Sunday, January 31, 2016

ASF: "Ain't Misbehavin'"

The joint is jumpin'!!! -- On opening night at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, after two hours of a non-stop celebration of legendary Fats Waller's music, the audience jumped to their feet and cheered director James Bowen's five ensemble actors and Joel Jones' terrific seven-piece band. Mr. Bowen and Company should be justifiably proud to know that (in an idea borrowed from a friend) "they've made somebody's life a little better for a couple of hours."

Ain't Misbehavin' is a (mostly) feel-good party set in scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen cabaret club reminiscent of the glamor and sophistication of the Harlem nightclubs of the 1930s and 1940s. -- In its frolicsome, worldly, and occasionally ribald versions of some 30+ songs from the Fat Waller repertoire, there is hardly a moment when Waller's sly take on love and relationships in the midst of World War and Depression Era angst isn't front and center; yet, the defense mechanism often present shows up regularly in the escapist devil-may-care attitudes of the company: a surface cheerfulness belies the uncertainty of the future.

The one sobering moment comes midway in Act II with "Black and Blue", an intensely controlled query of the plight of African-Americans then and now, who are judged too often by the color of their skin, and not by the content of their character. As in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask", behind the mask of laughter and seeming contentment there is pain, and the strategically placed song is all the more potent here because the audience has become attached to these exuberant actors and their music.

And that's what it's all about: the versatility and brilliance of the performances. Each actor is gifted with a fine singing voice and engaging personality, and each is afforded ample opportunities to showcase their individual and collective talents. Bianca Horn delivers some in-your-face antics with "Yacht Club Swing" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" and produces a sincerely moving rendition of "Mean to Me"; Shinnerrie Jackson is coquettish with "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Honeysuckle Rose" in a duet with Juson Williams. Mr. Williams shines also in comic numbers like "Your Feet's Too Big"; Eric LaJuan Summers joins Mr. Williams and encourages audience participation in "Fat and Greasy" and is all swagger in "'T Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do", and his rendition of "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song" mixes broad comedy with some sinister elements; and Fredena J. Williams imbues almost every number with sophisticated innuendo and a knowing twinkle in her eye: "Squeeze Me" and "When the Nylons Bloom Again" are standouts.

There is so much robust energy in the group numbers -- "Lookin' Good but Feelin' Bad", "A Handful of Keys", "Spreadin' Rhythm Around", "The Joint is Jumpin'", and the title song "Ain't Misbehavin'" among them -- that audiences come away energized and happy.

Though there is virtually no book/scripted dialogue, the personalities of the actors shine through with their frequent side comments and put downs, and self-aware digs at themselves and one another...all in a lighthearted manner that has audiences liking them from start to finish. They conscript us in the goings-on so we can laugh with them and share their experiences.

It's amazing what a couple of hours of unrestrained good will can do to take away the Winter's chill: "One never one?!"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

ASF: "Cinderella"

Young children in the audience invigorate a sparkling production of Cinderella in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon theatre. -- The eight-member ASF Acting Intern ensemble, under Nancy Rominger's direction, render playwright Ruth Newton's version of the fairy-tale in under an hour's playing time, inviting children young and old to help them tell the story and to both enjoy and learn: the two most basic precepts of live theatre.

This "Theatre for Young Audiences" production takes advantage of the Octagon's intimacy to make the future adult audiences (and the grown-ups they brought with them) comfortable enough to respond to on-stage questions about plot and production details; and the responses are instantaneous and well informed...often so animated and sincere that everyone approves.

The story of Cinderella's [Lilly Wilton] escape from a life of drudgery with the assistance of her Fairy Godmother [Kayla Eisenberg] to attend a royal ball where she wins the heart of the Prince [Michael Quattrone] is well known. -- Yet, there is much to delight along the way: Robert F. Wolin's set revolves from the dingy kitchen to the bright ballroom in the Prince's palace; Michael Medcalf choreographs the simple and elegant dance sequences; and Pamela Scofield's costumes are a joy -- from the gaudy and vulgar excesses of Cinderella's step-family to the restrained opulence of the courtiers, and a magical transformation of Cinderella's scullery-maid outfit into a stunning ball gown.

And there is a lot of delight in the performances as well. Noelia Antweiler is the two-faced social-climbing Stepmother who never misses a chance to push her daughters into the limelight, and who even promotes herself into a union with the Prince when her daughters' chances fall flat...and the Stepsisters, Matilda [Christopher Lemieux] and Griselda [Andrew Dahreddine], constantly fighting with one another with no realization of their foolishness, are so wholeheartedly greedy that they are hilarious.

Ms. Eisenberg's Fairy Godmother [she also doubles as a Lady at the Court] is forgetful and sincere; and she also manages a few magic tricks to delight the audience.

