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"Marvin's Room" at Chapin Theatre Company

"Willy Wonka Jr." at Village Square Theatre

"Grease" at Dreher High School

"Habits of Mind"

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Greg "Bougie" Leevy in The Goat at Trustus Theatre

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Bobby Craft in "S.Claus and Company" at Workshop Theatre
Now Playing:
"Death By Disco," August 28 - October 4, Theatre Rowe, 200-2012.

"Singin' In the Rain," September 11 - October 4, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"Hairspray," September 11 - October 4, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.  

"Marie Antoinette," September 18 - October 3, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Little Shop of Horrors," September 18-27, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type," September 18-27, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"The Threepenny Opera," October 2-10, USC Longstreet Theatre, 777-2508.

"Anansi the Spider," October 3, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"Stop Kiss," October 8-11, USC Lab Theatre, 777-2508.

"The Foursome," October 9-18, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"Agnes of God," October 15-25, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"The Brothers Size," October 16-19, Trustus Black Box Theatre, 254-9732.

"Zombie Prom: Atomic Edition," October 23-25, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"Harvey," November 6-15, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.

"Merry Wives of Windsor," November 6-15, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"A Christmas Story," November 6-22, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"The Phantom Tollbooth," November 13-15, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"Blithe Spirit," November 13-21, USC Drayton Hall Theatre, 777-2508.

"Circle Mirror Transformation," November 19-22, USC Lab Theatre, 777-2508.

"The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical," November 20 - December 19, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Miracle on 34th Street," December 3-13, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"Jingle ARRGH the Way," December 4-13, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.


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On Stage Productions
History Comes to Life In Trustus Theatre's Marie Antoinette

Review by August Krickel 

Is it possible to be a supporting player in the story of your own life?  And is it possible for someone famous primarily for being famous to be seen as a tragic figure? These are challenges for the titular character in David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette, the opening show in Trustus Theatre's 31st season, and for the actress playing her, Jennifer Moody Sanchez. Thanks to a creative team working at the top of their professional game, these questions are explored and examined, as history comes to life in a vivid, slightly skewed, surreal interpretation of the infamously frivolous French queen.

There is no way to recreate Versailles and its opulence, the beauty of the French countryside, or the gloom and despair of ancient dungeons, and scenic designer Kimi Maeda doesn't try. Instead, her set is a textbook lesson in minimalism. The stage is a steep diagonal rake, with the shiny appearance of metal. One entrance to the rear is defined by jagged shapes which reflect light - they could be mirrors, they could be posh decor at a disco, or they could simply suggest a twisted threshold. A few banners of Mylar stretch overhead to indicate a lofty ceiling. A few ornate chairs that serve as everything from throne to carriage seat complete the roster of set pieces. The overall effect is stark, spare, and elegant. But it's evident that the repeating angular, metallic imagery represents most of all the guillotine, because this is the story of its most famous victim.

Director Robert Richmond has taken themes raised in Adjmi's script - which allows French and Austrian royals from the 18th century to speak in modern English vernacular - and enhanced them via creative staging. There's no question that the French nobility of the era were partying like it was 1799, and Richmond captures this vibe by using throbbing French techno music, creating the metaphor of royal life as one big ecstasy-fueled rave. Yet as the mood of the nation and the political climate turns darker, so does the music, seguing into increasingly angry and menacing hip-hop (or as menacing as a rapper can sound in French.) The message is clear: Marie and her peers are the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of their day, oblivious to the needs of the 99%. Jean Gonzalez Lomasto's costumes convey the general feel of the time period, but only employ a third of the material (which makes a number of quick costumes changes more feasible) while Mark Ziegler's excellent wigs are just as absurd and elaborate as those worn by the elites of Paris. I mention these technical aspects first, because they are so striking, and because they set the tone for the play: we're seeing history retold from a modern perspective.

