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"Crowns" at Trustus Theatre

"Buddy Holly" at Town Theatre

"The Last 5 Years" at Trustus Theatre

"Jinie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business" at Columbia Children's Theatre

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onstage columbia theatre reviews sorrows of stephen imperfect theatre company

Kris Franks in "Lucky Stiff" at Town Theatre
Workshop Theatre Thoroughly Modern Miliie
 Laurel Posey as Millie in "Thouroughly Modern Millie" at Workshop Theatre.

Dog Sees God at Trustus Theatre
Matt Haws and Martha Hearn in "Dog Sees God" at Trustus.


onstage columbia theatre reviews camelot town theatre
Kyle Collins, Chip Stubbs and Erin  Boyd in "Camelot" at Town Theatre.

onstage columbia theatre reviews sc shakepeare macbeth
Michael Hart in "Macbeth," SC Shakespeare Company.


nate herring and meghann marty in "the shape of things"
Nate Herring and Meghann Marty in "The Shape of Things" at BTW.

onstage columbia theatre reviews sordid lives workshop theatre
Paul Kaufmann and Joe Morales in "Sordid Lives," Workshop Theatre.

Little Shop of Horrors at Town Theatre
Sean Stephens and Danielle Peterson as Seymour and Audrey in "Little Shop of Horrors" at Town Theatre.

Stann Gwynn and Greg "Bougie" Leevy in The Goat at Trustus Theatre
Stann Gwynn and Greg "Bougie" Leevy in "The Goat" at Trustus Theatre.

onstage columbia theatre reviews dearly beloved chapin community theatre
Cortlin Collins, Sarah Degn, Tiffany Dinsmore and Sandy Steffen in "Dearly Beloved" at Chapin Community Theatre.

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Carin Bendas, Jon Taylor and Chad Henderson in "Reefer Madness" at Trustus.

Kyle Collins Workshop Theatre Fiddler on The Roof
Kyle Collins as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Workshop Theatre.

Kathy Hartzog in Dearly Departed at Town Theatre
Kathy Hartzog as Marguerite in "Dearly Departed" at Town Theatre.

onstage columbia theatre reviews mr. marmalade
"Mr. Marmalade" at BTW Lab Theatre.

Glen Farr as Captain Hook.
Glenn Farr and Chip Collins in "Peter Pan" at Town Theatre.

onstage columbia theatre reviews urinetown workshop theatre
Scott Vaughan in "Urinetown: The Musical" at Workshop Theatre.

onstage columbia theatre reviews batboy trustus
Robin Gottlieb, Hunter Boyle, Kevin Bush and Kim Harne in "Batboy:The Musical" at Trustus.

onstage columbia theatre reviews something's afoot town theatre
"Something's Afoot!" at Town Theatre.

onstage columbia theatre reviews dr. fish
Clark Wallace and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler in "Dr. Fish." Performed by the NiA Company.

onstage columbia theatre reviews kiss me kate
Chip Stubbs and Shannon Willis Scruggs in "Kiss Me Kate" at Town Theatre.

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Glenn Farr
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Pam Johnson
Richard A. Kiraly
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Meg Richards
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MBF Productions
 

Six Veteran Comic Actors Romp With Abandon Through Workshop Theatre's Don't Dress for Dinner

Review by August Krickel

Promoting his production of Marc Camoletti's farce Don't Dress for Dinner - which Workshop Theatre is presenting in the Market Space at 701 Whaley through this weekend - Frank Thompson jokingly asked me "If you're doing a British sex farce with slamming doors and half-naked women, what director do you hire?"  He was alluding of course to his well-known fondness for the genre, and his many appearances in farces locally, including Noises Off, The Foreigner, and Fox on the Fairway. As a director, he's primarily done big musicals, but with this production - which ran for two years in France under the title "Pajamas for Six," was then translated into English by Robin Hawdon, and ran for seven years in London - Thompson escapes back into the briar patch. His delight, and that of his cast, is clearly evident, as six veteran performers romp through an utterly frivolous yet always hilarious two and a half hours of deception, infidelity, mistaken identities, and mismatched romantic partners.

The premise is a stock scenario: affluent couple Bernard (Ripley Thames) and Jacqueline (or Jackie, regally portrayed by Zsuzsa Manna) live two hours from Paris, and each has a lover on the side. His is the expected vain, self-centered bombshell/bimbo one might expect, Suzanne (or Suzy, played to the hilt by Ellen Rodillo-Fowler) while hers adds an extra layer of betrayal, as it's family friend - and best man at their wedding! - Robert (David Wilhite.) Unexpected arrivals lead to the invention of multiple cover stories on the fly, and complications intensify exponentially. I won't ruin a half-dozen delightful plot twists, except to say that matters become drastically more convoluted when a cook from a catering company, Suzette (also called Suzy, and played by Christine Hellman) is dragged into the mix - unwittingly at first, then reluctantly, and finally gleefully. Additional menace is provided late in the play when leather-clad, motorcycle-riding George (Scott Means) arrives to pick up Suzette. George and Suzette are French locals from the nearby village, while we assume the others are British ex-pats now living a few miles across the channel.

Everyone is at the top of his or her game, and timing is impeccable, which is crucial for the material to succeed. Changes in tones of voice, inflections in phrasing, and even icy glares inspire avalanches of laughter from the audience. It's a talented cast, but credit must also go to Thompson as director, and he ensures that every inch of floor space is used as characters pace in frustration. Manna turns in her customary professional performance, reverting from harsh and accusing with her husband, to flirty and coquettish with her lover. Rodillo-Fowler is one of my favorite local actresses, one who can play almost any type of role on stage, many of which end with her in lingerie - I'm happy to report that this is the case here too. Her character is the most outrageous and least subtle, but that's Suzanne's nature. Thames gets a great role too - technically the romantic lead and protagonist in a cast of equals. His accent - and indeed everyone's - is authentic, and reminds me a bit of Michael Caine. With Bernard tall, solid and bearded, the rules of comedy dictate that Robert be smaller, clean-shaven, and wear glasses, projecting the persona of an otherwise mild-mannered although prosperous accountant. Wilhite and Thames make a great comic team, and Wilhite is up for the play's greatest challenge: explaining a ludicrously complex rationale for most of the misadventures in painstaking detail towards the end of the second act. The wild card is Hellman as Suzette, who often steals the show as she reveals different sides of the character: professional, blunt, mercenary, inventive, vivacious. Ultimately she embraces the silliness with gusto, availing herself of the free-flowing booze with abandon.

Dean McCaughan's set is quite elegant.  Merlot-colored walls alternating with exposed brick, and the appearance of a rich hardwood floor, define the interior of a renovated country farmhouse. Beautiful artwork adorns the walls, but everything is still a little rustic, implying Bernard and Jackie have only recently moved in, which works perfectly with the limited space and budget of a local theatre group. We simply assume that the couple is still roughing it a bit, but have great wealth. The hint of a hallway to the kitchen and dining room offstage, and the bottom of a staircase, are included in the set decoration, adding welcome detail and verisimilitude. Costumer Alexis Doktor has made excellent choices for each performer, with clothing clearly reflecting each character's nature.

Camoletti's script is much talkier, and therefore more intellectual, than one might expect - there's definitely some physical comedy too, but most of the humor is to be found in the wordplay among the characters as everyone tries to keep their stories straight. Since much is made of who is going to be sleeping in which room, the author helpfully allows the characters to refer the rooms' former incarnations as "the cow shed" and "the piggery," which makes logistics vastly easier for the audience to follow. The same is true with the character's repetition of the details of their assorted lies, enabling the audience to be reminded of who thinks what about whom. By the show's end, the characters are so exhausted from their assorted charades that it's easier for them to just go with the flow than to try to unravel matters further, and the audience may well think the same thing, as the play runs 20-30 minutes longer than this sort of show needs. Still, as long as one enjoys the genre, this is an excellent way to spend an evening, and an excellent choice with which Workshop closes out its 49th season. Don't Dress for Dinner returns Wednesday, May 17 for four more evening performances, then closes with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday, May 21. Call the box office at (803) 799-6551 or visit https://www.workshoptheatre.com/dont-dress-for-dinner.html for more information.

 
 
 
A Clever Con Artist, Fearless Feds, Saucy Stewardesses, and Naughty Nurses Featured in Town Theatre's 
Catch Me If You Can

Review by August Krickel 

Town Theatre's production of the musical Catch Me If You Can is as slick, smooth, energetic, and appealing as its engaging young protagonist, and the bevy of flirtatious beauties who back him up. The story of teenage runaway-turned-master forger and con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. was the subject of a 2002 Steven Spielberg film with Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank, and Tom Hanks as Agent Hanratty, the G-Man hot on his trail. This might seem like unlikely source material for a Broadway musical, but the adaptation by multiple Tony-winner Terrence McNally - with music and lyrics by Hairspray's Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman - works nicely, with Frank narrating most of his escapades in flashback just as he is finally caught by Hanratty.

We learn that Frank (Casey Berry) never sought a life of crime, but was blessed with a flair for improvisation inherited from his entrepreneurial, wheeler-dealer dad (Clayton King.) With his parents' marriage on the rocks, Frank runs away, describing his anguish in "Someone Else's Skin" - an intriguing explanation for how someone wanting to no longer be himself so easily began impersonating others. Forging checks with ever-increasing proficiency leads to a life on the run from the law, with Frank adroitly adopting the roles of airline pilot, ER doctor, and attorney, although mainly as a way to impress girls. Those girls - an ensemble of the sassiest dozen chorines you could imagine - figure prominently in the show's promotional material, including the cover of the program, which features Frank in pilot's attire with the reflection of enticing young women seen in his sunglasses; that's not gratuitous however, as their allure turns up in the lyrics of most of the songs, including gems like:

I got a story about fame and money, and it's got more curves than a Playboy Bunny....
I got a tale of a great romancer, and it's got more moves than a go-go-dancer


Swedish, Greek or Japanese, a stewardess is trained to please...
Come out and play boy, cruise the world to find your perfect playmate


Baby I need the antidote you’re hiding under that white lab coat
Yes I’m ready to take doctor’s orders

Given such lyrics, it will come as no surprise that choreographer Tracy Steele follows suit, with almost every ensemble number staged like a television variety spectacular from the early 1960's, the era in which the story takes place. Many of the ladies have extensive experience on stage at Town and elsewhere, including plenty of ringers who have played lead and featured roles and indeed choreographed shows on their own, but here
they're clearly relishing the chance to play naughty nurses and sexy stewardesses, coquettishly winking and shimmying like Marilyn Monroe at every chance. They're a teenage boy's fantasy come to life, which is of the point, given that's from whose viewpoint we're seeing the story unfold. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and their constant movement keeps the show's pace on track. I was pleased to see an nifty little trick:  while Frank sings, and the setting is about to jump ahead a few days/weeks and/or to some other location, someone often will inconspicuously bring out a new jacket or hat or pair of glasses for him to don, meaning that the lead doesn't have to leave stage for a costume change, and there's no interruption of the speedy narrative. Lori Stepp's costumes perfectly channel the era, including authentically vintage floral print dresses and some dapper suits in khaki and seersucker for a scene set in Louisiana. That said, the FBI agents are literally men in black drab, and I do wish their suits had varied a tad, just in style and cut if not color.

Listening to the lavish opening number, "Live in Living Color," I jotted down "this sounds just like Hairspray!" - which is a good thing - before realizing that it actually was written by the Hairspray composers, once again homaging the various musical styles of the pre-Beatles 1960's. Most of Frank's numbers reflect the sort of light pop rock one might have found on American Bandstand (or for that matter, the Corny Collins Show) while songs featuring the older Hanratty (Gil Young)  or Frank, Sr. have a distinct Rat Pack vibe. "Seven Wonders," a sweet duet between Frank and love interest Brenda (Katie Glatch) has vague echoes of a country ballad that someone might be crooning on The Voice, while songs sung by Frank's French-born mom (Jordan Harper) are reminiscent of a sultry singer in a Parisian cabaret. Frank's culminating solo "Goodbye" has a more contemporary sound, like a hitherto unknown bonus track from Miss Saigon. In other words, the composers are musical chameleons, proficiently penning tunes in multiple genres from the period, creating clever rhymes - "Paris" with "Roger Maris" - yet never stooping to parody. I especially liked the authors' tendency to insert stretches of spoken dialogue within the middle of many songs, making the song lyrics an extension of the conversation, and thus more integral to the plot. I also enjoyed the way that characters speak their lines naturally, but then open up the floodgates of emotion when singing, as if these are internal monologues.  For example, the peppy, swing-influenced "Don't Break the Rules" allows Hanratty to show a little soul, revealing much more passion than the straight-laced "just the facts, ma'am" cop would ever allow to be seen by anyone. His duet with Frank (with some pretty backing harmonies from King and Harper) "Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year" sounds almost like a love song, except it's a lonely kid turning to a surrogate father figure. Lines like "I hope we meet again - when you're serving 8 to 10" are awfully witty, but often reveal underlying sadness or irony. Another good example is Brenda's soulful lament when she learns the truth about Frank, which could be the flip side to Gladys Knight's "Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me," featuring the refrain "Now I wanna see him fly, fly/ I'll be your alibi, my baby/Fly, fly, fly away."  Not only are there interesting choices with internal rhyming, assonance, and alliteration, but here, in song, the straight-laced young lady calls him "baby," divulging a level of intimacy not found in her spoken lines.

Can you tell I really enjoyed the score?  McNally's script, however, is pretty much by-the-numbers, and a world away from his intense early work like Love! Valour! Compassion!, although this is the sort of frothy, jubilant musical which that play's characters would have embraced with glee.  As Frank, Berry has the right level of youthful bravado balanced with naiveté that the role demands; his voice is rich and his acting charismatic. King channels the same sheisty persona he used as Nathan Detroit in the recent Guys and Dolls at Village Square - Frank. Sr. could really be an older version of Nathan, finding that making an honest living is harder than he thought - and his Frank and Dino-style numbers with his son and with Hanratty are enjoyable. Young gets a terrific part to play, all business as he leads a contingent of sad sack career agents from the boring bank fraud division on their first sexy international case, fatherly as he tries to counsel Frank, and amusing when he adopts the persona of a film noir protagonist. Director Jamie Carr Harrington has cast her show well, with great voices that surely made musical director Amanda Hines's job gratifying, and in tandem with choreographer Steele creates a fast-paced crowd-pleaser. There's even some choreography for two men in handcuffs, surely a first for this stage. Danny Harrington's set doesn't try to replicate the many settings and locales of the story, but instead relies on a basic construct of stairs, railings, and an upper level, rendered in interesting geometric shapes and patterns - they reminded be a little of Mr. Worf's bat'leth - and enhanced when lighting floods particular areas with color. Props are usually limited to a single piece - a sofa, a bar with stools, a bed, a desk with chairs - to define specific locations. It's by no means fancy, but it's a great example of how a musical doesn't need a dozen clunky scene changes when you're supposed to be focusing on the performers. I do wish that the blank backdrop for the upper level and for the FBI office had something visual to make them more interesting, possibly simple projections, which Harrington has had much success with in the past. The actors perform to a recorded score, which I normally am leery of, but I must say that this one works very well, with no discernible glitches. Plus, whoever those session guys were on sax and trumpet were on fire the day it was recorded. Head microphones are used, and again, I have to say that they were almost invisible; sitting literally on the front row, I never noticed them until a few performers were standing only a couple of feet away from me, and there were never any annoying feedback issues. It should be noted that there are severally very loud gunshot effects, one right when the lights go down and the show opens, so be forewarned.

Catch Me If You Can was never a huge hit, running for a modest yet respectable 6 months on Broadway, and garnering four Tony nominations, with the Hanratty actor the only win. It doesn't explore too many deep themes, but those it does are universal - the innocence of youth, the malaise of mid-life failure, and humanity's natural need for love and acceptance. Yet it provides great singing, dancing and acting opportunities for its cast - directors looking for a big splashy show that is at most PG-rated and could be done without too much expense at the community or high school level would be wise to take notice of this one. And did I mention how much I enjoyed the score?  Sure, it's derivative, by intent, which I think is a great accomplishment, much like the score for another Hanks film, That Thing You Do. My guess is that while the original leads on Broadway are popular and respected performers within the world of stage, they may not have had the same marquee value as the names Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks. I'll go out on a limb here - if the show had starred Daniel Radcliffe and Hugh Jackman, I think it would still be running today. For that matter, I'm also imagining an 80's incarnation with Matthew Broderick and Jerry Orbach in their prime, or even a 60's version with perhaps Frankie Avalon or Ricky Nelson as Frank, and Old Blue Eyes himself as Hanratty. Ah, we can dream. Catch Me If You Can runs through May 21 at Town Theatre; call 803-799-2510 or visit www.towntheatre.com for information.  
 
 
 
Love Lies at WOW Productions Follows the Ups and Downs of Love, Commitment, and Obsession

Review by August Krickel

If the Oprah Winfrey Network decided to remake Melrose Place, you'd have Love Lies. Based on her novel My Heart Says This, Shaniqka Thomas's new play, which made its world premiere at the WOW Productions Performing Arts Center on Shakespeare Road this past weekend, is part romantic comedy and part thriller. Following the intersecting lives and relationships of attractive, young urban professionals, the story is technically set in Columbia, but could take place in any metro area. Although the plotline occasionally veers into soap opera territory, soap operas can be immensely enjoyable, as long as the characters are appealing and the actors flesh them out believably, which is certainly the case here.

Most of those characters are easily recognizable and identifiable types. Chelsea (Dana Bufford) is the sweet Everywoman, a wedding planner whose experience in the dating scene leads her to suspect that when a man mentions love, love lies, and so does he. Camron (William Young IV) is the smooth, successful hunk, focused on his career, sensitive yet fearful of commitment. Maxwell (Rod Lorick) is his carefree partner, sidekick, and all-around comic relief figure. Angie (Kimmie Says) is their sassy secretary - "Executive Assistant, thank you!" - and Chelsea's gal pal, while Madison (Arischa Conner) is Chelsea's straight-talking sister and confidante. Their interactions might play out in predictable fashion, with observations made along the way about the war between the sexes, were it not for the entrance of.... (insert ominous chord of music here) Emily (Sierra Folder), the psycho ex-girlfriend. Resembling Rihanna, with J-Lo's curves, Folder commits fully to the bipolar highs and lows of her role, cooing seductively and coquettishly, then going ballistic when crossed.

The author co-directs with Tangie Beaty, and they have assembled a talented cast. What impressed me most was how natural the actors' interactions and timing seem on stage, even though the audience is only a few feet away in the compact black box-style performance space. The cast is clearly having fun with the material. Some of the dialogue almost seemed improvised, or even at times ad-libbed.  And that's not a bad thing, as long as it's believable. Bufford and Conner are probably the best at replicating the back-and-forth repartee of BFF's, while Lorick's impish wisecracks get the most laughs. Young's performance is more physical, with his body language and pained expressions suggesting pain, confusion, and frustration. Interestingly, all actors wear head microphones, which really are unnecessary given the close proximity of the audience. As a result, at times the actors succumb to temptation to say their lines very softly, just as they would in ordinary conversation with a friend, turning their faces or bodies towards their scene partners. I was still able to hear everything, but I think the material would be served better if they ditched the mikes, turned out to the audience a bit more, and aimed for a little more heightened theatricality, since the realism and verisimilitude will still persist within the script, as interpreted by the actors' characterizations.

Donna Johnson's scenic design is outstanding, creating two separate acting areas on the tiny stage, representing Chelsea's apartment (which is just a couch, a coffee table, and the entrance to her bedroom) and Camron's office (a smaller couch, a desk and a chair.) Contrasting and complementary color schemes indicate each location, with gray trim unifying them visually. Chelsea's side is decorated with a couple of pretty pictures of flowers, while a bold cityscape in metallic gold adorns the walls of the office. Costumes by Tramel Foulks similarly help to define characters. Camron is solid and muscular, and so wears loose-fitting power suits and casual wear in muted tones, while the livelier and lankier Maxwell wears sportier bootcut slacks and colorful shirts and vests. There's even a great visual joke when two characters appear wearing t-shirts from rival fraternities. Johnson also runs the sound board, and executes some crucial sound effects with precision. Many of the scenes are accompanied by a soft musical underscore, and the selections of piano-centric jazz are very pretty.

Generally one avoids reviewing the material, and concentrates on the performance, but with a new work, it's appropriate to do a little of both. Especially since in the heyday of Broadway, shows often ran for months in out-of-town previews, while the authors made countless rewrites based on audience feedback, prior to premiering in New York.  As a playwright, Shaniqka Thomas is strongest at creating characters that one can relate to, and at crafting naturalistic dialogue. She has a flair for comedy too, usually more character-centric than dependent on one-liners. And she has plenty of fertile ground to explore within the habits of modern singles in the dating world, including the distinction between making love and just having sex - which Steve Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker similarly raised in the 1991 film L.A .Story - and the age-old choice between the girl-next-door or the exotic temptress - i.e. Mary Ann or Ginger. And although the setting is clearly the modern American south, the themes of commitment vs. temptation are universal. Any number of colloquial lines like "Now you trippin' girl" could be changed to "you've gone barmy, luv," and you could set the show in London.  (And now I'm imagining some future production in Mumbai where an Anglo-Indian says "clearly you have taken leave of your senses, Priyanka.") Where I feel the script could use some fine-tuning is in the more lurid aspects of the second act, which sort of devolve into telenovela territory. No one awakes from a coma, or turns out to have an evil twin, but the plot turns in a sensationalistic direction that we've seen many times before. Although the play only runs a little over two hours plus intermission, there's easily 30 minutes of exposition that could be cut or at least trimmed down. Still, thanks to the lively pace and the believable characters with whom we can easily identify, the show is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening.

This was the first time I have seen a show at the WOW Productions Performing Arts Center, which is located at 5816 Shakespeare Rd, Suite A. It's a nice, spiffy little space with a small lobby, ticket window, concession stand, and room for around 60 patrons per show - slightly larger than the Side Door at Trustus, slightly smaller than USC's Lab Theatre. Everyone from box office staff to ushers to the creative team were most welcoming and gracious, and the cast was waiting in the lobby to greet patrons as they left. Love Lies returns Friday, April 28 for four more performances: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM, with additional 3 PM matinees Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Visit http://www.wowproduction.org/love-lies-stage-play for ticket information.

 
 
 
Hand to God at Trustus Theatre: Satan-Possessed Hand Puppet, or Teen Angst?

Review by August Krickel

Hand to God is both a profanely irreverent fable about a simple hand puppet which may be possessed by Satan - if Satan sounded a little like the late comic Sam Kinison - and a gripping and insightful portrait of a fractured family coping with loss.  The play touches all the bases one has come to expect from Trustus Theatre; societal values and institutions like religion are challenged; jokes are raucously funny; raw emotions are laid bare; there's the simulation of disturbing violence and violent sexuality; there's even graphic puppet nudity and sex. In short, playwright Robert Askins' dark, Tony-nominated satire fits Trustus just like a glove - or like the hand puppet referenced in the title.

Jason (Jonathan Monk) is an ordinary teen who struggles emotionally after the recent death of his father. Mom Margery (Jennifer Hill) throws herself into the church, specifically a youth activity/ministry involving puppets, which she hopes will help her son to heal. Also in her group are angry, aggressive Timothy (Patrick Dodds) whose mother drops him off at puppet club while she attends AA meetings, and sweet, nerdy Jessica (Martha Hearn Kelly), the only attendee who is actually into developing her puppetry skills. Hovering around is Pastor Greg (Paul Kaufman), vaguely ineffectual as a boss and a spiritual leader, and utterly incompetent as a creeper and would-be suitor for the hand of the sexy young widow. Suppressed emotions finally explode when Jason's fabrication of felt and buttons, Tyrone, takes on a life and foul-mouthed personality of its own, expressing every ugly truth that milquetoast Jason fears to say. Is this the work of Lucifer, as Tyrone proclaims?  Or is Jason just screwing with everyone, finding his own crazy way to assert himself? 

Monk adroitly switches back and forth from his Jason and Tyrone personas, carrying on rapid-fire arguments with his cloth-clad hand so believably that one hardly notices his mouth moving whenever Tyrone speaks. Kelly does the same in one brief scene with her own creation, and both actors manage to have a simple, low-key conversation entirely disconnected from the interaction their hand puppets are engaged in. Dodds has effectively played troubled youths before, and here gets to add an extra layer of rage, capturing the paradoxes of adolescence when he screams "I love you, you bitch!"  Kaufman's characterization is subtly complex, revealing that however inept Greg may be as a minister, he is able to come through as an adult when the chips are down. Hill - best known in recent years as a designer of twisted sock puppets and eccentric plush toys - makes a welcome return to the main stage at Trustus, where she was once a member of the Apprentice Company (as was director Patrick Michael Kelly.) She co-designed the puppets with husband Lyon Hill, who also co-designed the set with Brandon McIver. As the grieving Margery, Hill fully commits to every scary nook of her character's troubled psyche, and she pulls no punches with the brutal intensity of where her pain takes her.

And yet the play is technically a comedy.  Possessed hands have been featured in Evil Dead 2 and Idle Hands, and the last season of the tv series Scream Queens, while evil dolls are nearly a sub-genre of their own, having been featured in episodes of The Twilight Zone and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the William Goldman novel (and subsequent Anthony Hopkins movie) Magic, and the Chucky slasher film series. So a possessed hand puppet is a natural progression. But horror isn't the goal here.  Tyrone makes some fairly profound observations on the nature of humanity, noting that "right" usually means "all of us," while "wrong" ends up meaning "you."  Director Kelly finds a happy medium in which the audience can laugh at each of the many witty lines, and smirk with guilty pleasure at Tyrone's indictments of the failures of modern civilization, yet still remain emotionally invested in the real-life family drama that transpires simultaneously. Timing and pacing are superb. The excellent scenic design credibly replicates the Spartan interior of a church basement repurposed into an activities room; tiny nuances - like electrical conduits running down the walls to outlets and light switches - are rendered in intricate detail.  Authentic-looking brick walls are adorned with kitschy religious posters, and a simple mural of a sun over some mountains, painted in pastel shades of purple and blue and orange (probably by some youth minister in the 70's, while singing Kum ba yah.)  

Hand to God is satisfying and entertaining as a very dark and subversive comedy, and as a showcase for the acting skills of its cast. The iconoclastic questions raised concerning freedom vs. repression vs. self-expression are thought-provoking, to say the least. Yet the underlying tragedy of a mother and son coming to terms with grief adds an unexpected depth to the material, making the play a fine addition to the Trustus tradition of pushing the envelope and exceeding theatrical expectations. For tickets contact Trustus at 254-9732 or visit the website.


 
 
 
Molière in the Park: 
The Imaginary Invalid Provides Laughter, Live Under the Stars

Review by August Krickel

Monsieur Argan isn't such a bad sort, really. He's just fussy, and finicky, and tired. There's always another bill to be paid, another family member begging some favor, or another servant presenting some problem. In frustration, he has succumbed to the many blandishments and miracle cures hawked by the doctors, apothecaries and quacks that thrive in mid-17th-century Paris in the decades before the Age of Enlightenment. Luxuriating in his status as an invalid, Argan ensures that he will receive constant attention, constant sympathy, and a perpetual supply of excuses to avoid doing anything he doesn't want to do. The South Carolina Shakespeare Company's mission for the last 25 years has been to present audience-friendly and accessible revivals of classic authors whose work might otherwise only be found in the classroom, and they're at it again with a lively and witty take on Molière's satirical comedy of manners The Imaginary Invalid, which runs through this weekend, live under the stars in Finlay Park.

While evocative of the eloquence and formality of the aristocracy, Miles Malleson's modern translation of the French original is easy to follow, and the dialogue flows like posh Noel Coward banter. (British film/stage buffs will recall Malleson in countless character roles, including what Wikipedia describes as "the poetically-inclined hangman" in 1949's Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Canon Chasuble in the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest.)  As Argan, Hunter Boyle takes center stage and rarely leaves it, thereby requiring that all action, reaction, and plot developments radiate from and focus on him. It will be hard to believe for fans of Boyle's many over-the-top performances as larger-than-life figures like Falstaff in last year's Merry Wives of Windsor, but his portrayal of Argan is quite subtle and nuanced. Thanks to SCSC's excellent area microphones - and thankfully none taped to the actors' faces - even Argan's tiniest sighs of exasperation and most faintly muttered asides are easily heard. And with each arched eyebrow or roll of the eyes, Boyle speaks volumes.

Foremost among Argan's dilemmas is what to do with his eldest daughter, Angelica (Mary Miles.) His mercenary, gold-digging second wife, Beline (Ruth Glowacki) suggests shipping her off to a nunnery, but Argan hopes to marry her to an oafish young doctor (Greg Bolton) from a family of doctors, thus ensuring him a lifetime supply of free medical care. Angelica, however, is already smitten with love for handsome young Cleante (Alex Jones), who disguises himself as a substitute music tutor in order to visit her. Miles captures all of the giddiness and turbulent hormones of first love, while Jones is amusing in his stratagems to win her hand. Tracy Steele, looking rather like Lucius Malfoy in an elegant wig, gives, shall we say, a cocky performance as Bonnefoy, whose legal advice to Argan is filled with panache and double entendre. I'm not sure how much of that Molière intended, but if he didn't, he should have. And of course it wouldn't be a comedy from an earlier era if there wasn't a saucy, scheming chambermaid, Toinette (Sara Blanks.) Blanks manages to define a character from a lower social class without resorting to a Cockney or rural American accent, instead using mannerisms and attitude, a la Alice from The Brady Bunch. Rachel Glowacki very nearly steals the show from much older actors in her one appearance as Louison, Argon's younger daughter, who has learned far too many life lessons from her father already, and can twist him around her little finger with ease. 

Lee Shepherd's scenic design consists of varying levels, doorways, arches, and ivy-covered walls that suggest a posh villa, while never trying to conceal that we're watching a production outdoors - which works best for this venue. Director Scott Blanks keeps the pace moving quickly, the comic timing finely tuned, and the projection and mannerisms just broad enough to register with the upper reaches of the amphitheater in Finlay Park. He has cut a fair amount from the show - which is essential for Molière, who infamously takes ten minutes of exposition to set up a gag we already know is coming - to ensure a tidy running time of only a couple of hours, and has adapted musical interludes in the original into comic set pieces that work much better for a modern audience. There's a rather creative curtain call that you may not realize is happening.  So to guarantee that you're able to give each cast member his or her due acclaim, look for a culminating resolution on how Argan can find a suitable doctor. When they announce "Here and now" and Louison enters, that's the start of the curtain call, although action continues.

Shakespeare in the Park - or in this case Molière - is just about the last cool, classy, artsy thing still happening with regularity in Finlay Park, once the site of Mayfest and concerts by everyone from Peter Frampton to Mother's Finest to Hootie. You owe it to yourself - and the SCSC - to show them some love and support.  Plus, you can bring lawn chairs, blankets, and pic-a-nic baskets filled with treats and your beverage of choice, which will make you smarter than your average theater-goer. One logistical note: if you don't mid stairs, you can park in the lot off Laurel Street, and descend from there. Or, you can park in the lot off Taylor Street, and stroll across the lawn. In the latter case, however, note that entry from stage right (i.e. the side where the post office is and the playground used to be) is blocked, so just go around the little lake to the other side. The Imaginary Invalid returns Wednesday night, and runs through Saturday April 29, starting nightly at 8 PM, FREE OF CHARGE.  For information, visit http://www.shakespearesc.org/.
 
 
 
Animal Farm at USC's Drayton Hall Offers Timely Political Satire

Review by August Krickel

There are few authors whose names become adjectives that describe their work - Shakespearean, Faulknerian - and fewer still whose names become buzzwords in political discourse, yet "Orwellian" is as prevalent today as any time in the last 70 years. George Orwell was a prolific essayist and literary critic who died young, leaving behind only a handful of novels, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, a piece of speculative fiction looking ahead to a dystopian, totalitarian future, and Animal Farm, an almost-but-not-quite child-like fable which addressed similar themes, using barnyard animals as metaphors for figures in the Russian Revolution. Many/most of us encountered one or both of these works as required reading in high school or college, and there's usually a reference to Orwell at least once per day on cable news. So it's safe to say that Orwell is still relevant; the question, however, is how accessible and engaging can a live stage production of Animal Farm be, with human actors playing the animals (who in print were intended as satirical analogs for their human counterparts?)  An ambitious production directed by Stan Brown at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre featuring both MFA students and undergraduates strives to answer that question - with musical accompaniment no less.

The allegorical plotline recounts how the four-legged denizens of rural Manor Farm stage a rebellion, ousting their drunk, incompetent master Farmer Jones, and set up a communal society based on the principles of "Animalism," which boils down to the belief that all animals are equal. While the not-so-veiled references to dozens of figures and events in what became the Soviet Union are quite clever and detailed - history buffs will love figuring out which pig is Trotsky, which is Marx, and which is Stalin, and whom the horses are meant to represent - the basic story can be appreciated as a straightforward and cautionary tale of how easily we surrender our freedom.  Performers play multiple characters, easily transitioning from one to the next thanks to Valerie Pruett's excellently realized costumes, rendered in the muted pinks and tans and whites of animal skin, fur and feathers, and detailed masks -hand-crafted by April Traquina - which perch atop actors' heads, casting concealing shadows over their faces but never muffling their audibility. Sitting towards the rear of the theater, one hardly notices the human faces at all. At intermission, I moved closer, so as to see which actors were doubling in which roles, and was pleased to note that every cast member was using all the appropriate facial expressions to signify emotion, even though most of those nuances will be lost to all but the first three or four rows. It's a fine piece of ensemble work by all, with particularly good performances from Libby Hawkins as the Machiavellian pig Napoleon, Kimberly Braun as the more idealistic pig Snowball, and Kaleb Edley as the Sean Spicer-like spinmeister Squealer. And yes, it's the lowly swine who rise from the muck to seize control and establish an oligarchy behind the facade of Animalism - make of that what you will. Still, what struck me this time around, after reading the book as a pre-teen and seeing the 1999 tv-movie (featuring real and animatronic animals with voices dubbed by the likes of Peter Ustinov and Sir Patrick Stewart), was how the pigs were the only animals to bother to try to solve problems. They learn how to read and write, they make plans for a labor-saving windmill, they set up laws, and they figure out the mechanics of how to milk the cow; most of the other animals, however talkative they are, are nevertheless awfully dumb, and essentially lay down the red carpet for the rise of the pigs. I especially enjoyed Darrell Johnston's brief appearance as Old Major, the thunderous, fiery architect of Animalism. Nicolas Stewart as the noble if somewhat dim workhorse Boxer and Gabriela Castillo as Mollie, the equine equivalent of a vain valley girl, each have moments in which they can shine, and Castillo's voice is quite lovely in her solo.

Beyond the novelty of recognizable political "types" rendered as animals, there is plenty of humor. Some is to be found within the text, as when the animals vote on whether or not to include their wild brethren - rabbits, rats, and other vermin - as their equals; everyone votes "Yes" ... except for the cat. Some is thematic, as when Mollie willingly returns to human ownership because she loves to get fed sugar lumps and to be decorated with ribbons in her mane. Some comes from Brown's concept for the production, which has each animal using a different dialect found among English-speakers, and when you hear Jamaican and Anglo-Indian lilts in the mix, it's quite a treat. There are also some excellent voices in the cast, capably employed by Music Director Steven Gross to ensure optimum appreciation of Adrian Mitchell's lyrics and Richard Peaslee's score. On the preview night I attended, there were definitely some issues with sound - sometimes too loud, sometimes too tinny - probably due to the singers wearing head-mikes, which can be notoriously balky. Given the vocal strength of the cast, these probably weren't necessary. Nic Uluru's set is a nice mix of realism and suggestions of the agrarian setting.

Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, created this adaptation of Orwell's novel for the stage while he served as director of London's National Theatre in the 80's. He clearly was influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht in his staging, acknowledging that a story is being re-enacted by actors in costume, with a didactic message as the goal. Like Brecht, he incorporated music, which, while pretty enough, is forgettable, and didn't really enhance my appreciation of the play's grander themes. I'm just not convinced that Animal Farm benefits all that much from being done live, no matter how skillfully and professionally that presentation may be. What I am convinced of, however, is the ability of USC's Department of Theatre to overcome just about any obstacle. Apart from entertaining the student body and patrons from the community, a goal of all department productions is to train future professionals in the field. Any one of these students, onstage or behind the scenes, might one day be called on to star in a revival of Cats, to direct a children's theater production of Aesop's Fables, or to design costumes or sets for classics by Aristophanes like The Birds or The Frogs. Meaning that training in productions like this is essential. Obviously the material is topical, but this is a rare case where I recommend a show mainly just to see and enjoy the talent of everyone involved on display and in action.  Animal Farm runs through Saturday, April 22 at Drayton Hall Theatre on campus; curtain is at 8 PM, plus there's an additional 3 PM matinee on that final Saturday.  Visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/animal-farm-drayton-hall-theatre or call 803-777-2551 for information.
 
 
 
Rapture in Aisle Four - 
A Bright New Boise at Benson Theatre Is a Snapshot of Lost Souls in Retail Hell

Review by August Krickel

Good theatre is often defined as a production that makes you think, challenges your beliefs, pushes against your value system, and leaves you questioning and discussing what message or lesson you should take with you as you exit the venue. Leave it to a handful of talented young USC students to remind us of that definition with A Bright New Boise, running through Sunday, April 2 in the Benson Theatre on campus.

Set in the employee break room of a big-box crafts supply store and the adjacent parking lot, Samuel D. Hunter's Obie Award-winning script follows the first few eventful days of new hire Will (Ryan Stevens.) Will is a soft-spoken, vaguely nerdy, seemingly amiable 39-year-old veteran of a lifetime of low-level retail jobs who is making a new start in Boise. There are allusions to a dark past with an evangelical church, the rural type of non-denominational sect that demands obedient faith, and preps its congregants for the end of days. Will now channels that fundamentalist background into an ostensibly more stable avocation, posting chapters of a Rapture-themed novel to his online blog. Most importantly, he wants to reconnect with the son he never knew, who was given up for adoption in infancy.  Anna (Corey Drenon) is a more typical small town retail wage slave, a sweet high school dropout already fired from half the McJobs in town, who finds solace reading books after hours in the break room.  Pauline (Kira Neighbors) is every tool boss - if a woman can be a tool - you've ever worked for in the service industry. The scary thing is, she actually is pretty good at her job, improvising flawed but practical solutions on the fly to every crisis that comes her way. Alex (Ray Friedman) is a deeply troubled teen, prone to panic attacks, and the composer of songs featuring his nihilistic spoken word performances. Leroy (Sam Edelson) is the resident rebel, an actual art major who intentionally provokes and antagonizes, yet his moments of looking out for Alex are among the play's most touching and poignant.

