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Now Playing:
"Million Dollar Quartet," March 3-19, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"Grey Gardens," March 10 - April 1, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Guys and Dolls," March 17 - April 2, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.

"Cyrano," March 23 - April 2, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"Barefoot In the Park," March 24 - April 2, Workshop Theatre, 799-6551.

"Legally Blonde Jr., The Musical," March 24-26, Columbia Children's Theatre Youth, 691-4548.

"James and the Giant Peach," April 5-23, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"American Legends," April 7-9, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"Animal Farm," April 14-22, USC Drayton Hall.

"The Bald Soprano," April 20-23, USC Lab Theatre.

"Improv Show #2,"
Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"Hand to God," April 21 - May 8, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Beverly Hillbillies," April 28 - May 7, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"Midlife! The Crisis Musical," April 28 - May 7, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

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From Society Divas to Crazy Cat Ladies: Grey Gardens The Musical at Trustus Explores Dysfunction Among the Rich and Famous 

Review by August Krickel 

How fine is the line between uninhibited self-expression and actual mental illness?  It's easy to write off the eccentricities of the rich and famous as harmless, while condemning similar behavior from the impoverished or homeless. Trustus Theatre's production of Grey Gardens The Musical charts just such a tragic fall in status of two scions of the wealthy Bouvier family from society divas to crazy cat ladies; it's a plot that might stretch credibility... except that it's inspired by the true story of Jackie Kennedy Onassis's aunt and cousin, both named Edith Bouvier Beale, who were the subject of a famous 1975 documentary film that has attained enduring cult appeal.

The daughter, often called "Little Edie" (Haley Sprankle), is an eligible debutante about to become engaged to the young Joe Kennedy, Jr. (Cody Lovell) in 1941. Her mother, "Big Edie" (Mandy Applegate Bloom, who also choreographs), fancies herself to be an accomplished singer, and keeps accompanist Gould Strong (a droll Kevin Bush)  on hand to support and enable her dreams, as both guzzle cocktails. Grandpa Bouvier (Rob Sprankle) sees his daughter's aspirations as delusional, and fears that free-spirited, headstrong Little Edie's similar dreams of becoming a performer will lead their family - and her prospects of landing a rich husband - to ruin; stern with his daughter, Bouvier warmly tutors his other granddaughters, little Lee (Clare Kerwin) and little Jackie (Ella Rescigno) on proper behavior and patrician values in the amusing number "Marry Well." This part of the family's lives comprises the first act, and the appealing score by Scott Frankel and Michael Kore emulates the frothy styles of popular musicals of the era, with the mother-daughter duet "Two Peas in a Pod" reminiscent of a Fred Astaire dance number, and "Goin' Places" - in which Little Edie and Joe map out their future - bringing to mind a Rat Pack-style Sinatra song. The second act fast-forwards to 1973, with the elderly mother (now played by Caroline Weidner) and her never-married daughter now virtual shut-ins, living in squalid poverty in their crumbling mansion, its name now evoking both decay, and the ghosts of former grandeur. (In actuality, "Grey Gardens" merely referred to some concrete garden walls, and the gray sand on the adjacent beach.)

Hallmarks of this production are the excellent voices of the entire cast, especially Bloom and Haley Sprankle, and the commitment both actresses have to exploring the murky and troubled emotional depths of their characters. Beneath the constant, shrill bickering of mother and daughter - much of which is taken nearly verbatim from the documentary - is undeniable love and indeed co-dependency.  Trapped in the sort of loveless marriage that she doesn't want for Little Edie, and fearful that her daughter isn't stable enough to survive on her own, the elder Edie sets up their eventual fate, while the younger, no matter how desperately she declares her misery, chooses to accept it. On opening night, Haley Sprankle's expressions and body language eloquently demonstrated pain, anguish, and heartbreak, especially in the ironic and jarringly discordant song "Daddy's Little Girl," in which she vehemently declares everything that she is not. Which we realize is killing her inside as she denies her independent nature. Slight spoiler, which shouldn't detract from anyone's enjoyment: much of the first act probably never happened historically, or not in the way that we see it unfold here, but it does follow Little Edie's account of her difficult youth as she later recounted and embellished it.

The audience was clearly emotionally invested in the characters, and I noticed an audible gasp from at least a dozen patrons at a moment when a climactic decision was made. Director Milena Herring is to be lauded for successfully structuring the often-overlapping and argumentative dialogue in Doug Wright's book, and for the level of emotional intensity sustained throughout the entire production. Musical director Randy Moore leads four other musicians, creating with three keyboards, bass and drums the sound of a much larger ensemble. Much of the frenzy of the first act is augmented by a lively underscore, and the effect of assorted reeds is particularly pleasing.  Initially, I feared that Curtis Smoak's scenic design wasn't nearly opulent enough for the palatial environs of the first act, but quickly realized that the whole set has to be trashed - literally - during a 15-minute intermission, and the resulting vermin-infested wreck is quite detailed and believable.

