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Dreamgirls Given a Lively and Passionate Revival at Trustus

Review by August Krickel.

Dreamgirls the stage musical is a lot more fun than Dreamgirls the famous movie.  Part roman à clef - i.e. "the names have been changed to protect the innocent" - part homage to the heyday of Motown, and part backstage soap opera, this winner of multiple Tony Awards is given a lively and passionate revival at Trustus Theatre, where the show runs July 9 - August 1. 

Tom Eyen's script follows the career arc of the Dreamettes (later renamed the Dreams), a trio of young singers who resemble the Supremes (who started out as the Primettes.) Led by volatile but errr...supremely talented Effie (Jasmine Ayers), the group struggles with creative and personal challenges that all artists confront, as well as issues faced specifically by African-American musicians in the 1960's and 1970's.  A gig as backup singers for the self-destructive Jimmy (Kendrick Marion) leads to a career as headliners, but conniving producer Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Christopher Jackson) changes the group's dynamic when he replaces Effie as lead singer with the slimmer, theoretically prettier, and more easily dominated Deena (Kristin Claiborne.)  Henry Krieger's score is infectious and will have your toes tapping in no time at all, although the vintage rhythm and blues sound he evokes may owe as much or more to Broadway and Las Vegas as to classic soul. Unlike the popular 2006 film, at least 2/3 of the musical's dialogue is sung rather than spoken, with lovers' quarrels and behind the scenes intrigue segueing seamlessly from the dressing room to the stage, where the Dreams are seen performing their latest hit singles, with lyrics mirroring each phase of their offstage lives. Director/choreographer Terrance Henderson and musical director Walter Graham have squeezed a cast of 26 onto the confines of the Trustus stage, and successfully channel the look, sound and feel of an earlier era. Henderson, who may be best known for his smoothly inventive jazz and modern dance choreography, does a terrific job recreating the tightly-synchronized moves one recalls from girl groups on American Bandstand, although he manages to make them look a little more attractive and a little less silly than they probably were.  Working in a limited physical space, he allows the audience's imagination to supply most of the set, with a random table or chair signifying a hotel suite or makeup area, and the remainder of the space standing in for dozens of auditoriums and concert halls. The principal component of Baxter Engle's scenic design is a set of three concentric arches, which give the illusion of a curved proscenium, but break apart into six components that are constantly rearranged in appealing patterns and combinations. It's not fancy, but in an intimate venue where the performers are only a few feet away from the audience, it does the trick.

Kendrick Marion successfully captures the elusive essence of Jimmy, a flamboyant character who gives us no reason whatsoever to like him or even sympathize with him, yet manages to steal every scene he's in. This was the role which garnered a Tony Award for Cleavant Derricks, known to a generation of fanboys as Rembrandt "the Cryin' Man" Brown from Sliders. Marion convincingly plays a decade older than his own age, and his soulful voice is just a joy to listen to. Columbia is fortunate that this talented young performer is taking his time finishing his music degree, because he could easily be headlining at the same types of clubs where his character performs in the show. Christopher Jackson similarly manages to shine as the crafty and initially charming Curtis. Mario McClean plays C.C., the group's songwriter and Effie's brother, and is appealing as always in a somewhat underwritten role. Kristin Claiborne manages to make Deena more sympathetic than Diana Ross ever was, and Devin Anderson, as Michelle, a later addition to the group, gets one good scene with McClean, and makes the most of her time on stage.  Daryl Bird has some good moments as Jimmy's manager, and Scott Vaughan has a nice bit as a Pat Boone-style singer who steals...errr... covers an early R&B hit. Jasmine Ayers has the greatest challenge as Effie, the role made famous on screen by Jennifer Hudson, and does just fine, especially in the now-iconic number that closes the first act, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." By the song's end, she has gone through just about every emotion imaginable, and her breakdown is both compelling and believable. Shannon Earle, who memorably sang "By My Side" in the recent Godspell, will appear as Effie on July 12, 16, 25, and 26. In an article previewing this production, I recounted Avery Bateman's joke that her character Lorell, the overlooked third Dreamette and Jimmy's longtime mistress, had been diminished in the movie adaptation to make more room for Beyoncé, but that's no joke - here, Lorell is an equal and vital part of the story, and has some great lines, often functioning as the only voice of reason among the cast. She raises a very important point that she has always been happy to sing backup, for the good of the group. Indeed, Bateman is perhaps the most engaged on stage with the process and mechanics of the stylized 60's choreography, in which movement in unison and goofy grins were the norm.  The first act may belong to Effie, but Jimmy and Lorell did it for me in the second.