Richmond has chosen his supporting cast well, many of whom are former students of his from USC, and/or professional colleagues with whom he has worked in other venues. Paul Kaufmann, a frequent leading man at Trustus and elsewhere serves as a sort of everyman, technically playing three different revolutionaries, but in actuality becoming the very eloquent and forceful voice of the common people of France. Ellen Rodillo-Fowler and Lindsay Rae Taylor, as Marie's ladies-in-waiting, and Benjamin Blazer, as a foreign diplomat, engage Marie in assorted and seemingly superficial chitchat, but enable Sanchez to create her character, as seen through the eyes of those around her. Eric Bultman plays a sheep - remember, I said this was at times a rather surreal retelling of history - to whom Marie turns in dreams or hallucinations as a sensei-like source of wisdom and comfort.  Chris Cook delivers a less fanciful, more straightforward portrayal of Marie's brother, the Emperor of Austria, seen here as a capable bureaucrat, and a contrast to his little sister Marie, who has never been given any education or training in politics or how to rule. (In a sort of theatrical Six Degrees, this is the same historical figure who is Mozart's patron in Amadeus, just as Marie's son, played by Cade Melnyk, is the identity claimed by the "Dauphin" in Big River.) Everyone does a capable and proficient job. 

G. Scott Wild as King Louis XVI, an immature and petulant man-child, and Sanchez as Marie, a bartered bride given way at 14 for a political alliance, face an almost insurmountable obstacle. History has cast these figures as the equivalent of Bernie Madoff and Leona Helmsley, selfish elites who brought about their downfall and that of their regime by their greed and narcissism.  There's no question that Adjmi - usually speaking through Bultman's and Kaufmann's characters - wants to address these issues, but he also has sympathy for the royal couple. Ultimately it wasn't their fault that no one taught them how to be good rulers, or that their birth led them to their positions, and not any actual ability or affinity for leadership. The parallels with Charles and Diana are obvious, but what struck me was how there is never once throughout the play any sort of adviser, viceroy, vizier or prime minister giving either character any advice. Whereas, when the chips are as far down as they can get, both actors allow us to see their characters' humanity, as Marie and Louie still look out for each other, and try in vain to protect their son.  The first act is a rapid chase through a decade of turmoil, while the second act slows down, becomes somewhat talkier, somewhat preachier, but much more of a showcase for Sanchez's significant acting prowess. The final thirty minutes play like an inner monologue of Cercei Lannister (the similarly imprisoned queen from HBO's Game of Thrones) as Marie confronts figurative demons from her past, present and future.  It's a tour-de-force for Sanchez, as Marie struggles to come to terms with her inability to control her own destiny, despite her being the Queen of France.

Marie Antoinette is an excellent example of how to do difficult and challenging material with local talent and resources, and sacrifice not an ounce of quality. It's exactly the sort of lesser-known but thoughtful and thought-provoking material that Trustus has built its reputation upon. But I must concede that the material is dark, and that we are left to draw our own conclusions and interpretations from many of the questions and issues raised. So be forewarned that it's that type of entertainment, and not a romance or swashbuckler. Marie Antoinette runs through Saturday, Oct. 3; visit www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 for information.

On Stage Productions' 
Little Shop of Horrors Not Perfect, But Earnestly Joyful

Review by August Krickel

Little Shop of Horrors is an intentionally cartoon-like musical adaptation of a notoriously campy Roger Corman B-movie about a man-eating plant, and it's running at West Columbia's On Stage Productions through this weekend. Alan Menken's score and Howard Ashman's book and lyrics channel the vibe of 1960's drive-in double features, and the sound of girl groups of the era. As a dynamic trio - waggishly named Chiffon (Kaitlyn Dillard), Ronnette (Jennifer Davis), and Crystal (Eddenia Robinson) - broke into the familiar, peppy titular prologue song, it occurred to me that I wouldn't trade them for the biggest-budget, most star-laden professional tour of Rent or Cirque du Soleil. For me, three young vocalists  singing their hearts out only a few feet away from a receptive audience, while a live band (musical director John Norris on piano, Allen Knight on guitar, and Patty Boggs on drums) rocked with intensity just a few feet off to the side, is what I enjoy about live theater in local venues.  Especially smaller ones with limited resources, when performers defy expectations, exceed expectations, and make expectations irrelevant. For me it's the difference between seeing Paul McCartney in a slick, pre-fabricated stadium concert, vs. seeing him playing live with his mates in the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961. Raw and sincere trumps smooth and refined for me every time. 

