Sunday, January 18, 2015

ASF: "Always, Patsy Cline"

Always, Patsy Cline has been on the boards since 1988, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is currently presenting its third iteration of it in the "STAGES St. Louis" production of this ever popular show. Audiences are again eating it up, and with good reason.

Based on the true story of the unlikely friendship between the iconic country singer Patsy Cline [Jacqueline Petroccia] and Louise Segar [Zoe Vonder Haar], a fan who befriended her when she was performing at the Empire Ballroom in Houston, TX, Ted Swindley's play is deftly directed by Michael Hamilton who guides his gifted cast through two acts and twenty-seven songs in a heart-felt Valentine to one of the greats of American song. -- The two hour playing time goes by in a flash as we are engaged and entertained throughout.

James Wolk's set -- a wide expanse of Louise's kitchen and sitting room with period linoleum floor and period patterned wallpaper -- transforms to The Grand Ole Opry, a television program, the Empire Ballroom and other venues; plus it contains a kitchen stove that becomes a jukebox on cue. -- Lou Bird's picture perfect costumes replicate several outfits any Patsy Cline fan would recognize.

But front and center in this production are the story of Patsy and Louise's friendship...and the music.

Ms. Vonder Haar is an able narrator and participant in the story. She inhabits the role of Louise with comfort in all her quirks so we never doubt the admiration she has for Patsy; and while she directly addresses the audience, encouraging our participation, her unabashed shoot-from-the-hip style is so engaging that we willingly go along for the ride. And we see how Patsy succumbs to her down-home Texas charm and compassion for a fellow human being who responds to kindness freely given.

Their friendship story is interspersed with a catalogue of Patsy Cline's repertoire: "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Sweet Dreams", "Crazy", and "Faded Love" among them. When Ms. Petroccia opens up at the top of the show with "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round", we need no more convincing that we're in for a powerhouse performance. Ms. Petroccia has a strong voice and an ability to sell a ballad, novelty number, or foot-stompin' honky-tonk, complete with a 'catch' in her voice that replicates Patsy Cline's vocal style.

Musical Director Joel Jones and his six piece Bodacious Bobcats Band provide spot-on interpretations of the songs, some back-up singing, and a bit of witty repartee with the actresses; they become another character in the story.

The play is part biography, part reminiscence, part concert, and always a tribute to a country music star who died tragically in a plane crash in 1963. It seems pretty clear that Ms. Petroccia and Ms. Vonden Haar are enjoying themselves. The chemistry between them is infectious, the music is brilliant, and the audience benefits from it.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza"

The Wetumpka Depot Players are ringing in the Christmas Season with their comic (mostly) pastiche called Fruitcake and Eggnog: A Tacky Christmas Sweater Extravaganza, and those tacky sweaters we've all come to cringe and laugh at are much in evidence both on stage and in the audience.

In about an hour and a half, the cast of seven mix traditional Christmas Carols with holiday novelty songs, children's letters to Santa, bits of witty banter concerning that eponymous fruitcake, comments about the commercialization of Christmas, little-known historical facts [Did you know, for example, that in 1836 Alabama was the first State to make Christmas a legal holiday?], Christmas traditions around the world, touching personal reminiscences, Southern versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before  Christmas", and several needful reminders of the true focus and significance of Christ's birth...a lot to pack into ninety minutes.

Written and directed by Tom Salter, and with seasoned Depot regulars sharing his stage, the informality of this production is so comfortable it's as if we've been invited into someone's home for -- well, fruitcake and eggnog...and healthy doses of Christmas cheer.

The ensemble -- Jennifer Habercorn, Cheryl Jones, Kim Mason, Cindy Veasey, Jeff Langham, David Woodall, and Mr. Salter -- are gracious and talented folks so much like all of us that we willingly go along for the ride. They clearly enjoy one another's company, and we do too; and so we willingly forgive the occasional missed cue, static moment, or vocal hiccup. In fact, these make it even more fun.

At a time when the calendar is getting more and more hectic and stressful as it gets us closer to December 25th, the infectious good spirits of the Depot Company provide a welcome relaxed atmosphere, a warmth of heart, and a celebration of family and good will of the Christmas Season.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play"

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Christmas Eve 1946; Studio-A of radio station WTCP in Manhattan, NY -- and time for the "Playhouse of the Air" presentation of It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play. The actors gather on a cold night, the Stage Manager is in his booth, and the Foley artist [Sound Effects man] has his props all set. Add a pianist and a vocal trio, and The Cloverdale Playhouse's hour-and-forty-minute presentation is underway.

