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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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Bobby Craft in "S.Claus and Company" at Workshop Theatre
Now Playing:
"Appropriate," January 19 - February 13, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Dr. Doolittle, Jr.," January 29 - February 14, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.

"Loaded Late Night Sketch Comedy," February 5, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"The Mountaintop," February 11-21, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"Miracle in Memphis," February 12-21, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"Elephant and Piggie: We Are In A Play," February 19-28, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"The Honky Tonk Angels," February 19 - March 6, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"Scapin," February 19-27, USC Longstreet Theatre, 777-2508.

"Mad Forest," February 21-27, USC Center for Performance Experiment, 777-5208.

"Still Life," February 25-28, USC Lab Theatre, 777-2508.

"Duck Hunter Shoots Angel," February 26 - March 6, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," March 10-20, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," March 11 - April 3, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.

Disney's "The Jungle Book Kids," March 11-13, Columbia Children's Theatre Youtheatre, 691-4548.

"Peter and the Starcatcher," March 11 - April 9, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Steel Magnolias," March 11-20, Workshop Theatre, 799-6551.

"Always... Patsy Cline," March 18-19, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"The Sensuous Senator," April 8-17, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"Tales of Anansi the Spider," April 8-10, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"Seussical; The Musical," April 15-24, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"The Tempest," April 15-23, USC Drayton Hall, 777-5208.

"Balance," April 17-23, USC Center for Performance Experiment, 777-5208.

"Five Women Wearing the Same Dress," April 21-24, USC Lab Theatre, 777-5208.

"The Ephemera Trilogy," April 22 - may 7, Trustus Theatre Black Box, 254-9732.

"The Full Monty," April 28 - May 8, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

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Trustus Theatre's Appropriate is a thought-provoking dissection of dysfunction in Dixie

Review by August Krickel

We're deep into Southern Gothic territory. A crumbling plantation house stands as a visual metaphor for the spiritual decay of its former residents. Decades of accumulated, Hoarders-like clutter mirror the family secrets and complex dynamics hidden within.  A nuclear-family meltdown is imminent, as estranged siblings gather at this once grand estate to settle what it has become: the estate of their recently deceased father. Thanks to a cast of seasoned veterans and appealing newcomers, Trustus Theatre's new production of Appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a thought-provoking dissection of dysfunction in Dixie.

G. Scott Wild plays Beauregard Lafayette.  Seriously, that's his name - we assume the family must have been Huguenots who migrated from Louisiana to southeast Arkansas. He goes by "Bo," and seems to have prospered in business after moving north and marrying Rachel (Chl÷e Rabinowitz), whom his late father once called his "Jew wife."  Older sister Antoinette (Erica Tobolski), or "Toni," is a recently divorced single mom whose difficult temperament is driving away her teenage son (Brice Hall), who struggles with demons of his own. Black sheep Francois (Burke McLain) is called "Frank" by his siblings, and "Franz" by his much younger, neo-hippie girlfriend River (Jennifer Webb.) Bo paid most of the bills from afar during their father's final years, while Toni was supposed to be the hands-on manager of the family's affairs. Ne'er-do-well Frank disappeared years earlier after issues with substance abuse and underage girls, but turns up now, full of 12-step-driven remorse just as the family's financial matters are about to be resolved. Such ingredients are a natural recipe for disaster, yet Jacobs-Jenkins is writing not just about conflict among "a family of misfit disaster people" (as Bo calls them) but also about race. The patriarch of the Lafayette clan may have been a racist, or worse. And while race is only discussed in passing, the avoidance of its discussion is what the playwright has said is his goal: to raise questions about that avoidance. Each character reacts as one might predict: Bo's teenage daughter (Rebecca Shrom) wants to post about it on Facebook, and do Google searches for topics like "dead black people."  Frank suggests that his father must have been bipolar, and sees this as a chance for some sort of metaphysical catharsis and rebirth. Bo seizes on a possible opportunity for financial gain, while Toni remains firmly in denial, assuming that incriminating artifacts were probably kept only as collectibles. Thus, while no one directly confronts the implications of their increasingly alarming discoveries, race becomes the catalyst that sets off the already existing powder keg of relatives at odds with each other.