While the story's theme stems from Will's issues and Alex's demons, the script is deceptive. From its early scenes of playful workplace banter, and Will's easy-going attempts to connect with his co-workers, one is tempted to assume this will be a gentle, comic, worm's-eye view of corporate retail hell, with echoes of Pulitzer-winner The Flick or quirky indie films like Napoleon Dynamite. But the setting is only the canvas on which the playwright paints his broader picture. Religion is pervasive, even when Pauline unconsciously echoes scripture as she boasts of her management skills: "I brought order to chaos." Another social issue raised is our increasingly educated population facing ever-diminishing career prospects in a flat economy, with two likely outcomes: underpaid blue collar worker in the service industry, or even lower-paid teacher at the secondary level. It's the same paradox discovered by Eliza Doolittle, and Judy Holliday's Billie in Born Yesterday: education makes you smarter, but then you're smart enough to realize how unhappy you were and are.

In late 2014 I wrote that my favorite show of the past year had been Second Samuel at On Stage Productions, which featured Sam Edelson as the narrator and principal character. In late 2015 I wrote that one of my favorites had been Broadway Bound at Workshop, which featured Ryan Stevens as the narrator and principal character. In 2016 I wrote that my personal favorite of the year had been Five Women Wearing the Same Dress on campus, directed by Abigail Lee McNeely, featuring Sam Edelson in its ensemble cast.  Here, McNeely directs Stevens and Edelson - think the play was any good? A friend who saw the show with me and who has a background in religion told me that he was "impressed by the devotion of this group to their project.  You could just tell they were in sync with the timing of line delivery and the genuine emotion they committed to the effort.  There was real drama, suspense and tension in the performance....  During the play I was watching it unfold like I was in a chair at the back of the room.  The fly on the wall perspective that the play is structured around for the audience is very, very powerful.  I felt like a participant rather than an observer."  That sums it up more eloquently than anything I could say, and speaks to the ability of the cast and director to achieve suspension of disbelief.

Megan Branham's lighting design is outstanding, using only a couple of blue lights focused tightly on characters to define a parking lot at night, similarly employing one red and one green for an emotional flashback, and slowly fading in one particularly emotional moment. Sound by Russell Sanders similarly enhances the minimalist setting, with distant traffic sounds establishing location. Director McNeely's sure hand is subtly evident everywhere, with believable body language, natural dialogue, and great eloquence lurking within in awkward pauses and silences. Boise is a play that will disturb you. Yet perhaps like liquid in danger of stagnation, you may need to be disturbed. This taut, tight, tension-filled, all-student production is a great reminder of the heights to which small casts with no budget, on bare sets in black box venues, can aspire.  A Bright New Boise runs through Sunday April 2 at USC's Benson Theatre, which is right off Pickens Street at the top of the hill, near the water tower, and it's a whopping $5.  For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1847532705490960/.
 
 
 
Will Love Conquer All?  Newlyweds Seek the Answer in Neil Simon's Timeless Romantic Comedy 
Barefoot in the Park

Review by August Krickel

Amy Brower Lown could teach a master class in "Effectively Conveying a Dozen Different Emotions Solely By Walking Across Stage in a Dozen Different Ways."  Her non-stop energy and ultra-naturalistic acting are only a few of the many enjoyable highlights of Workshop Theatre's production of Barefoot in the Park, running through Saturday, April 2 at 701 Whaley. 

Barefoot was playwright Neil Simon's second Broadway hit, running for over 1500 performances in the mid-60's, garnering four Tony nominations - with Mike Nichols winning for direction - and inspiring a popular film featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, who reprised his stage role. Workshop has successfully mounted four of Simon's best works over the last four seasons, all directed by David Britt, who appears here as a wise telephone repairman, but hands over creative reins to Hans Boeschen. For fans of Britt's productions of Simon's autobiographical "Eugene trilogy," don't despair - male lead Paul (Lee Williams), a somewhat conservative, slightly neurotic newlywed with an understated and dryly ironic sense of humor, is not too far removed from the slightly neurotic and dryly ironic Eugene; change his career from lawyer to television writer, and you've got the young Simon himself, in the first weeks of his marriage.

Lown plays Corie, Paul's bride of six days, eager to begin nesting, even if the nest is a fifth-floor walk-up studio apartment with a hole in the skylight, a bathroom with no tub, and a converted dressing room repurposed into a bedroom which can hold only a single-size bed. Once the lovebirds settle in, we follow their first marital spat, stemming from an alcohol-fueled night out with Corie's widowed mother (Zsuzsa Manna) and upstairs neighbor Victor (David Reed), an aging roué who doesn't let his precarious finances impede his dapper European charm and joie de vivre.  I've enjoyed Williams in a number of very challenging roles (including the drill sergeant in Simon's Biloxi Blues at Workshop three years ago) but at last he is cast in the ideal role for his age and type. In an interesting twist, Paul's lines contain most of the script's jokes - often frustrated asides and commentary on the increasing chaos around him - yet Manna and Lown get most of the laughs, just by the nuances of their acting, including countless reactions revealed in body language, mannerisms, facial expressions, and subtle shifts in tones of voice.  Manna proves that there are still plenty of good roles to be found for mature actresses, adding Corie's mother to multi-faceted portrayals within the last year of mom Penny in You Can't Take It With You at Town Theatre, and at Workshop, mom M'Lynn in Steel Magnolias, and Olive Madison (the sloppy one) in the female Odd Couple.

This is Boeschen's directorial debut - although he was the assistant director for Steel Magnolias - and he skillfully uses every inch of the stage in his blocking; I estimate that Lown probably walks 2-3 miles per performance as she relentlessly paces, stalks, storms, skips, and otherwise dominates the wide but shallow performance area. Boeschen also designed the set, with Dean McCaughan, and it's another good use of the space available in Workshop's temporary home in at 701 Whaley's Market Space. Lighting by Barry Sparks illuminates an attractive New York skyline seen through a window, subtly changing with shifts in time of day. Alexis Doktor's costumes are authentic for the 1963 setting, but simultaneously are timeless, with Corie's short skirts, boots, and bold prints just as easily a retro-chic fashion statement after a day of shopping at vintage clothing stores.

That does raise one important question, however: does a 54-year-old romantic comedy have any relevance for the troubled world in which we live today? It would be very easy to say it's just escapism, but I'll go out on a limb and assert that Barefoot is an insightful look into the human condition by one of theater's master stylists. Anyone who has ever moved into a "fixer-upper," or who has experienced an argument over nothing in a relationship that suddenly escalates - so I’m thinking basically 99% of the population - should find something with which to relate. Apart from the absence of cell phones - which might otherwise resolve a crucial plot twist - the script's dialogue could have been written yesterday. Minus PG-13 language, the story plays out like any good episode of Friends or How I Met Your Mother. And why not?  Pulitzer-winner Simon was one of the architects of television comedy in the 1950's before finding even greater success on Broadway and in Hollywood, and most writers working today grew up with him as a potential role model. Workshop Theatre’s Barefoot in the Park demonstrates that there’s life still to be found in stage classics, as long as talented performers and directors approach them with commitment and energy.  Barefoot in the Park returns Wednesday, March 29 for five more performances, closing with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday, April 2; for information, visit https://www.workshoptheatre.com/barefoot-in-the-park.html or call the box office at (803) 799-6551.

 
 
 
Appealing Leads and Lively Choreography Are Highlights of Village Square Theatre's 
Guys and Dolls

Review by August Krickel

Guys and Dolls is a celebration of that other part of Broadway, not the posh theatres but rather the seamy land of mobsters, gamblers, drunks, and the dolls who love 'em, as chronicled in the work of author Damon Runyon, on whose stories this famous musical is based. Running at Lexington's Village Square Theatre through Sunday, April 2, director Frank Thompson's production of this American classic features amusing characterizations of outlandish characters, pretty songs sung by attractive singers, and some lively dance numbers. While you never forget that you're watching community theatre, it's nice to revisit one of the big hits from the Broadway canon, especially if, like this writer, you've never seen the show before.

Nathan Detroit (Clayton King) runs a floating crap game, i.e. an illegal dice game that changes locations to stay ahead of the cops.  In need of quick cash to secure his next venue, Nathan targets Sky Masterson (Adam Bigony), a smooth gambler flush with money from a successful run in Vegas, and bets him a grand that he can't score a date with lovely young Bible-thumper and soul-saver Sarah Brown (Ashlyn Combs). The added catch?  Sky has to take her to dinner in pre-Revolution Havana, via a handy 5-hour direct flight each way.  Amazingly, Sarah is forced to accept, after Sky promises to produce sinners for the normally unattended prayer meetings at the mission her superiors threaten to close down.  In a sub-plot, nightclub performer Adelaide (Janet Kile, subbing at the last minute for Cathy Carter Scott) is Nathan's long-suffering girlfriend of 14 years, and has had just about enough of being strung along. The anticipated misadventures ensue. In an interesting twist, Nathan and Adelaide are really the main characters and have the most stage time, even though in the structure of the plot, they are essentially comic relief figures. Their scenes together play like good old-fashioned vaudeville sketch comedy, and their rapport is comfortable and natural, especially in the antithesis of a love song, "Sue Me” :

"Alright, already, I'm just a no-good nick
Alright, already, it's true, so new
So sue me, sue me, what can you do me? I love you."


Bigony as Sky has a pleasant singing voice, and is quite appealing in several traditional love ballads; he's got the persona of the love-struck juvenile lead down pat, but could work some more on the other side of his character's nature, the dynamic, charismatic risk-taker who lives on the edge. Still, his rousing rendition of the show's biggest hit, "Luck Be a Lady," is one of the production's highlights.  I've been describing Ashlyn Combs for some years now as a little girl with a big ol' voice; some fifteen months ago, I wrote that "I suspect that this may be one of the last times we see Combs as a kid, as the talented teen is just about ready to take on grown-up roles."  I'm happy to report that this has finally happened. (And she was indeed more than ready.) Her haughty, proper demeanor, and initially rigid body language, combined with a rich, commanding delivery and strong stage presence, establish Sarah's personality within seconds of her first appearance on stage. But when a couple of Bacardi-laced drinks in Havana enable her to loosen her stays and let down her hair, Combs easily transitions to light romantic comedienne, getting laughs on "If I Were a Bell" with lyrics like:

"Ask me how do I feel,
Ask me now that we're fondly caressing
Pal, if I were a salad,
I know I'd be splashing my dressing."
 

Yeah, they just don't write 'em like that anymore. However, on more serious songs like "I'll Know" and "I've Never Been In Love Before," her lovely soprano climbs higher and higher, into the operatic range. Community theatre or not, this is a future star.  And you read it here first.

Resi Talbot, as Sarah's superior in the (never-technically-called-by-name) Salvation Army, appears in a few scenes only, but uses similarly forceful delivery to convey the sense that every words she says is of vital importance. While there are no weak performances in the cast of 27, almost everyone could benefit from more of that forcefulness and assertiveness, to better flesh out brash, brassy, brazen characters. Musical director Amanda Hines has some decent voices to work with, but there are only a handful of proficient dancers; choreographer Christy Shealy Mills rises to the occasion, and at its best, on the song "Havana," her choreography makes this production sizzle.  Here the ensemble breaks off into pairs, with the best dancers (Becky Combs and Robert Bullock) burning up the dance floor with some snazzy salsa/merengue-inspired moves, while  Joshua Greer on piano and Larry Taylor on trumpet add Latin flourishes and trills to define the exotic Cafe Cubano hot spot. Rather than moving in unison, the couples just dance up a storm, everyone moving at their own level of ability, giving verisimilitude to the lively nightclub setting. Mills is similarly successful with numbers set in Broadway's Hot Box, the burlesque club where Adelaide performs. Here the four main dancers perform the most-G-rated versions of strip-tease routines you can imagine, and somehow the ladies manage to be sexy, yet entirely wholesome and family-friendly. "The Crapshooters' Ballet" is another example of doing a lot with just a little: here those four ladies (Helen Hood Renew, Zanna Mills, Ashley Epperson, and Becky Combs) temporarily don male gangster garb and do some impressively acrobatic jumps and turns, while most of the men sway in time to the music in the rear, culminating in the appearance/illusion of King leading the ensemble in some tricky and elaborate movements.

Guys and Dolls won all five Tony Awards for which it was nominated in 1951, and has garnered dozens of award nominations and wins with its many revivals in the ensuing 66 years. Yet these have always been for acting, direction, choreography, set design, and never specifically for the script or score (although it reportedly was supposed to win the Pulitzer in a year when no award for drama was ultimately given.) This implies to me that much of its success - including an initial run of 1200 performances and almost universal critical acclaim - has depended on lavish production values.  And that's just not possible with the resources of community theatre. Costumes, for example, are colorful, yet often seem mismatched, sometimes cartoonishly garish, and randomly taken from the fashions of the 1920's up to the 1960's. It's hard to cast a big show, and harder still to make actors sport vintage hairstyles, but I found the many anachronistic beards, mustaches and goatees to be distracting. 

Scenic designer Matt Marks has opted for most locations to be represented by three simple flats that when rotated depict the exterior of a Skid Row-like section of Broadway, the interior of Sarah's mission, and the bowels of the city's sewer system. While these units can be quickly changed between scenes, and while the detail on the sewer portion is impressive and realistic, what's needed are twice as many flats, so that we don't see so much of the theatre space's blank back wall and the black masking curtains on each side. Only when the stage is filled with lots of quick movement and frenetic action - mainly the "Havana" and "Crapshooters' Ballet" numbers - is there enough distraction to fully enable us to suspend disbelief and forget that we're in a converted movie theatre next to a shopping center out 378. Ironically, some of the most effective scenes - usually vocal solos - take place in front of the curtain, where we understand to focus on the singer only.  Thompson impishly breaks the fourth wall on a number of occasions, taking some of the action out onto the stage's apron or next to the orchestra pit, adding a winking acknowledgement of the space as dancers "accidentally" mismatch the flats, and including a visual cameo - from Satan no less! - that only longtime theatre-goers will appreciate.  The success of these meta-moments lead me to believe that the entire production would have been served better with a completely non-realistic, abstract set that only implied the basics of the script's multiple locations, or better still, a concert-style staging, favored by a number of recent revivals.  Part of the backstory of Guys and Dolls is that the initial script, by Jo Swerling, required extensive rewriting by veteran gagman and script doctor Abe Burrows, and both are credited as authors. Burrows - probably with help from the original production's director, Pulitzer-winner George S. Kaufman, who often did uncredited rewrites on shows he directed - then reverse-engineered the script to set up each of composer Frank Loesser's songs. As a result, some songs performed by supporting characters do little to advance the plot, while others - like the country-themed "Bushel and a Peck," performed by Adelaide and the dancers in naughty farm girl attire - seem like they belong in another musical altogether.

Yet none of that matters, if there is enough spectacle to behold, and enough star power to carry the story through a solid two and a half hours.  And many of those songs are irresistibly catchy - days later, I'm still humming "Fugue for Tinhorns," even if it's nothing more than some racetrack regulars talking about which horse to bet on. Thanks to Shealy's choreography, the talent of the featured dancers, and the pizzazz of the leads, Guys and Dolls is a nice if not dazzling little production that won't disappoint you, as long as you understand that you're not on that other part of Broadway.  The show runs through Sunday, April 2; call (
803) 359- 1436 or visit http://www.villagesquaretheatre.com/ for more information.
 
 
 
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 naïfs (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.


 
 
Post-Apocalyptic Story-Telling Turns The Simpsons Into Mythic Icons in 
Mr Burns, a  Post-Electric Play at USC's Longstreet Theatre

Review by August Krickel 

Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage these days. Perhaps we're fed up with the world as we know it, and just want to burn the mother down, then start afresh. But what then?  

Will humankind rule the planet, or give way to a reign of zombies, or mutants, or apes? (Or Keith Richards?) Science fiction abounds with potential causes, from meteor strikes to alien invasions, but rarely do we chronicle the manner in which humanity might begin to reinvent itself. Playwright Anne Washburn posits that Bart Simpson will be the key. Part social satire, part speculative fiction, part homage to late 20th/early 21st century pop culture, and part allegory on the way we develop art, myth and culture via storytelling, Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play will have you wondering if your beverage has been laced with some hallucinogen before it's over, but what a fascinating journey it will have been. And it the premise sounds awfully esoteric or too academically highbrow for a mainstream audience, don't have a cow, man - Theatre South Carolina's production is also a delightfully silly romp through the collected wit, wisdom and lore of The Simpsons - particularly one episode which parodied the Martin Scorsese remake of the film Cape Fear - culminating in Bart's apotheosis as savior of mankind.

Beginning quite realistically after failure of the nation's (world's?) power grid and accompanying meltdowns at nuclear plants, we're introduced to five survivors, huddled around a campfire in the woods, telling stories to keep their spirits up as people have done for countless eons. Being Millennials, the long-running cartoon series The Simpsons is a common interest for most, and one, played by John Romanski, uses his keen memory to recreate favorite moments. Soon all have joined in, even a newcomer (Darrell Johnston) who helps recall a key punchline; he admits to never having watched the show, but his girlfriend quoted it all the time. While amusing, this first scene is more significant than one might think, as we see the early formation of traditions, as survivors all carry notebooks with names of living people they have encountered. Everyone is allowed names of ten loved ones to ask about, although Johnston notes he's heard of some groups reducing it to eight. We also see the earliest development of an oral history that speculates on the origins of the now-pervasive radioactivity.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll just say that the second act/scene takes place a few years into the future, when there is a vague semblance of order, although still electricity-free. America is down to a population of a million; while there seem to be some laws and agreed-upon customs, anything committed to pen and paper is considered worthless, with accurate memories of what went before considered a valuable commodity.  The protagonists have expanded, now surviving by entertaining other groups with vaudeville-style shows that recreate The Simpsons as well as commercials and medleys of Top 40 hits from that era. It's a simultaneously admirable and pathetic attempt to replicate fragments of what has been lost from their cultural heritage.

The third scene transpires 75 years beyond that. With torch/candlelight still the only means of illumination, and the Longstreet Theatre stage's hydraulic lift seemingly powered by a hapless stagehand peddling away on a bicycle, the illusion of a circus-like big top is created. The Simpsons have now become both symbols of the nation's last post-nuclear, nuclear family, longing for the halcyon life they enjoyed in pre-meltdown Springfield, and epic heroes of a stylized, ritualistic opera, with Greek tragedy-style masks depicting everyone from Marge to Apu.  Random references from the first two scenes are now integral plot elements, and Mr. Burns (Homer's boss who operates a nuclear plant in the cartoon series) has not only replaced Sideshow Bob as the principal antagonist, but has become the very embodiment of the threat of radiation.

The cast is a true ensemble, with little opportunity to create complex characters, especially since for at least half the time they are quoting or playing characters from The Simpsons or elsewhere. Romanski is just as exuberant and verbose as he was as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, while Brooke Smith is just as officious and controlling she was in Cosi, both from last fall. From the new crop of MFA students, Kimberly Braun shows off some impressive vocal skills in a cast of excellent singers. But the stars of this show are the production team. Guest Director Jeremy Skidmore has made some risky choices, staging the production in the round, and allowing the surroundings to be dark when they're supposed to be. The resulting visual effect, accomplished by lighting designer Marc Hurst, is extreme verisimilitude for what is billed as a post-electric world. Thus the entire first scene plays out in shadows and darkness, with the only lighting coming from a single fire. Similarly, the spectacle of the finale appears to happen on a stage where a row of candles placed in footlights provide a low golden glow. I enjoyed the imagery immensely, but found myself wishing I could see more of the actors' faces. This was a particular issue in the final musical extravaganza, which is sung-though, with no spoken dialogue. Done in the round, this means at least some of the singers will always have their backs to part of the audience, and with most of their faces hidden by masks, specific lines sung by specific characters were sometimes hard to follow.  And since the plotline of this culminating mythic revamp has significantly grown and mutated into something new, being able to pick up more easily on clues from performers' body language and facial expressions would have been nice. Yet that said, I'm not sure how closely the playwright intends for the audience to follow the nuances of the libretto, since the bigger point is the irony of The Simpsons achieving iconic status.  Tony Cisek's set design - in particular the baroque performance space for the third scene - is clever, and appropriate for the low-tech surroundings of the future. Choreographer joHanna Pastorkovich and musical director/pianist Matthew Dean Marsh have created some appealing, if surreal, production numbers, and the masks, presumably designed by costumer April Traquina, are rendered in intricate detail.

Cultural anthropologists, sci-fi buffs, and aficionados of storytelling and stagecraft will likely all geek out over this production for different reasons, none of which require any knowledge of The Simpsons; rather they will  appreciate the audacity of the play's premise, and how expertly Skidmore and his team have brought it to life. Patrons more accustomed to Shakespeare or Brecht may wonder into what acid trip they have stumbled, but many of Theatre South Carolina's recent productions have featured non-traditional or experimental story-telling techniques (e.g. Hamlet set in a Victorian asylum, The Tempest unfolding within Prospero's tormented mind, and A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a forest of luminous umbrellas and steampunk ravers.) Devoted fans of The Simpsons, however, are likely to find countless Easter eggs within the script's mashup of countless jokes, themes, and tropes from the cartoon's run of 28 seasons (and counting.)  And if you think about it, a play that imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which the Simpsons become venerated cultural/mythological legends is just about the best idea for an actual episode of The Simpsons ever.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at USC’s Longstreet theatre tonight through Saturday evening, Feb. 25, with an additional Saturday matinee at 3 PM. For ticket information call 777-2551 or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/mr-burns-post-electric-play-longstreet-theatre .


 
 
Workshop Theatre's 
Some Girl(s) Is An Odyssey Through the Complexities of Modern Love

Review by August Krickel 

How much impact do we have on the lives of our romantic partners?  And what, if any, responsibility do we have for how we behave in those relationships?  Those are among many questions raised in Neil LaBute's play Some Girl(s), directed by Bakari Lebby and presented by Workshop Theatre in the Market Space at 701 Whaley.

The title stems from the dismissive way the protagonist (Patrick Michael Kelly) refers to ex-girlfriends and even his fiancé: "she's nobody - just some girl." While listed in the program as "Guy," no one ever addresses Kelly's character by name; he too, is to be seen as just some guy.  An academic now finding commercial success and acclaim as “a fearless cartographer of the soul” after publication in The New Yorker, this guy sets out to reconnect with women from his past, ostensibly to resolve any lingering bad blood or misunderstandings. Did his article - reflecting on his misadventures in romance - inspire this quest for self-awareness and atonement, or is it, as he maintains, his impending marriage?   Unfolding in a series of hotel rooms in Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. LaBute's script explores the complexities of modern love with blunt, bitter, honesty, giving no one a pass, and no easy answers along the way.

One immediately wonders if the lead is deceiving these women – who interestingly, all have traditionally male or gender-neutral names: Sam, Tyler, Lindsay, Bobbi (who refers to her sister Billi) and Reggie - as he seeks their forgiveness. Or is he deceiving himself?   Kelly expertly navigates a fine course between his character's conflicting motivations and feelings.  The emotional toll exacted on the protagonist during his odyssey might cause the audience might feel sorry for him, if only he weren't quite such a smarmy tool. Yet it's hard to hate him, since his apparent desire for growth and enlightenment seems sincere, and most of his sins evolved from his admitted immaturity and youthful selfishness. 

Lebby's direction is confident and intricate, allowing each actor to bring LaBute's gritty, meandering, ultra-natural prose to life. The playwright's style involves hundreds of often-overlapping one and two-syllable words, spoken quickly with all the pauses, stammers, and silences - while someone searches in vain for the right phrase or answer - of contemporary speech. The cast uniformly is up for the challenge, employing excellent body language to enhance the dialogue, with fingers pointing, shoulders shrugging, and arms flailing helplessly in the air at appropriate moments. The director has cleverly cast five women who are adept at creating disparate characters, yet who all resemble each other in some way; the guy clearly has a "type." Friends who accompanied me observed that Kelly presented a slightly different persona in each scene; part of that is the character's talent for communication - some might say manipulation - which has enabled him to connect with a number of attractive, intelligent women, but part is also the skill of the cast and director, with each actress bringing out a different aspect of Kelly's multi-faceted portrayal.

Christine Hellman as college girlfriend Bobbi is perhaps the fieriest and most insightful, denouncing her ex as "some emotional terrorist, just ripping away at people," and asking the pertinent (and unanswered) question "when is hurting (someone) OK?" Adrianna Wooten, as free spirit Tyler, needs to play more to the audience and not just her scene partner. Still, she connects with Kelly with intense authenticity and appeal.  Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, as older lover Lindsay, brings touching nuance to her memories of a disastrous affair; Kayla Cayhill is perhaps the easiest to identify with, as suburban mom Sam, who is surprised to realize how resentful she still is, years after a high school break-up. The most moving performance for me was by Haley Claffy, as young professional Reggie.  While she, like the other women featured, has continued with her life exactly as it was likely to have unfolded anyway, she eloquently asserts one of the author's principle themes: even the tiniest interaction with another human being can have lingering consequences, even if the other person successfully moves on.  During long stretches of dialogue where Kelly's hyper-articulate character tries to explain himself, Claffy's wounded expression conveys infinite meaning and significance in silence.

Randy Strange and Dean McCaughan's set design capitalizes on the homogeneity of hotel rooms, with successive scenes distinguished by quick rearrangements of furniture (included a cleverly-designed king-size bed that becomes twins), changes of bedspreads, and assorted decorative artwork by Lauren Hood and Alizey Khan that's actually spiffier and more appealing than one might normally find.  Set dressing is superb, and this is probably the best use I've seen so far of the space at 701.  Barry Sparks's lighting is excellent as usual, including an expertly-realized effect where light shines in from a window, and Brandy Doby’s costumes accurately reflect the nature of each character.

Some Girl(s) is the sort of play that entertains while simultaneously causing one to think, and to become uncomfortable when certain scenarios hit too close to home.  Ultimately the protagonist may not be so much a villain, but simply, as Hellman describes him, "not a very nice person, and that's about as bad as it can get as far as I'm concerned."  The universality of the issues raised, and the ability of the director and cast to express them, make this production a success.
 

Some Girls(s) returns Wednesday, February 15 in the Market Space at 701 Whaley, with 8 PM performances through Saturday, February 18, and then closes with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday, Feb. 19.
 
 
 
Theatrical Artistry and Solid Acting Enhance Coming of Age Story in
Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet

Review by August Krickel 

Marcus is a sweet boy - neatly dressed, smart in school, and respectful of girls and his elders. But in the impoverished African-American community where Marcus lives, in bayou-country Louisiana, "sweet" can also mean "gay," a notion which both scares and intrigues Marcus. Trustus Theatre's production of Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, by Tarell Alvin McCraney - who also wrote the similarly-themed play on which the Oscar-nominated film Moonlight is based - follows a young man's search for identity over several eventful days in the late summer of "the distant present," right around the time of an approaching Katrina-like hurricane.  McCraney's script follows two concurrent storylines, one a straightforward coming-of-age story, and the other a dark fable incorporating elements of music, dance, African mythology, and the magical realism popularized by authors like Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel One Hundred Years of Solitude likewise charted recurring character traits and themes in several generations of a family.

As Marcus, the 20-something John Floyd convincingly plays 16, capturing the character's shyness and awkwardness, while nevertheless commanding the stage with eloquence and an innate gracefulness. McCraney, now chair of the Playwriting Department at the Yale School of Drama at only 36, clearly has a knack for the natural rhythms of modern speech; on opening night Floyd seamlessly segued back and forth from rural Southern slang when interacting with his peers to articulate and emotion-laden monologues expressed to himself, or perhaps to the cosmos.  An interesting twist is that the actors speak their own stage directions, as in "Marcus exits, crying." This novelty allows for characters to comment on their own feelings, and connect even more directly with the audience.  Devin Anderson and Tiffany James were appealing as Marcus's childhood playmates, now assertive young women, and Katrina Blanding and Celeste Moore managed to embody older, flamboyant, no-nonsense moms, depicting a recognizable type without resorting to stereotype. Hermon Whaley got plenty of laughs as hood rat Terrell, and Mario McClean was seductively sinister, or vice-versa, as potential love interest Shua. Jabar Hankins delivered an effective and measured performance as Ogun, an older man haunted by memories of the relationship between his brother (Chris Jackson) and Marcus's late father; that history formed the basis for two other plays by McCraney, both presented by Trustus in 2015.

Chad Henderson's scenic design recalls Kimi Maeda's set for those previous productions, consisting of a facade of clapboard row-houses, hanging elements that suggest swamp foliage, and wooden pallets and crates that can become seats, shorelines, or walls, both literal and figurative. Marc Hurst's rich lighting design includes a panoply of tiny lights suspended above the stage that can be seen as representing actual fireflies, but also fantastical, luminescent components from Marcus's vivid and prophetic dreams. Henderson also directs, with Terrance Henderson is listed as "movement coach," but I'm inclined to give the latter full credit as a choreographer. Much of the dialogue is accompanied and indeed augmented by music, singing, and/or surreal, stylized, ritualistic movement and dance. These moments demonstrate the innovative artistry of director and choreographer, and while not necessarily essential to the play's central narrative, are nonetheless evocative of the themes portrayed. Still, I must confess that at times I found myself wishing that the actors might have certain moments and speeches entirely to themselves, without the fanciful embellishment. Overall, however, I enjoyed these creative enhancements, particularly in a scene where Shua softly strummed a guitar while hitting on Marcus. Was one character literally serenading the other? Probably not - the moment is surely allegorical, and the audience might as well be seeing Pan playing on his pipes. As their relationship turned physical, Floyd and McClean moved into a surreal sort of erotic ballet, which for me worked vastly better than the semblance of actual sexuality on stage.

On its surface level, Marcus works as a story of teenagers finding their own path within a particular society. The play's grander ambitions, incorporating multiple art forms and story-telling techniques, lift the material from an R-rated variation on S.E. Hinton young adult novels, and into the level of literature. Yet I suspect some audience members may be puzzled, or even intimidated, by the extended fantasy and musical sequences. There is also frank discussion of sexuality, a brief but disturbing moment of violence, and plenty of adult language, including liberal uses of the N-word, the F-word, and most others from the alphabet. Thanks to solid acting from the cast and especially lead John Floyd, the central storyline should fulfill just about anyone’s dramatic needs, with the creative flourishes an added treat for fans of the director and choreographer’s previous work. Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet runs at Trustus Theatre through Saturday, February 18, with a matinee on Sunday, February 12.
 
  
 
Pulitzer-Winning You Can't Take It With You Still A Funny and Relevant Celebration of Noncomformity

Review by August Krickel

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's Pulitzer Prize winning You Can't Take It With You, running at Town Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 5, celebrates creativity, individuality, and nonconformity. 35 years ago, Grandpa Vanderhof (David Reed) quit the rat race to follow his bliss. While he could have made a fortune in business, a comfortable income from property investments allows him to "read, talk, visit the zoo now and then," and support his extended family. Following his example, granddaughter Essie (Sarah Strobolakos)  finds joy in ballet lessons and making candy, while her husband Ed (Corey Langley) - who came for dinner years ago and never left - plays the xylophone and toys with a home printing press. Essie's mother Penny (Zsuzsa Manna) dabbles in playwriting and painting, and her father Paul (Merritt Vann) experiments with fireworks in the basement, aided by Mr. DePinna (Paul Smart), a one-time ice deliveryman who, like Ed, showed up one day and was somehow taken in. You'd think this was some sort of late 60's hippie arts collective, but the play came out in 1936, right in the middle of the Great Depression. Younger granddaughter Alice (Catherine Hunsinger), however, works as a secretary on Wall Street; when she falls for the boss's son Tony (Josh Kern), it's a sure bet that his parents, the Kirbys - quintessential one-percenters (Bill Arvay and Kathy Hartzog) - are on a collision course with the freewheeling Bohemian lifestyle of Alice's family. Add in the family maid (Bettye Morris) and her boyfriend (Chadwick Pressley), Essie's Russian ballet teacher (Clayton King) and his friend, an exiled Grand Duchess (Becky Hunter), a tipsy actress (Nancy Ann Smith), and some intruding G-Men (Bill DeWitt, Eric Manna, and Andrew Strobolakos) and sparks are bound to fly - literally.

The cast is a true ensemble, with everyone afforded brief but sufficient opportunity to create believable - if wacky - characters.  While this is technically community theatre - the oldest in the nation, in fact - many of the cast are ringers, with extensive professional experience on stage or in film. Hartzog, Smith, Pressley, and Hunter, for example, have all played many lead roles in their day, but gamely essay smallish character roles which are nevertheless crucial to specific plot points and developments. Hartzog in particular gets plenty of laughs with her waspish expressions even when not speaking. Reed convincingly plays decades older as Grandpa, employing a nice, folksy New England accent and serving as a surrogate spokesman for the authors' message of enjoying life while we can. Hunsinger and Kern have distinguished themselves as singers in recent years - including playing Sandy and Danny in Town's 2012 production of Grease - but embody the stock roles of spunky ingénue and good-natured juvenile with ease. These parts provide wonderful opportunities for both to grow even further in their craft, sustaining famous characters played on film by Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart via acting chops alone. Ed and Essie are often considered to be minor characters, but Langley and Strobolakos really flesh them out, constantly engaged in the story even when they have no lines. Langley has a perky "gee whiz" demeanor so often found in comedies from this era, while Strobolakos glides across the stage with appealing grace, displaying dance skills which are probably better developed than those of the hapless Essie, her dancer's frozen grin always in place.  Both actors are newer to local performance, and I'm eager to see them again. 

Designer Danny Harrington's set is the type at which he excels, and which we get to see only infrequently, when a realistic, one-set show is produced. Here the lush and detailed interior of the Vanderhof home is comfortably upper-to-upper-middle class, but looks lived in, full of decades of accumulated clutter.  Period furniture, props, plentiful paintings adorning the walls, and set dressing are outstanding, as are Jill Carey's costumes, which indicate a lot of forethought and analysis. The gentlemen always wear ties, for example. Grandpa sometimes sports a spiffy red lounging jacket. Essie gets to wear a stylish slacks-and-blouse ensemble reminiscent of outfits worn on screen by Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Wigs by Abigail Ludwig add to the visual authenticity, especially a sort of marcelled bob look for Manna. Head microphones, a necessary evil in Town's deep and cavernous house, are nearly invisible.

If the premise of eccentric protagonists running afoul of snooty guests seems a little familiar, it's been borrowed for everything from episodes of I Love Lucy and The Beverly Hillbillies to stage musicals like La Cage aux Folles and The Addams Family (which Town produced just last spring.) Yet all seems fresh under Milena Herring's capable direction, keeping the witty repartee flowing and the action moving with alacrity. Her subtle touches can be found everywhere, including some expertly-timed physical comedy involving Tony and Essie, Donald's madcap races out the door when sent out on errands, Tony and Alice covertly holding hands at dinner, and Ed's body language when Essie tells him Grandpa has said it's a good idea for them to have a baby. None of these are spelled out in the script, but all are implied, and make for memorable little moments. I'll even give credit to the organizational skills of stage manager Jillian Peltzman. If you ever want a good laugh or even a shock, check out the detailed properties plot helpfully provided at the end of the script - it runs six pages of tiny print, detailing hundreds of items that get moved around the stage. Yet in between the play's first and second scene, barely visibly in half-light, the stage crew quickly and skillfully put everything back into place, followed by a number of actors simultaneously entering in the dark to take their places. I'll pose this question to anyone who has ever crewed a show backstage: how often are actors ready and simultaneously in place when you want them to be?  The answer is almost never, indicating some impressive discipline behind the scenes here. When You Can't Take It With You opened on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer, which was Kaufman's second, and ran for more than two years. Kaufman, who also directed, later won the Tony for Best Director; two years later, Frank Capra received his third Oscar for Best Director for his screen adaptation, which also won Best Picture, and was the year's highest-grossing film. Town Theatre has only produced the work once previously, in 1947, and that production's director, Delbert Mann, later went to Hollywood and won the Oscar for Best Director in 1955. In other words, if history holds true, Milena Herring may have some significant successes to look forwards to.

To be sure, much of the play's narrative may seem quaint by today's standards, although the same might be said of anything from Casablanca to Star Wars. Still, Kaufman's trademark witticisms and Lewis Carroll-like whimsy are just as funny as ever, with lines like "There's nobody out there - I just saw him walk away," and "It was 5:00 a couple of hours ago" worthy of the scripts he wrote for the Marx Brothers. And larger issues raised in discussion - how accountable the government should be for our tax dollars, potential threats from foreign powers like Russia, the importance of free expression - are as relevant now as when they were first written.   If you think about it, the material's basic framework could work in a 2017 setting with minimal updates: Grandpa could have been a Deadhead, Penny might be writing Twilight fan fiction for her blog, and Essie might be an aspiring belly-dancer, allowing the Russians to be refugees from Iraq. Ed could be screen-printing t-shirts with radical messages that attract the attention of Homeland Security, while most of the other characters would work unchanged.  More significantly, the play came out the month after the 1936 Presidentail election, suggesting in a time of political and economic uncertainty that taking time to smell the roses was not only a pleasant notion but indeed a viable strategy for survival.  Grandpa sums up much of the play's enduring message:

"I used to worry about the world, too. Got all worked up about whether Cleveland or Blaine was going to be elected President - seemed awful important at the time, but who cares now? What I’m trying to say, Mr. Kirby, is that I’ve had thirty-five years that nobody can take away from me, no matter what they do to the world. See?"

In the troubled times we now inhabit, that message may be more powerful and relevant than ever. You Can't Take It With You runs through Sunday, February 5, including several matinee performances; call the box office at 803-799-2510 for ticket information.