That vocal trio really does capture the entire ambience of the play's Skid Row setting, dressed and coiffed like three of the most downtrodden, hard-luck hookers ever seen, until they break into the high harmonies and synchronized choreography of the bands whose names they bear. They function as both Greek chorus and a literal one, providing back-up harmonies for most of the show's songs. (Note: these three alternate with Arischa Frierson, Cortnie Stuppard, and Shelsey Stuppard on different nights, and thankfully are allowed to glam up a bit in the second act.)  Action centers around Mushnik's Flower Shop, where the cranky owner (Bob Blencowe) harangues his long-suffering employees, shy and awkward Seymour (Charlie Goodrich) and ditz-with-a-heart-of-gold Audrey (Tracy Davis Davenport). Seymour's attempts to nourish an odd little Venus Flytrap lead to unexpected financial success for the shop, and soon everyone is prepared to live happily ever after. One problem: the plant, named "Audrey 2" after Seymour's unattainable crush, likes blood - human blood - and soon grows to gigantic proportions, complete with a smooth bass soul-singer's voice (provided from offstage by Chadwick Pressley.) The solution?  Well, Audrey does have an abusive boyfriend, a dentist and Elvis-wannabe (Robert Bullock) who both Seymour and the plant agree "sho' looks like plant food to me."

While no scarier than a vintage copy of Eerie or Creepy magazines, and certainly much sillier, Little Shop does contain some adult themes. Audrey's lack of self-esteem causes her to stick with a genuinely hateful and evil abuser simply because "He's the only fella I got."  Assorted victims are devoured live by Audrey 2, and while it's just plastic hands and feet being fed to a funny-looking puppet made of wire and plastic and canvas, there is unquestionably death and mayhem and dismemberment in play, so parents should use their discretion and judgement. Seymour is a dream role for Goodrich, who manages to capture the difficult mix of being timid and geeky while remaining sympathetic. His duet with Davenport, "Suddenly Seymour," is a great showcase for their voices, with Davenport maintaining her high, nasally character voice throughout, yet still achieving the effect of a sweet love song. Pressley similarly displays vocal prowess, and all three could do a credible job in these roles in any off-Broadway or touring production. For that matter, so could the physical Audrey 2 puppet, created in intricate, realistic detail by local artists Matt and Carrie Marks. Bullock swaggers with cocky, malevolent sadism, and manages some great physical comedy as he climbs all over his patients. Harrison Ayer (whose principal role is as unseen puppeteer) also turns up in an amusing cameo that gets some of the show's biggest laughs. 

The On Stage space has been upgraded and enhanced, with a full curtain added to separate the house from the lobby area, along with some very comfy and relaxing movie theatre-style chairs.  Director Robert Harrelson continues to work wonders with finite footage and the budget of a smaller community theatre. His growing reputation for quality proves that "if you stage it, they will come," i.e. actors with the talents and skills to do roles in name-brand shows like Little Shop. Goodrich, Pressley, and Blencowe, for example, all make their On Stage debuts here, having done lead and featured roles previously in shows across the river at Town and Workshop Theatres. A less ambitious director might have balked at trying to recreate a famous special effect in the play's final moments that ideally calls for a high ceiling and a grid suitable for high-tech rigging, but Harrelson simply does the best as is possible with available resources, and a simplified effect works just fine. I also must rave about an original innovation devised by Harrelson, and perfected by choreographer Melissa Raynor Berry. I don't want to give away a terrific surprise, so let's just say that it's a sort of "practical" special effect, one that completely caught me by surprise, and one that is so obvious in retrospect that I'm amazed no one has ever thought of it before. And as above, the band led by John Norris zooms through the lively score like it's a rock concert, not a stage musical.