Joe Landry's adaptation of the 1946 classic film, a favorite of multitudes, re-tells the familiar story of George Bailey, a man whose dreams of leaving small-town Bedford Falls to accomplish "something big -- something important" are continually being thwarted or put aside as he helps others in need till he gets to a point of despair and considers suicide, believing that an insurance policy makes him "worth more dead than alive". -- His reclamation is aided by an Angel Second-Class named Clarence, who shows him how different the world would be had George never been born, and that the regard that others have for him demonstrates that he "really had a wonderful life", and emerges through love of family, sticking to his principles, and generosity towards his neighbors as "the richest man in town".

Director Greg Thornton's complement of five actors (many of them seasoned theatre artists, and almost all of whom are gracing The Cloverdale Playhouse stage for the first time) each play multiple roles, bringing to life the citizenry of Bedford Falls by assuming individualized voices for each one; to their credit and versatility, each character emerges fully recognizable. -- Even the WTCP Radio Singers [Sarah McWilliams, Kat Taylor, Toni Wood] are given personalities that help get us in the Christmas spirit as they sing carols to Marilyn Swears's expert piano accompaniment; and the "commercials" they sing for hair cream and soap are done with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.

The central characters -- George [Morgan Baker], his wife Mary [Alicia Ruth Jackson], the nasty money-grubbing Mr. Potter [Paul Nease], small town girl Violet [Barbara Smith], and of course the Angel Clarence [Patrick Hale] -- give appropriate nods to their film counterparts without attempting strict imitations.

Layne Holley's neutral scenic design replicates a 1940s radio station studio's details, one that puts us as the "On the Air" audience who are meant to respond to a flashing "Applause" sign on cue. -- Using period-looking stand microphones (equipped with an echo device for the "heavenly" sequences), a scattering of chairs, a piano, and tables in full view loaded with sound effects devices that invite our full participation in the story as Foley Artist Joe Collins deftly anticipates the sounds needed, with Stage Manager Jonathan Adam Davilla's assistance. Though we might want to watch their every move, if we close our eyes on occasion, the effect is excellent.

Eleanor K. Davis's period costumes (and the women's hair styles) lend authenticity to the proceedings, and add a bit of humor to the visual impact.

It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play is a pretty straightforward re-telling of the film, with little attempt to develop relationships among the actors in the radio station studio playing the roles, even though each one has a distinct personality. -- So, while we are impressed by the versatility of the ensemble's talents, the story's timeless messages are the main focus, and come through loud and clear: ordinary people's lives have value far beyond the reaches of mere economic worth, dreams and goals are sometimes fulfilled in unexpected ways, kindness and generosity to others are often their own reward. Things to keep in mind throughout the year. -- And, oh yes, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Faulkner: "I Love a Piano"

What's not to like? In a play (more like a revue, in fact) that showcases sixty of America's foremost songwriters' tunes [he composed about 1500 of them in a musical career covering over half a century] audiences are invited to sing along to their favorites in Faulkner University's witty and tuneful production of Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano.

With a three-piece pit band that sometimes sounds like a lot more instruments or allows a simple piano accompaniment, director Angela Dickson fluidly guides her multi-talented eight-member ensemble through this catalogue of Berlin's repertoire from 1910 Tin Pan Alley through the late 1950s, dazzling us with multiple costume changes for each period.

The conceit of saving an old piano from the junk heap links the two acts' ten scenes through the Twentieth Century via Berlin's iconic music.

Matt Dickson's black-and-white Art Deco set is complimented by simple tracking set pieces and a large upstage screen with period looking black and white projections including a grainy video featuring Blake Williams as a Simon Legree villain. -- Though the lighting often leaves the actors' faces in shadow, the result is mostly bright and cheerful, with occasional detours to more serious matters.

But the play, devised by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkley is, after all, about the music, and Ms. Dickson never loses track of it as the songs evoke simpler past times at signal moments in American history.

Mr. Berlin could be sentimental and romantic ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "The Best Things Happen When You Dance"), comical ("We're a Couple of Swells" and "Anything You Can Do"), showy ("There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"), and unabashedly patriotic ("God Bless America") as he celebrated his adopted country over a lifetime that spanned a century.

So many of his songs have become a part of America's shared experience through the many films and Broadway musicals he composed, for example: Top Hat, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, White Christmas; and some of their most familiar song and dance numbers are replicated here.

And the ensemble -- Jesse Alston, Courtney Curenton, Matt Dickson, Brittney Johnston, Brandtley McDonald, Blake Mitchell, Trey Ousley, Emily Woodring -- come through with charm and finesse, clearly enjoying themselves and delivering Berlin's lyrics with verve and understanding. Each is afforded individual moments to shine, and the ensemble comfort and support for one another is top notch. Solid performances by all.