 
 
Timely 
Boy at Trustus Tackles Issues of Gender Identity

Review by August Krickel

Seemingly ripped from today's headlines, Anna Ziegler's play Boy, running through this weekend in the Side Door performance space at Trustus Theatre, tackles issues of gender identity with raw emotions laid bare and no punches pulled.  Inspired by a true story, Boy recounts the life of Adam (Patrick Dodds), born male but initially raised female after a botched circumcision in infancy is thought to have destroyed any chance for an adult life as a man. (It should be noted that the story begins in the 1960's, when reconstructive surgery was not yet an option.) While Adam's physical situation - and the anguish he undergoes after deciding in adulthood to live as a man - is not literally the same as that of a person born into one gender who later chooses to transition to another, the societal and psychological challenges he faces are analogous. Meaning that anyone sympathetic to or with an interest in struggles faced by the LGBTQ community will find this work particularly meaningful, even though ultimately it's about a straight man born in a man's body who wants to live as a straight man.

Beyond the inherent messages of empathy and tolerance, and the important reminder that gender can be fluid and subjective, Adam's journey is engaging and compelling for the audience thanks to some incredible acting from Dodds and his castmates, and the direction of Ilene Fins. To give you an idea of how moving the production is, allow me to describe curtain call on opening night. As usual, the cast of five took their bows and left the stage - and the audience just kept clapping. Like at a rock concert. Occasionally if an audience is especially jubilant and appreciative, a cast will take one or more extra group bows before exiting, but this is the only time in my memory where a local cast has been compelled to return, as if they were the Rolling Stones. (And indeed they did, looking at each other hesitantly as if to wonder "Is this really for us?  What are we supposed to do now?" and then taking one more well-deserved bow.)

The intimacy of the 50-seat venue helps, with everything playing out in 90 minutes, with no intermission. Curtis Smoak's excellent set design helps. While the show could easily have been staged on the bare floor with random chairs as the only props, Smoak has created the semblance of a rich wooden floor, with matching cubes functioning as assorted tables and seats. Thus while simple, the performance space is defined very specifically, and our minds supply the rest of the props and walls for various interiors.  Ziegler's script helps. While four of her five characters are under-educated working class people who express themselves accordingly, their plain-spoken dialogue is replete with acting opportunities for depths of feeling that transcend the actual text. I'll give plenty of credit to the director, who has elicited the most moving performances I've seen thus far from three Trustus veterans, Dodds, Stann Gwynn (as the doctor who orchestrates Adams experience) and Harrison Saunders (as Adam's father.) Gwynn maintains an appropriately detached, placid, clinical demeanor in scenes where emotions are otherwise running wild, while Saunders represses unspoken anger for most of the play, unexpectedly revealing a sympathetic side towards the end. Jennifer Little plays Adam's well-meaning mother with sincerity and compassion.

In notes I took during the performance, I wrote first that Dodds' performance was "sensitive and nuanced," while Martha Hearn Kelly, as love interest Jenny, was "cute and flirty." A half hour later, I added that he was doing a great job depicting Adam as "tortured," and - underlined and in all caps as I wrote it at the time - "SO SAD." A little over five years ago, in a review of Spring Awakening, I described Dodds as "filled with rage and unfulfilled yearning" and praised his "perceptive, tragic portrait of a boy falling apart at the seams." He's only gotten better.  Sometimes Dodds and Hearn unexpectedly explode with fury and frustration; while surprising, and unsettling when they take place only a few feet in front of you, these moments are incredibly genuine, as we understand how years of repressed feelings, and experiences that have taken place off stage in between scenes, have led to these particular outcomes.

Boy isn't exactly the message play that one might expect, because at its heart the story is only about this one person's journey; Yet the broader meaning and implications can discerned easily. At times Adam's path towards self-discovery is just agonizing to watch. But without giving away any plot spoilers, I'll say that as in the best tragedies, we ultimately experience both catharsis and a satisfying resolution, making that agony completely justified and well worth the experience. 

"Boy" runs through January 21. 


 
 
Man's Best Friend, Re-Imagined as a Hot Blonde in Allegorical 
Sylvia at Workshop Theatre

Review by August Krickel

A middle-aged man introduces a scruffy-looking female to his posh New York apartment. Her sweater is torn, her stockings have runs and tears, and her shaggy hair is a messy blonde mop. Within moments, she proclaims that she loves him, and that he saved her life when he found her wandering in the park just an hour before, while he assures her that his wife will accept her too. Is she a hooker?  A homeless person? A crazy woman about to be taken advantage of?

Within just a couple of minutes, the audience realizes the much simpler answer: the titular lead of A. R. Gurney's Sylvia, presented by Workshop Theatre in the Market Space at 701 Whaley, is a dog. An adorable, loving, stray Labradoodle, played with charm and sass by Mary Miles. Her new master, Greg (George Dinsmore), is a melancholy empty-nester; with his children grown and his wife's academic career taking off, Greg now has no one depending on him, and the job in high finance where he has prospered has lost what little luster it once provided. Sylvia, on the other hand, offers unconditional, boundless love, and soon taking long reflective walks in the park with his dog becomes an excuse to play hooky from both family and employment obligations. At one level, we're in familiar Gurney territory - upper-class WASP malaise, with Greg a spiritual cousin of Andrew in Love Letters, the acclaimed Gurney play in which the male lead thrives in family, law and politics, yet is fulfilled only by a 50-year pen-pal correspondence with a childhood playmate. At a second level, we're seeing an obvious metaphor for an affair: Sylvia is young, attractive, free-spirited, fun-loving, and full of adoration. Greg's wife Kate (Lonetta Thompson) is alternately annoyed by and jealous of this new competition for her husband's attention, but when his new hobby borders on obsession and throws their marriage and his job into jeopardy, things turn darker.

Dinsmore uses a nice, even-keeled demeanor to portray Greg, although sometimes - at least at the matinee I saw - his low-key, ultra-natural, ultra-believable delivery could have benefited from more projection.  Thompson makes Kate as sympathetic as possible, especially in the plays final scenes where we see her attitude towards Sylvia starting to soften. David Britt has some good comic moments in three supporting roles.  But for me, the standout was Miles, an actress who I've been saying for years has deserved the opportunity to shine in a lead role locally. Thanks to her complete commitment to her role, a third level of meaning in the material can be discerned, although probably only by dog-lovers. Unlike portrayals I've read about in other cities, Miles uses almost no actual canine mannerisms. Everything is understood as a metaphor or allegory. Sylvia talks for example to both Greg and Kate in simple yet fairly eloquent conversational English, yet 95% of that conversation is what dog-owners know can be understood and inferred from the look in a dog's eyes. When Sylvia catches a ball, Miles simply take it in her hands; when Dinsmore asks for it back, she coquettishly asks "What's in it for me, Greg?" and scores herself a doggie treat. When a stranger approaches, Sylvia turns aggressive, rapidly shouting "Hey!  Hey hey hey HEY!" just as any tough city girl might. When Sylvia sees a stray cat, Miles lets loose with a blistering volley of hard-R-rated smack talk, branding the cat as a disgrace to the animal kingdom, and promising a future beat-down.  Gurney's dialogue for Sylvia, and the scenarios he places her in, is clever, or brilliant, depending on your perspective. At intermission, I observed that this was the greatest play ever written, but in retrospect, what I was feeling in the moment was that this was the most accurate depiction of a dog's emotions and interactions with humans that I can recall ever having seen - with the caveat that there aren't that many.  Ultimately, Sylvia saves Greg's life, although not as one might expect.

Samantha Elkins makes her local directorial debut with this show, and I'm inclined to give her shared credit with Miles and Dinsmore for their nuanced performances. She also co-designed the set with Dean McCaughan, and while neither is a professional designer, the resulting simplicity is perfect: realistic props and furniture for the interior of Greg's apartment, which later become a park bench, and a psychiatrist's desk. Barry Sparks contributes effective shadowy lighting representing leaves for outdoor scenes, while a nice representation of a city skyline and some framing foliage provides an appropriate backdrop. Gurney is one of the important playwrights of the late 20th century, although he's rarely given the credit he deserves.  Sylvia succeeds on each of the three levels above thanks to the proficiency of everyone involved, and is an extra-special and emotional treat for anyone who has ever loved an animal.

"Sylvia" runs through January 22. 

 
 

Original Play “Heck the Dolls With Chardonnay” Celebrates Gal Pals and Holiday Misadventures

Review by August Krickel 

If you find yourself at a play being staged in American Legion Post 193 - formerly the old fire station in downtown Chapin, SC, population 1,445 - you probably didn't arrive there by accident. Factor in the title of your intended entertainment for the evening, Heck the Dolls with Chardonnay, and it's a safe bet that you weren't looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The full-length playwriting debut for Lou Clyde - who portrays feisty retirement home resident Sue - as well as the directorial debut of longtime Chapin actor, producer, and board president Jim DeFelice, Heck the Dolls is exactly the silly, heart-warming comic ode to the holidays that its title implies. I don't know that's it's destined to hit Broadway any time soon, but this charming little collection of vignettes from the lives of Southern women is just the sort of light entertainment that regular Chapin Theatre Company (CCT) patrons routinely enjoy.  In an interesting scheduling move, the production premiered this past weekend, but then will take a break for Thanksgiving, returning on Thursday Dec. 8 for four final performances, closing with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday, Dec. 11.

The play's framing device is a Thanksgiving visit to Sue by her granddaughter Emma (Emma Bagley); Sue reminisces about holiday misadventures long ago with her BFF Becky (Jessica Fichter) which then play out in extended flashback scenes. Younger Sue is played by Tiffany Dinsmore, who created these characters with Clyde two years ago in CCT's 'Tis the Season, and Clyde has now expanded the duo's exploits into a full-length script. Like less dysfunctional American versions of Edina and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, suburban wives/moms Sue and Becky survive the stress of family obligations, tiresome holiday traditions, and the approach of middle age via mutual support, sarcasm, and liberal doses of wine. Although the Ab Fab personas are reversed: Sue is the tall, hot blonde, but the more grounded of the two, while petite brunette Becky is the more acerbic and outrageous.  In successive scenes the gal pals share New Year's resolutions, decorate cookies for the book club, and mock their friends' saccharine Christmas greetings, but when the going gets tough, they are there for each other.  The two funniest scenes are the naughtiest, involving camping outside a store in anticipation of Black Friday, and Becky's initiation to cooking a turkey, in which she mistakes the enclosed neck for ... well, for exactly what it looks like. These moments are probably no worse than PG-13, but be aware if you're planning on taking your grandmother. Most of the play's humor is character-centric, and stems from situations with which the audience may easily identify, following in the vein of humor columnists like Erma Bombeck. Dinsmore and Fichter have a natural rapport, and their back-and-forth repartee moves quickly and naturally. They're both experienced performers, but I give director DeFelice credit as well.

The stage in what CTC now calls the Firehouse Theatre is tiny, making the construction of realistic sets impractical, and precluding any significant blocking. Instead, DeFelice does what he has to, placing older Sue and Emma in chairs on stage right, while younger Sue and Becky are seated at stage left in higher chairs at a kitchen island, i.e. a free-standing counter area, where they can chat and drink freely. Accordingly, most of the dialogue is spoken by stationary actors, but one doesn't mind, thanks to the generally fast pace. The stage is otherwise bare, with only lighting defining separate locations. One drawback, however, is that Clyde and Bagley's chairs are fairly low and close to the stage floor, causing some of their lines to be lost beyond the first row of the audience, but greater projection in week two of the run will be a simple and easy fix. One broadly comic scene touches on an otherwise serious subject, Sue's first mammogram, and the show's necessary minimalism allows for a deliciously surreal metaphor, as med tech Sandy Steffen employs an old-fashioned folding ironing board and an even older-fashioned flat iron to represent the unpleasant physicality of the experience.

Since this is literally a world premiere of an original work, it's appropriate to critique the material as well, since new plays often undergo many revisions. Overall, this is a sweet story that captures the importance of friendship - even if it's usually fueled by alcohol - in the lives of these two women, and by transference, women in general.  Any time the story shifts away from them, action and interest wane. And while the framing device provides nice bookends for each successive episode, and while the scenes of the grandmother and her granddaughter are touching, I would have liked to have seen some stronger connection made between past and present, and perhaps some greater lesson learned by Emma from these tales. George Dinsmore turns up in one scene as his wife Tiffany's stage husband, and while it's always a treat to see him perform, this particular anecdote seems a little out of place. Ideally, I'd like to see that scene dropped (or saved for some future play about couples) and a one or two new scenes inserted, perhaps dealing more directly with the catastrophes that can happen during holiday celebrations. That said, there's a final twist that I probably should have seen coming a mile away, but it was a pleasant surprise for me, and certainly the piece's most definitive "Awwwwww" moment.

At the matinee I attended, the audience was at least 90% female, almost all baby boomers or older.  There’s no question in my mind that Heck the Dolls with Chardonnay fulfilled 100% of their expectations, providing a pleasant 90 minutes of diversion and laughter with a local flavor.  The show returns for four more performances only, Dec. 8-11. For information, visit http://chapintheatre.org/2016/heck-the-dolls.html.

 
  
Cosi at Longstreet Theatre Finds Laughter and Poignancy Within Madness

Review by August Krickel

Louis Nowra's Cosi, running through Saturday, Nov. 19 at USC's Longstreet Theatre, takes its name from the Italian title of Mozart's opera Così Fan Tutte, meaning "So do they all." The final "E" in "Tutte," however, signifies a feminine subject, and the usual translation is "Women are like that." Tracing the obstacles and tribulations encountered by a young director as he attempts to stage a production of said opera with a cast of patients at a mental institution, Cosi offers plenty of laughs, moments of poignancy and tenderness, and  most importantly, diverse acting opportunities for a fresh new crop of departmental MFA students making their Columbia stage debut.

A semi-autobiographical memory from the playwright's youth, Cosi follows the misadventures of "Lewis," played with subtlety and nuance by Donavan St. Andre, a recent college drama graduate who takes the first job he can find in late 60's Australia, over the objections of his live-in lover Lucy (Kimberly Gaughan) and best friend Nick (Nicolas Stewart.)  Not least among their objections:  the opera’s title and 180-year-old libretto celebrate an antiquated view of women as frivolous flirts.   Stewart and Gaughan also double as inmates, with the latter especially successful at creating two distinct characters with only simple changes of hair worn up or down, and radically dissimilar body language. As one might expect, the patients are a motley lot; some are nearly catatonic from over-medication or just by nature, and others are scarcely able to control emotional outbursts and destructive impulses. Meanwhile, Lucy and Nick pressure Lewis to join their movement of artists protesting Australia's involvement in Viet Nam, yet Lewis begins to find his own form of therapy in his interactions with the "mad" performers of the play within the play; to him, Mozart’s characters seem to be advocating independence for women, yet endorsing the traditional, committed relationship he is unable to find with Lucy.

Matthew Cavender takes top acting honors as Roy, a histrionic control-freak whose obsession with the Mozart opera sets the play's plot into motion. On opening night, Stewart got plenty of laughs as the aggressively sexual pyromaniac Doug, while Kaleb Edward Edley generated sympathy for his older, soft-spoken character Henry, who plays with toy soldiers as a tribute to his war hero father. Kimberly Braun was a veritable dynamo of emotion as manic Cherry, while Libby Hawkins created perhaps the most tragic figure as suicidal Ruth, whose obsessive-compulsive mannerisms give her tiny opportunities for control in a life that otherwise has spun out of control. The cast's sole undergraduate, Brooke Smith, expertly captured the officiousness of the institution's social worker. St. Andre's calm and placid demeanor anchored the tumult on stage, yet an argument scene between Lewis and Lucy, and an expertly-timed punch to Nick, were both gripping and believable.   Realistic depictions of mental health issues notwithstanding, Nowra's script overflows with dark comedy, with Ruth's deadpan rendition of the song "I'm So Excited" - delivered without a speck of excitement - a highlight.

Baxter Engle's set, depicting a run-down rehearsal space and its tiny stage, was necessarily minimalist, yet completely credible, as was the suggestion of a fire escape landing outside Lewis's apartment, creatively placed in the middle of the audience.  Director Steven Pearson has elicited natural yet detailed characterizations from his actors, and timing is excellent across the board. The audience surrounds the actors on three sides, meaning that at any given moment one or more actors' backs will be turned to a particular section; this led to some actors struggling to be heard, while others, especially Smith, Cavender, St. Andre, and Hawkins, projected with vigor and clarity throughout.  As one enters the space, the natural inclination will be to sit in the center section, facing the faux stage; however, I’d recommend moving to either the left or preferably the right sections of seats, for maximum visibility and audibility.

My guess is that inherent challenges for the actors - including mastery of accents, and the recreation of the mannerisms of various psychoses - and the opportunity for good ensemble work made Cosi an attractive choice for the Theatre Department's new class of MFA students moreso than any great literary merit in the material.   The closing image seen by the audience is a quote from the opera's final lines: "Make him laugh, and despite the tempest of his life, he will find serenity and peace." While in no way a deep philosophical work nor even a particularly profound piece of dramatic literature, Cosi makes a clear statement about the meaning one can find within fiction, and the healing power of art and performance.  Cosi returns Wednesday, November 16 and runs through Saturday, Nov. 19 (with both matinee and evening performances on Saturday) at USC's Longstreet Theatre. For information, call 803-777-9353 or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/cosi-longstreet-theatre.

 
 
Broken Fences Explores Urban Cultural Divide While Showcasing Goals and Talent of the NiA Company

Review by August Krickel 

At one level, Broken Fences is a touching and straightforward account of two young families coping with issues of identity: who they are, who they want to be, and how they may or may not be defined by where they live. At another level, the play is a cautionary and somewhat didactic tale of the perils of gentrification, i.e. the process where affluent professionals - often white - move to inner-city neighborhoods, driving up property values and therefore property taxes, and driving out working class families - often African-American - who have lived there for generations. While Steven Simoncic's script sometimes gets sidetracked, the play is an opportune vehicle to showcase the strengths, talents, and goals of the NiA Theatre Company, Columbia's intentionally nomadic, multi-ethnic theatrical troupe.

April (Heather McCue) still wears Nirvana t-shirts and colors her hair pink in her 30's; her husband Czar (Nathan Dawson) sports tattoos, a bushy beard, a mustache with carefully-curled tips, and hair closely-cropped on the sides, enabling him to pull the rest up into man-bun while he does yoga. These visual cues instantly define this expectant couple as both hipsters and yuppies before they ever speak a word of dialogue. We know this couple – if they lived in Columbia, rather than the play’s Chicago setting, we’d know where they drink $7 craft beers, which indie movie theater they attend, and from which farmers’ market they purchase organically-grown vegetables. Rejecting the homogeneity and privilege of the suburbs, they buy a newly remodeled home in an area where corporate chains and their customers are squeezing out the already struggling residents. Hoody (Darion McCloud) lives next door with his fiancé "D" (Ericka Wright) in the family home where he was raised, and where his troubled friend Esto (Tristan Pack) and restless, entrepreneurially-minded brother Marz (Zach Woods) periodically turn up. Both couples try to reach out to each other, and, left on their own, might overcome cultural barriers to forge some bond. Thanks to new development and homes being "flipped," however, a tripled property tax bill threatens Hoody's already strained-finances, and he and D face the imminent danger of losing their home. Czar and April meanwhile begin to find crack pipes and gang graffiti in their backyard.

Director McCloud anchored the play on opening weekend, stepping in to play Hoody at the last minute, and found nuance, meaning, and eloquence in a simple blue-collar worker's words. McCue mined the emotional depths of a self-described "B-cup, B-student" who assumed assorted personas as a way to rebel and to attract attention, only to find unexpected potential fulfillment as a wife and mother. Pack faced a tough challenge portraying a small-time street hustler unable to transition into mainstream society, but the actor handled the character's rage and frustration nicely without falling into stereotype. Dawson is one of those dependable actors who can morph into almost any type of character, from Tom Cruise’s cocky lawyer role in A Few Good Men at Workshop a few years ago, to the eccentric British naturalist Stapleton – a role played once by no less than William Shatner – in Chapin’s recent Hound of the Baskervilles; he was quite convincing as Czar, a decent guy who is uncomfortable with conflict he neither sought nor anticipated. Ericka Wright played D with fire and sass, juggling the character's resentment of April's overtures of friendship with her realization that April is just trying to help.

Many of the actors also deliver monologues, dropping some of the accents and mannerisms of their characterizations, and revealing the inner thoughts of their characters directly to the audience. While these speeches are delivered with passion and sincerity - especially by McCue - I felt these detracted from the natural flow of the play's narrative, as did a couple of awkward scenes of comedy intended to mock some of the characters’ cultural differences. The core story would be a decent plotline of under two hours, but the monologues and comic relief added an additional - and I feel unnecessary - 30 minutes, although the cast nevertheless performed these scenes proficiently.  McCloud's direction was crisp, creating naturalism and credibility. The curtain-free, bare stage of the CMFA ArtSpace can pose a huge obstacle to verisimilitude, and McCloud has wisely opted for simple props - a few chairs, tables, and doors - that are enhanced by natural blocking and movement. One never cares about the absence of an actual set because the actors command the audience's attention throughout. Only the fence that separates the two family's yards is mimed, making a statement in its own way: the sole barrier between the neighbors, and their respective cultures, is in their minds - and in ours.  Broken Fences tackles important issues in a believable and relatable manner, providing ample acting opportunities for the cast, and causing the audience to think – a long-time goal of The NiA Theatre Company, which takes its name from the Swahili word for “purpose.”   Broken Fences runs at the CMFA ArtSpace, located at 914 Pulaski Street, for three more performances, Thursday Nov. 3 through Saturday, November 5. Curtain is at 7:30 PM; for more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/jy9kcex or call (803) 553-2536.

 

 

Trustus Revival of Campy Cult Classic The Rocky Horror Show Still Has Relevant Message: Don't Dream It, Be It

Review by August Krickel

It's astounding that The Rocky Horror Show, Richard O'Brien's kinky, campy, musical spoof of sci-fi films, ran for over seven years in London, winning the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical. Time is fleeting - Trustus Theatre's production runs through November 5, and for the first time, Scott Blanks, the lead actor in the last five Trustus incarnations, has traded in his fishnets and stiletto heels for the director's chair, while Chris Cockrell, his faithful handyman Riff Raff in previous years, steps in as music director.  Madness takes its toll, or seems to, if you've never experienced this cult classic, as audience members heckle the cast in unison, throw confetti and toilet paper at the stage, and spray each other with squirt guns. Listen closely, not for very much longer: I've got to keep control of my fan-boy's love of the material, and explain how - and why - one might enjoy such seemingly quirky and lightweight fare.

I remember doing the "Time Warp" - the show's audience participation dance which features a jump to the left, a step to the right, and a pelvic thrust that will really drive you insa-a-a-ane - drinking those moments when my teenage friends and I were able to sneak a few mini-bottles into the old Bush River Cinema for midnight showings of the 1975 screen adaptation with Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon.  This became a rite of passage for college kids across America; if you knew Rocky Horror, you were part of a hip, subversive, sexy sub-culture that cosplayed before cosplaying was cool. Shy or self-conscious gals could strut their stuff in lingerie, and guys who might or might not be out of the closet could dress in drag without fear. Even geeky straight guys who did theater like me were welcome to tag along, since every group needed a Brad or Dr. Scott. And if someone played the soundtrack - from which I've been quoting liberally above - at a cast party, the blackness would hit us, the void would be calling, and we would indeed do the "Time Warp" again.  In short, the show is all about the shared experience. Newcomers to the phenomenon will catch on quickly that the plot and stylized acting are intended as parody, that the non-stop sexual references are meant as titillating yet harmless fun, and that audience participation is a live, ritualistic variation on the wisecracks later popularized by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The framing story is an Ed Wood-like mashup of genre tropes, which are invoked in the prologue song "Science Fiction/Double Feature." Naive couple Brad (Cody Lovell) and Janet (Anna Lyles) seek shelter in an archetypal old dark house, inhabited by mad scientist Frank N. Furter (Walter Graham) and his creepy minions, Riff (Michael Hazin) and Magenta (Katie Leitner.)  Actually aliens from the planet Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania, Riff and Magenta sport a vaguely undead pallor, while Frank is a flamboyant cross-dresser who surrounds himself with human followers, including tap-dancing groupie Columbia (Kayla Cahill) and an ensemble of "phantoms."  Pansexual romps with earthlings are part of their fun, but Frank focuses on his creation/boytoy Rocky, a blonde muscleman (Josh Kern). O'Brien, who played Riff in both the original stage and film versions, has said that the plot is a metaphor for his own journey of sexual exploration, told via motifs from late-night creature features. An alumnus of British casts of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, O'Brien became an early adopter of electric guitars and rock-and-roll beats for use in a stage musical, including echoes of and first-rate homages to 1950's leather-clad R&B, the high hair and high harmonies of 1960's girl groups, and the baroque excess and androgyny of 1970's glam rock. Or, "hard-rock-candy," as one critic famously wrote.

Everyone's voice is superb. Man-of-a-thousand-voices Hazin channels O'Brien's flat, nasal delivery, incorporating his own physicality and athleticism with a chaotic lurching gait in lieu of an actual hunchback, and he swings down onto the stage from a stripper pole like a pro. Leitner adds her lush vocals to the prologue in the guise of an Usherette, then slinks seductively through successive scenes as Magenta. Cahill is perky and amusing as Columbia, while Lovell and Trustus newcomer Lyles are perfect as the white bread innocents. Lovell, appealing in recent Trustus shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and American Idiot, gets to sing a pretty ballad, "Once in a While," which was cut from the popular film, and is given excellent backing by the male ensemble. Lyles also hits some beautiful notes, and glides across stage with a dancer's grace.

As Frank, Graham goes for his own interpretation, sporting a wig with a sort of 60's housewife bob rather than the traditional unruly, curly mop. Nevertheless, he rocks that corset with his rich baritone, and captures the contradictory nature of a sexually omnivorous alpha male who is in touch with his feminine side.  And just about everyone else's too. I'm more accustomed to Graham's work as a vocalist and vocal director, but he's a worthy successor as an actor to the iconic role memorably played by Blanks. The ensemble comprises four men and six women, who are outstanding. It's interesting to note that nearly half of them, as well as music director Cockrell and even the stage manager and sound board operator, are all veterans of 2014's Shrek the Musical at Town Theatre, where Blanks, and most of the leads have also performed. It's gratifying to see Trustus continuing to bring in new talent, ensuring that the right voices and the right types can fill the right roles. Cockrell has become the go-to guy at Trustus for rocking musicals, and he leads a top-notch band on keyboards, aided by impressive work on the tenor sax by Davis Bowers.  The band is atypically situated next to the sound booth, above the main entrance to the house.  That's a prime location, I feel, affording them an easy and necessary view of proceedings on stage, but leaving the performance space free for the actors. Brandon McIver's set is solid and functional, although somewhat threadbare, but it's significantly enhanced by striking visual effects by Baxter Engle including a rain storm, a bouncing ball that accompanies  the "Time Warp" lyrics, and a phallic variant of the old "Let's all go to the lobby" cartoon.

Few in the Midlands know Rocky Horror more intimately than Blanks, who has crafted a slick, polished, Vegas-style production of a famously low-budget, hard-rocking, guilty pleasure. You'll absolutely enjoy nearly two hours of toe-tapping tunes from great singers. Yet much of the subtlety (in a famously unsubtle piece) felt lost in the performers' rush to get to each well-known musical number in succession so that they might then rock the house.  There's not a lot of expository dialogue between songs, making every word and glance crucial for the plot, however silly that plot might be. In that opening number, for example, I'm not sure how many in the audience caught references to specific sci-fi films and actors (Flash Gordon, Claude Rains, Forbidden Planet, etc.) although I'm sure they loved the cute usherette costume and wig, and the unexpected entrance from the rear of the house. Nor am I convinced if too many picked up on how the titular Rocky was created, i.e. using part of the brain from ill-fated delivery boy Eddie (Percy Saint Cyprian.)  Or that the lyrics of "I Can Make You A Man" are a devastatingly witty satire of old Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads, grafted onto the premise of a Frankenstein-like creation. Or that Riff and Magenta really don't like Frank, and are planning mutiny. Or that the ensemble's matching wigs and attire, cast aside in the finale, may imply they are not just party guests but rather victims of Frank's mind-control. On the other hand, a music-free scene of comedy was well-received by the opening night audience as Frank seduces first Janet and then Brad, aided by a terrific effect creating the sense of an overhead view of a bedroom. Similarly, Leitner got a huge laugh when, in character, she glared daggers at an unexpected ad-lib from the audience. Moments of spontaneity like that serve to support the free-form nature of the material, which is written more cleverly than one might realize.

Possibly, at 43, Rocky Horror has simply grown up and entered the Broadway canon, appealing now to a mainstream audience who enjoy the catchy show tunes, and dutifully purchase their bags of participation props, turning then to their programs for guidance on where and when to spontaneously shout the accepted callbacks. Or alternatively, perhaps the naughty little musical has become a greater cultural phenomenon, much like a Carolina game where one dresses in garnet and black, applies Gamecock logos to one's cheek, cheers at the 2001 theme, and whirls something in the air when "Sandstorm" is played...but may or may not actually follow all the action on the field. In any event, Trustus undoubtedly has a hit on their hands, and a great mainstage season opener. It's worth remembering, however, however, that 43 years ago, it wasn't nearly as safe or acceptable to root for a "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania," and that the play's message of "don't dream it, be it" is a self-fulfilling testimony to how far as a society we have come.  For ticket information, visit http://www.trustus.org, or call 803-254-9732.

 

Surreal Sets, Fantastical Characters, and Outrageous Antics are Highlights of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” at USC's Drayton Hall

Review by August Krickel

Done adequately, Shakespearean comedy usually involves stately Elizabethan gardens and courtyards, elegant period costumes and wigs, beautifully composed poetry and prose declaimed by eloquent performers, and the sense that one is watching something important, uplifting, and educational. Done properly, with panache and authenticity, Shakespearean comedy is frantic, insane nonsense that skewers every stock character and scenario imaginable, leaving one with the sense of having gotten away with seeing a burlesque show in place of some stodgy assignment for English class.  I'm happy to report that director Robert Richmond's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, running at USC's Drayton Hall through this weekend, falls into the latter category.  (Although if you're seeing the show for some class requirement, feel free to tell your professor that it's the former, and that you want to see more for extra credit.)

Although Midsummer can be done with elaborate symphonic and dance accompaniment, and all the stage magic implicit in a story about spells and enchantment, Richmond has opted - wisely, I feel - to take the story back to its most basic roots. An abstract and visually commanding backdrop of surreal umbrellas notwithstanding, Richmond proves that Shakespeare can be done accessibly and convincingly on a bare stage. Three initially unrelated subplots comprise the larger storyline, converging in a forest populated by fairies. Rendered by costumer April Traquina as slinky steampunk Goths at a never-ending outdoor rave, the fairies are ruled by Oberon (DeAudrey Owen), a top hat-clad amalgam of voodoo's Baron Samedi and late '70's Adam Ant. Fairies may be immune to the physical laws of earthly existence, but not to marital woe, as Oberon feuds with wife Titania (Ashley Graham.) In what should be the least-effective reconciliation ploy ever - except that it works - Oberon decides to use a love potion on Titania, causing her to fall for whatever random creature or monster she first encounters - thus presumably humiliating and humbling her. Meanwhile, two mortal couples wander into Oberon's realm.  Hermia (Allie Anderson) and Lysander (Freddie Powers) are eloping, pursued by Demetrius (Tristan Hester) who also loves Hermia. Hot on his heels is Helena (Kelsie Hensley), his ex whose self-esteem is so low that she thinks begging, pleading, and throwing herself at his feet will cause him to return her affection. Oberon has a solution, and dispatches mischievous sprite Puck (William Quant) - not to be confused with ousted Real World roommate and bicycle messenger Puck, although they're pretty similar - to use that same love potion on Demetrius, causing him to rediscover his feelings for Helena. Except of course Puck screws it up. Eventually both Lysander and Demetrius burn for Helena, who thinks everyone is mocking her, while Hermia is incensed that her man has been stolen. Hermia is petite and feisty, while Helena is taller, leading to great lines like "How low am I, thou painted maypole? I am not yet so low but that my nails can reach unto thine eyes."  Helena replies that since her legs are longer, she'll simply outrun her, a retort worthy of Bugs Bunny to Yosemite Sam. 

In a third subplot, Puck happens upon some local community theater actors. Seriously.  Quince (Carrie Chalfant) is a carpenter, Bottom (John Romanski) is a weaver, Snug (Susanna McElveen) is a joiner, i.e. a wood craftsman, Snout (Conor Gallagher) is a tinker or metal-worker, Starveling (Noell Staton) is a tailor, Flute (Sam Edelson) is, of all things, a bellows-mender, i.e. the HVAC repair guy of his era. Their group is rehearsing an original play, with Bottom a parody of every bossy actor you've ever worked with. If he could, he would play every role. Puck opts to have a little fun, transforming Bottom's head into that of a donkey, and wouldn't you know it, that's the first thing the bespelled Titania sees. Naturally, hijinks ensue. Ultimately, all is resolved happily, and the actors get to perform their play - and it's worse than you can possibly imagine. Traquina's design for their street clothes makes it clear that these are essentially Mayberry characters, as if Gomer, Goober and Floyd the barber had to contend with an over-acting Barney for some local little theater show.

Much of the humor derives from the director's willingness for the student actors to go as far over the top as they care to, and boy, do they. Yet every single pratfall, doubletake, or clownish misstep is completely in sync with the text. Few stage directions survive from Shakespeare's writings, but when his dialogue has an actor say "Thus die I, thus, thus, thus," it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the actor repeatedly stabbing himself as he plays to the audience. That's a hallmark of this production: Richmond has taken every tiniest scrap of dialogue, and mined it for potential comedy. Thus, when Flute resists playing  a woman with the explanation "I have a beard coming," it's so much funnier when the baby-faced, clean-shaven Edelson takes a pause after "beard," then sheepishly adds "coming."  Traquina dresses the mismatched couples in prep school blazers, khakis, and plaid shirts, which similarly and easily sum up their characters visually as soon as they enter. These uniforms are gradually cast aside as the youngsters journey through the forest, stripping them literally as well as metaphorically. At the play's start, each thinks as a child: crossing a vast forest alone at night is a wise move, getting your father to force the object of your crush to marry you is a wise move, and thinking that you'll win a guy's love by saying "I am your spaniel...the more you beat me, I will fawn on you," is a wise move. 400 years before Sondheim sent his characters into the woods to grow up, Shakespeare did the same thing, and by the play's end, the couples have put aside childish things - including Hermia's dorm room teddy bear that she lugs through the forest - and have become confident adults.

The cast consists entirely of undergraduates, and if one is used to the performances of departmental MFA students - often artists in their late 20's or older with significant professional experience - there may be a bit of a let-down. Shakespeare's language is challenging, and these are young actors still learning their craft and developing their skills. Among the nobles, I wrote in my notes first that Anderson was the standout, then later added "Anderson and Powers," and by the end of the first act had added Hensley and Hester.  All have their good moments, and display proficiency with outlandish physical comedy. Bottom and his comrades fare better, since the speech of the boorish, uneducated comic relief characters is much closer to the English we speak today.   OK, let that sink in just for a moment, and infer what you will.  But all six "mechanicals" (i.e. the laborers with aspirations of theatrical grandeur) are easily recognizable types, thanks to costuming, direction, and the talent of the young actors. Much like the Gamecocks, we have a lot of sophomores with great potential for the future.

Richmond's production concept begins with people seeking shelter from a storm within some random structure filled with cast-aside objects (ladders, chairs, a bathtub); from there they move into the play itself. As action relocates into the fairy world, the visual notion of their umbrellas evolves into dozens of radiant umbrellas descending from overhead to signify both the starry sky and the thick foliage of the woods. Fairies bring other umbrellas onto the stage where they seem almost like giant fairy toadstools, or some fantastical Avatar-like jungle, enabling characters to hide unseen, and to disappear behind them. I think this non-realistic, whimsical design, by Neda Spalajkovic, works well.  Since the play is about magic and illusion, why not go abstract?

Following the preview performance I saw, several people asked me if all the vaudeville-style shtick was found in the original text. My answer was that it is all implied. That's the mark of a visionary director, to be able to find that implication, and then exploit it to enhance understanding and enjoyment of the material. I suspect that even a non-English-speaker would be able to follow the basics of the plot when seeing this production, thanks to the tireless efforts of the cast and creative team. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is scheduled to run through Saturday, Oct. 8, with both a final matinee and evening performance on the last day, although weather developments may intervene. Visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/midsummer-nights-dream-drayton-hall-theatre for up-to-date ticket information.

 

 

At On Stage Productions, Talented Youngsters Make Musical Version of Popular Film a "Big" Hit

Review by August Krickel

The Tom Hanks film Big is one of those timeless classics that almost everyone has seen and probably still loves. It's also one of many films giving an adult actor the chance to act like a kid, or vice-versa, including 18 Again with George Burns, 17 Again with Matthew Perry and Zac Efron, 13 Going on 30 with Jennifer Garner, Like Father Like Son with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, two different versions of Freaky Friday, and one actually called Vice Versa, with Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold. Who knew there's also a musical? The stage adaptation has been around for 20 years, ran for 6 months on Broadway, and was nominated for five Tony Awards, and ten Drama Desk Awards. Author John Weidner previously collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on Pacific Overtures and Assassins, composer David Shire is an Oscar-winner, and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. collaborated on Miss Saigon. Yet On Stage Productions in West Columbia is staging the South Carolina premiere of this sweet, family-friendly tale of a boy trapped in a man's body. Director Robert Harrelson is up for the challenge of ... ok, let's say it, a big production in a tiny space, and overcomes the limitations of budget with an appealing cast of young performers.

Penny Marshall's popular 1988 film was a fable for baby boomers hitting their 30's and 40's yet still feeling like kids inside. A little boy makes a wish and becomes an adult, with the implication that we too might succeed in both career and love by channeling our inner child. Interestingly, the stage version is aimed at more of an all-ages, family audience, and would not be out of place on the Disney Channel. Some of the liveliest numbers are performed by a talented ensemble of teens and tweens, which fits in perfectly with Harrelson's mission at On Stage: providing lessons and performance opportunities for actors of all ages and levels of ability in a family-friendly environment.  Big isn't exactly a children's show, but it could be. Trey Weaver as pre-transformation Josh and Tucker Privette as his wiseguy best friend Billy have an easy, natural rapport, contending with the angst and drama of being 12. Katie Edelson perfectly captures the precocious flirtatiousness of the hottest girl in 8th grade, who drops every hint possible to Josh that she's interested... but then abandons him for a 15-year-old who can drive. That little hussy!  I mean... this is one of countless relatable moments where audience empathy flows. Both acts open with terrific ensemble numbers from the kids, and are among the show's highlights. Several of the older and taller teens also double credibly as grownups in later scenes.

