Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Smoke on the Mountain"

Smoke on the Mountain, the popular and often produced 1988 Gospel-bluegrass musical, is playing to sold out audiences at the Wetumpka Depot. -- Director Hazel Jones' talented ensemble turns in broadly stereotypical characterizations; but they impress us with their versatility in both singing and playing an assortment of musical instruments, often switching from piano to upright bass to guitar, washboard, spoons, and so on. -- The actors are complemented on stage by Elizabeth Bowles and Donny Tomlin who deftly accompany them on mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and dulcimer among others -- a truly "joyful noise".

The Connie Ray and Alan Bailey story of The Sanders Family's appearance in 1938 at the fictional rural North Carolina Mount Pleasant Baptist Church's "first ever Saturday night singing", mixes familiar songs from The Hymnal with original tunes so like them it is hard to tell the difference.

Pastor Oglethorpe [Jeff Langham] attempts to maintain the traditional purity of his congregation's mission while simultaneously bringing them "into the modern world". -- He invited The Sanders Family who say that "witnessing is the most important part of our mission...and the songs"; but the Pastor isn't prepared for their unabashedly honest and often shocking behavior, and must placate the three ladies sitting judgmentally in The Amen Corner of the church.

And what a group this family is: first on the scene is the bright-eyed and pig-tailed June [Faith Bruner], who doesn't sing, but rather "signs" the lyrics as her testimony -- not the standard ASL by any means, but some outrageous interpretive gestures that Ms. Bruner produces with hilarious dead-pan simplicity.

The other children are twins: petite curly-haired blonde Denise [an effervescent Leanna Wallace] -- "the girl" as she is quick to differentiate from Dennis, "the boy" [Joseph Collins], a mentally challenged [PC] towering figure whose innocence and sincerity are always on display. -- Their rendition of "Christian Cowboy" scandalizes the Pastor when they dance enthusiastically; Ms. Wallace's admitted "lapse of faith" when she ran away to audition for Gone With the Wind is sweetly rendered; and Mr. Collins' "sermonette" when he goes off-script from what his mother penned for him, shows Dennis' natural ability as a preacher.

Mom Vera [Sally Blackwell] and Dad Burl [Lloyd Strickland] are the bedrock of the family. These actors demonstrate such a natural comfort that we are instantly drawn to them. Each provides ample  lessons in compassion and tolerance -- the virtues so often lacking in many professed Christians in the public eye -- and they are also adept at quoting Chapter and Verse in cleverly orchestrated competitive games of one upmanship with Mr. Langham's Pastor.

Jonathan Yarboro plays Burl's brother Stanley, an ex-con who found his way in prison, and is still struggling with the hypocrisy of others. In a finely nuanced performance, Mr. Yarboro's character is the most tolerant and unassuming man whose testimony of prison experience shows the good in even the most hardened individuals.

Through all the testifying and songs, both Pastor Oglethorpe and we are gradually seduced by the honest homespun faith of The Sanders Family. Audiences are leaving the Depot with smiles on their faces from this engaging production. -- If only their "joyful noise" could have a permanent impact.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ASF: Disney's "The Little Mermaid"

Guest Reviewer Layne Holley is a River Region actor and scenic designer.

Audiences of all ages are delighted with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid". Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the musical tells the story of a little mermaid who...Seriously, you know the story, right?

ASF's technical teams are on their game here. Kudos especially to the scenic design and stage crews; these are true treasures in the house of ASF. The set and lighting designs are versatile, easily establishing the mood and sense of place for each scene. They are deceptively simple, but the artisanal and technical prowess are on full display when, for example, Prince Eric's ship makes it's very imposing entrance.

The production features several flying sequences, a few of them stunning, such as Prince Eric's near drowning and rescue by Ariel. His drift toward the bottom of the sea (performed gracefully by Jeff Sears' flying double) and Ariel's rescue (performed with such physicality by Michelle Pruiett's flying double, enhanced by Brenda Van Der Wiel's costuming, that she actually looks like a darting fish) is entrancing.

This production is clear and solid; however, there are pervasive weaknesses that keep it from attaining the height of "true spectacular". -- Van Der Wiel's costumes are creative and intricate, with a perfect palette; but there is a certain lack of undulation in Triton's kingdom, especially within the realm of the wicked sea witch Ursula (Donna Migliaccio), and particularly on the person of Ursula, from whom we expect a material roiling of conniving and opportunism.

Overall, this production's pacing feels a fraction of a beat slow, and there is very little of the physical tension and excitement in most of the actors' voices and bodies that are required for work to read from the stage and to drive engagement, especially among the more mature audience members. Seasoned theatre goers will likely appreciate the energy and commitment in the second act number "Positoovity", featuring a chorus of tap-dancing gulls led by Scuttle (Billy Sharpe).

