2:30pm. Tickets: $30 Adult; $26 Seniors; $24 Student/Youth
Box office location: 300 North Fifth Street, Garland, TX 75040. Hours: 10am-4pm Monday through Friday and two hours before each performance

Phone Orders Call 972-205-2790 for credit card orders (Mastercard and Visa accepted)
http://www.garlandsummermusicals.org/