As Bo, Wild is a twisted knot of suppressed emotion. The actor joked after the performance that he is an "enunciation-Nazi," but he manages to convey complex thoughts and emotions that are full of anger, while still assuring that every syllable is easily understood, and expressed with nuanced emphasis. McLain as Frank is reminiscent of Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman, simultaneously sympathetic and pathetic; you want to believe that he's in recovery, but his sketchy behavior and antsy, jittery manner belie his sincere efforts at reconciliation. Shrom as Bo's daughter Cassidy is all gawky elbows and knees and exasperated flounces in her entrances and exits. I enjoyed her as a tough, wise-cracking G.I. in USC's Ajax in Iraq in 2014, and the transformation into a 14-year-old hormone-bomb who's far too fascinated by bad boys like her cousin and uncle is both convincing and impressive. Tobolski creates a believable and multi-dimensional character, expressing genuine disbelief when she asks her brothers "How long have I been the villain here?" Her blocking doesn't help her, however, as she frequently seems to move from one side of the stage simply because her next line is supposed to be delivered there. Webb has fewer lines, but adeptly uses body language to define River. Thurston, Rabinowitz, and child actor Luke Young (as Bo's young son) do good work as well; be ready to do a double-take when Rabinowitz first enters, though, as she's a dead-ringer for Trustus co-founder Kay Thigpen, c. 1985.

Director Jim O'Connor was fortunate to have some new faces, who were the perfect age and type for these characters, turn up at auditions. The dialogue by Jacobs-Jenkins flies back and forth with vicious speed, but all is easily followed, thanks to his cast's embodiment of some ordinary yet rather unattractive personalities. The script's strength is that while little is ever resolved, one still hangs on every word as it's spoken. To me, that's also the script's chief weakness. The Obie Award given to the playwright in 2014 for Best New Off-Broadway Play was actually for two of his plays, this work and An Octoroon, in which Jacobs-Jenkins more directly – and satirically - confronts the lingering legacy of race in America; I found myself wishing for some stronger statement or plot resolution here, beyond the family's inevitable dissolution. The playwright is undeniably a talented writer, and his liberal use of humor is entertaining, but I fear somewhat undermining to his larger goal. Nowhere is this more evident than when a dreadful brawl breaks out, interrupted by a child's innocent discovery. As the scene played out, the audience laughed with abandon, but I wish there had been more shock and dismay. On a side note, Robert Bloom's proficient fight choreography unfolds like a surreal and disturbing ballet, but the actors need to work on making actual contact with each other (or the appearance thereof) for greater verisimilitude. Heather Hawfield's set is serviceable, if not exactly suggestive of former grandeur, but then again, the home is supposed to be in significant disrepair. Baxter Engle's sound design includes the omnipresent drone of cicadas, a terrific touch, although on occasion it threatens to drown out the actors, while Jean Lomasto's costumes, especially for River and Cassidy, add important definition for specific personas.

For me, the Lafayettes’ struggles were not much worse than those most families face, minus the severity of the father’s past, but their refusal to discard accustomed patterns of interaction brings about a downfall that isn’t necessary. It takes accomplished performers to pull that off with credibility, and a capable director to help them master the author’s eloquent words. Trustus has a production to be proud of, one which may offer more questions than answers, but which will nevertheless provide a couple of hours of provocative and compelling entertainment. Appropriate continues through Saturday, Feb. 13; visit http://www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

Gershwin Songs, Strong Cast are Highlights of
Nice Work If You Can Get It

Review by August Krickel.

Those crazy Gershwin brothers - they've got another brand-new Broadway smash, Nice Work If You Can Get It, packed full of hit songs from Tin Pan Alley, a bevy of beautiful flappers, tappers, and society dames, and a straight-from-the-headlines plot about bootleggers and the G-men on their tail.  Best of all, it's running at Town Theatre through Sunday, January 31st. Now if you're wondering how this is possible, given that George Gershwin has been composing for the great chorus line in the sky since the '30's, you just don't give enough credit to the ingenuity (or perhaps artifice - or perhaps even avarice) of show business, where anything is possible. In this case, Joe DiPietro, author of the book and lyrics for the musicals Memphis, and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, wrote a new story in the style of the frothy musicals of an earlier age, crafting the dialogue and plot around some 20 classic show tunes and pop hits by George and Ira Gershwin. The plot is loosely based on 1926's Oh, Kay!, and includes two of that forgotten show's songs, "Do, Do, Do," and the perennially popular "Someone to Watch Over Me," and indeed that show's authors, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, are credited for the original material. However, the other songs are happily mined from the rest of the Gershwin's oeuvre, including stage works like Girl Crazy, The French Doll, Funny Face, Lady Be Good!, and Treasure Girl, plus films like Shall We Dance, and Damsel in Distress, where they were often introduced to the Top 40 by stars like Fred Astaire. And if you've never heard of those, that's the point - rather than reviving a creaky old plot for the sake of a couple of hits, DiPietro created a new story that is more accessible for modern audiences, while homaging traditions and themes from the Prohibition era.  It's still an excuse for pretty girls to dance on stage while a handsome crooner interprets timeless Gershwin melodies and lyrics, but that's more than enough to make for a pleasant couple of hours.