Costumes by Alexis Doktor are excellent all around, especially the snappy suits worn by Jackson. The ensemble is filled with faces and voices familiar as leads from other productions around town, and when you've got Jesus from Godspell as a shirtless Vegas dancer, you know you can't go wrong. Although the production clocks in at a solid two and three quarter hours (including intermission), the script still provides no more than a cursory overview of a rich and complex time in America's musical history. Still, there's a good story contained within, if a familiar one, and the cast is clearly having the time of their lives. Henderson and Graham have helmed previous summer musicals at Trustus, including Smoky Joe's Cafe and Ain't Misbehavin'. Dreamgirls offers similar entertainment, but with an actual plot, and roles into which the performers can sink their creative teeth.  I'm by no means the Dreamgirls groupie that many have become over the last 30 years, and I'm only a moderate fan of the Motown sound, but in a summer theater season filled with fairy tales, fables, and children's shows, it's nice to have something pleasantly entertaining for the grownups.  Dreamgirls returns Thursday, July 9, and runs through Saturday, August 1, with a number of Sunday matinee performances.  For more information, visit http://www.trustus.org, or call 803-254-9732.

Chapin Theatre Company Leaps Forward With Musical 
Into the Woods

Review by August Krickel

It's no secret that the fairy tales we learn while young have messages: beware of strangers, follow the rules, and know that adventure can entail peril. It's also clear that as adults we use these figures to describe our lives: we long for our Prince Charming, turn into pumpkins at midnight, and say that a perennial bachelor has Peter Pan syndrome. Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, takes this concept a step farther, using plots from the Brothers Grimm as dark allegories for the bleakness of contemporary existence, retelling familiar tropes with self-aware, post-modern irony and twists. Yet all this is accomplished with the framework of a frothy musical comedy, and however dismally the plot unfolds - more than half the characters meet untimely ends - the jokes are still funny, the leads are sympathetic and appealing, and the songs are really, really pretty. Into the Woods is among Sondheim's most frequently produced works, in spite of its tricky lyrics and challenging score, which requires near-operatic vocal talent. Director Jamie Carr Harrington has assembled a skilled cast for Chapin Theatre Company's new production, and together they create a credible rendition of this modern classic.

In quick succession we are introduced to our protagonists: Little Red Riding Hood (Jackie Rowe), Cinderella (Karly Minacapelli), Jack of beanstalk fame (Paul Lindley II), and an unnamed Baker and his Wife (Clayton King and Becca Kelly.) This last couple does not appear in the Grimm canon, but we learn that the Baker is the hitherto unknown brother of Rapunzel (Courtney Reasoner), plus he loads up Little Red with baked goods for Granny, and later trades magic beans to Jack in exchange for his cow. Into the woods they all set out, with the woods an obvious metaphor for the unpredictable nature of adult life. It's easy to lose your way, it's risky to stray from the path....well, you get the idea. As Cinderella repeatedly flees from her smitten prince, we see a modern woman's fear of commitment. When a debonair Wolf (Parker Byun) accosts Little Red with "Hello, little girl," we see a different sort of predator entirely. When a Witch (Catherine L. Bailey) rationalizes imprisoning Rapunzel to keep her safe from the world, we see every over-protective parent, and when the Baker and his wife realize that teamwork will get them through the woods, it's the woods of matrimony that are implied. Yet the analogies are never heavy-handed, as the plots weave in, out, and around each other at a speedy pace, maintained admirably by the cast.