Karlton Timmerman is great as awkward, scared, goofy adult Josh, and competently carries the bulk of the charming score's vocals. The newly svelte Chadwick Pressley brings warmth to the role of Mr. MacMillan, owner of a toy conglomerate that has lost touch with its target audience of children. Spotting Josh's amazing ability to know what a 12-year-old might think, MacMillan hires him on the spot as a creative consultant, after that memorable sequence of dancing on a giant keyboard, which Pressley and Timmerman recreate perfectly. Meanwhile, Arischa Frierson, as Josh's mother, breaks our hearts on "Stop, Time," as she longs to know what became of her missing son who disappeared weeks earlier. It's best not to dwell on how gut-wrenching that might be in real life, because this is a comedy, although a sweetly sentimental one. The main bit of adult satire that is retained from the film involves Josh's co-worker Susan (Melissa Berry), who has a history of making bad choices in relationships, and pursuing inappropriate and unattainable men. Meaning that poor little Josh will seem like the ultimate trophy to her... except that she discovers it's actually his endearing innocence that reminds her of the genuine young woman she was, before becoming obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder. Berry is about a thousand times hotter and more sympathetic than the film's Elizabeth Perkins, and brings a layered and nuanced performance to the role. What's especially impressive is that her background is as dancer and choreographer (including this show.) Susan is the first lead acting role she's ever attempted - but a dancer has to be able to act, with body language and physical mannerisms, as well as facial expressions. Too often actors' faces signify nothing more than their preparation to speak their next line, whereas Berry reacts appropriately, even when silently, to every single thing that happens around her, and delivers her lines the confidence of a pro, alternating between assertion, seductiveness, and pathos. Another nice touch is how she doesn't try to hide her Southern accent, implying instead a Holly Hunter-like corporate exec who probably ended up in New York after a scholarship to Harvard Business School. As choreographer, she has a cast of both dancers and non-dancers, and effectively gives the latter plenty of simple movements for the big (ack, did I do that again?) musical numbers, including the swing-influenced "Coffee, Black."

Similarly, there are also singers and non-singers, and more experienced and less experienced actors within the cast. As above, this is part of the organization's mission, and given that Big the Musical wasn't exactly complex as a straight film, and has been rendered even simpler and more accessible for audiences of all ages in this stage adaptation, this isn't a problem. Just as long as you understand that this is community theatre, featuring many of your neighbors and their children, intended as light entertainment on a limited budget. With that caveat, sets, costumes, sound and lighting work just fine. Indeed, it's rather fun to spot how proficiently particular effects (the sliding doors of an elevator, backdrops that recall Rubik's Cube from the '80's, and the animatronic figures in the windows of F.A.O. Schwarz) are realized. Music Director John Norris capably leads a three-piece band of piano, guitar and drums with as much gusto as last year's excellent Little Shop of Horrors. He too is to be commended for inspiring some decent vocals from non-singers, and for the liveliness of the numbers featuring the kids.

Big the Musical runs close to three hours with intermission, and while the story is appealing and relevant for all ages, younger theatre-goers may not care as much about the corporate and social machinations of Susan's yuppie friends and co-workers, while adults may grow restless with the extended musical numbers featuring children (although those were my favorite part of the entire production.) Still, thanks to the talent of the leads, the kids, and the production team, this heart-warming tale of "be careful what you wish for" is a pleasant way to enjoy a few hours of family-themed escapism. Big the Musical runs through this weekend at the on Stage Performance Center at 680 Cherokee Lane in West Columbia; visit www.onstagesc.com or call (803) 351-6751 for ticket information.

 

 

Holmes and Watson Are On the Case in Chapin Theatre Company's Hound of the Baskervilles

Review by August Krickel

The game is afoot at the Harbison Theatre, where Sherlock Holmes (George Dinsmore) and Dr. Watson (Frank Thompson) are hot on the trail of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a fearsome legendary beast in rural southwestern England that may not be so mythical after all. The lord of the local manor has succumbed to a fatal heart attack; yet found near his body were - in the words that fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1902 thriller invariably recall as italicized even though they weren't - the footprints of a gigantic hound!  Director Glenn Farr and the Chapin Theatre Company have assembled a capable cast and crew to bring this classic tale of murder and suspense to the stage in the regional premiere of new adaptation that debuted just three years ago at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Doyle had killed off his famous detective almost a decade earlier, but relented to popular demand and brought him back for this novel, explaining that it took place several years prior; absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that, combined with the atypical addition of a supernatural component, made this one of the most popular of the Holmes stories. Playwrights David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright remain fairly (but not entirely) faithful to the original, but fleshing out the personalities of the supporting cast of victims and suspects. The new Baskerville heir, Sir Henry (Tanner McLeod) for example is now more of a man of action, and a veteran of cattle wrangling and mountain lion hunting in the wilds of Alberta. The female characters too, even faithful housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Cathy Carter Scott), are depicted as more than stock roles. A few locations are reworked to fit better with the limitations of live performance, but the dangers of the moor (i.e. rocky wilderness alternating with swampland) surrounding Baskerville Hall remain as intimidating as ever.

Full disclosure: I've known the director and the two leads for years, and have done shows with all three. Moreover, I'm a huge fan of the Holmes stories, saw a re-release of the 1939 Basil Rathbone film at the pre-Nickelodeon Fox Theatre when I was in high school, and even performed in a readers' theatre version of Hound in the late '80s.  We all picture beloved literary figures differently, and Dinsmore definitely has the angular features one expects. His portrayal is reminiscent of Robert Downey, Jr.'s recent big-screen characterization: a little scruffy, a little eccentric, somewhat soft-spoken, but nevertheless brilliant. The script thankfully allows Watson to be Doyle's resourceful ex-Army doctor and not the befuddled bumbler so often depicted, and Thompson contributes his customary good-natured heartiness and bluster. Nathan Dawson does excellent character work as local naturalist Stapleton. Still, at some level I'm imagining what additional heights might have been reached had Thompson lent his crisp diction and unfaltering projection to the role of Holmes, with Dawson's pleasant, intellectual demeanor shifted to Watson, leaving Dinsmore to dive into Stapleton's flamboyant quirks. (Is there a fantasy league for play casting?)

Other standouts in the cast include Emily Meadows as Beryl Stapleton, who manages simultaneously to convey damsel-in-distress and femme fatale, and Cathy Carter Scott who doubles as the Baskerville housekeeper, Mrs. Barrymore, and imbues her with a credibly tragic tone implied but never detailed in Doyle's novel. That doubling is an issue, however. The nature of the story requires almost every actor to pull double and triple duty as assorted servants, train conductors, and London pedestrians, yet much of the central mystery involves people mistaken for or pretending to be someone or something else. I wish there had been clearer distinction between instances when an actor in a new hat, wig, or costume represents a character attempting a disguise, and when we're seeing a traditional convention of the stage.

Director Farr proved to be a master of intricate blocking in last fall's Noises Off, and demonstrates a similar flair here. Actions spills out onto Baker Street and eventually into the foggy and foreboding moor, and Farr uses not only the stage but also the floor area in front of the audience, and even the steep stairwells for scenes of pursuit. Timing is crucial, so that a fugitive can interact with passersby, then exit just ahead of an entrance by Holmes and Watson from another part of the theatre. It all flows quite smoothly and naturally. Performers are similarly and effectively choreographed in a cocktail party scene there the only props on stage are a fireplace, an armchair, a sideboard/bar unit, and a few portraits on the wall. Nevertheless, movement is never stagnant, and each actor has clear motivation for every cross and counter, e.g. refilling a drink, welcoming a third person into a conversation, turning away for solitude, etc. 

To replicate fully the cluttered confines of Holmes's Victorian bachelor pad, stately Baskerville Hall, and the rocky outcroppings and murky depths of the ominous wasteland nearby - not to mention a spectral hound from Hell - would have taken a small army and the budget of a small nation. Designer Matt "Ezra" Pound instead goes for a bare stage with only a few necessary props, accomplishing the rest via excellent projections. Most are black-and-white images of relevant exteriors that are quite striking, while a few proficiently signify Gothic arches and eerie moonlit windows. Pound designed sound and lighting as well, including a neat animated effect representing fog. I can't imagine anyone pulling off this script any better with such a minimalist design and budget, and I really, really liked those projections. However, the Harbison stage is awfully big, and the raked, stadium-style seating allows the audience complete view of everything, meaning that there's little opportunity to fool the eye. However enthusiastically the cast threw themselves into the proceedings, I was never quite able to forget that I was watching actors run up and down stairs in a modern theatre, or that they were treading lightly on an imaginary path in a pretend swamp. I'm just not sure this was the best material for this space. It's no spoiler to reveal that someone will die (the play starts off with a murder, after all), someone will be shot at, someone will be menaced by the Hound, and someone will encounter the natural dangers of the swamp. Farr has devised an inventive, "practical" special effect for one of those, one of the best I've ever seen in fact, but at the matinee I attended, several older ladies behind me had no clue what they had just witnessed, and at plays' end were still trying to figure out what that effect represented.   Overall, it's not a huge problem though.  It just means that the strength of the play lies in Masterpiece Theatre-style dialogue and acting, and not in thrills and chills one might find in a Hammer horror film. That said, some silent moments with an escaped mass murderer, and some mood music composed by J.S. Lee are both are pretty creepy.

What?  There's an escaped killer? Oh yes - there are many layers and levels and red herrings to be found in Doyle's story, and don't expect the authors to follow its denouement precisely. Enthusiasts of the novel and of the Holmes stories in general will appreciate it all, and Chapin Theatre Company’s entry into the Sherlockian canon is a welcome one. As Vincent Starrett wrote of the enduring appeal of Holmes and Watson, “Here, though the world explode, these two survive/And it is always eighteen ninety-five.”  The Hound of the Baskervilles returns on Thursday, Sept. 15, for four more performances, closing with a matinee on Sunday, Sept. 18. 

 
 
Tail! Spin! Is a Timely Send-Up of Political Sex Scandals

Review by August Krickel

Some stories write themselves. Playwright Mario Correa has taken that to the extreme with Tail! Spin!, running through this weekend in the Side Door Theatre at Trustus. The cleverly punctuated title signifies both the attempts of politicians to "spin" news reports of their sexual indiscretions, and the downward spiral into which their careers usually descend.  Taken entirely from the public record - speeches, interviews, depositions, evens texts and tweets - Correa's script explores the details of four recent and particularly notorious scandals: Idaho Senator Larry Craig's foot-tapping encounter with an undercover officer in an airport men's room; New York Congressman Anthony Weiner's sexting escapades; Florida Congressman Mark Foley's online advances to underage male pages; and our very own Mark Sanford - credited with those very words on the cover of the program - who abandoned the fall lines of the Appalachian Trail for the tan lines of his Argentinian girlfriend. Four male actors portray these politicos as well as dozens of reporters, colleagues and associates with whom they interact, while one female actor, Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, fills in as all of the women in their lives. Under the capable and precise direction of Jason Stokes, maximum humor is wrung from lines that were originally intended to convey sincerity and conviction.

The quartet of disgraced legislators enter as if at a celebratory rally, shaking hands, smiling for unseen cameras, and waving to supporters spotted from afar. No one goes for an imitation, physically or vocally, of the four principal figures. Kevin Bush as Foley comes the closest to making one feel sorry for him, if briefly, as he delivers the obligatory mea culpa speech, and he gets plenty of laughs in other roles, including a just-the-facts cop, an unenthusiastic commercial announcer for Weiner's mayoral campaign, and even a couple of brief appearances as Stephen Colbert, greeting his "Nation." Stann Gwynn as Craig is perhaps the best at capturing the contrived gravitas of denial; Gwynne particularly impressed me with the delivery of a few lines as an unnamed aide to Mark Sanford, using an instantly recognizable accent that implies an educated South Carolinian professional, yet completely different from his own voice. Clint Poston is appropriately long-winded and insufferable as the love-struck Sanford, mooning over his soulmate in love letters worthy of a 12-year-old. Joseph Eisenreich gets the raunchiest material, recreating the worst of Weiner's messages to assorted women, and then shifting to play the teen recipient of similar messages from Foley; the actor uses his own youth to his advantage, nicely depicting the confusion of a teen in such a situation. Rodillo-Fowler demonstrates once again her versatility, employing a splendid array of accents ranging from trailer trash to Latin to brassy New Yorker. As Huma Abedin, her tone becomes increasingly bitter even as she defends her husband; as Hillary Clinton, she adopts a harsher and prophetically hoarser tone as she stands by her man. Her best moments come as she recreates the unique elocution of Barbara Walters, simultaneously playing interviewee Jenny Sanford.

Each public figure's episode plays out from start to finish in turn, resulting the equivalent of four 15-20 minute comedy sketches, for a total run time of only 90 minutes, including intermission. I do feel that intermission is important, however, as it allows for socializing among audience members over a drink or two, which is an important part of the Trustus experience. Costumer Amy Brower Lown has provided one formal, business-like suit for each actor, and each is quite elegant and appropriate for the character. Projected images - including logos of news programs that indicate where each character is appearing, and captions explaining a particular circumstance - are important to the plot, and work perfectly as designed by director Stokes. Much of the play's humor derives from juxtaposition of unrelated quotes for comedic effect and double entendre; innocuous speeches referring to eating a hot dog, or applying lotion for proper skin care, take on decidedly different undertones when woven into a narrative of carnal misconduct. Split-second timing is therefore essential, since so many of the lines are seemingly non-sequiturs, and Stokes has ensured that his cast carries these off with ease. His blocking is similarly excellent, allowing the actors to move naturally, and never seem limited by the tight confines of the Side Door (a 50-seat black box.)

Ultimately, the humor of Tail! Spin! is analogous to an excellent skit on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. Yet I feel the author's brilliance lies in how he technically didn't write a single word of his own, but rather assembled and edited actual transcripts from these lawmakers' misadventures, managing to create hilarious satire where none was intended. My only words of caution are that conservative theater-goers may not care for the often X-rated dialogue (mainly in the Weiner scenes) and that three of the four characters are Republicans; there's not any overt political agenda here, apart from the notion that all politicians are lying scumbags, but if one isn't prepared to accept that going in, this may not be the ideal choice. Tail! Spin! returns to the Richard and Debbie Cohn Side Door Stage at Trustus Theatre for Four more performances, Wednesday, Sept. 14 through Sat. Sept. 17.
 
 
 
 
My Fair Lady Hits All The Right Notes to Open Town Theatre's 98th Season

Review by August Krickel

My Fair Lady might be the greatest musical comedy ever written.  It was certainly one of the most successful, setting a record with 2,717 performances in its first Broadway run, winning six Tony Awards (out of ten nominations) and inspiring a film which won eight Oscars. Subsequent revivals over the decades usually garner awards as well. It helps to have been based on perhaps the greatest work by Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw, whose play Pygmalion (and the screenplay for its film adaptation) provided the inspiration for Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics, set to Frederick Loewe’s music. Town Theatre opens its 98th season with this classic, which features soaring vocals from the leads and lively ensemble numbers.

Full disclosure:  I’ve always loved this material. The Rex Harrison-Audrey Hepburn film was probably the first live-action musical I ever saw on screen. I dug up scenes from Pygmalion to perform in high school drama class (even if this was a ruse to get out of the regularly assigned lesson plan for the day.) I was part of the committee that chose MFL as Town Theatre's 500th show kicking off its 70th season in 1989, and to my surprise, ended up improbably playing Alfie Doolittle in that very production. Additionally the current cast includes a number of friends, former classmates, former roommates, and former castmates, including one from that same 1989 production. (Insert shock-face emoji here.) Would that make me more inclined to automatically like this production? Or might my familiarity make me vastly more critical and judgmental? Going in, I wasn't sure, but hoped that those might cancel each other out. I'll report, you decide.

Language and phonetics expert Henry Higgins (Jeremy Hansard) and linguist Col. Pickering (Bill DeWitt) make a friendly wager, to see if Higgins can teach a yowling Cockney guttersnipe - defined as "a scruffy and badly behaved child who spends most of their time on the street, or a person of the lowest moral or economic station" - how to speak properly. Higgins is convinced that Eliza (Kerri Roberts) has the potential to be passed off as a lady, after she takes the initiative to seek elocution lessons as a way of moving from selling flowers on the streets to perhaps working the counter in an actual shop. Higgins is a cranky bachelor with an upper-class pedigree; that, combined with wealth and education, means he has no qualms about treating anyone dismissively. As he instructs Eliza in speech, Higgins inadvertently (or subconsciously?) imparts his independence and self-confidence, thus creating the one woman with whom he might interact as an equal. The only problem?  His creation doesn't like being treated as a creation.

Some may see Higgins's famous tirades against women as misogynistic, which was the prevalent sentiment of the era - Pygmalion debuted just a few years before women in England won the right to vote. Yet original playwright Shaw is often considered an early feminist and socialist - in other words, he didn't invent this plot or its themes randomly just for laughs, even if the dialogue, large chunks of which Lerner incorporated, unaltered, into the book for MFL, zips back and forth as wittily as any episode of Friends or Sex and the City. Higgins maintains he shall never let a woman in his life.... meaning he almost certainly has in the past, with disastrous results. He fumes that a woman should act and think more like a man - yet lets slip that he really means she should act and think more like him. Eliza is in her 20's, yet clearly has avoided relationships, presumably holding out for someone to respect her. She concludes that beyond diction, "the difference between a lady and a flower girl isn't how she behaves...but how she is treated."  Can these two crazy kids overcome self-created barriers and get together?  The answer isn't as easy or obvious as one might expect.

Hansard is an excellent singer and a decent actor, if not a particularly subtle one, and navigates tricky lyrics and stretches of songs where the words must be spoken in time to the accompaniment with ease. DeWitt is a natural for the scholarly/military/gentlemanly Pickering. Will Moreau plays Eliza's rascally father Alfie with an impish twinkle in his eye and a skip in his step, channeling the traditions of music halls of the era as he plays to the crowd in "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me To The Church On Time."  Alfie is a sporadically employed garbageman and full-time grifter with hopes of extorting five pounds from Higgins, who he assumes has installed Eliza as a kept woman. Alfie's scenes are played for the broadest comedic effect, but they contain some of Shaw's sharpest satire. MFL is a long show, and director Allison McNeely has trimmed down some 20-30 minutes of exposition. I understand why this was necessary, but the result gives some scenes an almost cartoon-like quality, advancing the plot apace but with few of its details or nuances. Accordingly, we miss the some of the natural development of the attraction between Higgins and Eliza, and much of Alfie's railing against "middle class morality." Some of his lines could be just as hilarious - and controversial - today as they were a century ago, as when Alfie declares himself an undeserving man whose need for food and drink - especially drink - "is as great as the most deserving widows that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband."  

Lerner's adaptation of Shaw's brilliant text notwithstanding, MFL is simply a beautiful show to listen to, with seven or eight standards contained within Loewe's score, including "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face." Although vocal arrangements and orchestrations seem somewhat simplified - again, perhaps for time's sake - the overall vocal performance by both leads and ensemble is just outstanding. If you are fond of the score, there's a strong chance that Roberts and Jeremy Reasoner (as Eliza's would-be beau Freddie) will bring tears to your eyes with the beauty of their respective renditions of "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "On the Street Where You Live." The latter performer recreates the giddiness of young love he perfected so well last year as the lead in Singin' in the Rain, and I think approximately 150 older ladies in the audience were holding their hands to their hearts as he hit his final high note on opening night. I've left leading lady Kerri Roberts for last because... just... wow. The production's publicity photos don't do her pretty features justice, and her acting is right up there with her singing, which is just incredible. As the second act opens jubilantly with "You Did It," her silence and the wounded expression in her eyes (while Higgins and Pickering rejoice as if she's a prize-winning trained pet) speak volumes. The British accents come and go throughout the cast, although at worst they soften into a mid-Atlantic sound, but Roberts is consistent, first as a shrill Cockney and then as the assertive lady she becomes. Her bio notes that two years ago she played Mary Poppins, another iconic role for Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Eliza. As far as I'm concerned, she can keep moving right on through the Andrews canon, and since Hansard can do authority, Reasoner can play romantic, and Moreau has quirkiness down pat, there's your Guinevere, Arthur, Lancelot and Pellinore anytime anyone is ready for Camelot

MFL is also an elaborate show to design, and Danny Harrington's set makes some smart and effective compromises. The library-like interior of the posh Higgins home is two stories, with a circular staircase and upper-level balcony, but much of the intricate woodwork and the hundreds of books are actually two-dimensional, created with paint. A few crucial props and elegant furniture items make for a cozy parlor area, while most of the other scene locations are accomplished by elaborate painted drops that descend and rise as needed. This reduces the available space downstage significantly, and means that while elegant, these settings - the ballroom of an embassy, the exterior of the Covent Garden Opera House, the opulent Ascot Racecourse - require just a little suspension of disbelief, as they are not completely three-dimensional.  But I feel this was necessary for the very smoothly handled and timely scene changes and transitions. Janet Kile’s costumes are nice, especially for the all-black-and-white color scheme of the Ascot.  MFL isn't a dance-heavy show, but choreographer Joy Alexander moves people around the stage with proficiency; as a result, people in crowd scenes seem to be breaking into dance naturally as they would at some rowdy county fair when music begins, and lowly flower vendors and street sweepers don't magically turn into ballerinas or break-dancers. Musical director Gloria Wright lets Reasoner and Roberts do what they do best, as detailed above, which is enough. But she also makes sure that several memorable moments of harmony work correctly - a Cockney quartet that backs up first Eliza and then Alfie, and a couple of chambermaids who try to put Eliza to bed when she'd rather be dancing - and singing - all night. Wright also leads four other musicians and plays keyboard, utilizing a lot of appealing synthesized string effects. The accompaniment includes flute and trumpet, which give a decidedly lush and orchestral sound to many numbers, although I'd have been just as happy had bass and drums been switched for, say, a second keyboard, a cello and a bassoon.

As above, My Fair Lady is a long show: the first act finishes around 9:35 PM (so 4:35 PM on a matinee) meaning that the second act doesn’t take off until almost 10 PM, and it’s a full second act. Efforts to contend with the length result in the loss of a little of the show’s eloquence and subtlety, and tech, music, and dance all seem a little pared down too.  Yet it’s fun to watch, it’s funny and touching and sweet, and there’s some very complex social commentary going on. And oh my word can those kids sing.   My Fair Lady runs through Sunday, Sept. 25.

 
 
 
Anatomy of a Hug Is A Laugh-Filled Character Study of Wounded Survivors

Review by August Krickel

"You can live here until you die - but you are no longer my mother."  That's a chilling line, laden with emotion, and it forms the crux of Kat Ramsburg's new play Anatomy of a Hug, running at Trustus Theatre as the winner of the organization's annual Playwrights' Festival.  Through "compassionate release" - a legal process allowing for a convict with a terminal illness to be cared for by family members instead of the corrections system - a convicted murderer (Dewey Scott-Wiley) spends her final days with a daughter (Rebecca Herring) she hasn't seen in 26 years. Neither woman fully grasps her desperate need for connection with the other, but a wise social worker (Annette Grevious) senses that some closure or resolution is essential for both. What could have been a dreary and depressing plotline for a soap opera is instead a lively, touching, and - believe it or not - laugh-filled character study of wounded survivors, thanks to three-dimensional characterizations by the leads, and the nuanced writing of author Ramsburg.

As mother Sonia, Scott-Wiley is achingly vulnerable yet also endearingly goofy; she finds a sympathetic humanity within what could be a very unlikable character. Rebecca Herring is a complete delight as daughter Amelia, a dvd binge-watcher who has used television as a crutch, a painkiller, a companion, and a surrogate parent while growing up in foster care. Her timing is impeccable in moments of both comedy and tragedy, as when Sonia advises her daughter to try to live her life, and Amelia deadpans "I'll get right on that."   I remain unsure if Amelia's job with an international children's charity, seeking sponsors for orphans in Africa, is a perfect metaphor and outlet for the character's familial dysfunction, or a bit too obvious and heavy-handed. Yet the fact that I'm still conflicted on that 24 hours later speaks to the complexity of the author's intent. Patrick Michael Kelly plays Ben, Amelia's co-worker and potential love interest, and he brings energy, commitment, and intensity to his portrayal. Yet however adept his characterization may be, I feel it's wrong for the role. Ben's blustery charm and smarmy aggressiveness are obviously covers for his own insecurity, but I feel his non-stop patter should be more sweet and impish than Kelly showed on opening night. Or to use an example from Friends - its theme song and those from many other classic series are used extensively throughout this production - Ben needs to be more of a gentle and lovable Chandler Bing figure, in order to convincingly bring Amelia out of her shell.

Amanda's addiction to television is more than just a plot element, however; the motif of the medium pervades the entire production, with Baxter Engle's set resembling the soundstage for a sit-com. Bold primary colors  to the rear of the stage suggest a test pattern, while flashing signs give cues for laughter, applause, and "awwwwwws." Director Chad Henderson explains in program notes that Amelia imagines herself as the protagonist in the story of her life. It's certainly a design and staging concept that deserved to be tried, but I fear it detracts from just how much of an impact pop entertainment has had on the evolution of Amelia's personality. With no available adult role models, television became her only source to learn the way people are supposed to act, react, and behave in adult life. It's significant that she is most passionate when defending the finale of Lost, explaining the characters' need to resolve assorted personal issues in their lives... just as she unwittingly will do with her mother. A passing reference to the unpleasantness of season 6 of Buffy becomes vastly more meaningful and poignant if one knows how that season chronicles the indestructible vampire slayer's inability to cope with the responsibilities of being an adult following her mother's death. The script is replete with purposeful little gems like that, and I found myself hanging on every word of the compelling and utterly natural dialogue. 

Anatomy of a Hug was developed over two years in several readings and workshop productions, and could probably stand one more polish; the current running time is about an hour and 40 minutes, and is presented here as a long one-act with no intermission. I'd have been more than happy to see another scene of attempted mother-daughter bonding, and another date gone awry between Ben and Amelia, just to develop these appealing characters further. Similarly, I wish that the titular hug - a reference to Ben's attempts to break through Amelia's defensiveness - could somehow incorporate Sonia as well. And given the episodic nature of each scene, the play's narrative flow wouldn't suffer a bit if there were a nice intermission included.  But Ramsburg's mastery of genuinely witty and believable character-centric comedy, along with the ability to craft moments of heart-breaking truthfulness and insight, make her the actual star of this production, which is appropriate, given that the theater's intent is to showcase the work of new authors. I look forward to future works from her.   Anatomy of a Hug only runs through Saturday, August 27; visit http://www.trustus.org or call (803) 254-9732 , ext. 2, for ticket information.

 

 
 
Punk Rage on the Stage in Green Day's 
American Idiot at Trustus Theatre

Review by August Krickel

Green Day's American Idiot is a faithful recreation of the punk band Green Day's concept album - or if you will, rock opera - American Idiot, which won a Grammy for best rock album in 2005, and sold over 15 million copies. Or as faithful a recreation as you can expect on the small stage at Trustus Theatre, with the angst-filled songs of rebellion reinterpreted via the idioms of the Broadway musical. Full of youthful anger and defiance, and performed with vigor by a talented and animated young cast, this show undeniably rocks out at full throttle; as long as you're in the mood for a punk rock musical, it would be hard to find a better way to spend an hour and 40 minutes as part of a fun night out in the Vista.

The relevant question, however, is: do you want to watch the equivalent of an extended punk music video for 100 minutes? What if I added the lure of a cold beverage and a comfy chair?  In the first year of MTV, given that option, I'd have said "Make it a six-pack, and I'm in for the next ten hours." My head-banging days were pretty limited, largely vicarious, and long behind me now, but I thoroughly enjoyed this production, even if - or perhaps because - it was as much rock concert as theatrical performance. Hard-core aficionados of punk may debate just where Green Day falls in the continuum of rebellion vs. commercialism, and how accurately a 21st-century, Tony-winning stage musical can capture the ethos of a sub-culture that originated in the '70's in Europe, but I'll limit myself to the merits of this particular production.

Primarily sung-through with only bits of spoken dialogue, American Idiot's story is partly allegorical, and mainly discernible through the movement and actions of the cast, and the emotions we see as they perform each musical number. In other words, it's awfully hard to understand the lyrics. Much of the show's socio-economic-political commentary becomes clear if you Google the lyrics, or look up interviews with lyricist and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.  No such luxury is available during a live performance, but I never expect to catch every word at a rock concert. (Or as Jimi Hendrix sang, " 'scuse me while I kiss this guy.")  Director Chad Henderson and choreographer Caitlin Britt - who also performs in the ensemble - work in tandem to make the show's broader themes clear.  Amid a generation of lower-middle class kids coming of age in a world they neither endorse nor relate to, three disaffected youths yearn to escape suburban dystopia and head to the big city, guitars in hand. Will (Cody Lovell) stays behind upon realizing that girlfriend Heather (Katie Leitner) is pregnant. Tunny (Patrick Dodds) is no happier on his own than before, and in a fit of post-9/11 patriotic frenzy chooses the military as remedy for his aimless existence. Johnny (Garrett Bright) follows the familiar rock-and-roll trajectory leading to alcohol and drugs, which are personified by St. Jimmy (Michael Hazin), an imaginary Mr. Hyde to Johnny's Dr. Jekyll. Along the way, Johnny falls into bed and a sort of casual love with a girl he recalls later as "Whatsername" (Devin Anderson.)

Not surprisingly, Will isn't the best father or partner, Johnny struggles with addiction, and Tunny ends up in a military hospital where he takes a turn for the nurse (Avery Bateman.)  The trained voices of Anderson, Leitner, and Bateman add depth and glamorous vitality to songs from a genre not known for sweet harmonies or pretty melodies. Dodds, Bright, and Lovell have similar vocal skills, but their numbers call for the rage and snarl more commonly associated with punk, which they capture with ease. Hazin embodies the dysfunctional yet seductive lure of St. Jimmy, a character played by composer Armstrong on Broadway; it's a shame that he's not on stage more. Also of note is Josh Kern taking lead on the song "Favorite Son," a jingoistic indictment of American values, which combines modern punk swagger with a sort of retro-50's sound, a la Joan Jett.

Although the accompanying band is partially hidden above the stage, musical director Chris Cockrell was always visible, and he remained on his feet for the entire 100 minutes - there is no intermission - simultaneously conducting seven other musicians and playing keyboard. I was reminded of Paul Shaffer at his finest, energetically wrangling rockers in one of those all-star jams at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Guitarists Jeremy Polley and Jonathan Knott alternated on lead, contributing staccato blasts of three-chord fury that lifted the accompaniment above proficient musicians capably performing a score and into rock concert territory. Moody string arrangements on slower numbers conjured the brooding ambience of other alternative bands of the era like Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis.  Baxter Engle's scenic design depicts a decaying urban wasteland filled with ubiquitous televisions and neon lighting, while Amy Brower Lown's costumes reflected the chaotic and conflicting fashion choices (or lack thereof) common among teens struggling to find an identity, yet still resembling each other.

The combined talent of the cast’s 22 members and the 8 musicians on stage, guided by the veteran creative team, ensured a frenetic, and for me, quite satisfying evening of live performance. Ultimately this is a rock album acted out on the stage, however.  Composer Armstrong’s collaborator on the book, Michael Mayer, is an accomplished stage director, and no doubt helped the novice playwright flesh out unformed ideas and themes into stage scenarios with concrete opportunities for actors to develop those themes. I found myself wondering if the issues raised in the libretto and given form in the staging and choreography might translate beyond the contemporary milieu of punk rock and alternative music, and have more universal significance? I suspect they do. Set in 2000 BC, I can envision Johnny seduced by the lure of Sodom or Gomorrah, Tunny falling in battle with the Philistines, and Will trapped the same way he’s trapped here, while singers on lyres recount the inevitable frustration of disenfranchised youth.  But admittedly, this is my own projection of relevance onto a staged rendition of lively Green Day music, so take that with as much skepticism as needed.  Green Day’s American Idiot runs through Saturday July 30th at Trustus Theatre, and tickets are reportedly going quickly, so visit http://www.trustus.org or call the box office at 803-254-9732 for more information.



 
 
Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star Characters Charm Audience With a Glimpse into Their Small Town Lives Through a Lens of Nostalgia
Review by Dell Goodrich

Dynamic characters and ribald humor, scripted by James McLure, in Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star, (two companion One Act Comedies), are brought admirably to life by the talented ensemble cast of The Lexington County Arts Association’s production at The Village Square Theatre.
The comedies, directed by Debi Young, represent the inaugural run of a Fringe (Rated PG-13, Non-Season) show at The Village Square Theatre. I attended the second night of the run (June 11). What our modest audience lacked in size it made up for with enthusiasm. Laughs were abundant in the house throughout both plays. Community theatre goers, who missed the first weekend of the run should make haste to purchase tickets for one of the final two performances (June 17/18) or risk missing out on a pair of fresh, hilarious shows. Because this run is a Fundraiser for the theatre’s building fund, patrons will also be supporting a member of the phenomenal theatre community we are so lucky to have, in an around Columbia and Lexington.

There’s a lot to love about these two one-hour plays. Most noteworthy is the clear effort that went into the ensemble work in both. These actors are working as teams, not individuals, and it shows.
Both Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star are set in the rural Texas town of Maynard, post-Vietnam, when nearly the entire town is on the brink of poverty and has been reduced to a few scattered buildings, two cemeteries, and two churches. By the mid-1960s Maynard had already disappeared from lists of Texas towns and communities. Both shows highlight the recurring themes of nostalgia and longing for lost youth and the good old days. Lonestar’s leading man longs for his high school glory days, in a way that- to this reviewer- is oddly reminiscent of the public image of David Hasselhoff. Both men are “legends in their own minds”, who peaked a long time ago, but are still trying to cling to the past. [**Author’s Note: I had to work The Hoff in here somewhere in order to win a bet!]
These two stories were called collectively 1959 Pink Thunderbird, by James McLure. The characters are all connected in one way or another, a common characteristic of small-town life
Laundry and Bourbon takes place on the front porch of Roy and Elizabeth Caulder's home on a hot summer afternoon, where Elizabeth and her social-climbing friend Hattie are passing time folding laundry, watching reruns of “Let’s Make a Deal”, sipping bourbon and Cokes, and gossiping. A high school “frenemy” Amy Lee, who has lately become an intolerable representative of the country club set, arrives unexpectedly and accepts an invitation to stay for a drink and a chat. As the cocktails flow, secrets are revealed.
Julie Fear delivers many strong moments as a seemingly wistful Elizabeth. She is concerned for her troubled husband, but is standing by her man, in spite of all his faults. Elizabeth is competent and diplomatic, the peace maker of their trio. Fear interprets her character believably and shows real proficiency in her ability to subtly portray the range of emotions Elizabeth feels as the story unfolds.
Debra E. Leopard plays a hilariously irreverent and sharp-tongued Hattie, who admits she has arrived at Elizabeth’s so she could “get away from the kids and get bombed”. An especially funny incident occurs when Hattie becomes personally affronted by a couple dressed in chicken costumes on a TV game show and yells at them, “Chickens don’t have bangs!” Leopard ascribes a winning sassiness and a quick wit to Hattie that keeps the audience in stitches.
The gold-digging Amy Lee, gleefully personified by Jaime Presor, (who told me she usually works behind the scenes and not on stage- but is a natural comedienne) is married to Cletis, the owner of an appliance shop.  She is determined to climb the social ladder, come hell or high water. She is on a quest to convince her friends to buy overpriced tickets to the Pancake Supper at the Baptist Church. She advises her companions that the money will support the church’s mission work in Paraguay. It is particularly urgent that they get there as soon as possible because, as Amy Lee explains, “the Catholics got a head start”.
In a lively turn of events, Hattie, who has just finished calling Amy Lee “tacky” and joking that “Ray Charles picks out her wardrobe”, is horrified to see Amy Lee walk through the door wearing the same dress she is. The exchange is side-splitting, with laudable body language and comedic timing by all three actresses. The two identically-garbed actresses go on to swap barbs with a saccharine, two-faced skill that rivals any southern belle. Bless their hearts. The more drinks the women consume, the more revelations surface. The episode culminates with Amy Lee suddenly acquiring a strangely prim case of the hiccups. A madcap chase around the porch brings the gathering to an end, after Hattie’s attempts to cure Amy Lee’s hiccups-by scaring her- result in Amy Lee vomiting into Hattie’s shoe.
Lone Star, named after the brand of beer we see Roy rapidly consuming by the case as the play opens, takes place outside a local honky-tonk bar near the outskirts of Texas. Roy, portrayed by Chris Kruzner, is the stereotypical, former high school football hero and is still clinging to the memories of his glory days. He has been home from Vietnam for 2 years and is still trying to gather the pieces of his life. Given that fact alone, this play is slightly more subdued than the first. However, it never detracts from the humor to be found in the play.
Roy regales his little brother Ray, performed charmingly by Merritt Vann, with tales of his exploits. Ray idolizes his older brother and their affection for each other is evident. The siblings stage a reenactment of a conflict in Vietnam, just like two little boys playing war. The exchange is witty and utterly and wickedly funny, and is one of the highlights of the show. Both Kruzner and Vann are believable as brothers; never more so than when they practically wallow in the wonder of Roy’s pink 1959 Thunderbird.
The role of Roy was originated on Broadway by the talented Powers Boothe, a friend and classmate of the playwright. In this production, Chris Kruzner impresses as much as one might imagine Boothe would. He demonstrates his own expertise at characterization right out of the gate and immediately sets a high bar for what the audience may expect in this second play. I imagine that it must be challenging to credibly assume the role of an increasingly intoxicated and belligerent Texan. And yet this is exactly what he does. Kruzner is convincing as the troubled war veteran Roy, who likely suffers from PTSD. He permits the audience to glimpse a likeable vulnerability as he navigates all 5 stages of grief, throughout his night of drinking and brawling.
Roy (Kruzner) opens the performance by staggering tipsily across the stage, taking a seat at the edge, beginning to guzzle the aforementioned beer and tunefully singing a few lines of “Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

“Cowboys ain't easy to love and they're harder to hold.
They'd rather give you a song than diamonds or gold.
Lone star belt buckles and old faded Levi's,
And each night begins a new day.
If you don't understand him, an' he don't die young,
He'll probably just ride away.”