Red Door: "Always, Patsy Cline"

There's another weekend to see Always, Patsy Cline at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs -- if tickets are available, that is. It has been playing to packed houses.

Director William Harper's lively production of Ted Swindley's 1990 play has audiences applauding in recognition of many of Ms. Cline's hit tunes -- "Anytime", "I Fall to Pieces", "Crazy" among them -- and enthusiastically cheering Lisa Norton in the title role (double-cast with Tina Hosey on alternate nights), and Janet Wilkerson as Louise Seger, her unlikely friend and narrator of the story who met her at a Texas honky tonk and struck up an instant friendship.

The on-stage six-piece "Bodacious Bobcats Band" is, in a word terrific, providing both authentic renditions of the production's twenty-seven songs, and excellent support for Ms. Norton's ample voice. They overpower her at times when she sings in her lower register, but the balance is much better when she opens up in full voice.

Ray Thornton's set: an iconic replication of the Grand Ole Opry that houses the band, a simple kitchen, the suggestion of a nightclub, and an open space, allows for smooth location shifts as the story progresses.

Ms. Wilkerson -- adept as always with comic timing and direct engagement with the audience -- not only narrates the arc of Patsy Cline's career and the two women's friendship, but she also voices several other characters, delightfully characterizing them with broad descriptive gestures.

Between them. Ms. Wilkerson and Ms. Norton establish a comfortable rapport, and when the focus is on Patsy's songs (as it is for most of the play's running time), Ms. Norton gathered momentum after a tentative start to ultimately charm us all.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's magic time again at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Geoffrey Sherman's recently revised adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol comes replete with Paul Wonsek's stunning Victorian Era sets, Elizabeth Novak's lush period costumes, numerous special effects and actual magic tricks on stage, and of course the magic of Dickens's novella showing the reclamation of its protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge [Rodney Clark reprising the role] from a mean-spirited miser to a man who "keeps Christmas in his heart" all year long.

Narrated by Charles Dickens himself [Wynn Harmon, who plays two other roles as well], Mr. Sherman's text preserves much of the book's familiar descriptions and plot elements that transition to dramatized scenes explicating Scrooge's magical overnight journey into his past, present, and future that lead to his final salvation.

Compressed into a mere two hours, director Diana Van Fossen's production never seems rushed, though several entertaining diversions in the script -- Dickens's magic tricks done with aplomb by Mr. Harmon (an accomplished prestidigitator), a "Cat Duet" cunningly executed by Alice Sherman and Betsey Helmer, an extended haggling over Scrooge's belongings by pawnbroker Old Joe [Paul Hopper] and housekeeper Mrs. Dilber [Toni DiBuono] -- leave less time to absorb the strategic moments in Scrooge's life that are presented so quickly that they are hardly noticed.

Yet the magic remains. -- From the onset, it is clear that Mr. Clark's Scrooge is nastier than ever at the beginning ( "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" who dismisses Christmas to one and all as "humbug") and in need of drastic change; and his seven-years dead business partner Jacob Marley pays him a ghostly visit on Christmas Eve. Inexplicably, Marley's voice is heard early on, and a key moment when his face magically appears on Scrooge's door-knocker is so quick that it barely registers; but when he magically arrives in the person of Brik Berkes, the story begins in earnest. Mr. Berkes appears to relish the part as he offers Scrooge a way out through the visitations of three more ghosts.

Together, the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Metushaleme Dary is even-headed and firm] and Christmas Present [James Bowen is grandiloquent and mischievous] help Scrooge in tracking his life from boyhood on: his lonely school days saved through a visit from his sister Fan [Jessica G. Smith] who is the mother of his only nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], to his youthful love for Belle [Alice Sherman] that is doomed by his greed, to the unappreciated beneficence of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig [spirited performances by Mr. Hopper and Ms. DiBuono], and the indomitable spirit of the Cratchit family.

Central to the plot, the Cratchits show by example that generosity of spirit and love of family make them richer than even the wealthiest of men. Scrooge's office clerk Bob [a sensitive Billy Sharpe] and Mrs. Cratchit [Jennifer Barnhart as his no nonsense practical help-mate] are raising a family on Bob's meagre wages. The older children -- Peter [Reese Lynch] and Martha [MaryKathryn Samelson] work to help pay the bills, while the younger ones  -- Belinda [Asia Watson] and crippled Tiny Tim [Charlie Hill] help around the house. And their devotion to one another and their belief in the essential goodness of mankind transcends their poverty and Tiny Tim's deteriorating health.

