Monday, September 29, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "A Higher Place in Heaven"

Georgia playwright Pamela Parker has a small cottage industry surrounding the fictional town of Second Samuel, GA -- Second Samuel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas, and now showing on the Wetumpka Depot stage: a prequel to the other two called A Higher Place in Heaven, showing the boyhood of characters Frisky and U.S., who feature prominently as adults in the other two plays.

Set in the Summer of 1925, it is a gentle coming-of-age story as well as a serious contemplation on race relations told through complex family relationships. Blacks and Whites who grew up together for generations have fixed social "places" that no one seems to question -- they appear to get along, and it is these assumptions that have kept Blacks back with little hope for advancement and allowed Whites to feel superior.

Teenagers: Frisky [Reese Lynch] and Ulysses (known as U.S.) [Matthew Mitchell] are best friends who spend their time fishing or otherwise lazing about, while their Mothers: Miss Madison [Hazel Jones] and her confidante-servant Miss Simpson [Anne-Marie Mitchell] gossip on the porch of "New Hope", the Madison family's old plantation mansion. Their two families have lived there for generations, and Miss Simpson helped bring up the Madison children.

Everything seems normal until Frisky's older lawyer brother, Son [Clint Evans], shows up to give a speech at the dedication of a monument to their grandfather who fought in the Civil War; Son wants to emphasize the "glory" of the war, and his wife Billie Augusta [Madyson Greenwood] tempers his enthusiasm with practical comments.

When Son discovers his Mother's new will which leaves the family home to Miss Simpson, he is outraged that the property will belong to a Black family at Miss Madison's death, and does everything he can to thwart her plan.

The boys -- inseparable playmates on the verge of growing up, and wanting to make something of themselves -- have some plans of their own to both attend Tuskegee Institute (since U.S. can't attend a White university); and when each is faced with decisions, their inner biases come to the fore, and the racial divide and all the assumptions that come along with it demonstrate how complicated an issue it is.

Confronted with Son's question: "Why does the will leave the house to Miss Simpson?", Miss Madison's clear response is that "It's the right thing to do." And her family aren't to be left out; they'll all be taken care of.

Director Kim Mason's excellent ensemble cast respect the script's comfortable style, imbuing their characters so naturally that they are completely credible. There is hardly a false note from any of them. (Though Son's capitulation happens a bit too quickly, by that time we are so ensconced in all their lives, that it hardly matters.)

The example of grandfather is the crux of the matter: he treated everyone the same, without regard to race or age or gender or wealth. -- As Billie Augusta says at one point: while good deeds alone will get people into heaven, "...people who take care of our ugly business just because it needs to be done, because its the right thing to do, they're going to get a higher place in heaven." -- And that is what Miss Madison is about, though it takes a long while for her secret motives to be explained.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WOBT: "Bargains"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently performing a 1992 comedy -- Bargains, by Jack Heifner -- that showcases the talents of local actors and is directed by Tina Abate. Best known for his 1976 play Vanities, and also the author of WOBT's 2012 production of Patio/Porch, Heifner gives audiences some clever dialogue and familiar situations, though here its predictable plot, just out-of-date cultural references, and indirect treatment of the topic of homosexuality, make it appear old fashioned. Nonetheless, some strong characterizations enliven Bargains' two acts.

Set somewhere in rural Texas, Bargains opens in a struggling bargain-basement department store on one of its several sidewalk sale days. Three sales clerks bemoan their condition and the store's depleted and out-of-style stock, but receive little sympathy from manager Michael Mead [Adam Hunt], whose brusque and authoritarian manner do little to endear him. -- Each clerk has her issues: Tish [Curtia Torbert] is due to give birth any day and has an out of work husband who may or may not be cheating on her; spinster Sally [Zyna Captain] still lives at home and caters to every whim of her elderly and demanding mother; outspoken and perennially late for work Mildred [Hollie Pursifull] shares a trailer with her gay brother Lothar [Adam Hunt again -- this character appears only in Act II], a color-blind hairdresser who has failed at every career attempt, and whose boyfriend Dennis [Kehinde Batife] is a florist who is allergic to flowers. -- A lot of contrivances that appear forced, and with the sole intent of garnering a few laughs.