Among the ladies, Minacapelli and Kelly take top honors, creating believable, three-dimensional characters within the two-dimensional storybook setting, and their voices are just lovely. Bailey is similarly strong as the Witch, forceful and energetic in some of the play's most memorable numbers. Lindley does good work as Jack, a youth with "a sunny, though occasionally vague, disposition," although his use of a higher-pitched adolescent's sound means we sometimes miss the full range of his rich singing voice. Rowe, on the other hand, maintains a squeaky little girl's sing-song voice throughout, which is nevertheless pleasing to hear. She avoids the Lolita aspects of the character that are often depicted; still, I suspect this may be the first time in theatre history that a quasi-seduction scene has been performed by actors (Byun and Rowe) who previously appeared together as Tarzan and his simian buddy Terk. King is solid as the Baker, and Elizabeth Stepp and Rachel Glowacki are broadly comic as evil stepsisters. Jeremy Reasoner and Kyle Neal, as dashing princes "raised to be Charming...not sincere," display a nice rapport in one of the show's prettiest duets, "Agony," and are believable as brothers trying to surpass each other in their accounts of unattainable love. Everyone in the cast of 18 has one or more featured roles, with supporting players mainly seen as family members of the principals. Not all are up to the challenge of Sondheim's highest notes, but to paraphrase lyrics from the ensemble number "First Midnight," the bigger the role, the better the voice.

Although there is no choreographer, director Harrington expertly creates nice images and tableaus on stage with her blocking, particularly during the song "Last Midnight," where the protagonists scurry around the stage and cluster together for support while the Witch sings menacingly. Scenes where Minacapelli and Kelly take a moment for female bonding are similarly visually appealing, and their body language complements their dialogue and lyrics. While the performers and the live band (led by musical director Christopher McCroskey on keyboard) smoothly transition from one number to the next on stage, some of the accompanying tech aspects (changes of scenery, raising and lowering of lights, the mechanics of some minimalistic special effects, etc.) were less consistent on opening night, and a number of microphones were cranked up much higher than needed for singers' strong voices. These were never huge problems, however, and as is almost always the case, capable technicians will have sorted these aspects out in time for the second week of performances. I've never seen a play in the Harbison Theatre before, and it's an appealing venue, sort of like a miniature Koger Center, just with more comfortable seats, easier sightlines, and better acoustics. The steeply raked, stadium-style seats and the curvature of the stage make every seat a good one, allowing the audience to see the band, who are too often hidden in an orchestra pit, or stashed away off stage. In fact, I enjoyed hearing various magical sound effects and being able to see that these were usually created by Samantha Marshall on flute or Patty Boggs on a seemingly infinite variety of percussion instruments.

All in all, this is certainly the best musical done by Chapin Theatre Company in at least a decade.  OK, OK, actually it's the first musical they've done in a decade. This all-volunteer community theatre has produced good material for years, often down-home, heartwarming family shows, or small-cast Neil Simon-style comedies. With Into the Woods, the group takes a significant leap forward, successfully presenting a difficult and well-known, name-brand Broadway musical in a shiny, brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. If you stage it, the actors will come, and indeed the majority of the cast are making their Chapin debut, although many are well-known at other venues locally. About half have worked with Harrington previously at Town Theatre, and it's a credit to her (or any director) to be able to attract gifted performers to a different location. One note to parents: just about any teen or tween who enjoys Broadway shows will love Into the Woods, and conceivably younger children may too, depending on their interests. But it's a solid 2 hours and 45 minutes with intermission, and while family-friendly, it’s closer to operetta than Disney, so consider your children's unique tastes and maturity level when considering bringing them along.  Into the Woods returns for a second week Wednesday, June 24, and runs through the weekend, closing with a matinee on Sunday, June 28. For information, call 803-240-8544, or visit http://www.chapintheatre.org/intoTheWoods.html.