Kruzner, in those few short measures showcases a melodic, fluid voice. He allows the audience to share this intimate moment with him, inviting them to immediately become emotionally involved with Roy. Kruzner, himself, suggested this addition, recognizing the parallels between the song’s lyrics and the themes that unfold throughout the play. It’s a clever approach and provides a strong opening to the play. It also demonstrates the obvious commitment to true ensemble work that is evident throughout both plays.
Enter Cletis “Skeeter” Fullernoy, portrayed exceptionally by relative theatre newbie, Samuel Hetler. Cletis is a former class nerd turned successful nerd businessman and is husband to Amy Lee.  He is garbed in a powder blue leisure suit, whose pants are hiked up nearly to his chin, reminiscent of Steve Urkel.  His geek uniform is complete with pocket protector, thick black-rimmed glasses, and hair styled with copious amounts of Brylcreem. His arrival stirs up conflict in the same way Amy Lee’s did in the previous play. Neither one of them is very popular. Roy, who has always disliked and bullied Cletis, dismisses Cletis’s attempts to join in their reminiscing. Roy taunts “Skeeter” (who HATES to be called Skeeter) and evokes the classic high school jock, bullying the geeks and refusing to allow them to hang out with the cool kids. Reportedly, this is only Hetler’s second production, but it’s hard to believe. He’s a natural. He steps into Cletis’s skin as if he had be born with it. I predict we will be seeing more of Hetler on our local community theatre stages.
Roy, just like any teenager would, brags to his pals about his high school escapades with the opposite sex. He delivers a monologue using salty vernacular that is so hysterical that it almost makes up for the poor taste of the story he is sharing.
Towards the end of the piece, Ray makes a disturbing revelation to his brother that stirs up violence and rage from Roy and leads to an all-out physical fight. Again, in this second play, we witness how many more revelations surface as more drinks are consumed by the men,
Ultimately younger brother teaches older brother a few things. First, Ray points out that, though Roy always calls him stupid, Roy is in fact the stupid brother because he is the one who went to Vietnam and got shot. That line was delivered so piquantly by Vann, that I was caught off guard. I erupted in such laughter that, had I been drinking a beverage at that moment, I would have probably felt it come out of my nose.
Additionally, Ray is always looking for the silver lining and begins to teach Roy how to do this as well. When Roy learns that Cletis has driven completely totaled his cherished pink Thunderbird, Ray tells him that “pieces of that car are spread from here to yonder”. Roy laments that he always wanted to have the car to pass on to his kids and Ray cheerfully points out that now Roy “can give them each a piece.” You can always find something to be thankful for.
Director Debi Young assigns Ray the task of making announcements before the show begins. In full character, Vann explains the House Rules, decreeing politely that “…nary a picture or video can be taken” and helpfully informing the audience that there are “outhouses” that way (in the lobby).
Young’s direction elicits 110% effort from all of her actors.  This is crucial, as the characters in James McLure's plays demand great emotional commitment from their audience and the actors must give before they can receive. The two plays provide a funny and fairly accurate snapshot of small-town life. The only flaws I noted were within the script. Unfortunately, moments of real substance are somewhat limited by the McLure’s writing. Then again, this is supposed to be a farce. The skill of these actors in embodying their roles, more than compensates for any perceived textual inadequacies.
A modular set provides for simple, clean, and effective staging. It depicts the change in locale, from Elizabeth’s porch to the back of Angel’s Honky-Tonk Bar, with a simple rotation of the platform and some thoughtful prop choices.
Ted Koppel once said, “It becomes increasingly easy, as you get older, to drown in nostalgia.” Such experiences should be familiar to the audience as features of the human condition. By addressing serious topics through a lens of humor, McLure suggests that sometimes you just have to laugh at life. Otherwise you will go crazy. The action of the second play closes as effortlessly and gratifyingly as it began in the first comedy.
The ensembles of both one-act plays are strong and believable and make the most of what the script provides. Smart casting, artful direction and shrewd, intuitive, detail-oriented acting decisions all contribute to the success of this production, creating audience investment and fostering emotional intimacy with them. The assemblage of talented artists featured in this production provided a welcome and entertaining evening.


 
 
Commedia Hansel and Gretel Brings Exuberance and Laughter to Grimm Tale

Review by August Krickel

A highlight of summer theatre offerings in recent years has been Columbia Children's Theatre's original versions of traditional fairy tales, done in the style of Italian commedia dell' arte. That’s  an improvisational art form that lives on today in burlesque, slapstick, circus and pantomime performances. If you go to the "Archives" section of this site, and do a quick search for "commedia," you'll find a more extensive explanation; for now, let's just say that it's broad comedy featuring lots of audience interaction, but with plenty of satire and topical references for the amusement of any adults in attendance. The Commedia Hansel and Gretel, written and directed by CCT Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson, continues in that successful vein, which led to two previous works running successfully off-Broadway.  Seriously - commedia versions of both Rapunzel and Cinderella were developed by writer/director Sam LaFrage and premiered at CCT several years ago; the former later won an award at the New York International Fringe Festival and was picked up for an extended run off-Broadway - with LaFrage and CCT alum Elizabeth Stepp in the cast - at the SoHo Playhouse, where the latter is running currently. 

That big city success in fact provides some of the initial merriment, as the actors assembled to perform get excited over being big stars... until they realize it's a different cast. The framing device features stock characters from commedia: the ingénue, the clown, the surly wench, the rascal, and the old guy; when the actors speak with Italian accents - actually more like a mad hybrid of Wales-meets-Mumbai - they are the Spaghetti and Meatball Players, a down-on-their-luck troupe about to perform Hansel and Gretel for us, often breaking character to squabble with each other. When different accents are employed, they become the chiefly German characters from the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, often breaking the fourth wall and interacting directly with the young audience members.  Broad acting and exaggerated reactions carry the basics of the storyline for youngsters, while most of the actual jokes and wordplay poke fun at contemporary pop culture, and are aimed at Mom and Dad.   For example, exuberant chefs who turn up to help the evil witch (Frances Farrar) with recipes on how to cook a little boy will be seen by kids as oddball characters with funny wigs and mannerisms, while adults will spot impressions of celebrities from cable tv cooking shows. It's the same gimmick used in classic cartoons, when children laugh as Bugs Bunny is greeted as "L-L-L-Leopold," while adults recognize a reference to famed conductor Leopold Stokowski. In fact, Farrar's vocal characterization of the witch is a cute homage to voice actor Bea Benaderet (most famous as the voice of Betty Rubble, and as Jethro's mother in The Beverly Hillbillies) in a classic Loony Tunes version of this same story, 1954's Bewitched Bunny.

Farrar doubles as the hapless children's stepmother, who constantly forgets their names, referring to them as Bart and Lisa, or Luke and Leia. Their woodcutter father (George Dinsmore) is poor - mainly because he's more into the cutting of the wood, but not so much the selling of it - and so the children are sent into the woods, with the hope they will never return. Dinsmore adopts a stylized, artificial manner intended as a parody of dads from vintage sitcoms like The Brady Bunch or Father Knows Best. Julian Deleon is underused as the narrator of the story, but gets to double in some amusing cameos, and has the show's best line, when Hansel and Gretel discover the witch's candy house, and are indeed chewing the scenery. Paul Lindley II does his usual professional job as Hansel, while Mary Miles's Gretel is a pouty, whiny valley girl - that would have to be the Rhine Valley - who periodically breaks into frenzied yet graceful dance moves. Miles is one of those performers whom I've loved in supporting roles, but whenever she plays a lead, I end up missing the show, and so it's nice to finally get to see her take center stage. The performance I attended was packed with just about the rowdiest hundred little children I've seen in a while, but the cast admirably took control, forcing the unruly little tykes to focus by cranking their performance and energy level up to 11.

In fact, it's the charisma and sheer exuberance of the cast that makes this production so successful. The actual plot of the folk tale of Hansel and Gretel is very simple, and while the references to sitcoms (complete with an artificial laugh track that bewilders the characters) and the Food Channel are amusing, as are shout-outs to the New York cast and to last summer's production of Br'er Rabbit by the NiA Company, this particular script isn't as joyously funny or as sharply satirical as some of Stevenson's other works.  Which is something that the intended demographic, i.e. children ages 7 and under - won't care about. They will simply love the outrageousness unfolding on stage. As well as in the aisles, and practically in their laps, as characters sit down beside them to ask for advice. Grown-ups meanwhile will smile and snicker at least once every minute or two of the 55-minute run, even if that's only about a third as much as, say, 2014's Commedia Snow White. That said, CCT has been attracting larger and larger audiences for their "Late Night Date Night" events for adults only, where the same cast performs the same script, but with PG-13 ad-libs and improvisation added. My guess is that this unrestrained quintet of performers will make up for anything they've been wanting to throw in during the show's regular run, and then some.  That will take place this Friday, June 17, while the child-friendly version returns Saturday, June 18. For information, visit www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com, or call 803-691-4548.

 
 
Humanity On Display in One-Woman Performance of 
The Testament of Mary

Review by August Krickel

Although venerated throughout the Christian world as the blessed Virgin, Mary the mother of Jesus makes few appearances in canonical accounts of her son's adult life and ministry. What would an ordinary woman of her era had to say about the following he attracted, and the events surrounding his execution?  As embodied by Elena Martinez-Vidal in a moving and provocative portrayal, Mary is far from ordinary, and resolute in asserting her unique perspective on events that sparked a spiritual revolution.  The Testament of Mary, presented by Trustus Theatre off-site at the Columbia Museum of Art, is a stark and painfully realistic retelling of these events as seen, often from a distance, by his mother. While never anachronistic, Mary's account raises questions and touches on themes of more relevance to a modern literary or theatrical audience than to traditional adherents of Christianity. Puzzling, sad, and sometimes even disturbing, Colm Tóibín's play challenges what we think we know, while never endorsing nor completely denying aspects of Christian faith. "I. Remember. Everything." Mary declares with repressed bitterness, and all bets are off as to where her memories will take us.

Tóibín's script presents challenges for the indefatigable Martinez-Vidal.  Best known as the author of novels - including Brooklyn, recently adapted for the screen with Saoirse Ronan - Tóibín originally composed this work as a dramatic monologue for the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival, then later expanded the material into a 95-page novella which retained the first-person narrative.  This most recent revision ran on Broadway in 2013 with Fiona Shaw in the lead, and was nominated for a Tony for Best Play.  The piece is presented here with an intermission between two short acts, for a total run time of just over 90 minutes, with Martinez-Vidal alone on stage for the entirety.  Mary, a few years or perhaps decades after her son's crucifixion, relates her experiences to the audience, nevertheless realizing that the future authors of the Gospels have determined already the story they will tell. 

While the playwright's language is filled with lyricism and feeling, the tone suggested in his words is primarily reflective and detached. Thankfully, Martinez-Vidal is capable of finding emotional depth within nuances of phrasing and imagery, and she captivates the audience throughout.  One-character plays often incorporate letters, books, or diaries from which the protagonist reads, allowing the actor to cheat if necessary with carefully hidden cues or outlines of what comes next. Martinez-Vidal has no such luxury, and rocks the material old-school, moving seamlessly from one memory to the next with no hesitation.

 Director Paul Kaufman did his own one-actor show a few years ago, performing in I Am My Own Wife at both Workshop and Trustus Theatres, making him the ideal choice to helm this production. His scenic design depicts the cramped interior of a simple dwelling; a table, a bench, a chair, a few vessels, and the suggestion of earthen walls, wooden shutters, and a few support beams provide the backdrop for Mary to bare her soul. Ambient music chosen by Kaufman plays in soft accompaniment, adding a dreamlike touch. The performance area - an unused, yet-to-be-developed space off the main galleries on the Museum's second floor - is tiny, yet lighting by Barry Sparks subtly shifts when Martinez-Vidal makes even the slightest of changes in posture or position. This is the sort of production that might normally be seen in the Side Door Theatre at Trustus, i.e. the intimate black box venue adjoining their main stage; here, some 80 folding chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, allowing for easier sight lines as well as more elbow room. (A brief tour of images of Mary from the Museum’s permanent collection of Renaissance paintings and sculptures takes place a half hour before curtain.) 

I remain unsure of the playwright’s intent. There are certainly feminist allusions. as Mary observes how her son is able to speak to women as equals, unlike most of his male followers, whom she sees as misfits and malcontents.  His disciples, who first protect her, then later presume to tell her the accepted account of how she gave birth, could be metaphors for modern male hierarchy within organized religion. Yet my sense is that Tóibín’s greater goal is not spiritual at all, but rather to portray the forgotten humanity of a mother who saw her son taken from her, then brutally executed before her eyes. Being told that her son was a martyr for a greater cause does nothing to assuage Mary’s grief.  That alone is likely sufficient to offend the most religious, for whom this play is probably not a good choice. Yet the opportunity to see Martinez-Vidal in a dramatic tour-de-force is an excellent incentive for theater-goers who might not otherwise be drawn to seemingly religious material.


The Testament of Mary runs for three more performances at the Columbia Museum of Art: Thursday 6/16 at 7:30 PM, and Friday 6/17 and Saturday 6/18 at 8 PM.  Visit https://trustus.org/event/the-testament-of-mary/ or call the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.
 
 
 
Pulitzer-Winning 
The Flick Finds Larger Meaning In Details of Meaningless Lives

Review by August Krickel

Any resemblance between The Flick, the run-down indie movie theater that lends its name to the play now running at Trustus Theatre, and The Nick, Columbia's own indie art-house cinema, is entirely coincidental. If anything, The Flick is closer to the last years of Main Street's old Fox Theater - the location where The Nick now thrives - back when it featured action films at discount prices following their initial runs at fancier multiplexes.  However, any resemblance between the lives of the three protagonists of Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning seriocomedy and our own is subtle, uncomfortable, thought-provoking, and almost certainly intentional.  Defiantly refusing to provide any answers to the challenges of modern existence, or even to offer any overt insights, The Flick takes its own sweet time in endearing itself to the audience, but if you have the patience to take it all in, you will not regret the experience.

Baker's script is deceptively simple. We follow the daily existence of three low-level employees at a second-run movie theater in Worcester, MA. Sam (Ben Blazer) and Avery (Kendrick Marion) sweep, mop, and clean, while Rose (Christine Hellman) periodically pops in to banter with them when she's not busy in the projection booth. Avery is the new kid, a sensitive young film buff taking time off from college while coping with family and emotional issues. Sam seems smart enough, enjoys movies as popular entertainment, but at 35 is still working an $8.25/hour job. He's the kind of guy who wears a backwards Red Sox hat indoors without being a big sports fan, and seems to take pride in being "de facto in charge on Saturday" when the boss is gone. Rose is a perky mess, sporting grunge attire, tattoos, and hair haphazardly streaked with green; she drifts through relationships aimlessly, describing herself as a nymphomaniac in the first few weeks, but then swiftly losing interest. The three interact as one would expect, occasionally coming into conflict, randomly revealing their thoughts and experiences in casual conversation, and expressing general dissatisfaction with their lives, and with life in general. And that's it. For three hours, including intermission. Yet the action (or lack thereof) never grows tedious, thanks to Dewey Scott-Wiley's sure hand at the directorial helm, and my affinity for each character continued to grow from start to finish.

Significant themes are addressed by the author, but they are expertly camouflaged by ultra-realistic and seemingly trivial dialogue. The economy, for example.  The 2012 setting implies an America not quite yet out of the recession; Rose, at 24, must only recently have graduated from college, and refers to crippling student loan debts, which she will never be able to repay. Over the course of the summer depicted on stage, we see the independent theater sold to a chain, staff downsized, and quality compromised.  Yet there's no formal discussion of any greater political/economic climate, just random references in passing as the characters focus on what their weekend plans may be. In short, we the audience must provide the rest, relating the experiences depicted on stage to our own narrative, and drawing our own conclusions from fairly intelligent young people working dead-end jobs. Like Sisyphus, the Greek king condemned for eternity to repeatedly push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, Sam and Avery perform the same laborious tasks after each showing, only to do the same thing in the next scene, and the next. (My guess is that the cast and stage manager quickly dirty the set with strewn popcorn and empty containers during successive blackouts, and the effect is quite convincing.)

Christine Hellman is a delight as the gamine-like Rose, who invariably enters with a spring in her step, and a knowing smirk on her lips. In an indie movie, she would be the archetypal "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," an irrepressible sprite who inspires one or both of her glum co-workers to new heights of career achievement and personal growth. In fact, Avery even opens that door, confessing that while people tell him that he should just be himself, he doesn't know who that is supposed to be. The playwright, however, gives no easy answer, and Rose has no profound advice. As Avery, Kendrick Marion takes a 180-degree turn from more flamboyant, singing characters he has portrayed, like Jimmy "Thunder" Early in last summer's Dreamgirls. Avery raises the plays' biggest question:  are we as a society genuine, or just assuming personas, acting out the roles we find ourselves cast in?  In a real sense, Rose and Sam have taken on the role of petty embezzlers, reselling a few tickets at each show, and pocketing what they nonchalantly call "dinner money," They explain to the reluctant Avery that everyone does it, and former employees were the ones who introduced them to a tradition at The Flick.  In other words, they took on these roles without question.

At the metaphorical level, the theater is preparing to switch from an actual projector of 35-mm film to a digital system, and Avery protests, asserting that digital is generic, and loses the verisimilitude of what was originally photographed.  Yet he too has taken on a role, that of the film snob, just as Sam takes on the role of the fan of pop films for sheer entertainment value, and Rose has become the dysfunctional hipster. When Rose comes on to Avery, there's no sense of actual romantic attraction.  Rather, in her world, that's what people do when they're alone - they hook up, get high, and later break up. Avery wonders if it's his destiny to be the sensitive depressed kid, yet we're not sure if he realizes that too is a stock role.  Is he into film, and/or academia due to intellectual curiosity?  Or is it just because his father is a professor, or that movies can be an escape from his life?   Later in the play, Sam confesses his attraction to Rose, and she legitimately calls him on it, suggesting that this has nothing to do with her, and that's he's just acting out a part, after sensing that she's attracted to Avery. 24 hours later, I realized that she's probably just echoing Avery's rejection of the notion of artificial personas.  Ben Blazer as Sam has the toughest job, making an unimpressive, ordinary, nobody seem sympathetic; the actor's vitality and energy, often suppressed but still visible, accomplishes the task. Had this story been a film from a decade earlier, I can imagine Matt Damon as Sam, with Zooey Deschanel as Rose, and perhaps the late Lee Thompson Young as Avery. 

Other writers have used the term "theater of the mundane" to describe contemporary, ultra-realistic plays that deal with modern social issues in a naturalistic way. I'm going to call it poetry of the ordinary, told in the simple vernacular of young millennials who speak in words of one and two syllables, often prefaced with "it's like, you know...."  I noted that around the 2-hour mark, early into the second act, the script becomes profound, creeping into Harold Pinter territory with poignancy. (Although Pinter's work might seem like fast-paced, madcap, screwball comedies compared to Annie Baker.)  All credit goes to director Dewey Scott-Wiley, who enables her actors to find the meaning in long stretches of silence, and make them purposeful. She also creates strong visual statements via blocking, with Sam always cleaning stage right, Avery stage left, and Rose sometimes forming the top of a triangle as we see her above in the projection booth.  She incorporates a hugely significant touch, seemingly just a nuance, when Sam trains a new employee (Colin Milligan) who is half his age, but twice as fast and proficient at sweeping.  Chet Longley's scenic design is an important component too, accurately replicating the look of a slightly decaying movie theater's interior.

Last year, I wrote this about Bakari Lebby's production of Lydia Diamond's play Stick Fly at Workshop Theatre:  "I suspect that Diamond faces the same challenges as (playwright) Neil LaBute: when you try to depict modern life as realistically as possible on stage, without the flowery and eloquent monologues of a Blanche Dubois or a Maggie the Cat, you risk seeming trivial. Yet she unquestionably is tackling bigger issues, while never becoming didactic or tiresomely preachy."  The same is true of The Flick.  These characters are treading water in their lives, without even a Godot to wait for.  How does this apply to the generation coming of age in America today?  The author won't say, but the ingredients are all there, with the audience left to find the message on our own.  Some may find that frustrating, while others may be daunted by the show's length, and talkiness alternating with long minutes where not a word is said. But the play won a Pulitzer for a reason, and I feel that the questions raised are well worth consideration.  The Flick runs through June 4 at Trustus Theatre.

 

 
 
Five Actors Travel  
Around the World in 80 Days Via Storytelling and Imagination at 701 Whaley

Review by August Krickel.

Workshop Theatre closes its 2016 spring season with a bang, as five actors combine performance with storytelling, engaging the audience's imagination as a necessary sixth participant in an epic adventure that takes us Around the World in 80 Days. The stage is as bare and the set dressing as sparse as the settings are exotic and the performances florid, but that's all part of the fun.

Based on Jules Verne's 1873 novel, Mark Brown's stage adaptation follows the original plot closely. Phileas Fogg (Chip Collins) is a stoic, intrepid, and punctilious gentleman who wagers £20,000 (over a million and a half today) that he can circumnavigate the globe in just eighty days, aided by newly completed railway lines in Asia and America, and the supremacy of British steamships on the sea.  Potential prize money notwithstanding, the journey will require significant expenditure, and Scotland Yard Detective Fix (Ripley Thames) suspects Fogg's desire to skip the country with much cash in hand may be tied to a recent Bank of England robbery by a so-called "gentleman bandit." Fogg, accompanied by manservant Passepartout (Jeff Sigley) sets out with Fix in pursuit, but when Fogg's progress is faster than the arrival of British warrants  for his arrest, Fix is forced to shadow him each step of the way, looking for some means to slow his progress.

As Fogg, Collins is the very model of the unflappable Victorian hero. At first as enigmatic and aloof as first season Capt. Picard, Collins gradually allows us to see Fogg's compassionate side, as first he defies Brahmin religious custom to rescue an Indian princess (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler) from perishing on her late husband's funeral pyre, and later as he risks irreparable damage to his intricately-timed itinerary in order to rescue Passepartout from Native American captors. A nice character touch from Collins (and director Frank Thompson) is the way that no matter how turbulent the weather or mode of conveyance may be, Fogg is always motionless and unaffected.

Jeff Sigley is familiar to theatre-goers in the suburbs on the other side of the river, but Passepartout is his first major role in downtown Columbia. He employs a nicely consistent French accent, depicting the servant not as a clown or comic bumbler, but as a loyal rascal with a bit of a shady past, determined to live up to his employer's high expectations. As fix, Thames is a worthy successor to blustery Robert Newton, who memorably played Fix in the famous 1956 David Niven film.  Rodillo-Fowler, like Shirley MacLaine, who portrayed Princess Aouda, is proficient at both comedy and drama (as well as singing and dancing, although she doesn't get to do either here.) I've enjoyed her as everything from a histrionic drama teacher in High School Musical and a brassy, bisexual New Yorker in Third Finger, Left Hand, to a compassionate Native American housekeeper in August: Osage County and a repressed Louisiana hairdresser just a couple of months ago in Steel Magnolias. There is seemingly no role she can't do, and accordingly she dives into her multiple roles here. As Aouda, she plays the part completely straight, as if in a deadly-serious adventure story, her eyes widening in terror and her voice trembling with each new peril. In assorted other roles, mainly boisterous, working-class Englishmen - and yes, that's Englishmen - she throws restraint to the wind and gets plenty of laughs. Indeed, much of this work's charm is that all cast members save for Fogg double, triple, and quadruple in other roles, populating the world across which Fogg journeys. Most switches of character are accomplished simply, via a different hat or jacket, and a particular accent or tone of voice.  The champ is William Arvay, who embodies at least 16 different roles, most of which are the many train engineers, ship's captains, and local officials whom Fogg encounters along the way. Arvay was a prolific leading man on Columbia stages in the '80's and '90's, often playing dapper gentlemen similar to Fogg, such as King Arthur and Daddy Warbucks. Here the veteran actor gets to go wild, channeling character voices that recall John Wayne, Andy Devine, Peter Lorre, Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, and possibly even a sort of befuddled, tipsy, English variation on Sylvester the Cat. After a while, the opening night audience began laughing every time he came onto stage, in anticipation of what he might do next.

Much like the slapstick stage version of The 39 Steps (in which director Thompson similarly played dozens of eccentric characters), the comedy in Brown's script avoids punchlines and wisecracks, instead allowing humor to flow from exaggerated and melodramatic interpretations of otherwise straightforward dialogue and narration.  For example, what could have been a very dry account of how Fogg makes up for lost time in his journey becomes a verbal battle of one-upsmanship, as two actors refer to competing passages that details how connections are missed and then compensated for.  The action takes place on a virtually bare stage, enhanced only by occasional chairs and tables that sub for compartments on trains and boats, and the interiors of clubs, embassies, and even an opium den. With audience disbelief already suspended, the cast is able to play with conventions, making winking nods to how a simple change of a sign indicates a new country, or to how characters on one ship can talk to another character on another ship (i.e. the other side of the stage) telling him he should be in the scene with them.  The story's two major action sequences - the rescue of Aouda, and an attack by Apaches - play out just like Shakespeare, with characters describing what happens off stage. With constantly changing roles, the cast's commitment to verisimilitude is admirable; even in the tiniest of details: at one point, Passepartout pronounces "Illinois" with a "wah" sound at the end, just as a Frenchman would. At times, however, the ridiculousness transpiring is almost too much for the actors, and Thames, Arvay and Sigley have some terrific Harvey Korman-Tim Conway moments of suppressed snickering, much to the delight of the audience.

That playful tone allowed for a timely ad-lib on opening night that got one of the show's biggest laughs, when a lighting cue went wrong. Because of the barren backdrop, and the occasionally talky tone of Verne's Victorian prose, I encourage the cast to do more of it, as that's where the show's appeal lies. For whatever reason, lighting design by Barry Sparks was out of whack on opening night, with some areas poorly lit, and spotlights landing far from their intended targets. That's the sort of thing that is almost always remedied during the first couple of performances, however, and I suspect that when you see the show this week, you'll wonder what on earth I was referring to. While the stage itself is bare, set designer Jimmy Wall has created a false proscenium to help with the period feel, and that's quite an accomplishment given that it was all pulled together in a few days in a former warehouse space of four walls and a floor. Alexis Doktor's costumes, especially for Fogg and his posh London peers, are elegant and richly detailed. Thompson as an actor is a master of comic, mock-heroic delivery, and he has steered his cast in the right direction, although there could be even more, much much more. About 20 minutes of the 2.5+ hour run time could be trimmed with faster timing, and the men could all stand to project a lot more. I also think a lot more music could have been incorporated, as well as perhaps some projected scenery.  On the other hand, the design concept for this production is that almost everything is created by the actors on stage - including numerous train-whistles recreated via a simple hand-held prop - and that's pretty cool in and of itself.

Jules Verne led us on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, then sent us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and aloft for Five Weeks in a Balloon. The question is: will Columbia theatre-goers accustomed to seeing productions at Workshop's former location on Bull Street be willing to trek a whopping two miles away to see a great production at 701 Whaley, the same place where they regularly attend weddings, conferences, and art exhibitions?  I certainly hope the answer is yes, because the space is inviting, the parking convenient, and the chairs far more comfortable in my experience than the confines of traditional theatre seats.  Workshop Theatre is doing good work at 701, and you owe it to yourself to come check it out.  Around the World in 80 Days continues through Sunday, May 22.

 
 
The Addams Family Celebrates Family Values With a Creepy, Kooky, Mysterious, Spooky Twist

Review by August Krickel.

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're all together ooky... and chances are that by now you're snapping your fingers in anticipation of the rest of the theme song from The Addams Family, the campy sitcom that ran for two years on ABC in the 60's. Based on several decades of dark one-panel New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams, the show thrived in reruns, spawned a couple of films in the early '90's, and more recently a hit musical featuring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth that ran for 722 performances on Broadway. Town Theatre's final show of its 97th season is a faithful and lively recreation of the New York production, scaled down a bit for a community theatre stage and budget, but retaining the eccentric charm and (believe it or not) wholesomeness of the original.

Surprisingly, the story isn't based on the popular Raul Julia-Anjelica Huston movie or its sequel, but instead is a new - if somewhat derivative - chapter in the titular clan's adventures, as if the tv series had lasted for years like Family Ties or The Waltons. Here, Wednesday, the ghoul-next-door daughter embodied so memorably by Christina Ricci in the films, is 18-ish, and old enough to be interested in boys. Even if, true to form, the one who catches her eye is the one who says he would die for her. And no, sadly, it's not Joel, the adorable little nerd from summer camp in the second film, but rather a clean-cut, all-American boy in khakis and a blue blazer. If you've ever seen Samantha try to make Endora and Uncle Arthur seem normal when Darren's boss visits on Bewitched, or the Clampetts try to impress one of Elly May's suitors on The Beverly Hillbillies, or most accurately, the Munsters try to go mainstream when niece Marilyn brings home a boy, then you have a fairly good idea of the next two and a half hours on stage. Indeed, if you took My Big Fat Greek Wedding and substituted assorted eerie jokes and design concepts for Greek ones, then added music, lyrics and choreography, you'd pretty much have this show.  Which doesn't mean it's not cute, lively, and entertaining. But ultimately this is an extended sitcom concept, with the daughter in the throes of young love, the parents at odds over what to do, and little brother Pugsley feeling left out. Thus, there are no spoilers when I reveal that daddy Gomez dispenses fatherly wisdom worthy of Mike Brady or Ward Cleaver, leading to a happy resolution, and an inclusive message of love, acceptance, and individuality.

As Gomez, Clayton King channels Raul Julia's Latin vibe, more paternal and loving than John Astin's idiosyncratic wisecracker in the series, yet still sporting the familiar pinstripe suit and pencil-thin mustache. King, solid but understated in director Jamie Carr Harrington's Into the Woods a year ago, embraces the character's flamboyance with zest, but is the voice of reason within the show. Sheldon Paschal is a strikingly beautiful and imposingly glamorous Morticia - in a tie-you-down-and-swallow-your-soul sort of way - murmuring most of her lines, which are nevertheless completely audible thanks to David Quay's sound design. Danny Niati as Uncle Fester isn't directly involved in the main plotline of the star-crossed lovers, instead sneaking onto stage periodically for lively production numbers in which he basically gets to mess with the audience. Niati's Fester is both manic and impish, a chaotic hybrid of the stream-of-consciousness humor of Robin Williams, the wisecracks of Chris Rock, and the baroque showmanship of Al Jolson. Looking absolutely nothing like his brother Gomez actually fits in with the subversive nature of the show's humor. I do wish that Niati's slender dancer's body had been padded a bit more than with just a pot belly,  but on the other hand, that might have hindered his gleeful cavorting around the stage. Nancy Ann Smith has one really good scene as the cantankerous Grandma, and her character is the center of several excellent running gags, including just whose mother she may be, and just what sort of herbs she may use for her potions. Blakelee Cannon captures the dual nature of Wednesday perfectly: she's still morbid and quirky, but also eager to make a good impression on her boyfriend Lucas (Nate Stern.) Their voices blend together quite harmoniously in their numbers. I'm told that some years ago Cannon alternated in the title role of Annie with Ashlyn Combs, and the two share this role as well. Combs stole the show as few weeks ago in Seussical at Columbia Children's Theatre, and I'm sure that whichever young actress plays Wednesday on the night you attend, you will be in for a vocal treat. JJ Woodall and Heather Moorefield-Lang play Stern's hapless parents, salt-of-the-earth Mid-westerners who initially think the oddities at the Addams mansion are simply manifestations of a sophisticated New York lifestyle. They too embody these character parts perfectly, yet have rich and appealing singing voices.  A wonderful surprise is the professional caliber performance of young James Rabon as Pugsley (here Wednesday's younger brother, unlike the tv series.) His role is essential to the plot resolution, and his comic timing, along with his singing skill, are on par with his much older castmates. Lucas Bender makes the most of a few moments as Lurch, although the cadaverous butler, along with Thing and Cousin It, only make brief appearances.

Director Harrington has opted for a huge ensemble of vocal heavy-hitters, comprised of 18 women and 6 men, who pack the stage (as the spirits of the Addams' ancestors) without ever seeming over-crowded. Each is clad in the attire of their era (cowgirl, Puritan, caveman, etc.) which costumer Lori Stepp has created entirely in spectral shades of gray and white. As disembodied ghosts, they mainly watch the action unfold, yet all are constantly attentive and engaged. In fact, each is admirably committed to the persona of their "type," i.e. the caveman is usually somewhat aggressive, a stewardess is always perky, etc. The detail of the costumes is impressive - I even spotted pale white military insignia on the left chest of one phantom in uniform. Morticia's costume is quite a triumph of structural engineering, and there's a clever feature enabling her legs to be freed up for a tango.  Make-up design is by Dori Rueger, a veteran of the annual Dark Knight's Terror Trail Hallowe'en attraction, and is suitably gruesome for the ghosts, without ever being distracting.  I would note that on opening night, Fester, Lurch and Pugsley's make-up was less subtle than the more realistic look captured by the other principals, and probably could have benefited from some more time and more blending, and it would be nice to see Bender with more of Lurch's straight, slick hairstyle, and his height. Still, when Danny Harrington's stark lighting focused in on Pugsley, the resulting image could nearly have been a black and white drawing by Addams himself.

Harrington's scenic design is typical of his work, with many large set pieces rendered with intricate precision, and easily rolled on and off stage within seconds, while the grand staircase within the Addams estate seems solid, functional, and safe. Other scenes are depicted via drops, which are often painted with broader strokes and much less detail, yet these are always in the rear and not as important to the narrative. Although this is not a dance-heavy musical, choreographer Tracy Steele and director Harrington ensure that there is plenty of lively movement by the ensemble throughout. King and Paschal get the one big dance number, a seductive tango that grows in complexity and extravagance. Musical director Amanda Hines has a dream roster of voices to work with, and there's not a missed note to be found. Andrew Lippa's score is appealing, although often schmaltzy and largely forgettable. One nice touch I enjoyed was that different characters sing in differing styles that appropriate for their age and nature. Accordingly, Gomez's songs always have a touch of salsa and merengue, Fester's numbers borrow from the Tin Pan Alley sound of composers like Gershwin and Berlin, while Lucas and Wednesday's songs could easily be Troy-Gabriella duets from High School Musical.  His lyrics incorporate a lot of tricky internal rhyming, but most of the numbers are disposable pop, although pretty enough to listen to while they're being performed. The script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice touches all the bases and makes use of all the expected jokes that fans of the films or the tv series are expecting.

Part of the charm and appeal of the original Addams Family was its use of standard television tropes from family comedies, recast with a macabre setting. Unlike the Munsters, the Addams clan were not supposed to be vampires, just a family of lovable oddballs who were Goth before Goth was cool.  This musical version continues in that vein, with a climactic message of inclusion and tolerance that echoes "We're all in this together" from High School Musical, as well as "Let your freak flag fly" from Shrek the Musical (well, and David Crosby.)

There's not a weak moment or a weak link to be found in the cast's performance, and I feel certain that apart from a larger budget spread out on a larger stage, the audience is getting the same show you'd see from a professional touring company. That said, it's important to remember that this is still an adaptation of a 1960's sitcom, with no aspirations beyond entertainment. Note to parents: there's a little PG-13 language, and just like the tv series, virtually all of Gomez and Morticia's dialogue overflows with implications of bondage. So while this musical celebrates family values, I'd leave younger children at home. The Addams Family continues at Town Theatre through May 28.

 

 

Crimes of the Heart Evokes a Realistic Family Struggle in True Southern Gothic Style

Review by Dell Goodrich.

The concept of a “kitchen sink drama”, first identified with a late 1950’s and early 1960’s British style of depicting every-day, working class citizens and their struggles, transitions fittingly to the Southern United States in Onstage Production’s version of Crimes of the Heart.  The play, literally set IN the kitchen of the MaGrath sisters’ home in 1974 small-town Mississippi, convincingly, if darkly, evinces the southern value for hospitality and the kitchen as the hub of household interactions. The kitchen is arguably the most important room in a home and- in this production-what unfolds in this kitchen leaves no question about its significance. Tony Vaccaro’s set is a strong foundation for the tale being told. His attention to detail is impressive. From the tea kettle and utensil crock on the stove, to the paper towel holder anchored on the wall by the sink, to the working refrigerator and beyond, Vaccaro’s set grants the viewer an intimate glimpse into this family’s real southern kitchen and what goes on there.

In his “Welcome” speech, Robert Harrelson points out that this Southern Gothic style play is intended to be a dark comedy. He encourages audience members to feel the emotions of the characters, but to make sure to laugh as well. The playwright, Beth Henley, applies this unique juxtaposition in her Pulitzer Prize winning piece by expressing the comedy that is often present in some very tragic circumstances.  The drama suggests that, "…this is life, what else can we do but laugh? Otherwise we might well lose our minds." It has been over 30 years since Henley’s play premiered. Harrelson has taken the original three acts and morphed them into two, in an effort to slim down the breadth of the tale. He admitted this was challenging, as there are very few places to cut details without compromising the story-telling. The result is an Act One with a running time of just under two hours, with Act Two clocking in at about 35 minutes. This is not to imply that the show drags in any way.  The pace moves along and the drama engrosses the audience. I found it difficult to sit still for the entire first act, but sitting quietly has never been named as one of my strengths.

The cast, as a whole, is particularly talented. The more intimate, smaller space in this theatre allows the audience to be close enough to note nuanced performances that convincingly portray the depth of the characters. The MaGrath sisters, though entwined in the realities of their long-dysfunctional family, ultimately support each other when needed the most. Together they overcome the lasting impact of their mother’s suicide to reunite and take on one another’s battles. They discover that their shared history joins them together and none need struggle alone against an abusive husband, a failing dream career, a lost love, an inability to have children or a domineering, dying grandfather.

Debb Adams is convincing and does credit to “heart” of the family, Lenny MaGrath. Lenny is the lonely, beleaguered eldest sister, who is certain she will remain a spinster, due to a shrunken ovary and an inability to bear children. She takes on the role of caretaker in the family, regularly putting everyone else before her own interests. Adams does fine job of maintaining Lenny’s apparent balance. She really hits her stride and gets to show her acting chops in Act Two, when Lenny finally reaches her limit, spurred on by her sister Meg, and blows up. Her outburst is both appropriate to the circumstances and believable. The audience applauds as she chases her snobby, busybody cousin Chick up the Mimosa tree with a broom.