Unfortunately, there is not much more of this number's "positivity" throughout the production except in the performances from veteran actors Rodney Clark (Grimsby) and Kevin Morrow (King Triton). -- Clark and King are committed and active both vocally and physically in every moment they spend on stage, but it accentuates the slow pace and lack of sizzle in other areas.

Personal mic scan only amplify the stage voice; they cannot create the vibrancy and variety that come from actors who push and project their characters into life and up to the balcony. Sharpe, Clark, and Morrow -- who do not back off just because they are miked -- threaten unintentionally to steal the show.

These criticisms aside, there are several moments in the production that are captivating: the aforementioned rescue sequence and "Positoovity", of course, and also the lovely quartet "If Only" that is perfectly staged and beautifully rendered. It is moments such as these, sprinkled throughout, that will have audiences young an old, with all levels of appreciation, enraptured.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

WOBT: "100 Lunches: a gourmet comedy"

Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears have penned a witty comedy now playing under Sam Wallace's steady direction at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville. 100 Lunches: a gourmet comedy has three acts with two intermissions, a few dated 1980s references, and a fairly predictable plot, but Mr. Wallace's solid ensemble cast take the stage with confidence, and deliver an entertaining evening with plenty of laughs.

Mr. Wallace's set design -- the living room of popular and prolific playwright Charleton "Chuck" Reynolds [Matthew Givens], and in Act II, several restaurants -- affords plenty of room and flexibility, and is furnished with an abundance of set-dressings and props made especially for this production (give them a close look during intermission).

At the start, Charleton's latest play has just opened in New York, but its single scathing review from critic Charity Starr [Michon R. Givens] is so upsetting that he vows revenge in front of his teenage son Terry [newcomer Timothy Rotkiewicz] and their housekeeper Mrs. Glinda Bellows [Janie Allred], who delight in inventing scenarios for him to get even. Yolanda Weintraub [AUM theatre major Cathy Ranieri] insinuates herself into Charleton's life in numerous attempts to spark his love interest, and when the critic shows up she perceives an instant rivalry.

But Charity has come to "clear the air" and "ask a favor" -- it seems she has written a play herself and "needs his help with it", claiming that though his characters are "wooden", he writes good plots. -- Sensing an opening for the revenge he seeks, he agrees to tutor her over a series of lunches that she will pay for, and so the scene is set.

Act II takes them to an eclectic assortment of restaurants where they are served by a Waiter [T. J. Maddox who assumes various ethnicities and personalities in a tour de force performance that has audiences anticipating each successive and distinct embodiment]. -- It comes as no surprise to us that Charleton and Charity develop an affection for each other that neither expected at the start; opposites do attract at times.

The tables are turned in the final act when Charity's first play opens in New York, and the critical response is the opposite of what she expected. -- And, as a comedy, there must be a happy ending, no matter how contrived.

As an ensemble company, these actors turn in creditable and credible performances, enhancing naturalistic speech with over-the-top emotional tirades, and delivering the playwrights' witty dialogue confidently. Mr. Rotkiewicz is especially adept at his character's sophisticated-beyond-his-youth dialogue that shows a lot of promise for future productions; and Ms. Allred is commanding in her no nonsense approach. Together, they serve as a kind of Greek Chorus that supplies wit and understanding that the other characters take more time to comprehend.

Ms. Ranieri's characterization of the ever-annoying Yolanda is done with vacuous simplicity that garners plenty of laughs. -- And Mr. Maddox almost steals the show with his depictions of the eclectic Waiters, each of which has instantly recognizable traits that he gives a human touch.

But Mr. and Mrs./Ms. Givens [they are actually husband and wife, appearing on-stage together for the first time] are excellent sparring partners. When sparks fly as they often do, and when smoldering love bursts into flame, they are always believable and funny. Good work here.

Mr. Wallace directs with a confident hand. 100 Lunches moves at a steady pace, allows time for humorous dialogue to be digested, and delivers a satisfying repast for a Summer's evening at the theatre.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Millbrook" "The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns"

With a couple of dozen popular songs from the 1950s and 1960s arranged by Michael Borth linking its meager script together, Roger Bean's The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns is a diverting nostalgic pastiche now playing in Millbrook.

Its compliment of four of Millbrook's experienced actors -- Kaitlin LeMaster, Grace Moore, Lauren Norris, Taylor Trucks -- directed by A. John Collier, test their strong singing voices for close to two hours of almost non-stop vocals, a challenge to even the most experienced of singers, that this ensemble does with credit as they portray the quartet of "song-leaders" from fictitious Springfield High School as they prepare for graduation day.