Parke Fech as the Prime Minister, and John Henry Carter as the Duke, are the Prince's cohorts who both assist him in his pretending to be a commoner as he woos Cinderella, and lead the search for the mysterious woman he fell in love with at the ball.

The love story is at the center of the plot, and is given a familiar twist when the Prince feigns a lower social status to the beautiful stranger so she might like him for his behavior and not his wealth. Mr. Quattrone's sincere confession to Cinderella that "everyone feels sad, lonely, and afraid sometimes" is central to their romance. Ms. Wilton, in turn, "pretends" to the Prince that she is not a Princess, and commiserates with him -- an instant connection.

Through it all, there are lessons that are given with gracefulness: telling the truth is essential to leading a good life; forgive those who hurt us as Cinderella forgives the Step-family; true beauty is within a person -- wisdom and honesty are traits that uncover that beauty; we can make our dreams come true, not simply by wishing, but by believing in ourselves.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

WOBT: "Merry Christmas, Dear Grandpa"

Merry Christmas, Dear Grandpa is a short three-act comedy by Michal Jacot that comes in at a running time of an hour and a half including a 15-minute intermission at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville.

Director Blair Dyson makes his community theatre directing debut as he guides his six-member cast of neophyte and veteran actors in often predictable and sometimes hilarious moments on stage.

The naturalistic finished living room of a home in suburban Oregon designed by the director along with Marc Alewine and Jessica Brumett, reflects the personality of its new owner Amber Hartley [Annabelle DuBose] an obsessive perfectionist with a place for everything and everything in its place. Amber wants to host "the perfect Christmas celebration" with her family, plans that go awry from the start, only to be pleasantly resolved by the end. -- It is Christmastime, so the spirit of the season is bound to make an impact on even the most recalcitrant members of the clan. That they end up with an unexpected perfect day is, in the words of one of them, "a Christmas miracle".

Amber's intentions are disrupted by her sloppy sister Frankie [Cameron Wasner], her hold-over flower-children parents Al [Mike Proper] and Marie [Casey Wasner], and her sarcastic older brother Keith [James Scott] who brings curmudgeonly Grandpa [West Marcus] from the retirement home.
En route to its inevitable positive conclusion, there are sibling rivalries, parental guilt-trips, and outrageous demands from Grandpa who, at times much like Ebenezer Scrooge, has a soft side.

Jadot's modest script, with its predictable plot and fairly one-dimensional characters, does contain a few surprises and frequent enough situations that afford the acting company some shining moments.

The family have learned to tolerate Grandpa's tirades and eccentric behavior, and Mr. Marcus can be counted on to play Grandpa with just enough aplomb that his outbursts and infantile tricks are rendered palatable. -- Mr. Proper and Ms. Casey Wasner are a fine parental double-act who play well off one another. -- The sibling rivalries and goading between Ms. DuBose and Ms. Cameron Wasner [an 11th-hour replacement in the role of Frankie] are crafted convincingly. -- And Mr. Scott, making his theatrical debut as the much maligned older brother, gives an animated and cunningly sardonic performance that is a stand-out in this production.

A light-hearted Christmas show, Merry Christmas, Dear Grandpa leaves audiences with smiles on their faces and hearts filled with good will.

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Two for the Holidays"

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

Thornton Wilder and David Sedaris might not be an obvious partnership. Multiple Pulitzer Prize winner Wilder, one of this country's most influential mid-Twentieth Century playwrights who tested the boundaries of minimalism and other provocative theatrical styles, and Sedaris, a quirky satirist whose New Yorker magazine and National Public Radio segments conferred him a cult status from the 1990s onward, come from two different worlds. -- Yet, the Cloverdale Playhouse is ending its Fourth Season with one act plays from each of them under the umbrella title "Two for the Holidays". Montgomery audiences are being treated and challenged by Wilder's 1931 The Long Christmas Dinner and Sedaris's 1996 The Santaland Diaries.

In a little over half an hour, Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner takes us through 90-years of Christmas dinners with the Bayard family. Under Layne Holley's sensitive direction, we watch her twelve member ensemble of actors portraying characters who are born, grow up, and die, to be replaced by successive generations bound by their commitment to the simple things of life. Religion, literature, philosophy, love and marriage, the inevitability of death [whether from old age, disease, or war], the value of family history and memories -- all these hold the family together so that even in stressful times we are assured that these universal experiences are what count, and that time alone will see them through.

Wilder's theatrical conceit [one that reminds us continually that we are in a theatre and are meant to ponder his ideas] is to have continuous action in the one dining room, a place before the days of cell phones and social media distractions, where families gather and talk to one another. Characters age before our eyes through subtle costume adjustments and undisguised wig changes, and by actors changing postures and vocal textures. They enter and exit through doorways that symbolically represent birth and death; and so, the cycle of life continues, with each generation repeating phrases, actions, and references that have come before. -- The simplicity of his conceit, one which he developed more fully in Our Town, registers with a profound refinement that leaves audiences more than satisfied.