Chick, the superficial, trouble-making cousin of the MaGrath sisters, played by Patti Anderson, has admirable comedic timing. She is especially hilarious out of the gate, with her remarkably gymnastic method of putting on panty hose. Her accent is on target and she is the quintessential southern bitch that you love to hate. One can practically hear her cooing the famously passive aggressive southern insult, “…well isn’t that NICE!”

Lenny has summoned home from California the prodigal middle sister Meg MaGrath, portrayed by Emily Meadows. Meadows shines the moment she steps on stage. Though her homecoming should be joyous, she soon admits that this is not the case. Her aspirations as a singer have failed. She has been working in a dog food factory. This frank admission, however, turns out to be the exception and not the rule with Meg. Later we learn that she is not as open as she seems. She hides an overall insecurity with forming emotional attachments and has a disturbing obsession with disease. Meadows adroitly maneuvers between the varying “faces of Meg”.  Every emotion is believable. The sisterly interactions between Meg and younger sister, Babe, played by Tabitha Nicole Davis, are some of the realest moments on stage. As I took notes, I repeatedly wrote how credible their relationship felt to me. I am also one of three sisters, so I have a measure of fluency in this area. Through them I experienced the familiar unique combination of the need to gossip, but also to feel fierce loyalty and tenderness for another sibling. Only sisters can really appreciate this dynamic. A particular highlight of the show was Meg and Babe’s speculation about Lenny’s sex life.

Tabitha Nicole Davis, as the only married sister, Babe Botrelle, arrives in the MaGrath kitchen in the wake of shooting her husband and being released from jail. When asked why she did it, Babe’s cagey response is “I didn’t like his stinkin’ looks.” Babe is the epitome of the southern politician’s society wife. Her pearls (worn even with her nightgown), cardigan, and soft-spoken manner stay true to the stereotype. Davis also manages to realistically portray a delightful wild side to Babe. Rebelling against the constraints of her societal expectations, as the story is revealed, she has an affair with a 15-year-old African American boy, shoots her husband and calmly makes lemonade afterward, tries twice on stage to commit suicide, and finds a new love. Davis finds a commendable means of making Babe genuine and likeable, despite her sins. She also succeeds in portraying these circumstances as hilarious. Her comedic timing and body language, incredibly, make even a suicide attempt charming.

The two male characters, though spending shorter time on stage, still make an impression. Robert Bullock, as Meg’s ex-boyfriend Doc Porter, as usual does not disappoint. He does a fine job and is very believable as the veterinarian who is scandalously married to a Yankee who makes clay pots. His manner is subtle, but is appropriate to both the role and the space.

Jonathan Fletcher, as Babe’s lawyer and new love interest Barnette Lloyd, makes his debut with Onstage Productions. Fletcher has a sincere bearing on stage and it is hard not to like him. Lloyd shares the origin of his crush on Babe (at a bake sale where she sold him a pound cake) and the mystery of his personal vendetta against Babe’s husband. Zachary. This is his first big case and Fletcher conveys Lloyd’s excitement and ambition well. The budding love between Lloyd and Babe is sweet.

Though the subject matter is sad, the playwright has crafted an unlikely, macabre comedy, using the blackest of humor to illuminate the sisters' struggles, their rivalries and ultimately their bonds. The cast, with Harrelson’s direction, succeeds in keeping the audience laughing pretty much throughout the show. Crimes of the Heart runs through May 8.  Visit www.onstagesc.com to purchase tickets with no service fees. 

 
 
Timeless Humor in Finlay Park with 
The Merry Wives of Windsor

Review by August Krickel

Call them Shakespeare's Real Merry (House) Wives of Windsor. They might as well be, with gossip, back-stabbing, sexual escapades, and fights breaking out from a heady  mix of alcohol and jealousy comprising most of Shakespeare's continuation of the comic misadventures of Sir John Falstaff. Running through this weekend, live under the stars at Finlay Park, the South Carolina Shakespeare Company's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor wrings every drop of merriment and double entendre from this venerable farce, proving that a classic can still be sheer, unfettered fun. Or, more accurately, broad comedy created as a crowd-pleaser for the lowest common denominator among late 16th-century audiences can be revered as a classic 400 years later, just as long as it's written by the right author.

Falstaff was a popular character in Shakespeare's otherwise straightforward history plays about Henry IV and his son Hal. Based on stock types including the braggart soldier from Greek and Roman comedy, Falstaff was a jolly, rotund libertine who gave us lines like  "The better part of valor is discretion"  (i.e. run away and live to fight another day.) We should despise him, and a major theme of those plays is how Prince Hal outgrows Falstaff and the party-hearty companions of his youth. Yet like Lost in Space's cowardly Dr. Smith, or John Belushi's Bluto, Falstaff quickly became a beloved anti-hero, with Elizabethan audiences rooting for the corpulent old knight in his quest for fulfillment via drinking, gambling and wrenching. So much so, that Shakespeare took this dramatic character and spun him off into his own comedy, just as if Joe Pesci's annoying character from the Lethal Weapon series or John Hannah's bumbling archaeologist from the Mummy films were to get their own starring vehicles.

Windsor appears to be a posh suburb about a day's ride from London, populated by wealthy country squires like Master Page (Jason Sprankle) and his wife (Libby Campbell-Turner), and the overly-jealous (for no good reason) Master Ford (Scott Blanks) and his wife (Becky Hunter.) Into this Renaissance-era O.C comes Falstaff (Hunter Boyle) and his retinue of rowdy rascals, Nym (Joseph Bess), Pistol (Clark Wallace), and Bardolph (Mark Compton), all characters who similarly provide comic relief in the Henry plays. Carousing takes money, and in scheme #1, Falstaff decides he will seduce these two wealthy housewives and profit financially along the way. Part of the attraction of the character, and played gleefully by Boyle, is Falstaff's belief that he will be irresistible, in spite of his acknowledgement of his size and age. Mistresses Page and Ford are appalled, especially when they discover that each has received the same word-for-word love letter, and in a comedic moment that would still get laughs on any sitcom today, speculate that Falstaff must have "a thousand of these letters, writ(ten) with blank space for different names."

Thus they devise scheme # 2: pretend to succumb to his advances, and find some way to make a fool of him in revenge. So merry, those wives of Windsor!  In scheme #3, Master Ford learns of scheme # 1, assumes the least inventive alias ever - becoming Master "Brook" - and eggs Falstaff on, claiming that once Mistress Ford's virtue is ruined, she will then be susceptible to other suitors, such as himself. (His fake self, that is.) As you might expect, these competing schemes run afoul of each other with hilarious results, as Blanks becomes a sort of increasingly frustrated and hot-headed Daffy Duck, with Boyle as a Wile E. Coyote figure who hides in closets and laundry hampers, is dumped in a river, and gets the crap beaten out of him while he's dressed in drag.  Along the way there's scheme #4, involving conflict between choleric French doctor Caius (Tracy Steele) and Welsh parson Evans (David Reed), schemes # 5 and 6 entailing competing plots by Caius and gauche Master Slender (Alex Jones) for the hand of the Pages' luscious daughter Anne (Katie Mixon), and scheme # 7, in which Anne hopes to elope with her true love, Master Fenton (Harrison Ayer.)  And if that sounds awfully silly and more complex than necessary, well of course it is, and intentionally so.

Director Linda Khoury played one of the merry wives in SCSC's first-ever full-length production in Finlay (then Sidney) Park 24 years ago, and Boyle reprises his role as Falstaff, supported by a who's who of local talent. Steele is almost incomprehensible - by design - as an Englishman's caricature of a Frenchman, following Shakespeare's phonetic spelling of Caius's mispronunciations and malapropisms.  Interestingly, he joins a brief but distinguished roster of dashing left-handed fencers that includes Bruce Campbell as the Daring Dragoon and Frank Langella as Zorro.  Other accents are a mixed bag, however, with some actors opting for British, some American, and some mid-Atlantic. Scott Blanks has perhaps the largest of the supporting roles, and carries out the classic comedic "spit-take" with a finesse that would have made Danny Thomas proud.  In recent years, Hunter and Campbell-Turner have excelled at playing older, matronly roles (the former as Clairee just last month in Steel Magnolias, the latter as Lady Capulet, and as Violet, the drug-addicted mom in August: Osage County), and so it's quite refreshing to see them here as vital,  attractive MILF's (Mistresses I'd Like to read a First Folio with.)   Chris Cook plays Slender's uncle, elderly Justice Shallow - one surmises their names are winking references to their wits - with spry irascibility, while Sara Blanks steals a number of scenes as comic chatterbox Mistress Quickly, whose speeches never mirror her surname. If you think about it, when an older, would-be Don Juan who drinks too much is named "Fall-staff," there are probably proper noun puns all over the place.  And when Shallow brandishes his cane from below the belt while boasting of his youthful prowess with his "long sword," there's little likelihood that he's referring to battle, and little doubt as to the level of the majority of the jokes that work as well now as they did in the 1500's. Khoury allows her actors to use body language to enhance understanding of some of these, as when Hunter adds a pelvic thrust (a skill recalled from her days as Janet Weiss, no doubt) to her line about being "knighted," i.e. being bedded by a knight. Repeatedly, however, I was struck by just how many jokes fit seamlessly into our modern era, as when Mistress Page proposes "a bill in the parliament for the putting down of men."  Even obscure vocabulary presents little challenge for the audience, because Khoury also ensures that every word is spoken with precise enunciation and clarity. Excellent sound coverage by area microphones really helps too, and I noticed that the most experienced within the cast always managed to find the precise spot where their lines would be picked up best by the mikes. Boyle is nevertheless the undisputed champ of the production, inspiring laughter with each line delivery, or sometimes just a wordless entrance in a fine doublet.

Janet Kile's costumes reflect an early 18th-century setting, and while the characters historically would have lived in the early 1400's, Shakespeare's dialogue reflects a fresher, newer, more accessible vernacular. My guess is that unlike his tragedies, Merry Wives incorporates the contemporary language spoken on the streets in his time, vocabulary that only found its way into literature decades later, and more closely resembles the English we speak now.  One word in particular can be guessed from its context, but given that it's repeated several dozen times, it's worth defining here. "Cuckold" just means a guy whose wife has been unfaithful, and if he has been "cuckolded," he's an object of derision, and thought to be less of a man. The Elizabethan symbol for this was the sign of the horns (a murky reference to male deer who lock antlers in competition for females), so when assorted characters extend their fingers like antlers, they are neither Aggies proclaiming "Hook 'Em 'Horns," nor Ronnie James Dio fans invoking the gods of heavy metal. You'll notice that I've intentionally used a lot of references to and analogies with modern pop culture on purpose, because Merry Wives in unquestionably pop entertainment. It's not a deep tragedy or character study like Hamlet, nor does it have the beautiful poetry of comedies like As You Like It. This is the Elizabethan equivalent of Benny Hill, written for mass consumption by a proficient humorist whose gags still work today.  With that in mind, I'd like to recommend that you orchestrate scheme # 8, in which you invite your snootiest, most pseudo-intellectual friends or relatives to see Shakespeare in the Park with you. Then watch gleefully as they either writhe in discomfort at the pratfalls, mugging, and bad puns, or smile with appreciation as they come to understand that humor is timeless, and that Shakespeare was the great master of the art.  The Merry Wives of Windsor runs Wednesday the 27th through Saturday the 30th in the amphitheater in Finlay Park. Just show up to claim a seat before the 8 PM start time, because it's FREE! 

 
 
 
The Tempest at USC:  Shakespeare Reimagined 

Review by August Krickel

Set on a fantastical island, opening with a calamitous shipwreck, and featuring acts of dark magic and appearances by assorted spirits and deities, The Tempest is perhaps William Shakespeare's most ambitious and atypical work. Capitalizing on the exotic and supernatural implications within the text, director Robert Richmond, designer Neda Spalajkovic, music director Jessi Witchger, lead actor Richard Willis, and a gifted group of soon-to-graduate MFA students (including Spalajkovic) spin a revisionist tale that explores the mysteries of the soul, while retaining most - although not all - of Shakespeare's original.

Much of the core plot may sound familiar to enthusiasts of the author. There are the young lovers, Ferdinand (Dimitri Woods) and Miranda (Candace Thomas), instantly smitten at first sight. There are the comic goofballs, drunk Stephano (Josh Jeffers) and dim Trinculo (Rachel Kuhnle) who imagine they will be new rulers of the island paradise they have discovered. There are Machiavellian bad guys (Ben Roberts, John Romanski, and Tristan Hester, with Matthew Cavender as the one good egg in their crew) who plot and scheme. Each actor embodies these stock characters proficiently, speaking their speeches trippingly on the tongue, just as Hamlet once advised. Trinculo is ostensibly a jester, and male, yet there are no specific references in dialogue to make these absolutes or essential. Thus Kuhnle creates a vaguely gender-neutral character who is an amalgam of funny types from pop culture.  She wears pilot's garb
recalling the eccentric Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior, she stumbles and bumbles through pratfalls like a gangly Lucille Ball, and she affects a perpetually amazed, "Golly, gee whiz!" sort of demeanor that reminded me of Pauley Perrette as Abby on the series NCIS, just when things get hinky. "I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last," Trinculo declares flatly, and brings the house down in laughter. 

Guest artist Richard Willis plays protagonist Prospero, once Duke of Milan until the bad guys above usurped his throne, as well as Caliban, a wild, beast-like island native whom Prospero has enslaved. Yes, you read that right - this is where the revisionist part kicks in. In collaboration with Willis, Richmond has added an extra layer onto two of Shakespeare's more memorable characters, played for the last 400 years by separate actors in several scenes opposite each other. The mechanics are quite simple, given the magical nature of the story, in which assorted conjured spirits come and go, carrying out Prospero's will.  Here, when Prospero calls for his servant, there is a screech of a violin, Willis twists and writhes in pain, and then assumes a different posture, tone and accent, and voilà - he's Caliban.  As Prospero, Willis is simultaneously bedraggled and professorial, as befits a shipwrecked wizard who has learned witchcraft from books. His quick metamorphoses into Caliban preclude any of the feral or reptilian make-up often employed to define the character. Instead, he incorporates body language, and a lilting sort of accent that is vaguely Caribbean, with echoes of Africa and India, to suggest a crafty islander. (Although somewhere in the great Green Room in the sky, Shakespeare's clowns are probably chortling "He's not a native - he's just Welsh.")

As Richmond concedes in the program, it's the old Jekyll and Hyde trope, with the implication that Prospero's mastery of sorcery has created this alter ego. It's definitely an interesting notion, and certainly one worth trying, as I similarly observed about Richmond's staging of Hamlet two years ago, where the action played out as if retold by inmates of an asylum.  Both the director's notes  and advance press material detail this production's larger vision, in which most of the story we see may actually be transpiring within Prospero's troubled mind. There's a bit of justification for this within the script, which constantly plays with illusion and reality.  Prospero famously observes that "these our actors... were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air," and that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on."  (Even if Shakespeare was likely making a simple metaphor, connecting the illusions seen by the play's characters with the illusion presented to an audience.)  Willis is adept in both roles, the only drawback being that Caliban's character, as well as his lines and time on stage, seem a little diminished in order to spotlight Prospero's victory over his dark side. I do fear that the nuances of this interpretation may be lost on the casual theatre-goer who might not think to read either program notes or press releases, as well as on the audience member unfamiliar with this particular work. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating concept, and while it didn't necessarily enhance my enjoyment of the play, it didn't detract either.

Visually, the production is stunning. One might think at first that the creative team's reimagining of a 400-year-old classic extends to the production design as well, but that design is actually much more traditional than it first suggests. It's just inventive. Most of center stage is dominated by a huge, two-story slide that reaches up to what looks like the radiant moon. That shining orb is actually just an opening, creatively lit by lighting designer Chris Patterson, that serves as the mouth of the cave where Prospero and daughter Miranda live. When lighting is all dark blues and grays, we're inside the cave, and the slide represents interior rock formations one must ascend to exit. When the space is flooded with bright golds and greens, we're seeing the sun-drenched tropical island, and what might have been stalagmites now look more like tree trunks, while the slide now suggests a rocky cliff leading up to the entrance to Prospero's cave. With changes in lighting creating shifts in locale, and minimal use of any props or furniture, we are able to focus on the actors and the dialogue, just as Shakespeare intended.  As the villains and clowns explore the island, magical entities in service to Prospero watch them, haunt them, tease them, and torment them. We see these beings as mainly silent actors in nondescript rags, but they are usually invisible to the mortals, who imagine their weapons or clothing are being whisked away magically. Leading these creatures is Ariel (Carin Bendas, although some of the character's lines are spoken by Nicole Dietze as a Harpy), imprisoned in an extra-dimensional cage by her (its?) master. Bendas is clad all in white, including an eerie Celtic demon mask that unfortunately obscures most of her face; she is on stage throughout the play, exhibiting admirable athleticism as she twists and contorts her body through various postures and poses, often hanging from a bar or perching on top of the structure to direct her subordinate minions. Prospero never looks at her directly, instead speaking to a mirror, inside which we assume she is somehow confined.

It's the little, creative inventions like that that impressed me so much, because there is actually no modern technology (apart from the electricity powering the lights) involved. Virtually everything about the production, even that crazy slide, could have been created with wood and paint and fabric 200, 300, even 400 years ago.  Another technical aspect that may seem surprising is the onstage presence of musicians.  Yet once again, the text allows for this innovation: Caliban says that "the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears."  Which sounds like a perfect excuse for us to imagine two more of Prospero's summoned apparitions who are providing musical accompaniment to the proceedings. The effect is quite cinematic; Witchger performs her original score on harp (for tender and ethereal ambience) and fiddle (for lively    jigs that would have been popular in Shakespeare's era.) At moments of tension Samuel Traquina joins in with intense percussive sounds, while Witchger often contributes surreal vocals. Some of these are simply Shakespeare's lyrics within the script, while at other times she vocalizes with that sort of keening, Celtic-tinged wailing that is so popular in film. Costumes by April Traquina are simple, but precisely tell us what we need to know about the characters. The villains' uniforms look like Gestapo outfits, for example, while Cavender, as the gentle Gonzalo, has a different style of uniform, as if he's the harmless Sgt. Schultz among dangerous SS officers. When the ensemble of spirits are decked out in other-worldly finery to celebrate Miranda's impending marriage, or to frighten the villains, the result is visually striking and chilling, although the tattered garb they otherwise wear didn't do much for me.

It's also worth pointing out that however many innovations, changes, and updates Richmond and his team have crafted, the central artistry of the play remains intact, and recognizable as exactly what Shakespeare wrote. Indeed, there were a number of lines, jokes, and scenes that I had forgotten or overlooked previously, but which were made crystal-clear by the cast, including the mechanics of why the villains were near the island (answer: sailing back from a wedding) and a botched assassination attempt orchestrated by one against another. There has definitely been some trimming down of the script, thankfully resulting in a running time of not much more than two hours.  The split personality device may be a little off-putting to purists and/or confusing to theatre novices, while hardcore Caliban fans will miss their fish-like monster; similarly, the non-traditional set might initially intimidate those used to Shakespeare done in throne rooms and on balconies.  Ultimately, however, the voice of Shakespeare comes though with clarity and beauty, making this production well worth the effort to challenge our expectations and imaginations. The Tempest runs in Drayton Hall on the USC campus  through Saturday, April 23rd (traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare's birthday.) For ticket information, visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/tempest-drayton-hall-theatre-april-15-23 or call 803-777-9353.
 
  

 
Committed Cast Revels In Conventions of Farce in Chapin Theatre Company's  
The Sensuous Senator

Review by August Krickel

Stop me if you've heard this one.  A slick, immaculately-coiffed Senator with Presidential aspirations runs for office on a pro-morality platform, yet attracts the notice of tabloid journalists with rumors of serial infidelity. A younger Congressman's bachelor status causes some to wonder if he's in the closet, while an elderly Capitol Hill power-broker mumbles and grouses with a Southern drawl as thick as molasses. That's pretty much the world of politics today, and it would be quite easy to find parallels with prominent contemporary Carolinian politicos. Now - stop me if you've seen this one. A large king-size bed dominates stage right, elevated high enough above the floor that one can see whoever might be hiding beneath. Set design includes multiple staircases, doors suitable for slamming, a walk-in closet (from which one can easily "come out"), and offstage kitchen and bathroom areas where one can be kept busy and oblivious to horseplay and shenanigans onstage. If I mention that costume design includes multiple negligees, pajamas, and boxers adorned with images of hearts, as well as the stars and stripes, can you pretty much envision what takes place?

Chapin Theatre Company's production of Michael Parker's comedy The Sensuous Senator follows all the rules and practices of classic bedroom farce, and yes, it's all a little familiar. Indeed, the easiest way to describe the plot is to say that it's essentially the play-within-the play from last fall's Noises Off, which spoofed the traditional conventions of the genre, right down to a surprise revelation at the very end.  Yet while the story plays out predictably, the laughs are genuine, the performances by the cast are excellent, and production values are high. The playwright was vaguely inspired by the Gary Hart-Donna Rice scandal when he wrote the play in the late 80's, and with his title, he channels both the vibe of tacky paperback novels as well as those sexuality books from the 70's (i.e. The Sensuous Man and Woman.)  Most of the play's political references are timeless yet still topical, with observations about the impossibility of balancing the budget, and allusions to Ayatollahs and pronouncements of "read my lips - no new taxes." While no mention is ever made to which state or district the characters represent, strong Southern accents from some only add to the audience's enjoyment.

As the titular Senator, longtime Chapin performer Jim DeFelice starts off as a smooth and gifted orator, deftly dodging reporters' questions, and projecting a facade of traditional family values. I was reminded of Gary Condit (the Congressman in the Chandra Levy murder investigation), while others spotted notes of assorted televangelists. But choose your favorite, from Mark Sanford to Newt Gingrich to John Edwards to an array of Kennedys, because DeFelice represents a specific stock "type" which has been a part of farce for the last 2500 years: the horny old man, or in academia, the "senex amator." (And if that looks like "Senator," that's not entirely coincidental, as the word "Senate" referred to the Roman elders, i.e. the old men.)  Soon the character has become a clown beset by misfortunes of his own making, juggling both a regular mistress (his secretary, played by Meesh Hays) and a sexy "escort" (Kate Noel Wells), while trying to keep the truth from his naive wife (MonaLisa Botts), an inquiring journalist (Jessica Fichter), a gung-ho security officer (Justin Lee), and clueless colleagues (Chris Kruzner, Waldo Medlin.) DeFelice carries the bulk of the play's lines and is onstage for the majority of the action, and does a great job. Medlin is more than a little reminiscent of Strom Thurmond, and gets plenty of laughter as he lumbers cluelessly through assorted shenanigans. Kruzner's character is given sleeping pills early on, and he successfully manages to convey semi-incoherence while delivering all of his lines effectively. Hays employs a bimbo-esque, Carol Channing-like nasal twang, which may grate a little at first, but it helps to define the character. There are large chucks of time where she's relegated to the bedroom as action plays out in a living room area, and she's quite adept at finding believable stage business to keep herself occupied. Wells, as a hooker from "the agency" (mistaken by several characters as referring to the CIA) is more dedicated to her... ummm... craft, and more well-spoken than you'd expect, but the implication is that she's the type of high-class call girl we saw in the "Mayflower Madam" scandal. Botts, Hays, and Lee have less time, and their characters are in many ways glorified plot devices, but they too do just fine.


Tech director Matt Pound designed sets, lighting and sound, and takes advantage of the spacious stage at the Harbison Theatre. As the layout of the Senator's condo calls for only the first floor to be seen, a dark stage curtain is lowered halfway to mask the upper area. As one would expect, there's a lot of rapid movement around stage, as characters hide behind doors, dash up stairs, and dive under the bed, and Pound has given plenty of room for director Tiffany Dinsmore's intricate blocking.  Unlike many community theatre sets, this one looks genuinely elegant, with furnishings and set decoration in muted tones of brown, tan, gray and steel-blue befitting a tony DC townhouse. As I and others have written previously, Chapin Theatre Company is an all-volunteer operation, and indeed, many of the cast and crew double as board members, while the remainder of the board are credited in the program as helping wit set construction, publicity, and/or box office. To pull off this level of detailed technical quality on a stage in a professional venue which they have to rent - i.e. they can't leisurely build each component day by day over six weeks of rehearsal, since the stage is in use for other events - is quite an accomplishment. 

The organization has done a number of similarly-themed productions in recent years, and playwright Parker's Hotbed Hotel (the title should tell you all you need to know, much like Sensuous Senator) was a big hit for them several years ago. A membership organization dedicated to entertaining their regular audience has to do exactly that, and I have no doubt that this production will be a crowd-pleaser too. Sure, it's in no way deep, it has no lasting literary value, and you've seen it all before. Yet everyone's performance is energetic and committed, and there are any number of genuinely funny moments, as well as a couple of plot twists that I should have seen coming, but were completely unexpected. The best way to summarize the experience is also the most obvious, simple, and accurate: The Sensuous Senator is another cute bedroom farce done by the Chapin Theatre Company with many of their regular performers, and if that's what you have enjoyed in the past, you won't be disappointed here.   There are four more performances at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College, Thursday through Saturday evening, and a closing Sunday matinee on April 17. For ticket information, call 803-240-8544, or visit http://www.chapintheatre.org/2016/sensuous-senator.html .

 
 
Peter and the Starcatcher at Trustus Celebrates the Magic of Imagination and Stagecraft

Review by August Krickel.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a celebration of multiple kinds of magic: the magic of our imagination, the magic that actors and technicians can create on stage, and of course the fantastical kind that involves fairies and mermaids. Based on the first of a popular series of novels by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry (yes, the baby boomer columnist guy whose writings inspired the Dave's World sitcom), Rick Elice's stage adaptation, with music by Wayne Barker, ran for nearly two years in New York (both off-Broadway and on) and garnered five Tony Awards. Running at Trustus Theatre through April 9, Robert Richmond's production of this prequel to J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan razzles and dazzles with inventive staging and kaleidoscopic visual effects, and affords a talented handful of performers the opportunity to play a multitude of colorful characters.

Taking place decades before the events of the iconic Barrie play (and novel, and Disney movie), this incarnation of the saga of the boy who never grew up incorporates variations on most of its familiar elements: ships, pirates, mermaids, native tribal warriors, a menacing crocodile, fairy dust (here called "starstuff"), and intrepid youngsters on an adventure. Two ships set sail on a mission for Her Majesty, organized by Lord Aster (Joseph A. Bess III), a sort of Victorian-era Indiana Jones who is secretly a Starcatcher, i.e. guardian of the precious fairy dust...errr... starstuff. Along for the ride are his plucky 13-year-old daughter Molly (Grace Anne Roberts) and her nanny (Hunter Boyle) as well as three orphan boys (Mike Morales, Cody Lovell, and Jonathan Monk) who have been sold into servitude. In one of about a thousand portents of plot developments to come, the orphans concede early on that they are lost. Lost Boys. And while two of them have names, the third does not, and so when Monk's character begins interacting with Molly, we can guess what name she will ultimately give him. In true Treasure Island fashion, however, there are ruffians hidden within the crew - even though one protests that they've never even been to "Ruffia" - and it's not long before we're introduced to the villain of the piece, a better-coiffed variation on Blackbeard called "Black Stache" (Paul Kaufmann.) Thrills, chills, and daring deeds ensue, much in the vein of Harry Potter. The key difference is that since no one wants to drop $50 million or so on Spider-Man-style special effects, director Robert Richmond and scenic designer Baxter Engle follow the stratagems employed in New York, utilizing decidedly low-tech, "practical" (yet still elaborate) effects. 

Locales are often defined simply by lighting. Wooden spars and sturdy ropes are everywhere, giving the feel of a sailing ship, but actors manipulate those ropes to suggest interior cabins and cargo holds, the exterior deck, flights of stairs, doors, portholes, etc.   Recalling his sumptuous design for Blithe Spirit at USC last fall, Engle uses a jumble of wooden planks - which vaguely imply both the wood of a ship, and the wood in a jungle - to create a sort of faux proscenium for the Trustus stage right at its very edge. This gives the illusion of a much larger performance area, as does the removal of the upstage rear wall, revealing the actors' dressing room and makeup area beyond. That's a trick Richmond used years ago for Elephant's Graveyard at Trustus, and it still works, especially since it's made clear early on that we're watching a company of actors present a show for our benefit. Most of the cast have one primary role, but almost everyone doubles, triples, and quadruples in other roles, often switching back and forth in a matter of seconds. Which is how an epic fantasy novel can come to life on a small stage, via the power of our imagination.... which also just happens to be a crucial part of the Peter Pan mythology: you have to believe.

The four children are played by young adult actors who never try to act childish, yet they always manage to convey the sense that they are much younger than the ensemble around them. Roberts as Molly is particularly effective, creating a female action hero who's not really a tomboy, but rather a smart, spunky Hermione Granger-like lead who's not afraid to take on any challenge. Roberts did excellent work in supporting roles in Translations and Ajax in Iraq at USC, and it's nice to see her as a lead. Michael Hazin skillfully plays assorted roles, including the wonderfully named native Fighting Prawn, showing his flair for voices and zany character bits just as he did in last year's Godspell. Hunter Boyle gets a laugh every time he opens his mouth, even though he's playing the nanny straight (or as straight as a man in drag can, as a fussy older Englishwoman.) That's most of the cast right there, so let's not leave out excellent work from Chess Schmidt, Kevin Bush, Daniel Niati, and John Floyd, who round out the crew. The ensemble teamwork is outstanding, including a terrific moment where the natives are chasing the soon-to-be-Peter much like the opening scene of Raiders, even though it's being carried out within just a few square feet of stage space. The opening of the second act is great fun too, as everyone - meaning mainly dirty, bearded pirates - become tantalizing mermaids. In notes I scribbled in the dark to myself, I note that at one point I jotted down "Paul is a standout," referring to Kaufmann, and later I added "Paul is working at the height of his dramatic skills." One more commonly thinks of him as a performer in serious works, but he just pulls out all the stops here for maximum comedic effect.

Musical director Caroline Weidner on keyboard and Greg Apple on percussion accompany the action, but it's not exactly a musical, and most often the duo is performing a sort of dramatic underscore, much as you'd hear in a film. They provide a lot of sound effects as well, although the show's one traditional musical number is very pretty, reminding me a bit of "Mack the Knife" had it been written by Cole Porter and then choreographed by Busby Berkeley.  (Although the program reveals choreography was by Roberts.) Marc Hurst's lighting design, Jean Lomasto's costumes, and Matt Pound's sound design all contribute to what I suspect is a very faithful recreation of the original show. Why then, with all of the aforementioned excellence, was I not blown away? Somewhere in the first act I see that I wrote that the script and dialogue were rather elusive, and at intermission I confided to a friend that I was having difficulty relating to the characters. By the middle of the second act I see that I wrote "very talky," and finally "so tiresome." Yet it's certainly well-produced. Given the talent of everyone involved, the extremely high production qualities, and the proficiency of the cast at bringing to life multiple characters in rapid succession, my natural inclination is to suspect the viewer, i.e. me.

While Barrie's Peter Pan was the first show I ever saw as a child in Columbia at age eight, and while I went out and bought a Gold Key Comics version of the Disney film, Pan was never as important a figure to me as, say, Tarzan, or Batman, or the Three Musketeers. Indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed a somewhat overlong and rather silly stage version of the Musketeers directed by Richmond just last spring, and in retrospect, much of that enjoyment might have stemmed from my adoration of the characters. Pan just never quite did it for me as much. I also must note that the play's multiple Tony Awards were for the original Black Stache actor, and for... you guessed it, sound, lighting, costume and scenic design. And I'd be inclined to dole out similar awards to the superb team here. For me, the script was just awfully long, and while the ingenious stagecraft certainly enlivened and enhanced the proceedings, over and over again I found my attention wandering, and my eyelids growing heavy.  Additionally, I'm a huge fan of director's notes in programs, a common practice where additional insight may be provided. Yet when there are eloquent, erudite essays from director, artistic director, and a dramaturge included, a nagging voice inside me wonders that if it's seen as necessary for three people to explain how to appreciate the play, then what might that imply?  Had this been a condensed one-hour version aimed at children, or a full-fledged musical with production numbers and lyrics replacing about an hour of dialogue, I suspect I'd have embraced the production more. My guess, however, is that the more one is a fan of the character, the show, or the original novel, the more one will appreciate the first-rate efforts of all involved. 

Another important note is that Peter and the Starcatcher is in no way a children's play, so don't bring your toddler along.  A mature teenager - especially one who is already a fan of live theater and/or has read the book - might do just fine however.  So go for the magic, go for the spectacle, go for nifty tricks of staging, and go to see some of your favorite local actors challenging themselves to achieve more.  Peter and the Starcatcher runs through Saturday April 9, so there are four more weekends, but remember that Easter is in there too. Call the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information, or visit http://www.trustus.org .

 
 
Perennial Crowd-Pleaser 
Steel Magnolias Is Gentle Mix of Comedy, Tragedy, and Southern Charm

Review by August Krickel

Steel Magnolias is as warm, comforting, and familiar as your grandmother's recipe for country-fried steak, with the accompanying squash casserole, sweet tea, and pecan pie for dessert. Robert Harling's affectionate ode to several generations of Southern women ran for nearly three years off-Broadway, inspired a hit movie adaptation with an all-star cast, and has become an icon of Americana. With only six characters, one simple and realistic set, and accessible and easily relatable themes of romance, loss, motherhood, and female bonding, the work is wildly popular at community theatres nationwide. Director Jocelyn Sanders has assembled a capable cast for Workshop Theatre's latest iteration of this beloved classic, and is squarely and comfortably working in her element with its gentle mix of comedy, tragedy, lively banter, and small-town, Southern quirkiness and charm.

The action unfolds on a succession of pivotal days in the lives of six women in rural Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, spanning several years, and always taking place at the local beauty parlor. Owner Truvy (Raia Hirsch) wears tight stretch pants with bold patterns and prints, gossips good-naturedly with and about her friends and neighbors, and is always available to accommodate her regulars, particularly on special occasions, such as the wedding of local golden girl Shelby (Melanie Barden.) Shelby's mother M'Lynn (short for "Mary Lynn" we learn, and played by Zsuzsa Manna) bickers and quibbles with her daughter over every detail, but their underlying love becomes apparent as we learn about Shelby's health issues. Those issues provide the script's primary storyline, but each of the six contend with their own challenges. Truvy struggles with an unappreciative husband and wild children; naive new employee Annelle (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler) is extricating herself from a bad marriage, with uncertainty as to what sort of person she wants to become. The town's queen bee, Clairee (Becky Hunter) is still adjusting to life as a widow, while Cathy Carter Scott's character, the misanthropic Ouiser (we must assume a childhood nickname for "Louisa") has endured two bad marriages, yet implies that an old flame from 50 years earlier is expressing renewed interest.

Sanders has made good choices in casting, with most playing against type, flexing their acting muscles to create recognizable types that are in no way stereotypes. Hirsch probably has the best down-home accent, while Scott is perhaps the most natural on stage. That naturalism can be dangerous, however, as the cast is full of dynamic, assertive emoters who employ the expressive flamboyance one might expect from Southern ladies letting it all hang out at a hair salon. Ouiser has at least 50% of the show's best lines, but these are sometimes nearly lost, since they're delivered exactly as a cantankerous yet still genteel old broad might say them to her friends. My hope is that as the run continues, Scott will play more to the back row, because her commitment to the nuances of what could be the show's least sympathetic character is admirable. Ouiser is light-years away from the posh, glamorous character Scott played in Noises Off last fall; both she and Hunter seem to employ minimal age make-up, and of course the characters both color their hair, so there's no touch of gray to add years, but both are quite convincing playing 20+ years older than they are, via mannerisms and body language.  Manna's role is less prominent than Sally Field's fleshed-out and expanded screen version, while Clairee here is more prominent than Olympia Dukakis's film incarnation of the character. Still, Manna gets to deliver the raw, heart-wrenching speech in the show's final scene for which the play and character are famous, and her delivery is guaranteed to bring tears to all but the most jaded among the audience. I used the term "icon" above, as well as "beloved," because so many women can relate to one or more of the characters, while most men will spot similarities to their wives, mothers, sisters or daughters, especially if one has grown up in the South. Nowhere was this more evident than during M'Lynn's climactic monologue, which is followed by Clairee's attempt to respond in some way. Moments before that response, an older lady seated next to me whispered to her friend what I suspect most in the audience were thinking: "Here it comes." 

Given the material's enduring popularity, the challenge to Sanders to deliver a rendition that would fulfill audience expectations must have been daunting. I am happy to report that she has succeeded. The performance space in the "Market" annex at 701 Whaley is ideal for the physical demands of the script: three specific areas (waiting area, manicure table, and the styling chairs) where actors are still able to see and interact with each other. Curtis Smoak's set design takes advantage of the existing layout, which is wide but not very deep. I was particularly impressed with the director's attention to even the tiniest of details: during a scene change, I spotted a stage hand changing the page on a wall calendar to signify passage of time, even though I cannot imagine anyone in the audience having precise enough vision to have noticed the difference. Blocking is another potential obstacle where Sanders has triumphed, since significant stretches of dialogue are delivered while Truvy and Annelle are working on other characters' hair.  In other words, 2/3 of the cast have to speak all their lines for at least part of the scene without budging from the same location. Working together, director and actors make it all seem natural, and there's never a sense of the conversation turning static or dull. Special mention must also be made of how proficiently Hirsch and Rodillo-Fowler have picked up on the mechanics of hair styling. Most of the time they're actually working on wigs (expertly realized by Emma Thompson) yet everything seems completely believable, and the timing with the dialogue is flawless.

At its core, Steel Magnolias is the stage equivalent of a chick flick, designed to tug at the heartstrings by creating strong, witty, appealing female characters, and then sending them through several of life's tribulations. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you knew that when you made your reservations, just as the author knew when he wrote each quotable line and created each poignant moment. The play has been done twice before in just the last few years, at other local venues, and the movie turns up regularly not only on cable, but lately on "Pop," i.e. the programming that runs at the top of your screen while tv listings scroll below.  Still, I was pleased to see a nearly sold-out house on opening night, which implies that audiences will always turn out for name-brand shows in Columbia. That's something that Workshop Theatre needs right now: a steady series of solid, well-produced crowd-pleasers that will get audiences used to seeing shows at 701 Whaley, and then keep them coming back for more. Sanders and her cast ensure that Steel Magnolias continues that tradition. Four more chances remain to see the production, which runs through Sunday, March 20 (closing that afternoon with a matinee.)  For ticket information, visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com/steel-magnolias.html, or call 803-799-6551.