Scott Vaughan plays Jimmy, a feckless but charming playboy in the Roaring 20's, determined to prove his maturity and worth to his wealthy mother (Gayle Stewart) by marrying - for a change - the proper kind of girl. His choice is Eileen (Mary Joy Williams), a would-be modern dance performer, and daughter of a bluenose Senator (Gerald Floyd.)  A chance encounter with bootleggers (Alexa Cotran, Charlie Goodrich, and Bill DeWitt) leads to their stashing a boatload of hooch in the basement of Jimmy's stately Long Island summer home, just as Jimmy shows up with his soon-to-be-in-laws, including puritanical Aunt Estonia (Kathy Seppamaki, alternating with Kathy Hartzog), founder of the Society of Dry Women. "An unfortunate name," she concedes, but a good example of the winking nods to modernity that pepper the updated script. Just as surely as we know someone will sooner or later spike Aunt Estonia's punch with bathtub gin, leading to her literally swinging from the chandelier, so too can we expect romantic shenanigans, mistaken identities, and peppy musical numbers celebrating the carefree ambience of the Jazz Age.

While there are a number of supporting and featured characters who get their own moments in the spotlight, I was particularly impressed by the ensemble. Director/choreographer Shannon Willis Scruggs has wisely decided that less can be more, and uses only 5 men and nine women (plus a tenth, Roxanne Livingston, as Jeannie, the leader of a gaggle of party girls) for back-up. A strong chorus is essential for this type of musical, including proficient dancers, and Scruggs has enlisted nearly an all-star cast, including the three leads from last fall's Singin' in the Rain. The effect works - there's plenty of room for everyone to move around, and there's never a moment where random extra people hover in the background, just to fill up the stage.  Musical Director Sharon McElveen Altman is blessed with some strong voices, especially Cotran, Seppamaki, and Williams, whose high notes verge on the operatic at times, and she has ensured that everyone enunciates the often quite witty Gershwin rhymes and lyrics. She leads a lively 5-piece band hidden somewhere off-stage, consisting of herself on keyboard, plus bass, percussion, woodwinds and trumpet. Brian Lamkin on trumpet deserves special commendation, often using a mute to perfectly recreate the swanky sound of bands of the era.

Vaughan is relaxed and appealing as Jimmy - he's a natural for this sort of role.  Will Moreau, as a relentless police chief who falls somewhere between Javert and Clouseau (minus the French accents) does some good character work that's a world away from his oily Engineer in Miss Saigon. Livingston and DeWitt, as the unlikeliest couple ever, are amusing on "Blah Blah Blah," a send-up of sentimental "June/moon" love ballads. Williams manages to be simultaneously attractive while playing an unsympathetic character. Her song "Delishious" (spelled that way) is delivered from a bubble bath, and Scruggs embraces the moment's absurdity, flooding the stage with bubbles, while dancers clad in eccentric 1920's swimwear weave in and out of patterns reminiscent of Busby Berkeley choreography. Charlie Goodrich is cast somewhat against type as a wisecracking gangster who gets many of the script's best quips, making it a pleasant surprise for anyone not familiar with his previous roles when he joins Vaughan in a vibrant and energetic dance routine set to "Fascinating Rhythm."  Cotran, as initially tomboyish gang leader Billie, is a delight, deservedly graduating to romantic lead after supporting roles in Winter Wonderettes and Miss Saigon. She's quite the dish, to use the vernacular of the day, and spends half the show dressed as a French maid, which is worth the price of admission right there. Wow factor aside, her comic timing is precise, and her voice rich and captivating; she becomes yet another of  Allison McNeely's many former theatre students at Spring Valley now making a significant impact in lead roles in the Midlands.