The acting company are dressed in lush period costumes created by the team of Val Winkelman, Mike DiLaura, Danny Davidson, and Marlene Moore-Goodman, contributing to the naturalistic details of Hannah Butler's set. And while there were a few tentative line readings in their performances, the actors uniformly served the playwright's intentions to leave a lasting impact on audiences.

And "now for something completely different" in the second half, David Sedaris's irreverent The Santaland Diaries, directed by Eleanor Davis, is an extended monologue by a man whose elf name is "Crumpet" [Greg Babb]. Quasi-autobiographical, the "mostly true" Santaland purports to tell the journey of an out-of-work man who, in a behind the scenes tell-all, applies, interviews, trains, and ultimately becomes an elf in Santaland at Macy's department store in New York City.

Self-deprecating and outlandish in his pronouncements about the behaviors of an assortment of children, parents, and especially his fellow employees throughout the growing frenzy of the Christmas Season, Mr.Babb is at his best in the play's more outrageous moments. Uneven at times, he has an ability to deliver Sedaris's witty dialogue with impeccable comic timing, a vocal style reminiscent of Paul Lynde, and an infectious awareness of the scorn he has for the "grinding enthusiasm" and "relentless cheer" of the public face he must show. -- But even "Crumpet" succumbs somewhat and becomes "good by association" with the true spirit of the holidays.

The contrast of these two pieces, each a minor gem in its own way, has audiences laughing and thinking...and perhaps giving consideration to celebrating the holidays with loved ones with an acceptance of one another's contributions to making us who we are.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Radio T.B.S."

To end their 35th Season, the Wetumpka Depot Players are re-mounting a production of Radio T.B.S. that they first produced in 2002. Directed by Tom Salter, Mark Landon Smith's comedy has a cast of ten women, each one more eccentrically low-brow than the next, and whose intertwining escapades stretch credibility no matter how their caricatured personalities register to audience delight as familiar.

The action is set at the Luna Del Mar Trailer Park where Vesta Poteet [Cindy Veasey] and Dixie Mandrell [Janice Hancock] run the on-site radio station and broadcast local gossip, announcing early on that the annual Miss Manatee beauty contest will be shortly followed by this year's Nativity Pageant whose theme is "Jesus and Elvis: a Tribute to the Kings." -- What follows is inevitably linked to the play's title, the "T.B.S." standing for "Trailer Park Broadcasting Scandals".

Vesta and Dixie follow Missy Goode [Carol Majors] on a road trip to Graceland with her unseen monster granddaughter in tow. -- Mary Eunice Wheaton [Cindy Beasley], the trailer park's self-appointed morality enforcer, whose dictatorial behavior finds fault with just about everything, is crusading to evict Imogene Hurst [Sonja Cannon], a bohemian outsider whose lifestyle infuriates Mary Eunice. But weather girl Harlene Akers [Hannah Meherg] is the only one who shows a bit of gumption against Mary Eunice's petition, and befriends Imogene.

Pauline Felts [Sally Blackwell] coerces her unwilling daughter Mayola [Ashlee Lassiter] to enter the Miss Manatee contest, and conscripts local charm school maven Alveeta McClay [Charlotte Henderson] to mold Mayola into a presentable candidate for the pageant.

Madge Husky [Judy Savage] opens her home's Elvis shrine for a tour, the chief item being a pork chop that resembles Elvis in profile.

This all plays out in two acts running two hours and twenty minutes; and while the admirable cast are to be commended for their excellent ensemble acting and for presenting their characters' foibles and eccentricities with complete commitment, Smith's script could benefit from judicious editing. Each scene simply goes on at such repetitive length that the jokes become predictable and lose their intended punch. -- Most of the laughs come from the inventive antics of these gifted actors, whether it is, for example, Ms. Veasey's vivacity as Vesta, Ms. Lassiter's dead-pan boredom as the misfit Mayola, or Ms. Henderson's unflappably charming Alveeta.

With garish costumes and tacky set pieces to complement the script's bizarre story and characters, the Christmas Season might never be the same.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Red Door: "Always a Bridesmaid"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs is presenting a laugh-out-loud comedy: Always a Bridesmaid, another in a series written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten [their The Hallelujah Girls and Mama Won't Fly have been performed at the Red Door]. -- Despite the season, the Red Door is not showing a Christmas-themed show; and it pays off.

