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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Clybourne Park"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley -- River Region Theatre Artist

Is post-racial America a reality? Audiences at the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park" may find themselves grappling with this and many similar questions regarding how well we have or haven't accepted the "other" in our society.

Norris's script, awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, is a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun" (staged recently at the Playhouse), about a Black family's struggle to brake out of the confines of poverty and the racism they encounter in their efforts. -- The play is a witty, often scathing examination of racism and other "isms" that still exist and may even be made worse by people's attempts to make themselves and others believe that they don't.

"Clybourne Park" opens in 1959, just two hours after the conclusion of the action in "A Raisin in the Sun", in the home of Russ and Bev (Michael Krek and Maureen Costello). -- Danny Davidson's costumes are a solid success in establishing the period. -- Russ and Bev, a white couple in an all-white neighborhood, are grieving over the loss of their son who was taunted by neighbors when the returned from the Korean War, and have just completed the sale of their Clybourne Park home to a Black family: the Younger family from "Raisin". -- Neighbor, friend and fellow Rotarian, Karl (Mark Hunter, continuing his willingness and honing his ability to portray "the man we love to hate"), is the one character who also appears in Hansberry's play, where he represented the "Welcoming Committee" in trying to convince the Youngers to back out of their plan; here he barges in to inform Russ and Bev that this Black family will destroy the neighborhood and drive down property values. But, as Bev asks: shouldn't Black people have the right to live in better neighborhoods?

Although Bev seems sympathetic to Black people's endeavors to improve their circumstances, her patronizing behavior towards her housekeeper Francine (Christina Okolo) and her husband Albert (William Allen, III, who has natural comic timing), as well as toward Karl's deaf wife Betsey (Sarah Adkins), reveals that she has her own prejudices, even if she is unaware of them. Ms. Costello handily balances both the silliness and gravity of Bev's blithe un-awareness of her flawed perspective.

Karl is relentless in his argument. He threatens to reveal Russ and Bev's family tragedy that took place in the house as a way of driving the Black family to back out of the sale. Russ is disgusted by Karl's blatant racism, but even more so by Karl's attempts to control him.

Matters are not helped by the presence of Jim, the local minister (Cushing Phillips, III) who would of course offer to help with moving day activities if only his back wasn't injured; Jim's physical impotence mirrors his inability to offer spiritual guidance in the argument between Karl and Russ.

Act II opens fifty years later when the now all-Black neighborhood is re-gentrifying. -- Ed Fieder's simple, warm, functional set undergoes a transformation that captures well the passage of time and condition. -- The same actors return as a new crop of characters, arguing now about the same house and how the new homebuyers (white yuppies Steve and Lindsey, played by Mr. Hunter and Ms. Adkins) will ruin the historic value of the neighborhood.

Homeowners Association members a Black couple (Lena and Kevin, played by Ms. Okolo and Mr. Allen) and a gay man (Tom, played by Mr. Phillips) are trying to reach an agreement with Steve and Lindsey about their planned house renovations. --Lena, it seems, is related to the Youngers from "Raisin", and is actually named after Mrs. Lena Younger from that play, so she has a critical stance in the proceedings. -- Seemingly friendly negotiations about setbacks, easements, and elevations among a racially and socially diverse group, whose members appear to be forward thinkers when it comes to acceptance and equality, slowly devolve into accusations and downright actions of prejudice and stereotyping, complete with crude jokes that run from insidious to blatant in their offensiveness to various groups of people. As might be expected, negotiations break down, leaving everyone somewhere between enmity and actual hatred toward one another.

The play ends with a flashback to the 1950s, just before Russ and Bev's family tragedy. Their son Kenneth (Braxton McDonald) is composing a suicide note when Bev interrupts him and with worried optimism tells him that she feels that things are about to change. -- This brief scene captures the irony that runs throughoUt the play; yes, things are changing, but not perhaps in the way we hope or expect.