While the production is by no means perfect (ultimately it's community theater, it's in a converted retail space, and the material is designed to appeal to 13-year-olds of all ages), I have to say that this was for me two hours of sheer, unabashed, joyful fun. It's not fancy, and it's not deep, but it's the kind of earnest and sincere production that more theaters ought to do, and more people ought to see. You have five more chances, this Thursday through Sunday, with both matinee and evening performances on the weekend. And a note on the location - it's just a few minutes across the river from downtown Columbia, located at 680 Cherokee Lane, which is about halfway to the airport. Visit http://www.onstagesc.com/ or call 803-351-6751 for ticket information.

Town Theatre Kicks Off 97th Season With a Solid, Pleasantly Entertaining Revival of
Singin' in the Rain

Review by August Krickel.

Town Theatre kicks off its 97th season with a solid, consistent, pleasantly entertaining revival of Singin' in the Rain, an early 1980's stage adaptation of the 1952 film, which in turn was devised to showcase even earlier songs from the 1920's and '30's by composers Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.  The movie is often ranked among the best and/or most popular of all movie musicals, but much of the spectacle was scaled down for the limitations of the Broadway, and Town's production by necessity is scaled down further still. Dazzling performances by filmdom's best - Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor at the height of their professional and creative prowess - contributed much to the screen version's enduring appeal; without them, the stage musical depends on the plot, which is simple but amusing, and the songs, which are similarly innocuous and nice to listen to. Thanks to the vitality and commitment of the young leads and the proficiency of the creative team behind the scenes, Singin' in the Rain is the theatrical equivalent of curling up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn for a comfortable evening of familiar favorites on TCM.

The setting is Hollywood at the dawn of talking pictures. Former vaudeville song-and-dance man Don Lockwood (Jeremy Reasoner) has become a star in the silents; sidekick Cosmo (Parker Byun) toils as an accompanist, setting the tone on set by playing piano, while Don and emotive diva Lina Lamont (Shelby Sessler) crank out formulaic costumed romances. Lina loves Don, but Don only has eyes for feisty young chorus girl Kathy (Samantha "Sam" Livoti), who makes it clear she's not about to be swept off her feet by a smooth-talking celebrity. When talkies become all the rage, the latest Lockwood-Lamont epic hits a snag, due to Lina's screechy, nasal voice and harsh New York accent. The solution? Make Kathy dub Lina's voice - and if you've ever seen an episode of I Love Lucy, you can guess the rest of the plotline. In fact, with only minimal updates, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's script would work in a modern setting, with some starlet caught in a Milli Vanilli-like lip-syncing scandal. 

The original cinematic version actually has a connection to Columbia and to Town Theatre. Stanley Donen, who directed and choreographed along with Kelly, grew up in the Rose Hill neighborhood of Columbia, and danced on Town's stage as a teenager, before heading off to New York to seek fame and fortune. He and Kelly ended up in Hollywood, and their careers mirror those of Don and Cosmo to some extent, with one becoming a romantic lead, and the other rising to prominence behind the camera.