Much of their private lives and secret vices are revealed as the store is about to be closed, putting the women out of work with the departure of Mr. Mead. -- Tish goes off to try to save her marriage, and does not appear in Act II; a shame that audiences are not given the pleasure of Ms. Torbert's talents, as she gives the most solid and truthful characterization in this production.

So, Act II picks up a month later outside Mildred's trailer, where Lothar has barricaded himself in after his sister has gone to another hair salon and not to him. -- It is here where Mildred and Sally comfort one another, challenge one another, and become close (if not very credible) allies as plot contrivances mount up to enable a convenient happy ending.

An overlong game of charades, and slow pacing throughout the two acts bring Bargains in at about two hours and twenty minutes. But there are moments that bring giggles and belly laughs. Ms. Pursifull particularly brings conviction to her character's droll pronouncements and sly looks, and has a fine sense of comic timing. And Ms. Captain gets well earned sympathy through honest depictions of her role.

WOBT continues to develop new talents, mixing them with veteran actors whose skills will hopefully rub off.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Red Door: "Promises"

Troy University alumnus Joel Williams's 2010 play Promises is showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. Directed by his Troy classmate, Tom Salter, and with a featured role played by their mentor, former Chair of Theatre at Troy, David Dye, it is a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Williams.

Set in Fontana Lake, North Carolina in 1993 -- with flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) displaced many of the rural inhabitants to build a dam -- Williams invites his audiences into the lives of the local families as they observe "Decoration Day" by visiting the graves of their ancestors and re-telling their stories to keep their memories alive.

Joseph Thompson [Craig Stricklin] attends for his first time to honor a promise made to his mother: one of the many "promises" of the play's title. -- Through the prodding of Liz Andrews [Kim Graham], who befriends the stranger in their midst, Joseph's heritage is gradually revealed in a kind of detective story that slowly discloses details of his life, details that become increasingly more intriguing as we learn the secrets of his birth and upbringing, and the promises of his parents, siblings, and friends.

While Joseph and Liz serve as narrators and commentators (Mr. Stricklin and Ms. Graham give their best to make it dramatically interesting), the flashback sequences provide the dramatic interest and impact. -- Jacob Thompson [Joseph Crawford] fell in love with Leah [Eve Harmon] in high school, and his adolescent promise to love her forever was gently rebuffed by Leah who wanted only to remain friends as she needed to see more of the world and build a career away from the small community that Jacob preferred.

Some time after Leah's departure, Jacob inherited land from Virgil Jenkins [David Dye] and married Rachel [Sarah Smith]. Happy at first, two still-born children strained their relationship; though committed to his marriage, cash-strapped Jacob left town to work for the TVA where by chance he re-met Leah and rekindled their relationship.

With its meandering style and sometimes slow pace, the script could benefit from judicious editing to enhance character relationships and omit lengthy exposition and extraneous characters, thereby giving more focus to the central plot. -- No spoilers here; there are several unexpected events that are not revealed till close to the end.

Mr. Crawford creates a sympathetic character in Jacob. We believe in his essential goodness and the conflicted decisions he makes throughout; and his truthful depiction is simple and straightforward. Ms. Smith's role of Rachel is also an honest portrayal. Ms. Harmon is so natural in the role of Leah, that one is hardly aware of her acting.

Mark Moore in the role of Quill Hopkins -- a perennially drunk aggressor, and a key to the surprise ending -- seems to relish the role; his unsubtle nastiness verges on caricature. And Lonnie Crawford as Jacob's brother Aaron draws our sympathies in a solid performance.

In one of the play's strongest scenes, when Virgil promises his land to Jacob both as a reward for the young man's hard work and for his innate goodness, Mr. Dye provides the most natural performances on stage. The connection between him and Mr. Crawford is so complete and truthful, that the scene and the character of Virgil remain with us till the end.

Promises continues this weekend only at the Red Door.