Br'er Rabbit” Provides Opportunity to Enjoy Classic Story  in Culturally Sensitive Way

Review by August Krickel

The figure of the Trickster turns up in just about every culture, sometimes as a hero, sometimes as a villain, and often somewhere in between. The Norse had Loki, the Greeks had Odysseus, Native Americans had the Coyote, and believe it or not, Africans had Br'er Rabbit.  Sure, the story later got transplanted to the American rural South, and many of us grew up thinking of the character as a creation of author Joel Chandler Harris, in his famous collection of stories about Uncle Remus. Depending on one's age and perspective, and the prevailing literary and social trends of the day, these were either a rare compilation of traditional folk tales that were told by African-Americans in the 19th century, or an uncomfortable reminder of the era of plantations and slavery. There's a good story underneath it all, however, and the NiA Company, Columbia's nomadic and multi-ethnic theatre troupe, has returned the tale of the crafty hare to its African roots in a production currently running at Columbia Children's Theatre.

NiA (the word is Swahili for “purpose”) has done plenty of productions for children over the years, in just about every venue imaginable, including Riverfront Park, and the parking lot of EdVenture; collaborating with Columbia Children's Theatre allows for a traditional theatre space in which to perform, and a vast potential audience of regular attendees. (And indeed, the morning performances scheduled for summer camps and daycare groups sold out before the show even opened.) In turn, CCT benefits from some fresh blood, and from a story just a little different than the traditional Grimm Brothers witches and Disney princesses more commonly found in children's theatre.  Director Darion McCloud places the narrative in its proper context with the inclusion of percussionist Don Laurin Johnson on stage at all times. Johnson plays a variety of African drums, as well as a large stringed instrument that looks like a longbow and sounds like a cross between a mouth harp and a zither. The percussion is generally an underscore to the action on stage, although occasionally the characters speak in time to the accompaniment, and at one point they break into a spontaneous dance-off, busting a move as they "show us what they've got." 

Just as in CCT's popular commedia productions, Br'er Rabbit begins with the company of performers announcing that they will be telling stories that originated "across the water," followed by a rousing number featuring drumming, rhythmic movement, and a sort of choral call-and-response that becomes a melodic chant. Imagine some of the early scenes in The Lion King for comparison. While my 4-year-old self loved the idea of an elderly wise man telling stories from another culture, McCloud has wisely dropped the stereotypical "Uncle" figure, and instead portrays the spider Anansi, himself a trickster, and able to appear as a silver-tongued human narrator.  As Anansi, McCloud reminded me of the type of smooth, slick showman often played by Ben Vereen.  The script, by McCloud, H. Loretta Brown, and Heather McCue, incorporates four vignettes from the Br'er Rabbit canon: the briar patch, the tar baby, the scarecrow, and a creation myth of sorts involving the waxing and waning of the moon. 