 
 
Chapin Theatre Comapny's 
Duck Hunter Shoots Angel Skewers Backwoods Southern Stereotypes, Providing Plenty of Laughs and a Little Inspiration

Review by August Krickel 

When a play is called Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, it's begging to be produced in the Midlands. Chapin Theatre Company's production of this Mitch Albom comedy delivers on the title's inherent promise, benevolently skewering backwoods Southern stereotypes and providing lots of down-home laughs, while adding in unexpected notes of  introspection and inspiration.

As you might guess, the title is ripped from the tabloids, in particular the fictional Weekly World and Globe, which actually comes out bi-weekly, but its publisher (Jonathan Fletcher) avoids that term for fear that his rural readership might think he's endorsing some alternative lifestyle. Two dim-witted brothers - imagine Jason Stackhouse and Jethro Bodine - think they've shot an angel, causing a media feeding frenzy to get exclusive rights to the story. Cynical Sandy (Travis Page), a jaded reporter who long ago gave up journalistic integrity for the lure of easy money, is dispatched to the swamps of Alabama to cover the breaking news, with blunt and quirky photographer Lenny (Chadwick Presley) at his side. Neither is wild aboutdelving into the heart of darkness of Southern Gothic dysfunction; as an African-American from "up North," Lenny is reluctant to be covering Southerners with guns, while Sandy is haunted by memories of the girl he left behind when he was a young reporter stationed in this very area. Page and Presley have a nice, relaxed, natural rapport, and scenes in which they discuss cultural differences and career goals are fairly intellectual, touching on a number of issues most professionals face. That said, these conversations could drag if they were all part of one long scene, and the playwright wisely alternates these every few minutes with much more broadly comic vignettes of the hapless duck hunters, Duane (David Fichter) and Duwell (Merritt Vann.)  Fichter and Vann similarly play off each other skillfully, and director MonaLisa Botts ensures a rapid pace for the back-and-forth banter among each duo. Page nails his character, projecting a fast-talking, big city vibe that conceals the regrets he harbors inside. He's a young actor, and his world-weariness makes sense given his career path, but the script makes clear that the character needs to be in his 40's. My hope is that the actor might add a little gray to his temples to make this more apparent. Presley continues what I call his victory lap of local theaters; he's an accomplished singer who has turned to acting in the last year and a half, scoring primo roles as Big Moe in Workshop's Five Guys Named Moe, Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy at Town, and the voice of the plant in Little Shop of Horrors at On Stage Productions. He's very natural on stage, dismissing other characters' pretensions with a quick quip or a simple roll of the eyes. Fichter and Vann's scenes are written less realistically, and play more like sketch comedy, but they get plenty of laughter from the audience. Some of their malapropisms are truly inspired, as when they refer to the Biblical tale of Jacob and his brother Hee-Haw.

Kori Hays has some nice moments as an independent-minded teenager at a local convenience store who proves to the visiting Yankees that not everyone in the South is a bumpkin. Lindsey Knowlton is a vision of loveliness - literally - as Sandy's lost love. The actress (full disclosure: her mother and sister are friends and former colleagues of mine) convincingly plays significantly older than her actual age, and makes the most of small but crucial flashback scenes. One initially thinks she appears on stage as no more a sort of phantom dream girl from Sandy's memory, but it's as if the character demands to be taken more seriously, and asserts herself into the narrative of the play. Which is where the script takes a sharp turn into more meaningful territory, as a voice from offstage (Ripley Thames) probes Sandy's psyche, challenging him to revisit decisions he has made in his life.

If the author's name sounds familiar, it should. Albom was a successful sportswriter whose career similarly evolved after his book Tuesdays with Morrie became a runaway best-seller. The memoir recounted his experiences with his dying professor, who ironically taught Albom how to live. Albom wrote a stage version, which Jocelyn Sanders directed at Workshop in 2008, and in that show's dialogue, the Morrie character repeatedly asks Albom if he's happy with his life, if he feels he's a good man and a good human being, and if he is satisfied with the choices he's made.  In other words, the Sandy character in Duck Hunter Shoots Angel is a stand-in for the author himself, and for each one of us. Albom has prospered as the author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven and similar inspirational books, and here he examines these familiar themes, just in the guise of Southern-fried, farcical fun. The message could be seen as a tad heavy-handed, but that's why the playwright cushions it with plenty of down-home Dixie silliness. In my case, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily Albom mastered the tools of comedy, in what is, to my knowledge, his only foray to date into that genre.

Duck Hunter Shoots Angel is being presented at "the Firehouse Theatre" at 102 Lexington Avenue, in downtown Chapin. That's a straight shot out the interstate from downtown Columbia, taking no more than 20-25 minutes. The building doubles as the local American Legion Post, and in true Southern fashion, is also known as "where the old Chapin fire station used to be." Don't expect a picturesque historic fire station like the buildings that Villa Tronco and the Hunter-Gatherer now occupy; this is a little unassuming brick building with linoleum floors and paneling on the interior walls that vaguely suggests wood. Yet the performance space includes a nicely elevated stage (presumably used for veterans' events and local civic gatherings) and a grid that allows for plenty of stage lighting to be hung overhead. There are some basic units that suggest interiors of the tabloid's office, Sandy's car, and the convenience store, but for all intents and purposes the play is performed on a bare stage, with one large unit representing a tree trunk to the rear.  And that's all that's needed. To the director's credit, even scenes within the car involve only the most subtle of miming; generally, we see anything physical that's mentioned in the script, and the details of the swamp, the highway, etc. are left to our imaginations. The rapid scene shifts I mentioned above are accomplished via proficient lighting changes, as well as an appealing contrivance by Albom, where the last few words of one scene segue into the next scene's dialogue.

Duck Hunter Shoots Angel never made it to Broadway or won any literary awards, but it's certainly entertaining, as long as you're looking for broad, country-themed comedy. It's got some PG-13 language, and Albom's uplifting message which he sneaks in at the end may come as a surprise to one not familiar with his other work.  Ultimately, however, it is what it is, i.e. everything that the title implies. You've got four more chances to get in on the fun, as the show runs through this Sunday, March 6.  Visit http://www.chapintheatre.org/2016/duck-hunter.html or call 803-240-8544 for more information.

 
 
Familiar Country Hits Are Highlight of
Honky Tonk Angels At Town Theatre

Review by August Krickel

Full disclosure: I lived for six years in Nashville, Tennessee, and never once went to see the Grand Ole Opry. I did, however, see a touring production of Beatlemania at the Opry House.  And about a gazillion concerts of arena metal, Southern rock, and what passed for punk and new wave in those days. In short, I'm not a big fan of country music.  So when I say that I intentionally set out to see Town Theatre's Honky Tonk Angels, a revival of the popular country-themed jukebox musical, and that I managed to have a decent time, that should say something. Indeed, it speaks to the vocal talent of the cast of three, who warble and harmonize their way through some 30 country and western hits over a quick couple of hours.

The Angels are the young and innocent Darlene (Alexa Cotran), frustrated mom and housewife - or rather doublewide-trailer-wife - Angela (Shannon Willis Scruggs), and jaded divorcee and transplant to the West Coast Sue Ellen (Kathy Hartzog.)  Playwright Ted Swindley, the creator of Always... Patsy Cline (another greatest hits package often produced at Town with Scruggs in the title role and Hartzog as her friend) sets up scenarios for each to deliver a few well-known tunes that summarize their lives.  Darlene was born a coal miner's daughter, but after her family moved to Mississippi, she now spends most of her time up on Choctaw Ridge remembering her beau Billie Joe.  Harried mother of six Angela tries hard to stand by her man, while acerbic Sue Ellen gets tired of working 9 to 5, and declares that these boots were made for walking. Which should give you an idea of why they call these "jukebox musicals," where the hits never stop. To the author's credit, he adds a fair amount of exposition to link each vignette. Some is comic, with Hartzog fending off an unseen amorous boss, and some is actually tender, with Cotran providing a credible answer to the mystery of what "Ode to Billie Joe" is about. Ultimately all three decide to leave it all behind and travel to Nashville in search of their musical dreams, and the moment when their voices join, then soar, on Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" is genuinely touching. A chance encounter on a bus leads to the threesome becoming a vocal group, and Act Two comprises the last night of their gig at the Honky Tonk Heaven in Music City. (Or Nash Vegas, as they accurately call it.)

So the whole show is an excuse for three singers to sing famous country songs - although many I refer to above I've never thought of as country per se - and get some laughs with down-home comedy along the way. Hartzog would be the first to admit that she's an actress more than a singer, adept at both comic roles (often as a feisty old battle-axe) and serious drama (such as her poignant performance in Driving Miss Daisy last year.) As a gifted comedienne, she can sell the humor of a song like few can, adding self-deprecating defiance to "Boots" as she breaks into the Batusi. For anyone who's not a Baby Boomer, that's the proper name for the V-fingers along the eyes move employed by John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.) And when she walks out clad in Egyptian regalia, the audience begins laughing before she ever utters a word, since her next song is called "Queen of Denial." Country songs can be vocally challenging, however, but Hartzog is fine as long as long as her numbers are within her range. When a few are not, Cotran and Scruggs are usually employed to add harmony, and all is well.

Scruggs has been in the spotlight for several decades in any number of lead roles at Town, so it's no surprise that vocally she's as accomplished as always. "Almost Persuaded," a reflective ballad with which I wasn't previously familiar, is probably her best song among many. She also gets the good sport award for wearing perhaps the most unflattering 60's get-up imaginable on "Harper Valley PTA." The song includes elements of female empowerment and social commentary on self-expression, but director Allison McNeely goes for broad comedy, decking Scruggs out in an absurdly high beehive hairdo and garish mini-skirt. Scruggs channels her inner Carol Burnett and belts out the song like a trooper, never hesitating to allow herself to be on the receiving end of the laughter in an admittedly amusing number.

Cotran is quite the belter too, and it's nice to see her reunited in song with her Winter Wonderettes castmate Scruggs; both, in fact, were students of the director at Spring Valley, although a generation apart. Watching this trio of songstresses perform, it was fascinating to follow the technique of each. Hartzog is the actor, maintaining her character, and leaping on any opportunity to sell a lyric or witty rhyme with some added gesture or expression. Scruggs is the musical performer, working every inch of the house, connecting with every audience member, always looking for ways to get the audience clapping in time to the music. Cotran is the pure singer, and in her solo numbers, one is reminded of any number of wistful singers on film, like Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow," or Olivia Newton-John singing "Hopelessly Devoted to You." It's as if she's gone to her own special, personal, vocal hideaway, and she's singing just for herself, but with genuine emotion and sincerity.

Musical Director Sharon McElveen Altman leads a capable 5-piece band on keyboards, and the many musical numbers' constant changes in tone, mood and locale are enhanced by Danny Harrington's lighting design. His set is pretty basic, incorporating elements from previous shows, but that's all that required for this type of show. Lori Stepp's best costumes are saved for the end, when all three Angels sport different yet complementing all-white cowgirl outfits. Abigail Ludwig's wigs are exactly the kind country divas wear, which isn't always a good thing, but she does a top-notch job with them nevertheless.   Hartzog's final wig is actually fairly becoming, and of course that Harper Valley wig deserves a curtain call of its own.

A couple of years ago, when McNeely directed Scruggs and Cotran in Wonderettes, I observed that I would have been just as happy to see the leads ditch the framing plot and just do a live concert on Town's stage. The same pretty much holds true here, but there are some funny bits in between songs. Given that many of the musical numbers were crossover hits that found mainstream success in the Top Forty, one doesn't have to be the hardest-core fan of the Opry to enjoy Honky Tonk Angels. (Although that would certainly help.) Of much greater significance is simply the chance to see two long-time favorite performers, Scruggs and Hartzog, together again, joined by an appealing and gifted newcomer, Cotran. Ultimately, it's just three white chicks hangin' around talkin' and singin', but their voices are pretty, and are showcased in some popular and familiar tunes. Honky Tonk Angels runs through Sunday, March 6; for more information, visit the Town Theatre website or call 803-799-2510.


 
 
Part Circus, Part Vaudeville, and Part Rock Show, USC's 
Scapin Is Lively Update of Molière Classic

Review by August Krickel.

Molière's Scapin at USC's Longstreet Theatre is likely the most fun you'll ever have at a play that students have to see, or read, for class. Part circus performance, part vaudeville act, and part rock show, guest director (and veteran stage clown) Louis Butelli's production of this stage classic from 1672 is undeniably entertaining, although how much is from Molière, how much is from adapters/writers Mark O'Donnell and Bill Irwin (another renowned stage clown who played the title role when this adaptation of the French-language original debuted in the '90's) and how much is the wacky improvisational vision of Butelli and his cast is unclear. Not that it matters - the goal is outrageous, over the top, Benny Hill-style amusement done at lightning speed for maximum comedic effect. Mission accomplished, and then some.

The backstory is that Molière (the famous writer's stage name, used to avoid creditors, and embarrassment to his family that they were connected to someone in the theater) started out writing broad comedies in the style of the improvisational Italian Commedia dell'arte. His fame grew as he segued into more sophisticated comedies of manners that satirized posh society. The year before he died at age 51, he wrote Les Fourberies de Scapin, or "Scapin's Deceits," which recalled his earlier, more light-hearted work, and centered around a rascally servant, taken from the stock Scapino character in Commedia.  If your eyes are glazing over with that little theater history lesson, you'll understand why authors of this version (which I suspect they paraphrased rather than formally translating) and Butelli went out of their way to make Scapin accessible to modern audiences. That said, improvisation, pratfalls, madcap antics, and topical references are all part of the Commedia tradition, and were likely a part of the original performances, even if never formally written down in any surviving text. All of which simply means that this is an excellent way to introduce students to how theater of another era can still be entertaining - the production is presented by the University's Theatre Department, remember - while still producing a viable evening of entertainment that doesn't make you think you're in the classroom.

Not that plot matters, but it involves two old rich guys wanting to marry their sons off to "appropriate" matches; the sons enlist their manservants to help them deceive their fathers, so that they can marry their true loves. Dimitri Woods as Scapin and Matthew Cavender as his fellow servant and sidekick Sylvestre clown up a storm, showing off mad dance skills, limber athleticism and physicality, and proficiency at rapid-fire verbal patter. Woods in particular manages an impressive bit of stage legerdemain when he somehownot only obtains an important prop from Ben Roberts (as Argante, one of the fathers), but also ends up wearing Argante's coat, in a tricky move that would make Harpo Marx or Curly Howard proud. Woods and Cavender each pull off a modern take on a classic Molière gag, with Woods tricking his boss into hiding inside a big gunny sack, then adopting various foreign accents, and beating the crap out of his unsuspecting master (Michael Castro) while saying "Oh no - foreign ruffians are attacking us!" Cavender gets his moment too, diving into the laps of the audience as he boasts of his prowess as a tough guy, channeling fury and familiar taglines from There Will Be Blood, Scarface, Network, A Few Good Men, and a dozen others. Indeed, there's a lot of interaction within the audience, so if you're sitting close to the stage, be prepared for
one or more cast members to sit down beside you, possibly in drag, and/or invite you on stage to join in the merriment. Carin Bendas and Jamie Boller do good work as the tantalizing love interests, utterly unrecognizable from their previous roles as the all-business stage manager from Our Town and the troubled soldier A.J. from Ajax in Iraq respectively.

The plot does drag at times, almost certainly when the 17th-century narrative is followed most closely, but then at times one loses track of the plot entirely due to the manic havoc transpiring. Butelli wisely incorporates a lot of music, with a 5-piece rock combo, led by Music Director Freddie Powers on electric guitar, on stage throughout. Powers has appeared as an actor in shows at USC before, and so understands comic timing. Accordingly, the band is an integral part of the production, interacting with the characters, giving rim shots for key lines, and providing an underscore that sets the mood for each scene, breaking into echoes of Ennio Morricone's score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at a moment of suspense, or 'House of the Rising Sun" when referring to seduction. Most importantly, they really do play together like a real band, and treat the audience to full-length renditions of "Johnny B. Goode" and "I Got a Woman." Tamara Joksimovic's set design recalls the multiple levels and platforms she incorporated in her set for last fall's Threepenny Opera, including plentiful use of trap doors, enabling actors to pop in and out of scenes as if part of a giant Whac-a-Mole game. Rachel Harmon's excellent costume design similarly captures the feel of some undefined, vaguely-Victorian previous era, with the servants clad in baggy, mismatched garish plaid suits, and the ladies attired like Raggedy Ann if she turned streetwalker. Lighting by Rachel Sheets and sound by Danielle Wilson contribute to the show's overall technical excellence.

It's important to repeat that Scapin is a fast-paced evening of ridiculous farce and tomfoolery, and in no way a dry recreation from a textbook. Which is great news, unless you're planning on donning your tux and pearls in anticipation of being uplifted by a classic piece of French literature. If that's the case, stay home and watch PBS, because here it's all about the base humor and slapstick, admirably accomplished by Butelli and his energetic cast.  Scapin runs through Sat. Feb. 27 at USC's Longstreet Theatre; call 803-777-2551 or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/scapin-longstreet-theatre for more information.

 

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 (Chlöe 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.

 

 

Yo Ho Ho Meets Ho Ho Ho In Appealing Holiday Mash-Up “Jingle Arrgh the Way”

Review by August Krickel

I'm not sure when pirates became such a craze. It was long before my childhood, when I read the Classic Illustrated Comics version of Treasure Island at about age 7. Robert Louis Stevenson's original novel of Long John Silver and company dates to the 1880's, and was surely inspired by tales he heard as a boy from the century before, and Robert Newton's screen portrayal of Silver in a 1950 Disney film incarnation firmly cemented the Southwest English accent (as in "Arr, matey") in our minds as the definitive sound of a pirate. These days the Pirates of the Caribbean films and theme park attractions make pirates part of our collective culture of childhood play, and among the many books in that genre was South Carolina-based Melinda Long's How I Became a Pirate. Columbia Children's Theatre had a successful run in 2014 with a stage adaptation of Long's book, and so it's only natural that the original cast returns this year in a holiday-themed sequel, Jingle Arrgh the Way.  It's got pirates, it's got Santa, it's got wintry songs, and most importantly, it features some of Columbia's best and most outrageous character actors in principal roles, and that's all you need to know. But if that doesn't convince you that your child will enjoy this rollicking mash-up of scurvy rogues and festive, seasonal cheer, read on.

Jeremy Jacob (Ashlyn Combs) is an ordinary boy with an extraordinary imagination, and whether by daydreaming or through some rift in the space-time continuum, a merry band of seafaring rogues appear to him and whisk him off on an adventure. In command is fearsome Captain Braid Beard (think Blackbeard after a makeover), played with rakish charm and bluster by Lee O. Smith. His bumbling yet lovable crew includes the fierce one, Sharktooth (Andy Nyland), the geeky one, Swill (Paul Lindley II), the French one, Pierre (Julian Deleon), and the girl, Maxine (Brandi Smith.) A treasure map takes them on a quest to the North Pole, where they encounter Santa (Charley Krawczyk), and learn that the real treasure is - spoiler alert - to be found in giving.  (All together now:  "Awwwww.") Along the way they sing assorted songs that channel both traditional holiday themes as well as merry sea shanties and pirate jigs. Authors/composers Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman are prolific creators of shows for children's theatre, and so the music is lively, with nods to and echoes of everything from The Nutcracker to "A Visit from St. Nicholas." 

Like all CCT productions, the cast is small, but full of vocal heavy-hitters:  Combs played the title role in The Little Mermaid at Workshop Theatre, Lindley played Jack in Into the Woods with the Chapin Theatre Company and Lord Farquaad in Shrek the Musical at Town Theatre, Lee O. Smith played Javert in Les Miserables at Town and the title role in Dr. Doolittle at Workshop, Nyland played George Jones in The Tammy Wynette Story at Town, and Deleon and Brandi Smith were featured in the sung-through jazz opera The Wild Party at Workshop. So while they often sing in their character-voices and not with their full range or ability, all ensure a pleasant, rich sound for the show's musical numbers. (Lindley doubles as musical director.)  Combs, convincing as a boy in an excellent short-hair wig, gets the prettiest song, "Holiday on Ice," while the cast replicates figure-skating moves behind her via Crystal Aldamuy's choreography. Lindley proves to be the most athletic and energetic of the bunch, leaping and capering throughout the house with bare feet, and breaking into a decent pirate's jig at one point. Physical comedy abounds, as when Braid Beard commands his crew to freeze in place in anticipation of a polar bear attack. (And you just know that everyone will be in the most awkward positions possible at that moment.) There are snowball fights, references to Star Trek and to Simon and Garrgh-funkel for the adults, and a recurring gag where Lindley appears in a spotlight to explain the definition of some obscure term, but then finds it harder and harder to get to the correct location.  Connections are made between a buccaneer's "Yo Ho Ho," and Santa's "Ho Ho Ho," and in the show's finale, that "Yo" becomes an excuse for an energetic drum and bass hip-hop variation on "Deck the Halls." Yes, Lee O. Smith raps. Furreal, yo.

Donna Harvey's costumes are excellent, especially Braid Beard's crimson and gold attire, and Santa's rich red velvet garb. There are a lot of sound and light cues in this production, so I need to give credit to Natalie Combs and Jim Litzinger's timing on light and sound boards respectively. Wigs are all quite realistic, and an animated snow effect by Nathan Fuller is a visual highlight. Jerry Stevenson's direction keeps the action moving quickly through the 65 minutes or so of action on stage.

Interestingly, apart from the framework of the treasure quest and the lesson learned, there's not a particularly complex plot, which I rather appreciated. Instead, focus remains on appealing performers who are afforded the luxury of developing their characters, and then then maximizing their time on stage for the benefit and amusement of the young audience. As above, it's certainly an A-list of character actors who've signed up for this yuletide excursion. Also, I suspect that this may be one of the last times we see Combs as a kid, as the talented teen is just about ready to take on grown-up roles. These days, it's rare that one doesn't have a good time at a CCT show, even if the productions are aimed at children. But don't forget - there is a special adults-only performance (featuring adult beverages and PG-13 improv spinning off of the same script) on Friday, December 11, while the regular run of Jingle Arrgh the Way continues through Sunday, December 13. For reservations or ticket information, visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/jingle-arrgh-the-way/, or call (803) 691-4548.
 
 
 

Ebenezer Scrooge Joins Engaging Cast to ‘Rock Around the Christmas Tree’ in On Stage Productions’ “A Twisted Carol, A Jukebox Musical”

Review by Dell Goodrich


‘Twas 3 weeks before Christmas and waiting excitedly back stage,

The cast at On Stage Productions was prepared to delight and engage.

Two players appeared, launching the holiday mood with a grin;

Singing carols with cheer, encouraging all to join in.

 

The director emerged to introduce his original show;

A musical variation of a Dickens tale we all know.

A Twisted Carol, A Jukebox Musical, is campy, full of surprises and giggles.

It was immediately evident that the audience would be tickled.

 

The story began with Cratchit, Scrooge and a character who was new;

A housekeeper named Effie, our young ingénue.

Peter Ullsperger as Scrooge, was a bombastic, loud grouch,

And a huge presence on stage; certainly no slouch.

At nonverbal performance, he was also a master;

Even when not speaking, he prompted audience peals of laughter.

 

Travis Page, as Bob Cratchit, did a respectable job

But as the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come, the stage he did rob.

A flirty lothario, blowing kisses he sashayed

Then was joined by more actors, performing a frisky “YMCA”.

 

Rachel Rizzuti, as Effie, sang of her unrequited love-

For Scrooge, while her name he could never think of.

Rizzuti- as usual a standout, with her lovely, dulcet voice

Her songs so outstanding, selecting the best is a tough choice;

Among them “Mama Mia”, “Super Trooper” and “Somewhere That’s Green”

“Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Dancing Queen.”

 

Her “Effettes” as her conscience, doubled as the Ghosts of Christmas Past;

Glenda the Good Witch, Tinkerbell and the Tooth Fairy- these ghosts were a blast.

Linda Brochin, leading the three, proved at makeovers they were gifted,

Promising to make Scrooge “Popular” in a campy spoof from Wicked.

 

My favorite scene, the finest group showcase of the night,

Was framed by Mr. Fezziwig’s party. The title jukebox was prominently in sight.

We visited the “Love Shack” and did the “Time Warp” again

Jerimy (JJ) Woodall, as the party host, rocked the house for the win.

This ensemble celebration “time-warped” back to the 60’s.

The costumes, dancing and energy were all nifty.

 

At a few instances along the way, there were spots that were bumpy

But it was opening night, upon which all actors’ nerves are jumpy.

All-in-all a night of laughter, merriment and holiday spirit for all

Go see this jolly production. You’ll surely have a ball.

 

A true family show, with players big and small

Including a young “Tiny Tina” and other tots, garnering “Awww’s” from us all.

As the evening drew to a close, hearts having been won,

Tiny Tina exclaimed “God Bless Us Every One.”

A Twisted Carol: A Jukebox Musical continues Dec. 10, 11 and 12- with evening performances at 7:30 and a matinee on the 12th at 2:30.

Some performances will feature Michelle Privette and Tim Privette as Mary and Fred and Tucker Privette as Floyd. Alternating performances will feature Robin Saviola and Jerimy (JJ) Woodall as Mary and Fred and Hannah Presor as Flora.

** A nod to the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore

   

Trustus Theatre's “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical”  Delivers Down-Home Raunchy Fun Implied In Title

Review by August Krickel

There's something to be said for truth in advertising. If you look at the festive poster outside Trustus Theatre proclaiming its latest production, you'll see a woman entangled in Christmas lights, sporting a Dolly Parton-style blonde wig topped a pair of tacky antlers; she's wearing assorted dime-store jewelry, and is trying to strike a sexy pose while simultaneously blowing a huge bubble of bubblegum. Upon beholding this sight, you're likely to exclaim either "Oh my God, that looks funny as hell!" or "Oh my God, that's dreadful - it looks like it's straight out of some trailer park!" Both are actually true, and as the title above her head confirms, you’ve arrived at The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical (TGATPCM.)  And the title quite accurately sums up the nature of the evening's entertainment. So if that hasn't scared you off, then by all means, read on.

Directed by Larry Hembree, who confesses in the program notes to spending part of his childhood living in a trailer, TGATPCM is a sequel to a similarly-titled show (just drop the word "Christmas") that was such a big hit for Trustus in 2010 that it was successfully revived the next year. Both shows came close to selling out, and so it was only a matter of time until the holiday-themed sequel, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and book by Betsy Kelso, was bound to turn up. No knowledge of the original production or plot is necessary, however, as this work stands on its own concrete blocks. The setting is .... ok, spoiler alert here: the setting is in a trailer park, at Christmas. Armadillo Acres, in northern Florida, to be precise, and everyone is full of holiday spirit (which is actually homemade "keg-nog.")  Even the meth lab is cooking ham instead of crystal, says resident manager Betty (Vicky Saye Henderson.) She and gal pals Lin (Abigail Ludwig) - short for Linoleum because her mama gave birth to her on a kitchen floor - and teenage single mom Pickles (Katie Leitner) are all agog upon learning that their trailer park is in the running for a big cash prize from Mobile Homes and Gardens Magazine for best holiday decorations.

Good-natured doofus Rufus (Kevin Bush) goes all out every year, festooning his trailer's facade with as much kitschy goodness as can be found on sale at the 99-cent store.  Yet the nemesis on his premises is grumpy next-door-neighbor Darlene (Caroline Jones Weidner), a singlewide Scrooge who naturally hates Christmas.  Just as surely as a good ol' boy is likely to shout "Hey y'all, watch this!" before coming close to killing himself, we know that Darlene will follow some journey similar to Scrooge's, emerging as a better neighbor and a better human being. There are added complications involving Darlene's sleazy boss and boyfriend Jackie (Matthew DeGuire), possible eviction of the main characters from the trailer park, and even a vengeful spirit/demon on the loose, but the real reason for this show's existence is to enable some trashy and campy characters to make silly jokes about the holidays from their unique viewpoint, and to sing some pretty songs in the same vein.  As above, the title explains exactly what you're getting, so you're unlikely to be disappointed - just as long as you make sure to reflect on the title and all that it implies.

Vocally, there's not a weak link in the cast, and if you've seen other musicals in Columbia, many of the best featured some or all of these performers in various combinations; many of those shows owed their musical excellence to music director Randy Moore, whose local credits include Godspell, Evil Dead the Musical, See Rock City, [title of show], and The Producers. Here, Moore leads a four-piece band that is appropriately and hilariously enclosed in chicken wire. Believe it or not, the score isn't really country music, not even country-tinged rock. Instead, it's mainstream, contemporary, nearly-schmaltzy Broadway pop, but sung by the cast as if it's country music. In other words, everyone uses heavy Southern accents, and Bush in particular employs a sort of nasal twang to give his numbers an extra countrified sound. Bush is almost unrecognizable under scruffy whiskers, a camo hat, and jeans held together by duct tape, and he effectively uses his lower register in both speaking and singing to create a very different character from those he's played before. Still, his duet with Weidner, "Christmas Memories," is quite sweet and pretty, and could just as easily be some unreleased Carrie Underwood/Garth Brooks collaboration. "Black and Blue on Christmas Eve" is another appealing tune, but here Bush delivers the song entirely in character - and his character happens to be falling-down drunk.  Bush commits to the concept, and manages to make the song work, while still remaining believable as a good ol' boy who's one bottle of cheap gin over the line.  Weidner's solo "My Christmas Tin Toy Boy" similarly shows off her attractive voice.  DeGuire gets to swagger Elvis-style in "Baby I'll Be Your Santa Claus," and generates plenty of laughs as the proprietor of Stacks, a breakfast franchise that combines the business models of IHOP and Hooters.  Henderson, Ludwig, and Leitner get no real solos, but have the bulk of the comic lines, and serve as a sort of Greek Chorus for the trailer park and as backup singers for their castmates. Henderson is probably the funniest, Leitner the cutest and most energetic, while Ludwig has less business on stage, but seems the most natural and convincing as a down-home honey.

Nehls' score is derivative, probably intentionally so, and I caught melodic echoes of everything from stage musicals like Pump Boys and Dinettes (which this show is somewhat reminiscent of) and Big River, to Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and Charlie Daniels' "Uneasy Rider."  But those homages tie in with the show's overall raison d'etre, which counts on the audience being familiar with the stock characters and situations we're seeing.  Sound by Baxter Engle and lighting by Bill West-Davis are excellent, and are used effectively at some crucial moments in the proceedings. Brandon McIver's set isn't fancy, but c'mon - it's supposed to be a trailer park, and it does indeed look like one.  One excellent detail I spotted was that the interior of Rufus's and Darlene's trailers can be seen when they open their respective front doors, rather than just simple black masking. Kelso's book is chock-full of good one-liners, but when she tries to tell the story and advance the plot, it doesn't always work. As long as most of the characters are onstage and singing, all is well, but if one or two characters find themselves alone, there are deathly silences and pauses. This certainly isn't the fault of the actors, and not really the director either, although both need to work to tighten up these moments. Essentially the script is a series of amusing vignettes, and Kelso just hasn't managed to weave them together to create a really coherent and compelling narrative.  Then again, she probably wasn't trying to. TGATPCM premiered only a couple of years ago in Texas, and has been making the rounds of regional theatres ever since. A complex storyline isn't why audiences are flocking to this piece across the country - it's the title, pure and simple, and all that the title implies: the chance to enjoy some light holiday entertainment that is a subversive, irreverent, raunchy twist on traditional, wholesome, family-themed Christmas shows. Let's be frank - for me, and for most of the audience, the production's highlight was the first-act finale... "F*ck It, It's Christmas."  (That really is both the song's title, and its catchy refrain.) If that doesn't tell you what to expect, nothing will.  The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical runs through Saturday, December 19, with multiple matinees and rare Wednesday night performances, but some performances are already close to being sold out. Also take note that there are performances at 8 PM both Saturday Nov. 28 and Sunday, Nov. 29, i.e. the weekend right after Thanksgiving (Friday the 27th is also already sold out.) Visit http://www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

 
 
Rich Production Design and Energetic Performances Give New Life to Vintage Blithe Spirit  

Review by August Krickel.

Welcome to the posh world of Noel Coward, the prolific British actor, singer, composer, playwright, and knight, where rich socialites banter and exchange pleasantries over dry martinis. People "dress" for dinner, meaning floor-length gowns and tuxes, while casual breakfast attire means just a double-breasted suit and tie. Men sport pencil-thin mustaches, and ladies' hair is marcelled. You don't necessarily do certain things, but one often does, and one can overcome almost any obstacle by saying firmly "I really must insist." While this idealized view of upper-class England may seem remote or even quaint to modern audiences, USC's Theatre South Carolina gives it the old college try with a revival of one of Coward's biggest hits, Blithe Spirit, running through Saturday, Nov. 21 at Drayton Hall Theatre.  Thanks to talented performers, rich production values, energetic direction, and sheer force of will on the part of everyone involved, there's still life to be found in this vintage ghost story.

Charles Condomine (Josh Jeffers) is a prosperous gentleman/author, doing research into the supernatural for his next book.  Madame Arcati (Marybeth Gorman) is a local medium who's still at large, and he arranges for her to conduct a séance at the stately manor he now shares with his second wife Ruth (Nicole Dietze.) What could go wrong? Just as in an actual horror story, the spirit of his late first wife Elvira (Candace Thomas) is unintentionally raised, and once she's back, she's not going anywhere. Indeed, much of the plot may seem familiar simply because in the 70+ years since its debut, countless other works, both comic and horrific, have used many of the same tropes, and the idea of an aristocratic apparition had already been used in the Topper films, and half a century earlier by Oscar Wilde in The Canterville Ghost. Still, this is Noel Coward's take on the theme, and he's famous for a reason.  Blithe Spirit is a very talky play, yet each line of dialogue is flawlessly and meticulously constructed. There are very few "hah-hah" laugh lines, yet the script is always urbanely witty, and I found myself hanging on every word, every syllable that the actors spoke. Among director Stan Brown's many wise and thoughtful touches are the mid-Atlantic accents that the American actors use. I've commented before on USC productions where accents were authentic but as a result difficult to follow, and Brown has cleverly gone for a sound that suggests the elite society of an earlier time, but is still discernible to the modern (and South Carolinian) ear. Drayton is a fairly large house, and I was sitting towards the rear, yet every word of the script was delivered with impeccable clarity and projection. I noticed that the supporting cast - DeAudrey Owens and Ashley Graham as family friends, and Lindsey Sheehan as the housekeeper - are freshmen and sophomores, meaning they're probably playing 10-20 years older, yet they too are completely convincing in their roles. Another nice touch is how fully Brown uses the space on stage, and keeps his actors in constant motion. While there are references in the script to Elvira (thankfully pronounced "el-vee-ra" to avoid images of the tv personality or the Oak Ridge Boys) moving from place to place, Brown gives the proceedings an added punch of vitality in his blocking, which covers just about every inch on stage repeatedly. Someone needs to film one of these scenes, and use it as a textbook example of how actors can counter each other's moves on stage and still seem natural, and how somewhat cerebral conversation can be enlivened by physicality. 

Yet in a play full of words and conversation, with little action beyond some spectral rattling of furniture and levitation and tossing of objects (which we see the Elvira actress doing, and must imagine how it seems to those who can't see her) I see that 80% of my notes are about the production's technical expertise. In fact, a friend who has accompanied me to a number of shows declared at intermission that this was hands down the best set and lighting design he had seen of any show in the last two years, and by my count that's 27 plays. Baxter Engle, who one may think of more as a sound and visual special effects guy in years past before he joined the MFA program at USC, goes above and beyond the call of duty with his set design. All the action takes place in the formal drawing room of a palatial estate, and a lesser artist (or one with a smaller budget) would simply construct walls only as high as they need to go to include pictures on the wall, and then use masking above. Here, Engle extends the walls as far as the eye can see, easily 15 feet or more, to signify how grand the mansion is. Deep hunter green wallpaper with intricate designs alternates with elegant woodwork, and I noticed that the wood columns extend all the way up to the ceiling (of the fictive room on stage) where they meet cross beams that stretch from one side to the other. It's certainly not necessary, i.e. there's not an actual second floor being supported above... but it looks as if there could be.  The rear wall upstage is actually a transparent scrim, enabling us to see all of a hallway and a sweeping staircase beyond. There's not any significant action that happens there that we need to see.... but Engle includes it anyway, just to enhance the overall look. Rachel Sheets' lighting design is subtle, with illumination supposedly provided by assorted lamps on stage. When each of these is turned off, that area of the stage dims accordingly, and when we're plunged into darkness, ghostly lighting inconspicuously rises so that the audience can still see everything.

Danielle Wilson's sound design includes assorted other-worldly whooshes of wind accompanied by eerie chimes at appropriate moments, and music that seems to be coming directly from an authentic Victrola.  Valerie Pruett is credited for wig, hair and make-up design, and whatever wigs there may be are so effective that I couldn't tell whose hair was real and whose wasn't. (Although one hopes that Dietze is wearing one, because otherwise she gave all for her art and colored her hair a shocking hue of red.) About the only thing that didn't work for me was Thomas's phantasmal make-up, which included a lot of violet hues and glitter, and gave her face a sort of Mardi Gras mask-like appearance. This didn't detract much, but I'd have enjoyed seeing more of her expressions.  Then again, I was sitting pretty far in the back. Top honors go to Rachel Harmon's costumes. (It's perhaps significant that she, Engle, Wilson, and Pruett all collaborated on last winter's Translations, which was similarly outstanding in technical accomplishments.) I was somehow reminded of the old Crayola crayon container that boasted "64 Different Brilliant Colors," and it's as if Harmon has used each one of them. Dietze starts out in a bight sort of red-orange evening dress, complemented by Graham in cobalt blue, while the men are in basic black. Gorman is clad in chaotic purple with blue and teal accents, reminding us of the character's gypsy-like nature. But the next morning, Dietze is dressed in soft aqua, while Jeffers has switched to natty gray. Dietze moves to a bold rust-orange suit, then a pale lemon-sherbet dress, bold choices given her hair color, and revealing with respect to her character's personality, while the more staid Graham returns in periwinkle. Naturally Gorman is a mess in deep red with gold fringes, while Thomas is depicted in other-worldly lavender throughout. The thought that had to have gone into planning this complex color palette boggles my mind.