When the huge and sinister presence of the Ghost of Christmas Future [S. Lewis Feemster's non-speaking part] allows Scrooge to conclude that without a change of heart and behavior his legacy will be worthless, the story comes full circle.

Emerging on Christmas morning a changed man, Mr. Clark's transformation is complete. He has been struggling all the way and now makes amends for years of meanness: he gives money to the poor, accepts at last Fred's dinner invitation, and makes peace with his clerk Bob Cratchit.

It's all over before you know it. Dickens, Mr. Sherman, Ms. Van Fossen and her magical company have brought us magically along to Scrooge's infectious merriment, and to Tiny Tim's innocently perfect "God bless us, every one."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Theatre AUM: "Galileo"

Change is difficult. With thousands of years' acceptance of a belief that the earth was the center of the universe and that all the stars and planets revolved around it, and with the support of governments and the Church, anyone who dared to challenge this creed was sure to be in for a tough time.

Enter Galileo Galilei in Seventeenth Century Italy who concluded via scientific method that indeed the sun was the center of our cosmos with all other heavenly bodies circling it; this was in direct conflict with the "certainties" that kings and prelates had relied on to keep their jobs intact. -- Scientific evidence did not matter; after all, "people in power monopolize truth...and put down all objections" through sheer might and influence.

Sound familiar? -- Just check today's news reports on several subjects where an intractable egocentric majority voice often thwarts level-headed evidence-based proposals that might just improve the conditions of countless citizens. -- And what better reason for Theatre AUM to produce Bertolt Brecht's Galileo as part of their educational theatre mission.

Written in 1943 while Brecht was living in America, the impact of World War II was very strong. Brecht's was a theatre of ideas that intended to break from the Nineteenth Century's fashionable romantic-realism by emphasizing the theatricality of his plays in order to alienate the audience's emotional connection with his characters. This Verfremdungseffekt provided constant reminders that they were in the theatre rather than experiencing a slice of real life; Brecht's plays often incorporate song-commentaries, narration, characters directly addressing the audience, projections, and other conventions that disengage the audience from emotions and force a consideration of his ideas. [And Theatre AUM has wisely provided ample program notes and a glossary of "things to know" to help audiences understand the many scientific, religious, and historical references scattered throughout the script.]

Under Mike Winkelman's inventive direction, Brecht's "alienation" is brought into play with Michael Krek's open-plan set and vivid screen projections and Val Winkelman's modern dress black-and-white geometric patterned costumes that suggest both the certainties of place and character as well as the grey-areas in between. -- Relying on the ensemble playing of actors, most of whom play multiple (and often gender-switched) roles, overlapping and repetitive speech, and incorporation of Twenty-first Century songs and dances, this distancing of audience and actor is strong, though it is confusing when dialogue is at times delivered at such a rapid pace to be almost unintelligible.

The central idea of the first of the play's fourteen scenes positions Galileo's [Michael Krek] scientific doubt against the scientifically unsupported astronomical certainties mentioned above, and continues this throughout. -- As it covers many years in Galileo's life -- from the discovery of Jupiter's moons and the doubt of an earth-centered universe, through charges of heresy and a trial by the Inquisition that forced hum to recant his discovery, to imprisonment and blindness -- the one constant is Galileo's need for empirical evidence brought about by healthy doubt of anything that could not be proved with evidence. -- When challenged with the question "Where is God?" in his findings, Galileo counters with his "belief in the human race and its possibilities." --- A lot for audiences to consider.

The AUM company's performances [a large ensemble cast of experienced and neophyte actors] keep the audience on edge as they assume different roles and follow the script's demands to alienate their viewers. And we go in-and-out of connecting with them because of these theatrical conventions.

But it is equally challenging for us to disengage completely from Brecht's well-drawn characters when they are depicted truthfully. -- Tina Neese, as Galileo's daughter Virginia, ranges from a naive young girl to a much wiser woman convincingly. La'Brandon Tyre's portrayal of the Cardinal Inquisitor is confidently sinister in his approach, and unflinching in wielding his power through ironic interpretations of dialogue and an utterly unflappable manner. Sam Wallace plays Andrea Sarti, Galileo's protege, also from a credible idealist youth to a disappointed and enraged adult. -- And we engage with them.

As the central character, Michael Krek depicts Galileo's frustrations and passion for scientific and rational pursuits with comfort, and tracks Galileo's ageing with subtle shifts of posture and vocal nuances. -- Above all, however, he ably gets Brecht's points across so audiences leave the theatre ready to discuss these matters at more length. Good work.