As the Rabbit, Bonita Peeples is something like Tom Sawyer (i.e. a mischievous everyman figure) as played by Gary Coleman (i.e. a pint-sized troublemaker full of down-home humor and bluster.) Br'er Rabbit isn't exactly the most sympathetic of protagonists, as her ego is as large as her bag of tricks, and I say "her" because while the characters are all first and foremost animals, gender-specific pronouns are used for the actors playing them. The appeal of the character is seeing a small and defenseless creature outwit bigger and more dangerous foes, even if she does bring it on herself. Apart from a generally cocky attitude, Br'er Rabbit steals vegetables, as rabbits are wont to do, incurring the wrath of the Lion, the Tiger, and the Bear. (I know you're thinking it, so you add the "oh my" for me.) Br'er Tiger (Heather McCue) is a little older, a little stuffier, and tends to get winded when chasing the fleet-footed hare. Br'er Lion (Michael Clark, who alternates in the role with Clark Wallace) is the vain one of the trio. Br'er Bear (Charlie Goodrich, channeling his Ellard character from The Foreigner, and alternating with H. Loretta Brown) is the slow one.   Although all are fairly dim, and at one point, I was wondering when the apex-predators of three continents would realize that there are far juicier dishes than collards and rutabagas to be found. Sure enough, they figure it out, finally ensnaring Br'er Rabbit with the help of a tar baby (Jimmy Wall, alternating with Goodrich and Julian Deleon.) Fear not - any possible negativity is dismissed, with Wall looking more like a big pale rag doll.  Anansi explains that this creature's name signifies anything sticky: molasses syrup, peanut butter and jelly, plus anything else that the young audience members suggest (chewing gum was one shouted out at the performance I attended) and definitely plenty of tar. This results in the Rabbit getting stuck and pulled into a sort of awkward tango/shag to the tune of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."  Which she is unable to do, and the three carnivores start licking their chops.  We know it will end all happily, and Br'er Rabbit escapes to steal vegetables another day with a trick that has become so proverbial, many don't even realize its source.  

For children, especially ages 7 or 8 and younger, this is a great opportunity to see an archetypal story that I suspect is rarely read in home or at school anymore, but one upon which their parents and grandparents were raised; it's also a nice gateway to discovering the folklore of diverse cultures beyond familiar European fairy tales. Unlike many CCT productions, however, this one is aimed squarely at the youngsters, with few of the winking asides that are reserved for the grown-ups in attendance.  Therefore, for parents, I'd say take your children to broaden their horizons, while you can enjoy revisiting a beloved story from your own youth. At not quite 50 minutes, it's somewhat shorter than most CCT productions, but interestingly, there's more vigorous audience participation than is usually the case.  (At one point, virtually every child in attendance ratted out the location of the Rabbit to the Tiger, allowing for a terrific aside from McCloud, as the Spider tells the audience "Y'all wrong for that.") A fair amount of the dialogue, especially Br'er Rabbit's lines, are spoken in broad, rural, Southern vernacular. This shouldn't be a problem if "you're from around here," as the saying goes, but recent transplants from the Jersey Shore, Minnesota, or points beyond might want to be ready to do a little translation for your children if needed.  Likewise, there isn't a clear moral to the story per se, so be prepared to explain how stealing really isn't OK, no matter how small and inventive you may be, since you may not have a briar patch handy for your escape.

The completist in me compels me to add that I'd have preferred a slightly longer play with some humor for the adults, but there will in fact be another in the series of CCT's "Late Night Date Night" events on Friday, June 19 at 8 PM (hey, that's late for children's theatre) where the cast will break out their improv skills in a PG-13 variation for Mom, Dad, and any random theatre buffs who want to see their friends perform. Likewise, I do wish there had been just a couple of extra minutes more clearly connecting the story's inspirations from both African and Native American folklore, which were melded into something new in the American South, and how historically the adventures of a wily little critter helped lift the spirits of an oppressed people.  I would also have loved to see the title "Br'er" explained; here it's pronounced like the "were" in werewolf, and I didn't catch any explanation that it's really just short for "brother." No big deal of course, but even at age 4, I recall at some basic level picking up on the notion that if people called animals "brother," that implied some broader connection to nature and to the planet. And I missed the Fox and the Wolf as villains, and wish somehow a Br'er Terrapin story could have been included.  These are all just ideas, however, that I might suggest for some future incarnation of this timeless bunny's tale.

Br'er Rabbit as re-imagined by the NiA Company provides a rare opportunity to enjoy a classic story and character in a culturally sensitive way, taking the saga of the cunning little thief back to its primal roots. The production runs through this Sunday, June 21 at Columbia Children's Theatre in Richland Mall. For ticket information, call
803-691-4548 or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/brer-rabbit/ .


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