I've enjoyed Reasoner before, as Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods, and as Marius in Les Miserables, both of which are roles almost entirely sung; it turns out he's a decent actor too. Plus his rich tenor voice is just as appealing as you can imagine. Byun's athleticism, a highlight of previous roles such as Will in Oklahoma! and the title role in Tarzan the Musical, serves him well in the lively "Make 'Em Laugh" as he literally flings himself into a litany of pratfalls and physical comedy. Both actors are much younger than their celluloid counterparts, but one simply needs to imagine them as rising stars of the silver screen. Livoti is younger still, although Reynolds herself was only 19 when she was cast. Her Kathy is a spunky little individualist, confident that she will get ahead in show business based on talent alone. A veteran member of ensembles at Town Theatre as a young teen, Livoti has a nice, assertive voice and manner that allow her to convincingly convey all the nuances of this attractive character, and she and Reasoner are believable and adorable as their mutual attraction becomes increasingly irresistible. Both she and Byun are former acting students of director Allison McNeely, whose day job at Spring Valley High School continues to produce talented additions to the local performing community. Similar credit must go to Town's tap dance program, where Byun and many of the ensemble honed their skills. Reasoner is much newer to dance, but choreographer Joy Alexander has worked magic with her cast, and all three leads tap up a storm, recreating many of the movie's iconic images (Reasoner swinging from a lamp post in the rain, all three stepping onto a sofa, then tipping it over as they descend to the floor.) It's a smaller cast, only 26 or so, but music director Sharon McElveen Altman elicits a full sound from them, more than one might expect from a dance-centric musical. 

And then there's Lina Lamont. Her voice is so ridiculously high and annoying - imagine the love-child of Edith Bunker and Arnold Horshack - that I can think of only one performer with enough range and vocal power to be able to sustain the sound for more than two hours. Fortunately, that's exactly who plays her. Shelby Sessler even generates sympathy for Lina on "What's Wrong With Me," in which she must portray someone who can't sing within the show... yet still hit all the right notes in her solo to entertain the real audience. She also has the flamboyant mannerisms and gestures of a silent film star down pat. Plus she is willing to gamely take a pie to the face like a pro. Extra special kudos must also go to scenic designer Danny Harrington, who handles changes in locale every few minutes with ease. Some settings are defined simply by lighting, others employ minimalist backdrops, some need no more than a curtain or bare stage to indicate a studio or theater interior, and some benefit from detailed scenic art (by Jamie Carr Harrington, including a striking exterior of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.) It's the most cohesive and consistent work I can recall seeing from him, and that applies to most of the performance aspects of the production as well.

As above, without the star power of a Gene Kelly, or a 6-figure budget to recreate the spectacle of a major motion picture or a big Broadway hit, Singin' in the Rain is not so much a blockbuster, as a cute little show with some pretty numbers, in which everyone does a decent job. But that's not always easy to find, especially if you are looking for G-rated entertainment, but don't want to see a show for children. The story is 60 years old, the songs are from 20 years before that, and everything is condensed and simplified to work on a community theater stage, and within a community theater budget. If that's your cup of tea, the charm and talent of the leads will surely captivate you, and your feet will be tapping along with those of the ensemble as they faithfully recreate numbers from a beloved classic film. Singin' in the Rain runs through Sunday, Oct. 4, with a number of matinee performances.  Call 803-799-2510, or visit http://towntheatre.com/ for ticket information.


Chapin Theatre Company's Noises Off Is All About the Laughs

Review by August Krickel

Could there be such a thing as a meta-farce?  That's about the best way to describe Michael Frayn's Noises Off, which is running at manic hyper-speed at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College. Presented by the Chapin Theatre Company, this popular staple of regional and community theatre boasts all the requisite components of a classic stage farce: stock characters involved in risqué situations, plenty of broad slapstick and physical comedy, doors slamming, pants dropping, and rapid-fire dialogue that sends up social conventions.  The twist? The cast are a dysfunctional troupe of actors at an exhausting first/final dress/tech rehearsal for a traditional farce (titled Nothing On), about to embark on a tour of local British theaters. There's the dotty older actress (actually named Dotty, and played by Zsuzsa Manna) who forgets crucial blocking and stage directions. There's the harried director (George Dinsmore) who's eager to move on to his next directing gig. There's Frederick, the generic, ascot-sporting leading man (Frank Thompson) who chooses the night before opening to begin questioning nuances of character motivation. And there's Brooke, the luscious young thing (Samantha Roberts) who is oblivious to everything around her; is she simply staying in character as a lingerie-clad bimbo, or is she really that dense?  The expected interpersonal conflicts unfold as rehearsal drags on, and by the close of Act One, they've only managed to get through their own first act. 