I was also impressed with the detail and opulence of Danny Harrington's set. Scenes shift back and forth from various locales in Jimmy's mansion - the program impishly refers to "the ritzy dining room," "the ritzy living room," etc. - and Harrington has rendered a different drop for each one, often augmented by stairs or other set pieces that are rolled in but seem to mesh perfectly with the drops from above. There aren't a lot of references in the dialogue to the setting; a less ambitious designer could have allowed most of the action to unfold on a bare stage with a projection of a posh estate to the rear, but Harrington has gone the extra mile, and the result is quite pleasing to the eye, especially the "ritzy veranda." Lori Stepp's costumes similarly capture the look and feel of the time period.

Make no mistake - Nice Work If You Can Get It is just as enjoyable as, although no more substantial than, cotton candy or pop rocks. Scruggs allows moments of goofiness to be enjoyed - and indeed regaled in - as exactly what they are, but shifts to a more contemplative tone for scenes and songs of introspection and reflection on loneliness and love gone wrong. It would be hard to find a more solid cast for this type of show, and everyone has a chance to shine and show off musical and/or comedic chops.  The Broadway musicals of the 1920’s and ‘30’s were often intentionally light, disposable vehicles for a few hit songs or the matinee idol of the day, but the beauty of the music persists, especially when it’s by George and Ira Gershwin. DiPietro’s contemporary script, and the material’s relative self-awareness of its nature, creates a great excuse to revisit some of the best songs from a genre of yesteryear, and Scruggs and her cast find just the right balance to make the proceedings fun for all.  Nice Work If You Can Get It continues through Sunday, January 31st; visit http://www.towntheatre.com, or call 803-799-2510 for ticket information.

Amusing Reverse Gender
Odd Couple Proves Workshop Theatre Is Alive and Well at 701 Whaley

Review by August Krickel.

One is an obsessive, nattering neatnik; the other is a curmudgeonly slob.  How long can two such polar opposites peacefully coexist under the same roof? To date, the mismatched roommates of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple have lasted through 964 performances and four Tony Awards in the original Broadway run, an Oscar-nominated film adaptation and a sequel, three television incarnations – the most successful of which ran for five seasons and garnered multiple Emmy awards, and the newest of which returns for its second season on CBS this April – and countless thousands of performances at local theatres around the world.  The story’s universality, and the gimmick of friends assuming the patterns and routines of a bickering married couple, lend easily to reinterpretation, and so in 1985, author Simon reimagined messy Oscar and fussy Felix as women named Olive and Florence, and it is this female version that Workshop Theatre is producing through this weekend in the Market Space at 701 Whaley.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t the same script, just done with female leads; this is for all intents and purposes an entirely new play, recreating similar situations (the poker buddies are now gal pals playing Trivial Pursuit, and the clueless British sisters are now equally clueless Spanish brothers) but with at least 80% new dialogue and jokes. Lou Boeschen, Rachel Cooper, Hillary MacArthur, and Lonetta Thompson are the friends who gather weekly at Olive’s apartment for board games, mutual support, and gossip. Their first scene together, climaxing in Florence’s arrival, could work as a cute one-act on its own, and director David Britt has ensured that the pace is swift, the zingers are fast and furious, and the characterizations are believable. Simon wisely establishes that this disparate group derives from high school friendships, making their tolerance of each other’ foibles more credible. Then again, they don’t have to live together. As Vera, the dimmest bulb among them, Cooper gets some of the scene’s best laughs with her semi-cluelessness.