Friday, August 1, 2014

ASF: "Mary Poppins"

"Look past what you see" is an admonition everyone might benefit from; what is on the surface is only a small portion of what lies beneath -- and Montgomery is being treated to a glorious heart-warming production of Mary Poppins, a musical that charms and transforms its audiences young and old. As Mary Poppins sings of herself in Act I, Director Geoffrey Sherman's production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is "Practically Perfect".

With top-notch production numbers choreographed by Karen Azenberg, an excellent eight-member pit orchestra conducted by Tom Griffin, dazzling sets by Peter Hicks, and exquisite costumes by Brenda Van Der Weil, Mr. Sherman's ensemble cast of triple threat actors-singers-dancers energetically take the Festival stage for two-and-a-half hours of non stop family entertainment.

This is "what we see", but there is a lot more to it. -- The play's pedigree begins with P. L. Travers' stories and continues to the beloved Walt Disney film and the Cameron Macintosh stage musical with a book by Julian Fellowes (of "Downton Abbey" fame); the original musical score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and additional songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe complete the collaboration that is currently playing an extended run at ASF.

Below the surface shine of this production are a host of elements that might not receive the attention they deserve. -- The aforementioned production qualities [sets and costumes especially] are so integrated into the magic that they seamlessly enhance the story and characters in witty and colorful ways by paying attention to details. Some of the stage transformations are downright stunning, and with an ensemble cast who play gypsies, chimney-sweeps, bank managers, and other Londoners, one might think there are hundreds of them...more magic.

The story s a familiar one: George [David Schmittou] and Winifred [Jean McCormick] Banks -- he a stolid bank manager and she a dutiful Edwardian housewife -- have two children, Jane and Michael [Katie Cobb and Will Chieves on Tuesday night] who have run off several nannies through their pranks; they crave more affection from their parents -- particularly Mr. Banks who is oblivious to their needs -- and when they write a job description for a nanny who will be kind and "fun", Mary Poppins [Alice Sherman] magically shows up and effects the needed changes. -- Yet, not everything is what it seems; you have to look past what you see, and Mary Poppins makes the changes happen with the help of chimney sweep Bert [Bret Shuford] and an assortment of other characters she seems to conjure up with ease.

The ASF company have taken full advantage of the strong script to develop truthful characterizations. Though many of them have the stamp of stereotype, the actors provide subtle details that give credibility to them. -- Barbara Tirrell plays both the gypsy Mrs. Corry and the stentorian nanny Miss Andrew (known to everyone as "The Holy Terror") with gusto; both powerful performances, and her rendition of "Brimstone and Treacle" is frighteningly good. Billy Sharpe as Robertson Ay, the meek household servant, and Northbrook, an unassuming man who gets a bank loan because of his good will -- as opposed to the aggressive Von Hussler (Lenny Daniel) -- is underplayed to very subtle effect. Christian Castro as Neleus (the statue that comes to life to the children's delight) keeps the magic intact. Rodney Clark doubles as the Admiral and the tough-minded Bank Manager with clever nuances. And Barbara Broughton shines as Bird Woman who sells crumbs to feed the birds in a touching interpretation of "Tuppence a Bag" makes a powerful statement about simple kindness that is so often trumped by selfishness.

Mr. Shmittou and Ms. McCormick, in roles that have been developed from the original, create convincing characters -- conflicted by their call to duty as parents while staying true to the social norms expected of them -- and emerge as fully realized and sympathetic individuals. And Ms. Cobb and Mr. Chieves are impressive as their children who never flag from being truthful in their roles; well done.

Mr. Shuford's chimney-sweep "Bert" is so genuinely honest and endearing that we instantly feel comfortable with him as our guide to the proceedings. And Ms. Sherman's portrayal of the title character Mary Poppins is "practically perfect" in every sense. She commands the stage with effortless charm, conducts the action at every turn, and sings beautifully. A standout performance.

The big numbers are all dazzling. Whatever your preference, "Chim Chim Cheree", "Let's Go Fly a Kite", "Step in Time", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Anything Can Happen", or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", are bound to enthrall.