Mr. Bean has created a small cottage industry out of the "Wonderettes", this being one of two sequels to the original, relying on the "more-is-better" philosophy, but struggles to make the magic happen beyond the first act. -- The title ...Caps and Gowns is misleading, since only Act I has to do with the standard end of high school rituals, and Act II is set some years later at the wedding of one of them to a former teacher -- a preposterous scenario that shows the foursome stuck in the same stereotypical adolescent behavior exhibited in Act I.

Sad, really, since the ensemble shows a lot of talent that has no where to go in the second act. This is demonstrated in unfortunately undisciplined behavior and dropped energy that are needed to sustain them beyond the first act.

They are at their collective best when singing [which fortunately is most of the stage time], complemented by color-coordinated costumes and Daniel Harms' period-style choreography, and with only an occasional hint of irony in sending up the 1950s and 1960s attitudes expressed in the lyrics.

The 50s naivete comes across in "At the Hop", "Rock Around the Clock", "Dedicated to the One I Love", and "Graduation Day", and the more liberal attitudes of the 60s are apparent in "Don't Mess With Bill", "Good Lovin'". and "The Look of Love" -- and each member of the quarter has moments to showcase her individual talent.

For additional nostalgia , get to the theatre early for an ice cream social; it should get audiences in the mood for this gentle trip to simpler times.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Red Door: "Conecuh People"

After several years' hiatus, Conecuh People, Ty Adams' stage version of Wade Hall's autobiographical book of the same name, is once again on stage at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. -- Directed this time by Kathryn Adams Wood, and with a complement of some 25 local actors, it is a nostalgic reminiscence of hard working salt of the earth rural Alabamians through the eyes of the character of Mr. Hall, played here by a trio of actors -- "today's" older narrator [Craig Stricklin], the boy [Sam Miller], and the young man [[Tyson Hall, who is actually the great nephew of the author he portrays].

Played in front of a tin roofed country house porch, and with a number of moveable set pieces, the action unfolds by shifting time periods between the 1940s and 1950s with commentary from the present day, recounting two events that shaped Wade Hall's life -- one good and one bad -- and we are introduced to a myriad of relatives and local characters who impacted the boy and the young man. -- Their homespun advice that urges him on to college, the army, and a teaching career comes at a cost as he is wrenched from the care of his grandmother as a young boy. But he learns valuable lessons along the way.

Interspersed with songs that often support the action, though occasionally seem out of place, and accompanied by Jane Padgett's solo keyboard, there are a number of excellent vocalists in the cast.

The play's episodic structure calls out for greater variety of pace and energy expressed in this current production to make up for the non-dramatic narrative sections, but the ensemble of actors put on a pretty good show.

The women in Mr. Hall's life have the greatest impact, with individual actors of note: Juanita Smith as his African American surrogate mother whose strong singing voice and sincere request for Wade to find out her birthday so that on her death she can accurately be remembered are rendered in one of the play's most sensitive and credible scenes.; Janet Wilkerson as the snuff dipping Elma Lee Hall is confident and funny; Belinda Barto plays Velma Rotten Driggers, a well-intentioned sort whose energy gives a spark to a scene where she makes him late for class.

But the focus is mostly on Wade himself, and each of the aforementioned actors compliments the others in developing the one central character we come to care about.

Above all, the lessons we and Wade learn from ordinary people very much like ourselves -- the bonds of family, a regard for one's fellow man, the value of hard work, respect for the past, and a recognition that no matter how far we remove ourselves from where we were raised, home will always be a place of solace -- all these are what leaves the larger impact.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

ASF Interns: "As You Like It"

One of the most anticipated productions of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's season is the Intern Company's annual abbreviated Shakespeare that tours to schools throughout the Southeast before an all-too-short run in the Octagon Theatre. -- Under Greta Lambert's expert editing [indeed, entire scenes and several characters are expunged], the texts retain the essentials of plot, character, and theme, and as their director she capitalizes on her eight member ensemble's talents and enthusiasm to demonstrate Shakespeare's relevance to contemporary life.

This year's exciting journey is As You Like It, one of the Bard's most consistently popular comedies. In a mere hour and a half, we have two sets of feuding brothers, a masterfully choreographed wrestling match [the fight consultant is Cory Lawson, one of the Intern actors], delightfully romantic adolescent lovers, a witty fool, gender switching disguises, a melancholy philosopher, and silly rustics brought to life by a group of actors who play multiple roles with the mere change of a hat or a coat -- and since much of this comedy relies on characters in disguise, this company's adroitness in switching roles is so fluid that you'd swear there were more than eight of them.