If you want to avoid a spoiler about a terrific twist, I'll say that overall, I enjoyed this excellent production, and recommend it highly for the production values, the score, and the performances of the two leads, who are afforded a great chance to flex their vocal and acting skills in challenging material. But stop reading now unless you want that twist to be revealed: Bloom not only plays the mother in 1941, but also the middle-aged version of the daughter in 1973.  (Bloom and Haley Sprankle don't really resemble each other, but that's why the twist works so well: the daughter literally becomes the mother.)  Bloom and Weidner faithfully recreate the Beales' flamboyant nature and quirks that contributed to the documentary's success.  But the Edies weren't particularly pleasant ladies. Their wisecracks and caustic comments, as well as their piercing tones and harsh "Lawn-Guy-land" accents, may be difficult for some to embrace. Yet the opening night audience laughed non-stop at almost every word Bloom spoke or sang in the second act, seemingly rejoicing in the character's campy excesses just as devotees of the film (as well as a 2009 HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as mother and daughter) have done for years. 

The trope of wounded survivors of life's struggles clinging to fading memories of a better former existence has been used by everyone from Faulkner to Tennessee Williams, and goes back at least as far as Dickens's Miss Havisham. It's unquestionably Southern Gothic at its most dysfunctional, assuming that by "Southern" you count the south end of the Hamptons.  Still, seeing the theme befall real people is troubling, and laughing at their misfortune to me seems a little creepy and voyeuristic. I also wonder how empathetic many viewers may be for the plight of women who assumed they would always be taken care of financially by others, and never took control of their own destiny. Then again, that's the real-life tragedy on display.   Grey Gardens The Musical runs through Saturday, April 1st; visit https://trustus.org/event/grey-gardens-a-musical/ or call 803-254-9732 for more information.

There's Good Rockin' Tonight as the Million Dollar Quartet Recreates Rockabilly Hits at Town Theatre

Review by August Krickel

C'mon over baby - there's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on over at Town Theatre, where talented young actors assume the personas of four of the greats of rock-and-roll royalty, rocking out live on stage as the Million Dollar Quartet. Technically a jukebox musical, i.e. an excuse to perform vintage songs made famous by Sun Records artists Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the production is more than a rock concert, although not quite a traditional Broadway musical. Either way, the faithful recreation of rockabilly and country classics and the chance to see some favorite performers flex their musical muscles ensures a rockin' good time for all.

The play's premise derives from an actual jam session at Sun Records in December of 1956; the production, like that once-in-a-lifetime event, lasts only around 90 minutes, playing out in real time with no intermission. The script, by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, allows for brief snippets of each performer's background, with producer Sam Phillips (Chip Collins) recounting how he discovered each one, allowing the audience to see - if only briefly - how he nurtured their talent and helped each to find his unique sound. This plays out like abbreviated clips from a VH1 "Behind the Music" documentary, and only skims the surface of each artist's life, but the details are accurate, and fascinating to anyone not familiar with the various backstories. To flesh out the dialogue and add a little conflict, the authors expound on issues that were surely brewing within each character's mind. 24-year-old Perkins (Alex Cowsert) is there to record a new song, meaning that his regular band (Mikey Lowrey on drums, Caleb Everson on guitar, and Landon Osteen as Perkins's brother Jay on bass) is conveniently on hand to provide backup. He's desperate for a second hit to follow his original song "Blue Suede Shoes," and more than a little resentful that the 21-year-old Elvis scored a bigger hit with it after covering the song on live television. Elvis (Matthew Harter) is already a movie star, but longs for the simplicity of his days with Sun Records. 24-year-old Cash (Charlie Goodrich) wants to record more gospel music and is about to jump to another label, while the 21-year-old Lewis is still a hungry, ambitious unknown, and has been brought in to jazz up Perkins's new single. Meanwhile Phillips is pondering an offer to sell out to RCA, but realizes that he would "rather sell a hundred records with someone I brought along myself than a million records with someone else calling the shots." 