And, while Mary Poppins can only stay "as long as necessary", when she does leave after resolving the  family's problems and ensuring that young Michael received his father's love, and we are ensured that other families need her now, we watch her (with a little regret that she can't stay with us any longer) fly out over the audience and on to another challenge.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Millbrook: "Grease"

The closing night's performance of the Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey musical, Grease, by the Millbrook Community Players, Inc., was a sold-out success.

Much to the credit of director John Collier and his 21-member ensemble cast, and to a terrific 6-piece band, the 1950s era musical set in fictional Rydell High School kept its nostalgic focus intact, taking us back to more innocent days of slumber parties, hot rods, and high school dances.

The long running, award winning Broadway production has been a staple on high school and community theatre stages for decades; it is probably most familiar through the film version starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. So it is not surprising that many audience members were softly singing along to "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee", "Shake It/High School Hop", "Greased Lightning", and "Hand Jive" among others.

On the first day of school, newcomer Sandy Dumbrowski [Lauren Norris] tells the "Pink Ladies" about her summer romance, while Danny Zuko [Joe Taylor] recounts his romantic conquest to the guys. Of course, each is singing about the other in "Summer Lovin' " without knowing they are at the same school, and when they meet, Danny takes a "cool/tough" stance that bewilders Sandy -- and there is much to follow before they and several other couples can be reunited by the end.

Other key players are tough-girl Rizzo [Emily Grace Pose], matched with Kenickie [Myles Wolf], each of whom brings a confidence and strong singing voice to their roles. -- Kenzi Meyer is delightful in the role of Frenchie, the "Beauty School Drop-Out", and Joshua Cuevas as Doody, the guitar-playing roustabout has a laid-back comfort in the part.

As Marty, Kaitlin LeMaster uses her impressive singing voice well in "Freddy My Love", and Joshua Bullard as Sonny is easily the most comfortable and easy-to-watch member of the ensemble.

Taylor Trucks is utterly convincing as good-girl Patty, as is Corey Jackson playing the nerdy Eugene. -- And Jody Dow as Teen Angel brings down the house.

Pamela Trammell's schoolmistress Miss Lynch is as uptight as you can get; and Roger Humber as Vince Fontaine is a suitably "dirty old man" making a play for the young high school girls at the dance.

Though there was some occasionally clumsy staging and line delivery, the evening was entertaining and a good antidote to the Summer's heat.

Faulkner: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

On last Friday night, the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre not only presented their pleasant production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also paid tribute to its founder, Philip Sprayberry, who thirty years ago created what has become a Montgomery institution that has entertained thousands. Former Faulkner student actors, faculty, friends, and several from the local community helped celebrate Sprayberry's birthday on the night, his first visit to Faulkner's new performance space.

In Shakespeare's delightful romantic comedy, three worlds intertwine with sometimes hilarious results: the Athenian nobility and upper class, the Faerie Kingdom, and the "rude mechanicals" (a troupe of itinerant actors)...and director Angela Dickson invented a prologue without dialogue that introduced her audience to the various plot lines and complicated relationships.

Oberon [Matt Dickson] and Titania [Kari Kelly] -- the King and Queen of the Faeries -- have argued about which of them gets to keep a little changeling boy, and their magic impacts all the others. Oberon's assistant, the mischievous Puck [Daniel Harms who also choreographed the show] does his bidding but sometimes makes errors that must be fixed.

Athenian King Theseus [newcomer Trey Ousley] and bride-to-be Hippolyta [Courtney Curenton] -- an Amazon warrior princess he defeated and then wooed -- are planning their wedding celebrations when Egeus [Morgan Baker] asks the king to settle a dispute with his daughter Hermia [Emily Woodring]. Egeus has chosen Demetrius [Blake Williams] as Hermia's husband, but she loves Lysander [Brandtley McDonald], and the two young people elope, letting their friend Helena [Jesse Alston] in on thier plan to meet in the woods that night; Helena loves Demetrius, who also follows them, so many complications arise in the woods.