Here's where Frayn's genius kicks in, however, and why the play has such enduring popularity. Designer Matt Pound's sturdy and detailed two-story set, complete with staircases, balconies, and at least eight easily-slammed doors, is rotated 180 degrees, and we see the same set from backstage of the play-within-the play.  It's a month later, and as often happens with long runs or tours, most of the cast are at each other's throats, sleeping with each other, or both. The Nothing On performance begins just on the other side of the set for a British matinee audience, while we, the real audience, see all hell breaking loose backstage, with shenanigans mirroring the plot of the fictive farce, just worse. And with the added pressure of having to whisper or silently mouth almost all dialogue, since, remember, they are waiting in the wings of a play in progress. It's hard to threaten a lover or rival, or cajole a colleague, while simultaneously remembering to make an entrance on time.

These issues are instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever worked in any capacity on a play, where the drama is most often found in the dressing room. While no real knowledge of theatrics is needed to appreciate the story, just in case this is a completely alien environment, it's worth noting that stage managers (played here by Jane Martin and David Fichter) are responsible for the smooth flow of each performance. This means overseeing all technical aspects of the production, but also understudying all the roles, and being prepared to step in at a moment's notice if an actor - like perhaps the hard-drinking, elderly Selsdon (Perry Simpson) who is prone to running off to the pub or any place he may have stashed a bottle - is suddenly unavailable. It's also important to remember that when something goes awry on stage - a dropped line, a missed cue, a botched entrance - actors often try to cover via some quick improvisation. Capable Belinda (Cathy Carter Scott) takes this to absurd extremes, insistent on covering any glitch with increasingly improbable ad-libs of justification. Meanwhile Frederick is stumbling about with his pants around his ankles, Garry (Bryson Howard) is hopping up stairs due to his shoelaces having been tied together, Brooke is fumbling for a missing contact lens, Selsdon is missing, and everyone is slipping and sliding on misplaced plates of sardines. And that's just the second act - Act Three picks up six weeks further into their ill-fated run. 

Obviously a tight and competent ensemble of performers is necessary to pull all of the above off, keeping up with the split-second timing while not breaking their necks. This is such a cast, willing and able to fling themselves frantically up and down steep staircases and in and out of rapid costumes changes. My only gripe would be that due to the fairly large house, the dialogue's fast pace, and the necessity of English accents, not everyone is always able to be understood clearly. Dinsmore, Thompson, and Howard are probably the best at both projection and enunciation.  On the other hand, one could sit through this play a dozen times and still never catch 100% of what's going on, since that's part of the inherent humor: half a dozen squabbles, pratfalls, and tantrums are always happening simultaneously, and as with a three-ring circus, you simply have to select what to follow, and when, and where.

The true stars of this production are set designer Matt Pound, for creating a functional set that's up to the challenges posed by the madcap storyline, and director Glenn Farr, who has crafted it all together seamlessly. It's a very amusing rendition of a very amusing play.  My caveat, however, is that it's a very, very silly play as well. There's no redeeming literary or social value, and no intent beyond entertainment. Imagine creative minds from SNL, Monty Python, and the old Carol Burnett variety series all collaborating on a wicked spoof of what goes on behind the scenes during a show, and then performing it while on acid.  If that hasn’t scared you away, then by all means you should see Noises Off, because the director and cast have done an admirable job with difficult material. It’s also worth noting that the Chapin Theatre Company continues to thrive in their new digs in the Harbison Theatre, mounting bigger and more complex productions that are easily the equal of anything in downtown Columbia.  Noises Off runs through this coming Sunday, Sept. 20 (with a closing matinee performance); visit http://www.chapintheatre.org/ or call 803-240-8544 for ticket information.


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