Director Kim Mason has a knack for comedy and a history of getting the most out of her actors, and the ensemble here is a veteran cast of six women who are clearly having a good time together on stage as they portray an eclectic bevy of "friends for life" who had promised years ago to be bridesmaids in one another's weddings -- no matter what!

It is that "no matter what" that holds the slightness of the plot together. Kari [Sarah Smith] is today's bride who narrates a series of scenes depicting the assorted weddings (and near misses) that have lead up to her own; she gets progressively more intoxicated as she addresses the attendees at her wedding reception, where her mother Libby Ruth [Elizabeth Roughton], the perfect optimistic one, and the other "friends for life" are her bridesmaids too: Monette [Leigh Moorer], the often married one, Charlie [Janet Wilkerson], the reluctant one, and Deedra [Eve Harmon], the worldly sophisticated one. -- They are joined in each scene by Sedalia [Jordan Allen Campbell], the no-nonsense manager of the "historic Laurelton Oaks" venue where all the weddings take place over seven years.

Ray Thornton designed an architecturally and naturalistically finished set for this production that shows the sitting room of an upscale wedding venue in stark contrast to the often garish bridesmaids costumes the cast wear [let imaginations run wild, there will still be many surprises in store]. -- There is no costume designer credit in the program, but the costume choices most certainly need to be applauded.

The ensemble performances are top-notch, with each one defining her individual quirks while generously sharing the stage with the prima donnas here.

The standards are high all around, yet there are individual moments of outright hilarity: Ms. Smith's descent into drunkenness is welcomed each time she appears; Ms. Roughton's unflappable naivete garners spontaneous laughter; Ms. Harmon grows into a spirited combatant who says she'll marry "the last man standing" in her wedding day's slugfest between her fiance and ex-husband; and Ms. Campbell is able to turn on a dime from a charming self-possessed professional hostess into an axe-wielding harridan when the bridesmaids get out of control.

Kudos to Ms. Moorer who accepts her character Monette's nonchalance about her frequent and sometimes frivolous trips to the altar with a comfort so natural that she is credible from start to finish, her smug demeanor never at risk under any circumstances.

Ms. Wilkerson has established herself as one of the Red Door's most reliable comic actors whose mere entrance onto the stage warrants appreciative laughter, followed by physical silliness and dead-pan delivery of clever dialogue. The genius of her performance here is that no matter how outrageous, Ms. Wilkerson is grounded in an inventive and truthful commitment to her character.

Ms. Mason keeps the action moving at a solid pace for just under two hours including intermission, and audiences leave in a jovial mood from watching these talented actors.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Faulkner: "An O. Henry Christmas"

Howard Burman's An O. Henry Christmas, an intriguing and inventive telling of several O. Henry stories, is being given a strong and sensitive showing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, under Faulkner alumnus and first-time director Tony Davison.

With an eight member ensemble of students, alumni, and faculty at his disposal, Mr. Davison exhibits clear storytelling and mostly effective staging, though placement of actors occasionally blocks important action from view, and some tentative vocal projection rendered some dialogue difficult to hear.

Played on Matt Dickson's detailed set -- a kind of Skid Row outdoor gathering place for an assortment of New York City vagrants and homeless -- and with Angela Dickson's evocative costumes, this production is one of Faulkner's most visually accomplished in its simplicity; and the acting company match it skillfully for its uninterrupted 90-minute running time.

On Christmas Eve, a rag-tag group gather, each with a back-story that comes to light as they argue among themselves: Hal [George Scrushy establishing himself as a fine actor here], an unapologetic drunk who has squandered his inheritance; Dinty [Matt Dickson is utterly convincing], a cynical and frustrated artist waiting to produce his masterpiece; Fran [Brittney Johnston who never fails to inhabit her characters with complete believability], a tough street-wise skeptic; Agnes [Emiy Woodring in a sensitive portrayal], ever optimistic and supportive of her friends; Marguerite [Alex Rikerd in a sympathetic role], a sickly defeatist who believes she is dying; and Grover [Morgan Baker is stalwart], a former doctor refusing to practice because "there are no second mistakes die". -- They are joined at several moments by Guido [Douglas Hamilton is the newcomer to the acting company], a cop on the beat who must uphold the law regarding vagrants, but who is sympathetic to their situations.

A mysterious stranger named O.P. [Chris Kelly commands every scene], who insinuates himself into their dismal world by trading stories for food and shelter, and cajoles them into participating in the stories he provides them (the O. Henry stories of the play's title -- and though none of them are named, "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Last Leaf" are among the familiar tales they spin).

These stories serve to either reflect the experiences of the characters, or provide them with ample encouragement to change their behavior. It is Christmas, after all, and most of them change for the better when they realize how important sacrifice is in the service of their fellows. Their individual journeys to self-realization are the crux of the matter in this gentle and hopeful production so appropriate to the Christmas Season.