This production of "Clybourne Park" makes audiences both laugh and cringe, even at themselves. Director Greg Thornton has thoughtfully led this ensemble to a victory in showing us a mirror of out successes and failures as a "unified" society. -- It deserves the audience ovations and praise it has received in its opening weekend.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

ASF Interns: "Romeo and Juliet"

Director Greta Lambert's abridged version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with this year's ASF Acting Intern Company lives up to the high standards she has been setting for the last few seasons in productions that tour to many cities and schools.

With intelligent editing that preserves plot and theme which gives actors all the tools to develop their characters, and matched with Tara Houston's flexible multi-level grid-like set and Elizabeth Novak's effectively romantic period costumes, the focus is on the beauty and humanity of Shakespeare's text.

The Bard's "star-crossed lovers" are arguably the best known romantic duo in Western literature, and their tragic end has been depicted with endless variety around the world on stage and screen since the 1590s. -- Ms. Lambert's production trusts the script's universality to resonate today without fussy concepts to distract us. Bravo!

Though they are the teenage offspring of two feuding families, Romeo and Juliet meet, fall instantly in love, and marry secretly; when one of many street fights results in the deaths of two young men, Romeo is exiled to a "life worse than death" away from Juliet. -- Meanwhile, Juliet's parents arrange a wedding which she refuses despite threats of being disowned; and the Friar who married them convinces Juliet to take a drug that will replicate death for a short time, allowing Romeo to return to Verona to take her away; on arrival at the tomb, Romeo believes Juliet to be dead and commits suicide at her grave. When Juliet awakes and sees her husband dead, she stabs herself. Their families agree to a peaceful coexistence as a result of their loss.

Most of the ensemble play more than one role requiring either complete costume changes or as simple an adjustment as donning a pair of spectacles and assuming a different posture. The choices are clear and demonstrate the flexibility of these talented actors. -- We never for a moment doubt who they are portraying whether they capture their characters' youthful energy and adolescent excesses or the authoritarian steadfastness of parents, servants, priests, or royalty.

Brennan Gallagher is convincing both as the compassionate Friar and as Juliet's commanding intractable father Lord Capulet; he is matched by Lea McKenna-Garcia's Lady Capulet who shifts from maternal concern to complicity with her husband's demands that Juliet obeys him.

Daniel Solomon portrays Tybalt, the "prince of cats", with effective swagger that is counterbalanced by his role as a servant. -- Christian Castro is a bundle of energy as Romeo's friend Benvolio and a more contained and elegant Paris who is set to marry Juliet as her father arranged.

Rivka Borek is a powerhouse Princess whose judgments are not to be questioned, and as Juliet's Nurse, a woman who is both a substitute Mother-figure and confidante, and a go-between for Juliet's marriage to Romeo.

Joshua Marx plays Romeo's father, Lord Montague, with stolid composure that is contrasted by his aggressively excitable Mercutio. His masterly swordplay (thanks to Seth Andrew Bridges for staging the believably dangerous fight sequences) and "Queen Mab" speech make him an endearing character whose accidental death is all the more hurtful, and his "curse on both your houses" a reminder to us that petty arguments too often result in needless violence and death.

The focus is on Romeo and Juliet throughout, and Morgan Auld and Christina King deliver with conviction all the contradictions and fickleness of adolescence. We watch them grow up before our eyes from naive teenagers caught up in the throes of first love to serious adults who make decisions with full realization of their consequences. -- And we like them because they touch some impulses in all of us.

There is hardly a moment in this production for audiences to catch their collective breath as Ms. Lambert's vigorous direction sweeps us up in the conflicts, and has us -- regardless of knowing the outcome -- fully participating in the lives depicted on the intimate Octagon Stage.

While there are moments of humor that elicit well-earned laughs inherent in Shakespeare's verse, for the last twenty minutes or so, there is a hushed silence from an audience thoroughly engaged in the tragedy to come. Well done!