Two pair of feuding brothers set the action in motion. Duke Frederick has banished his elder brother Duke Senior [both are played convincingly by Jonathan Weber], but has allowed his niece Rosalind [Betsy Helmer] to remain at court as a companion to his own daughter Celia [Jessica G. Smith]. At a David and Goliath wrestling match between Charles the Wrestler [Cory Lawson] and the underdog Orlando [Patrick Burr], Rosalind and Orlando fall in love-at-first-sight without expressing their mutual fervor. A fine chemistry here. -- When both Rosalind and Orlando are banished [he by his brother Oliver [Mike Petrie, Jr.] and she by her uncle], they each flee to the Forest of Arden.

Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Ganymede, and Celia accompanies her in the guise of Aliena, Ganymede's poor sister; they are accompanied by the Fool Touchstone [S. Lewis Feemster], and Orlando takes with him the aged Adam [also Mr. Feemster], and spends his time composing amateurish poems praising Rosalind which he hangs on every available tree in the forest.. -- Inevitably, they meet up in the pastoral setting of the Forest where Duke Senior has established himself along with several Foresters and the melancholy Jaques [Cory Lawson in a merrier than anticipated role, but whose "All the world's a stage" speech still hits home].

The element of disguise garners much of the laughter of this production. Having found Orlando's poems, Rosalind as "Ganymede" helps the awkward and unsuspecting Orlando woo "Rosalind" by having him practice on "Ganymede", but to further complicate matters, a local swain named Silvius [Jonathan Weber again gets our sympathy] is helplessly in love with shepherdess Phebe who rejects his attempts to win her; Phebe [a feisty Metushaleme Dary] falls in love with "Ganymede" when "he" castigates her for her abusive treatment of poor Silvius. -- And Touchstone falls for the goatherd Audrey [Mr. Petrie in an outrageous impersonation  complete with a beard that belies "her" sex].

So there is a lot to resolve by the end, and as this is a comedy, all will be settled with weddings and celebratory dancing.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Member of the Wedding"

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

The Cloverdale Playhouse continues its 2015 season with director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Georgia novelist and playwright Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. More than the simple coming-of-age story of 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams [Rita Pearson-Daley], McCullers investigates race relations, the impact of war on everyday people, and the need for love and belonging in a bewildering society.

Set in the Summer in the mid-1940s [the kitchen and backyard of Frankie's house is given an authentic if Spartan look by Layne Holley and Joe Collins] and populated chiefly by Frankie, her family's "colored" maid Berenice Sadie Brown [Yvette Jones-Smedley], and her younger cousin John Henry West [Charlie Hill], the action takes place in just a few days as preparations are being made for the wedding of Frankie's brother Jarvis [Kodi Robertson] to Janice [Bailey Johnson].

Very much an outsider who senses the lack of warmth of her widowed father Mr. Addams [Buddy Rousso] and resents the exclusion of the neighborhood children, Frankie wants adventure in her life and determines to escape the boredom at home by accompanying Jarvis and Janice on their honeymoon.

Mr. Thornton has cast veteran and neophyte actors from around the Montgomery community, including several school and university students, to create an ensemble to bring to life these complex characters. And while the supporting roles including John Henry's mother Mrs. West [Sarah Worley], Berenice's current boyfriend T. T. Williams [Greg Faulkner] and his "no-account" friend and Berenice's relative Honey Camden Brown [Jeffrey Sean Lewis] provide some insights into social and political issues of the day, the focus is largely on the threesome -- Frankie, Berenice, John Henry -- and the production is at its best when they talk, argue, play cards, and share meals in the kitchen.

Indeed, the comfort with each other that these three exhibit gives remarkable credibility to their very ordinary conversations. -- The often married Berenice becomes Frankie's sounding-board and surrogate mother; Ms. Jones-Smedley gives a frank and honest interpretation to the dialogue that makes us feel as Frankie does that she is the most trusted member of the "family" they have created. Young Mr. Hill inhabits John Henry's naively perceptive and uninhibited nature to the fullest. And Ms. Pearson-Daley's Frankie is a constant bundle of contradictions that are completely recognizable adolescent traits. And each of them is somehow yearning for love and acceptance, though they have difficulty in expressing these needs.

As Frankie matures throughout the play's two-and-a-half hours [she doesn't get to go on her brother's honeymoon despite her belief that she would be welcome], she questions Berenice, John Henry, and herself about love and relationships, the racial divide, and the consequences of war, and with Berenice's sage advice begins to move on.