Collins as Phillips is the cornerstone of the story, and has some priceless lines, referring to the recording studio as "where the soul of a man never dies," and explaining how and why he made stars of poor country boys: "I never heard a rich man make a song worth a damn." The actor does a capable and entertaining job with the fairly paper-thin sketch this script gives of one of the inventors of what we think of as rock music today. Each of the featured quartet brings specific skills to his portrayal. Cowsert probably looks the most like his character, and while he never reaches the lower register of Perkins's voice, he seems the most comfortable in leading and jamming with a live band. Goodrich also resembles Cash a bit, and is the best at channeling his character's distinctive bass-baritone voice, flat delivery and intonation, and stiff body language. When Goodrich greets the audience with the now-iconic "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," I suspect more than a few will experience goosebumps.  Harter recreates Elvis's moves and voice quite accurately, and is the best at capturing his character's star power. Unlike an actor who usually tries to align his vocals perfectly with his accompaniment, Harter dives into each number with abandon, just like a rock singer, seemingly hitting each note perhaps a half- or quarter-second before the following instruments, which is a really effective stylistic choice, and something that I've heard rock musicians discuss in countless documentaries.  As the original "real wild child" Lewis, Reasoner naturally gives the most flamboyant performance. He doesn't look much like Jerry Lee, although he's got the signature hair flip down pat, as well as all the familiar keyboard histrionics. Reasoner, whose soaring tenor was a highlight of last fall's My Fair Lady, doesn't try to copy his character's deeper voice, but he's a better singer than Jerry Lee ever was. The result is the creation of crazy, over-the-top, sexually aggressive, backwoods piano rocker Jeremy Reasoner, and that's just as fun and enjoyable.

An unexpected treat is Sheldon Paschal as Elvis's semi-fictional girlfriend, aspiring singer Dyanne. (Her real-life counterpart was a teenage Vegas dancer named Marilyn who was later the director of the Fresno Ballet.) Beyond simple historicity, Dyanne is encouraged to sing a few songs on her own, and adds harmonies to many familiar Elvis hits which featured backing vocals by the Jordanaires. Paschal is poured into a vintage dress just as deliciously as when she played Morticia Addams last spring, and croons low and sultrily on "Fever," later soaring much higher on "I Hear You Knockin'."  A nice authentic touch is that every song performed already existed in 1956, although some were not recorded by these artists until later. As a result we get Jerry Lee on "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'," but not "Breathless" or "High School Confidential;" similarly, Cash solos on “Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," but also sings "Sixteen Tons" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky," normally associated with other artists' covers. Perkins, sadly, never found the commercial success of the other three, and does more covers, yet Cowsert's rockabilly rendition of "See You Later Alligator" - a hit for Bill Haley and the Comets that originally sounded more like swing than rock - is one of the show's best moments, with Paschal suddenly breaking into a rousing harmonica solo during the instrumental break.

Due to the nature of the material, director Shannon Willis Scruggs has to remain largely invisible, although credit must surely go to her for helping develop such rich characterizations by Goodrich and Reasoner.  To be clear, these gifted young men are more often remembered for playing charming tap-dancers (in Nice Work If You Can Get It and Singing In The Rain respectively), smitten na´fs (as Little Shop's Seymour and My Fair Lady's Freddie) and/or opposite each other as Marius and Grantaire in Les Miserables. It's such a pleasant surprise to see them turn believably to the dark side as bad boys. Since the quartet are usually anchored to their mike stands and instruments, Scruggs effectively uses Paschal to do most of the movement on stage, grabbing a tambourine here, joining in at a microphone there, occasionally climbing on top of the piano, and then usually relocating after yet another of Jerry Lee's passes. Designer Danny Harrington's set surely reflects the actual look of the run-down Sun Records, although I'd have been just as happy with a snazzier and less realistic setting.  Still, a scene in the sound booth above the stage between Collins and Paschal is especially effective, and head mikes - which I normally hate - made this remote area perfectly audible, with Harrington's lighting zooming in to illuminate some important exposition. Janet Kile's costumes and Abigail Ludwig's hair design are for the most part right for the era, although I wish that Collins's attire was not so natty and had more of the tackiness of the mid-50's, that Goodrich's hair was blacker, and Reasoner's curlier. 

Musical director Jeremy Hansard is probably the unsung star of the show, because he has taken actors who know how to play instruments, and turned them into a band. Which is quite a feat. Obviously, one's fondness for 1950's music, and in particular the rockabilly sound - with plenty of country and gospel influences - of these four artists will determine how much one appreciates the production. But the cast does right by the material, which is all one can ask for. I enjoyed this show immensely, but more significantly, I want to see these guys play together again - as a band. Seriously. Town Theatre often participates in local festivals and events, as well as their own fundraisers. First Thursday, Artista Vista, Five Points After Five at the Fountain, or the theatre courtyard after the next couple of shows – there must be somewhere, and I would love to see their return, complete with Paschal as chick harmonica player/ vocalist. Million Dollar Quartet runs at Town Theatre through Sunday, March 19; call 803-799-2510 or visit
http://towntheatre.com/million-dollar-quartet/ for more information.








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