Meanwhile, the rustic actors meet in the woods to rehearse their play -- Pyramus and Thisbe -- to be performed at the king's wedding. Chief among them is Bottom [Chris Kelly is terrific in the role, especially as Pyramus who edits his lines as he speaks and demonstrates some fine acting skills along the way], whose overblown self-importance is soon thwarted by Oberon and Puck, who charm Titania to fall in love with the first person she sees on awakening, ensuring that it will be Bottom whose head is exchanged with an asses head. --- Also while sleeping, Lysander is similarly charmed by mistake and awakens to instantly fall in love with Helena.

Lots of hilarity as these various entanglements get unravelled. "The course of true love never did run smooth", after all.

Ms. Dickson keeps the action moving at a steady pace, and inserts a few modern songs into the mix.
The ensemble actors manage Shakespeare's verse pretty well, though there is a long learning curve before they will be proficient. They do better in the prose sections and the broader comedy. And the strong singing voices (a mainstay in many of Faulkner's musical productions) are given significant attention.

And on a hot Summer night, this A Midsummer Night's Dream is a most pleasant entertainment.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"

Now playing to sold out audiences at the Wetumpka Depot, the 1978 musical by Carol Hall, Larry King, and Peter Masterson -- The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas -- is based on the real life Chicken Ranch bordello in La Grange, Texas that was closed after many years through the efforts of a crusading media reporter.

The play features Miss Mona [Kim Mason is effervescent here], the archetypal "prostitute with a heart of gold", who has managed to keep a flourishing business by placating the local authorities (Sheriff, Senator, Governor, et al.), paying heavy taxes, and supporting various community projects. Everyone, it seems, is willing to turn a blind eye to her "business" until Melvin Thorpe [Scott Page's over-the-top portrayal is exceptional] determines to rid the area of Mona's sinful Chicken Ranch, by harnessing the morally upright citizens to demonstrate against it via live-feed television.

Director Kristy Meanor and Musical Director Marilyn Swears guide their cast of some thirty-four veteran and neophyte actors through the two-and-a-half hour risque romp, that has the Depot's audiences laughing at the play's outrageousness and sympathizing with the sensitive depictions of any number of its characters. Jonathan Yarboro serves as the play's narrator and also is Edsel, the local newspaperman who keeps a solid footing throughout; and Cindy Veasey's role of Doatsey Mae, the cafe owner with several unfulfilled dreams is a sensitive depiction.

Mona runs a "nice country house" with very strict rules for her girls; and when new recruits Angel [Adrian Lee Borden] and Shy [Emma Colson] are hired on a trial run, Mona shows her concern for Angel's surface-tough demeanor and Shy's school-marm appearance. And Mona's business partner Jewel [Shaina Pierce] comes into her own with "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'".

Though it takes a while to get to the central conflict, we are treated to infectious production numbers like "A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place" that sets Mona's welcoming tone that is then counterbalanced by Melvin's in-your-face "Texas Has a Whorehouse In It". Both numbers have an energetic verve that showcases the large ensemble in ever inventive staging and characterizations enhanced by Mary Katherine Moore's inventive choreography. -- Especially noteworthy are Madyson Greenwood as Ginger, Reese Lynch as the youngest Aggie with a couple of scene-stealing moments that he handles with aplomb, and Matthew Walter as the Aggie to watch, as Mr. Walter is fully committed to every on-stage moment.

Mona's love interest is in the person of Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd [a solid Stephen Dubberley] who ultimately and reluctantly has to close down the Chicken Ranch when "watchdog" Melvin has pressured the Governor [Patrick Hale's caricature depiction is close to perfection], influential businessman C. J. Scruggs [Michael DiLaura], and Senator [David Woodall] (who is literally caught with his pants down when Melvin brings the television crew on a raid while the Texas A&M "Aggies" are there celebrating a recent football win).

There is a bitter-sweet ending at the closing of the Chicken Ranch -- we have come to like Mona and her girls -- yet we leave the Depot theatre with smiles on our faces.