Olive, played by Zsuzsa Manna, has been rendered by Simon as less of a mess and more of an overworked, over-extended professional woman, still recovering from a recent divorce, who is simply too tired to bother with housework. Or with checking the expiration date on anything in the refrigerator. Or with wearing anything other than an old t-shirt and slacks when company visits. We see a discarded pizza delivery box tossed under a table, random articles of clothing strewn about, and the general sort of untidiness that’s all too familiar to anyone who has a job and lives alone. Manna underplays the role, going for subtlety and nuance, depicting Olive not as a gruff or unfeminine tomboy, but rather an ordinary, down-to-earth working stiff who just happens to have a flair for wry and ironic one-liners. The crucial need for this understatement becomes readily apparent with the arrival of the force of nature that is Samantha Elkins as Florence. Simon got some criticism for his reinvention of Florence as a more cartoonish, more extreme, and less sympathetic character than the original Felix, who has been played by beloved character actors like Art Carney, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Randall. And there’s no question that Florence is the odd one out from the second she explodes into a hitherto realistic scene of Sex and the City–style female bonding.  While a few random headbands, side-ponytails, shoulder pads, references to Dynasty, and a single landline phone vaguely place the action in the 1980’s, the redheaded Elkins enters in bright red with white polka dots, looking for all the world like mid-1950’s Lucille Ball after one dose too many of Vita-meata-vega-min. Florence is a shrill, neurotic hypochondriac who clearly obsesses over being the “perfect” housewife of an earlier era, maintaining a spotless house and preparing elaborate gourmet meals while clad in heels, pearls, and a fashionable apron. 

It would be easy to say that Elkins is far too exuberant and over-the-top in her characterization, but that’s the way Simon wrote the revised version, and I rather enjoyed seeing her commit to and sustain such an intense level of energy for over two hours.  The Odd Couple has influenced several generations of subsequent sit-coms, including The Big Bang Theory, and Elkins plays Florence like the love child of that show’s characters Sheldon and Amy. On acid.  Or like the title character in Larry Shue’s stage comedy The Nerd.  It’s best not to think too hard as to whether such an idiosyncratic personality could exist in the real world, but rather one should just sit back and appreciatively watch a consummate pro using every trick in her actor’s handbook to establish Florence’s persona. I’ve enjoyed Elkins in a number of straight-laced roles at Workshop, including the by-the-book Commander Galloway in A Few Good Men, and the straightforward Aunt Blanche in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound (both opposite Boeschen, written by Simon and directed by Britt), and for me it was a delightful change of pace to see her unleash such manic comic energy. 

Also amusing as the Costazuela brothers are Rob Sprankle and Tanner McLeod, who manage to get a laugh before ever uttering a line. Their scene with Florence seems at first like forced sketch comedy with the expected English-vs-Spanish malapropisms and misunderstandings, but they serve an important role: to make Florence more accessible and sympathetic to the audience.  Her neuroses drive Olive up the wall, but are tolerated by Europeans more accustomed to emotional displays and cultural differences. 

The appreciative (and nearly sold-out) opening night audience responded favorably to every joke, and afterwards one cast member observed it was like performing to a recorded laugh track synchronized perfectly to the script.   That’s the brilliance of Simon, who knows how to time a laugh line, and where to place it within the dialogue so that exposition and plot points aren’t missed. This makes the fourth Simon show in a row that Britt has directed at Workshop, and as far as I’m concerned, he can just keep on through another 20 or more of Simon’s works, with any of these cast members a welcome inclusion.  Curtis Smoak’s set recalls (and makes use of some components from) previous lavender and pale green interiors in last year’s Broadway Bound and Lend Me a Tenor, incorporating  functional dining and living room areas, and making sure that the backing panel outside Olive’s apartment looks like an actual hallway (as opposed to, say, a black drape covering an actor’s exit.)  Costumes by Alexis Doktor and lighting design by Barry Sparks are similarly successful.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. Back when I was a lad and had to walk to school through the snow (OK, OK – I only lived a few hundred yards away) – it was common to see shows produced by Workshop and by other arts groups at diverse venues around town, including a tiny theatre at Fort Jackson, and assorted high school auditoriums. Sure it would be nice if Workshop were still downtown on Bull Street, but their current location has better visibility and audibility, easier parking, and vastly bigger and nicer bathrooms. Plus, they’ve got some new seats that are really quite comfortable. And let’s be clear – if you’re coming from Rosewood, Cayce/West Columbia, Harbison, Irmo, or Lexington, 701 Whaley is actually a couple of miles closer than Bull Street was. Remember how one used to hit Assembly Street, turn on Gervais, then turn on Bull and you were there?  Now you just hit Assembly Street, turn on Whaley… and you’re there.   Make no mistake: Workshop Theatre is alive and well and presenting shows just as they always did. The Odd Couple (Female Version) returns this Wednesday, Jan. 20th, and only runs through Sunday, Jan. 24th, however, with several matinees, so call 803-799-6551, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com for ticket information.


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