That said, blocking and projection, period costumes that mirror characterizations, appealing tones of raw umber and burnt sienna (from that same Crayola pack) that represent woodwork in a grand home are all things that appeal to actors and theatre critics, but possibly not to the average theatre-goer, who may not realize how significantly all of these are aiding and augmenting the overall experience. And although run time is perhaps two hours and 20 minutes including intermission, I will say that the characters talk and talk and talk interminably, yet there there's little resolution beyond our realization that none of the protagonists are as nice as we first thought they were. Nor is there much of a broader theme or message - but then again, it's intended as a light comedy, designed to entertain, and bolster the spirits of an England embroiled in the depths of the Second World War. As above, I found myself utterly spellbound by the performance, thanks to the professionalism and attention to detail of everyone involved on stage and behind the scenes.  The show runs through this weekend, with both afternoon and evening performances on Saturday. For ticket information, call (803) 777-2551, or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/blithe-spirit-drayton-hall-theatre-november-13-21-2015.

 
 
Sweet and Funny, Town Theatre's 
A Christmas Story Faithfully Recreates Popular Film

Review by August Krickel

You'd think a play called A Christmas Story might suggest the Nativity, with angels on high, shepherds keeping their flocks by night, and wise men bearing gifts, or at the very least flying reindeer, dancing elves, and talking snowmen. Unless, of course, it’s based on the beloved 1983 film of the same name, in which case one immediately realizes that this is a much more secular holiday story, based on the semi-autobiographical stories of humorist Jean Shepherd. Philip Grecian's stage adaptation of the film, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 22 at Town Theatre, meticulously recreates the familiar adventures of Ralphie, a bespectacled kid-as-everyman in small town middle America.

While set in 1938, meaning no television sets or smartphones, the narrative of A Christmas Story is timeless, especially for any boy who has ever had his heart set on that one special Christmas gift.  For Ralphie (Cade Melnyk) it's a BB gun.  Not just any old BB gun, but in fact a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, complete with a compass and a clock in the stock, and endorsed (and hawked) by cowboy star Red Ryder himself. As we follow Ralphie's increasingly Byzantine machinations to attain this goal, we also see a slice of the day-to-day life around him, including neighborhood bullies, enticing radio ads for secret decoder rings, and impossible-to-please teachers. Towering over it all is the memory of his larger-than-life Old Man, a simultaneously gruff and loving dad constantly in battle against all the worries of adult married life: flat tires, malfunctioning furnaces, predictable dinners, never-ending bills, and unruly dogs living next door. Jeff Riley gave the Old Man just the right touch of exasperation at the matinee performance I saw; while he's much younger than the film's Darren McGavin (who was in his 60's), his comparative youth gives him the sort of "Golly, gee whiz" demeanor of an overgrown kid. It's a nice touch, because we're reminded that the "old" adults of our childhood probably were in reality only in their 30's or early 40's at the time.  Riley's own son, Owen, appears as younger child Randy, and Gil Young and his son Luke will alternate in these roles with the Rileys. As Randy, the sort of unintentionally annoying little brother who's just a little too young to be a playmate for Ralphie, Owen Riley displays a great gift for physical comedy for a first-grader. His scenes where his mother wraps him so tightly in layers of winter-proof clothing that he can't move, and where he's stuck in line waiting to see Santa yet needs "to go wee-wee" are just priceless. All the children in the cast do just fine, especially Ella Riley as Ralphie's cute classmate Esther Jane. Town Theatre is a big house with a lot of space for little voices to fill, and while the stage is appropriately equipped with microphones for amplification, when more than one or two little voices are speaking together, it becomes a little difficult to discern every syllable within all the high pitches. Esther Jane, on the other hand, is always easy to follow; her projection and enunciation are always consistent, and she has a nice stage presence and gracefulness as she moves through assorted scenes.

That audibility issue isn't too much of a problem, however, because, just as in the movie, the bulk of the script is told to us by a genial, folksy narrator - Ralphie as an adult - guiding us every step of the way along this sentimental journey through his childhood. Dan Unumb capably filled this role at the performance I saw, and he will alternate with Mark Ingham. It's the same technique used in the film Stand By Me, with older, wiser Richard Dreyfuss providing insightful commentary while we see Will Wheaton act out the events of his childhood, and the same notion that was so successful in the tv series The Wonder Years. Also doing good work are Ruth Glowacki as Ralphie's mom, and Carol Beis as his teacher.

Part of the charm of this type of story is seeing vignettes we've all experienced as children, from the dread after being caught saying a bad word, to a disappointed parent referring to the perpetrator as "YOUR son," to daring to come up with a crazy story to escape punishment. The film's enduring popularity was evident when most of the audience began laughing during a scene change, as a flagpole was moved into place, and we all knew that someone as going to triple-dog dare one boy to see if his tongue would stick to it in the cold weather. Fantasy sequences where Ralphie saves his friends with his new air rifle, or where tragedy befalls him and "THEN they'll be sorry!" elicited similar memories and smiles. If you're a fan of the film, you really will not be disappointed, as it's all there: the soap in the mouth, the tacky lamp in the shape of a woman's leg, and of course everyone's incessant warning: "You'll shoot your eye out kid!"  A few moments, however, simply can't be realized on a community theatre stage, for example the pack of dogs disrupting Christmas, but these are accomplished by sound effects, and by the narrator's summation. This show depends heavily on sound cues, and J.S. Lee executes every single one with precision timing.  This is the one "straight" show in Town's season, i.e. the smaller-cast, non-musical production that won't cost a lot to stage, and so Danny Harrington's set design is simple, functional, but quite effective. The interior of Ralphie's house is quite detailed, and cleverly cheats a little with dimensions to depict much more space than is actually there. It's the sort of realistic interior that Randy Strange used to do all the time at Workshop, and that's high praise indeed. Other locales, including a fence out in the neighborhood, Ralphie's 4th grade classroom, and a fantasy jungle setting, are all accomplished with simple pieces that are dropped in from above, do their job, and then are easily and quickly removed.  It's not a Harrington show without some kaleidoscopic visual effects, and these are used proficiently to announce the beginning of Ralphie's daydreams. About the only thing that doesn't work is some snow towards the very end, which looks quite festive, but is accompanied by a fan that's too loud for this space, and detracts a little from the dialogue.

The biggest statement made by A Christmas Story is the importance and vitality of a children's theatre program, not just to entertain family audiences, but also to provide early training opportunities for children who may go on to professional careers. And while this certainly applies to the excellent child performers in this production, I'm actually referring to director Milena Herring, making her triumphant return to Town Theatre, where she appeared in many shows as a child, after an extensive and prolific career in theatre in New York. And yes, she is the daughter of that other famous Herring, beloved children's theatre director Bette Herring. A Christmas Story isn't exactly a complex play, and most of the cast are ages 12 and under, but she maintains a nice leisurely pace that allows each moment to be savored and appreciated. The show is sweet and funny, and accomplishes what it sets out to do: faithfully recreate both the popular film version, and the film's wondrous world of Christmas past as seen through the eyes of a child, recalled years later.  Sure, it’s a G-rated, family-themed holiday show, but there’s never anything preachy about it, and the mischief of little boys as much a theme as anything else. For information on tickets and show times, visit www.towntheatre.com, or call 803-799-2510.  

 
 
Village Square's 
Harvey Is A Whimsical Allegory About Individuality 

Review by August Krickel

March to the beat of a different drummer. Take the road less-traveled. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Don't dream it, be it. Come out of the closet. Let your freak flag fly. Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes. Pop culture and entertainment are full of exhortations to shun conformity and to find one's own identity and unique bliss.  Harvey, Mary Chase's whimsical 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winner about a gentle eccentric and the giant, invisible rabbit he talks to, has its own contributions to the canon: "You can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant -  for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant."  And also: "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."   With a striking visual manifestation of this theme, and a directorial eye for detail and for nuances of character, Village Square Theatre's revival of Harvey is a pleasant update of a community theatre staple.

Director Ripley Thames's inventive hand can be seen everywhere, especially in the set which he and Janet Kile designed, and in costumes designed by Nancy Huffines and Kile. Everything is depicted in shades of black, white and gray, from suits to furs to elegant ladies' hats, to sofas, chairs and tables, as if designed by Edward Gorey or Charles Addams. Everything, that is, except for Elwood, played by a droll Frank Thompson, who is clad in a natty brown wool suit, complemented by a festive red Argyll sweater and socks. Even a non-English-speaker would immediately pick up on what is meant: this is a sterile, lifeless world, and Elwood sticks out like a sore thumb. The play's premise could easily be a sit-com: Elwood controls his family's money, meaning that his brittle sister Veta (Laurel Posey) and nubile niece Myrtle Mae (Sally Thames) must endure not only his incessant befriending of random strangers, usually met in bars, but also his belief that his best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey.  Unseen by anyone other than Elwood, Harvey is explained as a pooka, a mischievous, shapeshifting Celtic spirit that can take the form of an animal. Naturally this makes social pariahs of Veta and Myrtle Mae, causing the former to decide to have her brother committed to a sanitarium run by Dr. Chumley (Bill DeWitt.) As written, mother and daughter are would-be society matrons, hoping to land Myrtle Mae a suitable husband, and oblivious to Elwood's well-being. Director Thames, however, has allowed both actresses to find a softer side to their characters. To me, both were simply lonely women, bereft of any friends or any fulfilling social life, and it's more coincidence than shortcoming that they were born into the starchy upper class. The play's first line is Myrtle Mae sharply answering the phone with "WHAT?" like any petulant teen, and the actress proceeds to create a quite believable and sympathetic portrayal for Myrtle Mae, often just with expressions and body language.  Veta is clearly at the end of her rope, but Posey never allows her to devolve into merely a comic shrew, which makes plot developments in the last act much more believable, with brother and sister each prepared to sacrifice for the other. 

Casting Thompson as a tweedy, idiosyncratic charmer was surely not a hard choice for the director, no more than casting Chris Farley as a bull in a china shop, or Marilyn Monroe as a blonde bombshell. Yet here Thames again goes for something deeper and more subtle. It would be easy to establish the character's delusions as the result of early onset dementia, and/or alcoholism, with his many bon mots inserted for sheer laugh value alone. Instead, Thames allows Thompson to delight and relax in Elwood's gracious demeanor, and allows the audience to see how the world really does become a better place when people follow his gentle lead. Thompson never seems like a drunk, and rarely even takes a drink, instead emphasizing Elwood's earnest sincerity to be a nice guy, and treat everyone with dignity and respect. Gradually, many characters are indeed won over by his world-view, and again Thames plays with the familiar script, adding an inventive visual twist. I won't spoil it, exactly, but I encourage you to look for anything unexpected, no matter how tiny, and then contemplate for moment what this must signify.  Also of note is DeWitt's portrayal of the authoritarian Dr. Chumley, who has devised a serum that will deliver even the looniest of patients back to normalcy, even if this is essentially a pharmacological lobotomy. As with Thompson, Thames allows DeWitt to take his own sweet time on an important soliloquy. Chumley is basically describing an imaginary, extra-marital fling with an anonymous young beauty, yet DeWitt paints the scene like the most idyllic and pastoral of picnics with simple words and a dreamy, enraptured delivery. In yet another of the director's subtle touches, somewhere in the midst of his blissful narrative, Chumley loses his stuffy, proper, mid-Atlantic accent and reverts to the simplest, sweetest Southern country drawl you've ever heard. 

The director's creativity notwithstanding, one never completely forgets that this is community theatre. When the four actors above aren't on stage, the pace of the performance slows down a bit, although Chris Kruzner and Raia Hirsch do decent work as a young doctor and nurse who are meant for each other and just don't know it yet. (Spoiler alert - Elwood and Harvey help them to realize it.)  Elwood's mansion and Chumley's sanitarium lie on either side of the smallish stage, rather than changing the set back and forth between scenes, and as a result, there's a sense of claustrophobia.  Although both halves also incorporate shapes reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle, which again is just a delightful visual component, with all sorts of thematic implications.  On opening night there were some issues with sound and amplification, although Thompson - a ringer of sorts who has done professional work in Alabama - projected clearly and eloquently throughout. And one can't escape that the material is 70 years old, and may seem just a little quaint to the Twitter/Netflix generation. Still, I had a quite pleasant time, and thanks to the director's vision, I gained some new insight into the nature of this often-produced audience favorite: Harvey is actually a gentle allegory about individuality, but disguised as a 1940's screwball comedy.

This was the first time I have visited Village Square Theatre in many many years, and I must say that they did a fine job overall. There's been a spiffy renovation to house, lobby and bathrooms, and the overall effect is most appealing. There's even beer and wine for sale before the show and at intermission, including Yuengling and Angry Orchard. And if you're curious, it was just 13 miles from the Gervais Street bridge, a straight shot straight out 378. Harvey only runs through this weekend, closing with a matinee on Sunday, November 15, so catch it while you can. For ticket information, visit http://www.villagesquaretheatre.com/ or call (803) 359-1436.
 
 
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.


 
 
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. 

 
 
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.  

 

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).

   

Broadway Bound Vista Theatre Project Makes Auspicious Debut with Oliver!

Review by August Krickel

Theatre history is being made this weekend on Pulaski Street in the Vista, as the Broadway Bound Vista Theatre Project presents its inaugural production of Oliver!, Lionel Bart's famous musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. The Broadway production (featuring a pre-Monkees Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger) was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning three including best score, while the movie version was nominated for eleven Oscars, and won six, including best film.  Revivals abound, at the professional, community theatre, and high school level, but a challenge is always the large number of children the material requires. Director/choreographer Dedra Daniels Mount has taught musical theatre skills to a couple of generations of youngsters in Columbia dating back to the 1980's, and she has chosen her cast well, stacking the deck with some veteran adult performers in key character roles.  The result is an enjoyable rendering of a beloved classic.

Dickens's novel is a complex and gloomy representation of life among the lowest depths of society in 1830's London. Children are starving, predatory adults look out for themselves, and lawlessness abounds. Most editions of the novel are weighty tomes of 500 pages or more, but Bart wisely condenses the Byzantine plot into an accessible two hours; the stark indictment by Dickens of the British class system is made more palatable, while retaining the basic elements of orphans, poverty, and crime. It's like a Cliff's Notes version of Dickens, with each chapter of young Oliver's life distilled down to a quick vignette of 2-3 minutes, followed by a song that sums up the theme being depicted. Even if you've never seen the play or movie, you'll likely recognize a half dozen familiar tunes, including "Consider Your Yourself," "I'd Do Anything," "Food, Glorious Food," and "Where Is Love," memorably played over the end credits of a Mad Men episode set in the year when Don Draper and his colleagues would surely have taken a client to see Oliver! on stage. Most of the show's 22 musical numbers also last only 2-3 minutes, although some are brief reprises of earlier songs.

Oliver (Jadon Stanek) isn't so much the hero, however, as he is a catalyst for events that take place around him. We follow his journey from orphanage/workhouse (the kind where Dickens's Scrooge would have relegated all the poor) to apprenticeship with a coffin-maker, to a life of crime with Fagin (Lee O. Smith), commander of an army of homeless children whom he trains as pickpockets. Casting Smith as the conniving yet loveable-in-spite-of-himself Fagin is like tossing the rabbit into the briarpatch, but Smith shows restraint, emphasizing Fagin's shrewdness and impishness. He adopts the satyr-like make-up and hair common in portrayals of the character, although they really aren't necessary. Smith's English accent comes and goes, but in his two principal songs, he sings out with the nice, rich voice one often forgets he possesses. Other name-brand local actors turn up as comic villains and authority figures, including Tracy Steele as Mr. Bumble, who gets more than he bargained for when he romances the zaftig Widow Corney (Cindy Read Durrett.) Jami Steele as Mrs. Sowerberry generates plenty of laughs via some broad physical comedy, including gamely taking a glass of water to the face, while Jerryanna Williams is amusing as her daughter Charlotte, a manipulative teenage flirt reminiscent of Regina from Mean Girls.

Allen Inabinet as the thuggish Bill Sikes is chillingly menacing, although he goes for more of a Bluto-like characterization and image than the seductive bad-boy vibe. This is probably a good thing, as I've always been a little disturbed by how appealing this abusive character can be. As Nancy, the object of much of that abuse, Shelby Sessler delivers the Broadway-caliber performance that one has come to expect. Her Nancy is simultaneously loving and maternal (although only a few years older than Oliver, with whom she bonds) and heartbreakingly tragic. Inabinet is nearly a foot taller and twice the body mass of Sessler, and he swings her around the stage like a rag doll. Both actors and the director are to be commended for the extreme realism of these moments; I must stress that thanks to careful blocking and choreography no one is hurt, but I have to give Sessler credit for the professionalism and willingness to be smacked down on the stage at least three times. Her solo "As Long As He Needs Me" is sadly all too familiar to audiences of Dickens's era and our own, as she explains why she still loves, and returns to, an abusive lover. As she sang, I noticed her gripping the arm of a chair, as if to somehow draw strength for survival from its solid structure. Moments like that indicate the inventive hand of the director, which is seen across the board, with touching and/or amusing little character-centric flourishes to be found everywhere, even in a funny moment of only a few seconds, with Riley Campbell as a particularly defiant child felon nabbed by the police.  Traditionally, however, whoever plays the Artful Dodger, Fagin's star pupil, steals the show, and this incarnation is no different, with Mattie Mount as a resourceful female Dodger. When she launched into "Consider Yourself," I suspect legislators debating the flag six blocks away could have heard her. I found myself imaging the show's original opening night audiences in London and then New York - I suspect it was at that specific moment that they realized they were witnessing not just another pleasant musical, but something timeless that would endure and remain relevant, decades later.

Musical director Christopher Cockrell provides accompaniment on piano, and manages to elicit excellent clarity from the cast, even from the youngest of singers. Acoustics in the CMFA ArtSpace are not the greatest, but I could understand every word in the large ensemble numbers, and I was impressed to hear British accents maintained even while singing. His skill is particularly noticeable with an intricate arrangement of the plaintive and hauntingly beautiful ballad "Who Will Buy," which I had completely forgotten was in this show. This number and the raucous and bawdy drinking song "Oom-Pah-Pah" are performed by gifted older teens and young adults including Jerryanna Williams, Hannah Mount (who will fill in as Nancy at the Saturday matinee), Imani Ross-Jackson, Samantha Moore, Leighton Mount Rossi, Sarah Krawczyk, and Brianna Taylor.  Their costumes are especially appealing to the eye, with the rags of the urchins and the finery of the upper-class appropriate to their respective stations. Costumes are by Shelby Sessler - yes, the Nancy actress, who incredibly also designed costumes for Into the Woods at Harbison just a few weeks earlier.

I mentioned how history was being made. The director once told me that her goal for this new production company was to give young performers who are learning their craft the opportunity to perform for live audiences in "real" musicals alongside adult actors, as opposed to doing recitals after a class for their parents. I feel that's a tremendously important mission, and Oliver!, with children a significant part of the plot, is a natural choice with which to debut. Material doesn't get any better than Dickens by way of Bart, and Mount and Cockrell have provided excellent guidance for their cast members, young and old. All of that said, remember that the performance venue within the Columbia Music Festival Association building at 914 Pulaski Street is truly a black box.  The ArtSpace is a vital and indispensable asset for the performing arts community in the Midlands, but it's a bare stage, no curtain, four walls, and a hundred seats. So don't expect anything fancy: the point is the people, the tunes, and the story.  Seating consists of sturdy, high-backed plastic chairs like you might find on your deck or beside a pool, so dress comfortably, dress casually, and dress for the 100-degree weather outside, since this is a small space. Oliver! runs through Sunday July 12, with evening performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and matinees on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.  


 
 
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.  


 
 
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. 

 
 
Re-imagined
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. 

 

Town Theatre Steps Out of Its Wheelhouse With Monty Python's “Spamalot”

Review by Jillian Owens.

Two play/theatre combinations have left me me a bit perplexed this season. The first was Trustus Theatre's rather conservative choice of Godspell.  But I was even more surprised when I discovered Town Theatre would be mounting Spamalot.  I was also slightly worried.  This bawdy & campy adaptation of the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail seemed an odd fit for a theatre that is known for presenting conservative fare for conservative audiences.  Trustus Theatre or even Workshop Theatre (save their temporary workspace woes) seemed a much better fit.  But I commended Town for trying something unusual for them.

As I mentioned above, Monty Python's Spamalot is loosely based on the cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail which is a silly and irreverent adaptation of the tales of King Arthur.  It's one of the Monty Python boys' best and most-beloved works.  When Eric Idle (book, lyrics, & music) teamed up with John du Prez (music) to create this musical adaptation, they did a great job.  The writing, much of which is borrowed from the film, is hilarious and clever.  The songs are silly, fun, and incredibly witty.  Spamalot won 3 Tony awards, including one for Best Musical of 2004-2005.

Unfortunately, this production, directed & choreographed by Town Theatre Veteran Shannon Willis Scruggs, doesn't do the work justice.  As a huge Monty Python fan, I must say I was disappointed.  From very simple, but yet somehow sloppily-executed choreography, to an underwhelming vocal presence by the ensemble, to lackluster performances, to accents that wavered from southern to cockney, this show was reminiscent of Waiting for Guffman. 

I initially found the sets and lighting by Danny Harrington to be impressive (as is most of his work). But as the show went on, very noticeable gaffes, such as a huge air tank that somehow didn't get covered on one of the set pieces, set pieces not functioning properly, and clearly being able to see the bare plywood backs of several flats that should have been camouflaged – or at least painted – became distracting.

The performance I attended was also plagued with curtain and scrim problems.  Watching someone from backstage reach their arm out to help pull these down only deepened the unintentionally Christopher Guestian vibe of this production.

Fortunately, this show isn't without its bright spots.  Frank Thompson was a terrific choice for Arthur, and played the role as being much more gangly and naive than Graham Chapman, but it worked and it was an interesting adaptation of what could have been a pure copycat performance.  Rebecca Goodrich Seezen (The Lady of the Lake) has a very strong & lovely singing voice.  Travis Roof delivered a hilarious and frisky performance as Prince Herbert, as well as filling in for the absent Will Moreau as Not Yet Dead Fred.

Perhaps the cast and crew of this production of Monty Python's Spamalot were just having an off night.  Perhaps as this show enters its last performances, tweaks have been made and it's at production level.  This reviewer certainly hopes so, and also hopes Town Theatre will continue to try to push out of their comfort zone in future productions.

"Spamalot" runs through May 30 at Town Theatre. 

 

Comic Tone and Manic Pace Make for Delightfully Silly Lend Me a Tenor at Workshop Theatre

Review by August Krickel.

Doors are slamming, scantily-clad beauties are hiding in closets, and identities are being mistaken - this must surely be the work of Ken Ludwig, the ridiculously successful master of the ridiculous. Lend Me A Tenor was Ludwig's first major hit (with nine Tony nominations and two wins), and has become a popular staple of regional. community, and dinner theatre. Ostensibly set in 1934 (but really a timeless story, with virtually no topical references to place it in any one era) the plot concerns a famous Italian tenor making an appearance the Cleveland Grand Opera, and the resulting mischief and shenanigans that are bound to occur. Closing out Workshop Theatre's first season at the 701 Whaley Market Space with a bang, director Jocelyn Sanders finds the right comic tone and manic pace to create and sustain a delightful two hours of silliness.

Ludwig is often hailed - but also derided - as a skilled practitioner of farce, the comedic form that dates to Menander and the "New Comedy" of ancient Greece. Recognizable character types (the dirty old man, the young virgin, the conniving servant) are thrust into outrageous situations, and the goal is to generate as much laughter from the audience as possible. Weighty themes and deep characterization fall by the wayside, which generally means either one likes farce, or hates it, but sometimes there are elements of satire that skewer differing levels of society and their interactions. At its best, that can take the form of vintage screwball comedies from film, like Bringing Up Baby or My Man Godfrey, with assorted issues of gender. class and sexuality explored, or perhaps exploited, for maximum comic effect. But then usually someone drops their pants, or a chase scene takes off, and you don't dwell too much on details or believability. 

Julian DeLeon plays Max, the opera company's "factotum, gopher, and all-purpose dogsbody" (I had to look that last one up, and sure enough, it's a performer of menial tasks.)  So in other words, he's the poor schlep/everyman figure - think Leonard from The Big Bang Theory, minus the high IQ. He aspires to be an actual opera singer, and loves Maggie (Katie Mixon), a traditional ingénue who longs for excitement - think Shakespeare's Celia, or Sheridan's Lydia Languish. Enter Tito Morelli (Jim DeFelice), aka "Il Stupendo," a bombastic tenor in the vein of Pavarotti or Giovanni Jones (the  tenor tormented by Bugs Bunny in Long Haired Hare) and his fiery Italian wife Maria (Melinda Collins), the archetypal shrewish spitfire. Therese Talbot plays a society matron (think Margaret Dumont from assorted Marx Brothers films), Bobby Rogers is a conniving bellhop, Samantha Elkins is a sultry temptress in a towel, and David Reed is the apoplectic company manager (think Gale Gordon as Mr. Mooney from The Lucy Show.) I mention these "types" because screwball comedy and farce both depend on recognition of predictable behavior in assorted plot twists and turns. Director Sanders has chosen her cast well: while Mixon and Elkins often play dramatic heroines, their comic skills are strong, and the result is seven characters actors, able to embody those characters within the context of farce and play them to the hilt. It must be noted that Collins played Maggie in Workshop's previous production of Tenor in 1992;  while she, Mixon, DeFelice and Reed have all done a number of Workshop shows in the past, they have often worked together with the Chapin Theatre Company, and it's nice to see them all together in a different venue. Talbot worked for many years in professional theatre in Georgia, while Elkins, DeLeon and Rogers have all been teaching artists with local schools. Mix all this talent together, and success is bound to happen.  Tenor is Max's show, however, and DeLeon, a prolific actor in many supporting roles in the last three years (including a cross-dressing Wolf in Shrek at Town Theatre and an inordinately happy Happy in The Commedia Snow White at Columbia Children's Theatre) is more than up for the challenge. It's official: like his character, he is now a successful leading man.

Veteran designer Randy Strange, who ostensibly "retired" from Workshop last year, makes a welcome return with a visually appealing set. Ludwig's script calls for nothing more than a two-room hotel suite where you can see both adjoining rooms. Strange has rendered them at a sharp angle, to maximize space on stage, and enables the actors to "cheat" a good bit, inconspicuously using the downstage area as extensions of both rooms. The bedroom has teal walls and a rich vermillion bedspread, while the parlor area features contrasting lavender walls and a pale green sofa. Add to this a somewhat abstract suggestion of a window (that obviates the need for actual glass panes or a view of the city skyline) and the result is simple yet quite elegant. Sanders adroitly maneuvers her cast in and around every door and piece of furniture, using every inch of space on stage in her blocking, and a number of intricately choreographed moves where people have to follow each other around in tight patterns look perfectly natural. Costumes by Alexis Doktor are appropriately elegant - especially a suit worn by Reed in the first act - with Max's simpler attire conveying the right schlubbish impression. Reed also doubles as sound designer, and the show benefits from his background in broadcasting. Sound usually gets ignored, until something goes wrong, but with Dean McCaughan's hand on the controls, phones ring right when they are supposed to, and voices overheard on the other end sound just as you'd expect.

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: I enjoy Workshop's new space for many reasons. Seating is arranged in front of the stage in a horizontal, landscape style, with only five rows of 30 seats each, 15 on either side of the center aisle. It's easy to hear everything, with no microphones needed. Combined with Strange's diagonal set, two whole rooms are easily depicted, and easily seen. Warm weather makes the front porch space outside an enjoyable place for a cold beverage or snack, and the vintage brickwork of adjacent main 701 Whaley building is just as pleasantly atmospheric as the former Bull Street location. Plus, there must a 500% increase in restroom capacity, which longtime local theatre-goers know is a huge issue at most local theatres.

Lend Me A Tenor is in no way intellectual or profound or symbolic of some greater truth, but in every way it's amusing and entertaining, thanks to the talent of its cast and director. Workshop's production is a spiffy and energetic realization of perhaps Ken Ludwig's most popular work, and is a nice close to a successful season at 701 Whaley. The show continues this week with evening performances Wednesday May 13 through Saturday May 16, and closes with a matinee performance Sunday afternoon, May 17.  

 

Theatre SC's Modern Adaptation of The Three Musketeers is Fun For the Whole Family

Review by August Krickel

Rapiers are drawn, wits clash, daggers are brandished, and plots are hatched in an action-packed yet family-friendly update of The Three Musketeers, running through this weekend at USC's Drayton Hall.  Playwright Ken Ludwig, best known for broad farces like Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, has an interest in the classics as well, and has previously penned adaptations of Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and the Restoration comedy The Beaux' Stratagem for the stage. Here he takes the core plot of the famous adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas, distills it to its barest essence, then adds an array of stage tricks and techniques to make the potentially dated material (palace intrigue in 1625 Paris written for a 19th century French readership) accessible to a modern and younger audience. Director Robert Richmond has taken this a step further, employing his trademark visual flair to depict the proceedings as seen through the eyes of an enraptured little girl (Miranda Bourne), encountering the story for the first time. The result is sometimes both amusing and surreal, occasionally silly and/or thrilling, but never boring.

While the plot really isn't the point, I must say that Ludwig's script makes its intricacies crystal-clear, moreso than any previous version I've seen, and he remains absolutely faithful to the original, with one vital exception: Planchet, D'Artagnan's comic manservant is now a girl. Not just any girl, but rather D'Artagnan's non-canonical, gamine-like little sister, Sabine. Their father is sending Sabine off to a convent school in Paris, and it makes sense for her brother to accompany her on his way to seek enlistment with the Musketeers (imagine a 17th-century Special Forces team.)  Sabine has her own ideas, however, and is as handy with a sword as her father and brother.  A female swashbuckler is a nifty notion, although not new: Maureen O'Hara famously played the daughter of Aramis in the film At Sword's Point, and a pre-Samantha Kim Cattrall turned up as the daughter of the villainous Milady de Winter in Richard Lester's Return of the Musketeers. Nicole Dietze does a great job as Sabine, and is up for the physicality that the role requires. William Vaughan is similarly a good fit for the role of D'Artagnan, full of the foolishness, impetuosity and idealism of youth. Both performers have mastered swordplay techniques, as well as the comic banter that typifies the play's dialogue. Ludwig short-changes Sabine with time on stage, however, and I do wish she had been even more integral to the plot, which as in the original focuses on D'Artagnan's adventures with the titular trio.

In this pared-down version, that trio isn't given much opportunity to develop their specific characters either, but  Benjamin Roberts as Athos, Dimitri Woods as Porthos, and Matthew Cavender as Aramis do their best with what they're given. My only gripe here would be their seeming youth, as they appear to be only slightly older than D'Artagnan, rather than the jaded, world-weary veterans more commonly portrayed. That's not a huge problem, although the appearance of more years of melancholy would have made some revelations about Athos's past more meaningful. John Floyd gets plenty of laughs as an addled and foppish King Louis who just loves balls.  That's the fancy-dress kind, in one of the play's many ba-da-boom-ching jokes that can be hilarious, tedious, or both, depending on how broad you like your comedy.

Similarly, Ludwig has re-imagined Cardinal Richelieu (Josh Jeffers) and his henchman Rochefort (Wes Williams) as comic Get Smart-style villains, whereas I like my bad guys sinister and lethal, but the actors carry off their parts with zest. (Jeffers doubles as D'Artagnan's father in the opening scene, and he and Vaughan have the show's best fight scene.)  There's a greater evil menacing our heroes, however, in the enticing form of the seductive spy Milady (Rachel Kuhnle.) I've enjoyed Kuhnle in a number of roles in recent years, but was nevertheless pleasantly surprised by the intensity with which she embraces her role, and by the seeming ease of her domination of every scene she's in. Ludwig's simplification of many of the characters leaves Milady as the most complex and therefore most intriguing, but much credit goes to Kuhnle herself, who takes a stock villain part and plays it like a mad hybrid of Shakespeare and Tomb Raider

Lisa Martin-Stuart's costumes reflect the period appropriately, although I would have liked to see Richelieu in more traditional Cardinal's robes. Wigs by Valerie Pruett are outstanding; this was an era where men and women alike had lots of full flowing hair, and not only do the wigs look natural, but more importantly none fall off during the play's many action scenes. Scenic Designer Tamara Joksimovic's set is intentionally dream-like, with suggestions of stairs, columns, and street facades. Its main component is rotated by cast members to reveal assorted locations, and while I might have preferred more realism, it certainly does its job, especially given that director Richmond establishes early on that we are seeing the story of the Musketeers as imagined by a child, who has projected herself, as Sabine, into the plot. At intermission, one veteran local actor grinned and said "Gotta love Robert Richmond."  And I knew what he meant instantly - Richmond often re-imagines classics with baroque and flamboyant staging. This inventiveness sometimes enhances or adds clarity to difficult text; here, Ludwig's script has already done that, and so the frantic, carnival-like atmosphere is certainly fascinating, although I'm not sure if it really adds anything in the long run.  In particular, the actors are quite adept with Casey Kaleba's fight choreography, and I would have enjoyed more straightforward duel scenes, whereas here they often segue into slapstick chases accompanied by modern music, in the style of an episode of Scooby Doo or The Monkees.

Some of that is Ludwig's doing, though, and there's more to it than one realizes. I was prepared to conclude that the cast does fine with some awfully childish material, until I discovered the backstory. Ludwig was commissioned to create this new version of the Dumas classic by the Bristol Old Vic, an offshoot of the Old Vic in London, and it debuted in early December of 2006 as a new adventure play for family audiences. There's a tradition in the UK called pantomine - not silent miming, but rather holiday seasonal entertainment for children and their parents. Components of "panto" often include a new adaptation of a familiar classic, a simple plot, broad physical comedy, anachronistic use of contemporary music, double entendres that only the adults will get, madcap chase scenes, cartoon-like violence and sound effects, and a girl protagonist dressed as a boy. Ludwig's new Three Musketeers incorporates all of those, right down to a pantomime horse (i.e. two actors in a crazy-looking horse costume.) While its run time of more than two and a half hours makes this much more than a children's play, and while it’s not an actual pantomime, it's not bad at all for a stage show aimed at younger audiences. In the program Richmond admits to enjoying the same television and cinematic incarnations of this story that I too enjoyed as a child, and my own first exposure to the Musketeers was via a Classics Illustrated comic book I read during the summer after first grade. As a result, this is that rare show at USC that can genuinely be described as “fun for the whole family.”  It’s by no means deep drama, but possibly a great way to introduce youngsters who have overdosed on the Pirates of the Caribbean films to live performance, along with any theatre-phobic adults you may know who have resisted accompanying you to see more serious shows.  The Three Musketeers continues through this Saturday, April 25 at Drayton Hall Theatre on the USC campus, with an additional matinee performance Saturday afternoon. For more information, call 803-777-2551, or visit http://www.artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/three-musketeers-april-17-25-drayton-hall-theatre.

 

 

Trustus Does a Great Job With “Godspell,” But Its Still “Godspell”

Review by August Krickel

Trustus Theatre is doing a famously controversial play that tackles themes of intolerance and faith. Which would be pretty much business as usual for them, except that most of the controversy surrounding Godspell died down in the 70's; in recent decades it's been widely hailed as an uplifting retelling of the life and message of Jesus, and has been performed at countless churches and high schools worldwide. And while a musical at Trustus with an overtly religious message is not exactly grounds for mass hysteria or dogs and cats living together,  the choice may raise eyebrows in various circles, so let me try to assuage a few potential concerns. No, no one gets naked, and no they don't try to change the basic story. Godspell has always included a significant amount of improvisation that draws from traditions of vaudeville and commedia dell'arte, as the cast acts out and reacts to familiar stories from the Bible, often with comic, anachronistic modern references. Dewey Scott-Wiley directs the revised script from a 2011 Broadway reboot that updates many of these references, with allusions to cell phones and Facebook, Donald Trump and the Kardashians. But the songs are all the same, although some have been re-arranged and/or re-orchestrated for a more modern sound with a harder rocking edge. The good news is that the ebullient young cast and band do a terrific job, sustaining a consistently high level of energy and commitment for two-and-a-quarters hours of toe-tapping fun, with the professionalism that one has come to expect from Trustus.  But it's still Godspell.  It's the stories and parables many of us learned as children: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, "cast the first stone," and "turn the other cheek." And the production never shies away from its core identity as a play in which the performers are presenting Christian lessons and values, as....well, as gospel.

For many of my generation who attended church and Sunday school regularly while growing up, that's not a problem. A hip, young bearded English teacher took a school group of 8th, 9th and 10th graders, including me, to see the first Columbia production of Godspell in the 70's at Workshop, and there was much consternation among parents that we were being exposed to a blasphemous rock musical that made a mockery of Christianity. Which of course it didn't, and unknown to most of our parents, our school choir had already been singing the song "Day By Day" from Godspell for several years. But fast forward a generation or two, and there are certainly a significant number of folks who feel marginalized by Christianity and/or organized religion, usually over issues of gender, race, sexuality, and other hot-button topics. All I can say is that this show will neither try to convert you, nor point an accusing finger at you and tell you that you're going to burn in hell for your lifestyle; it really is possible to enjoy it for the pretty songs and excellent performances by the cast.

Speaking of that cast, they're all millennials, except for Scott Vaughan, an ageless Gen-X-er who, as Jesus (although only referred to as "Master" in the script) blends in seamlessly with his youthful cohorts. I've appreciated Vaughan in numerous roles, including the leads in Willie Wonka and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but I've always considered him to be a very reserved and restrained performer. Here he goes for the gusto, with a level of vitality and exuberance I've never seen before. One huge improvement from previous incarnations of this piece is the discarding of the clown make-up and Superman logo; Vaughan instead wears nondescript khakis, a plain white T-shirt, and a baseball jersey (with the number "1" subtly embroidered on the back, lest you forget who he's portraying.) With his delicate good looks, perfect hair, and the ubiquitous head microphone attached to the side of his face, Vaughan could easily appear to be a televangelist, and it's to his credit that he projects the appearance of a credible and sympathetic leader. 

East cast member gets to sing lead on at least one song, and there are no weak voices. While you've seen most of them in other shows, you don't normally see these specific performers in shows all together, although four were in last spring's Young Frankenstein at Workshop. There are pleasant surprises: it turns out Kayla Cahill, whom I've enjoyed in a number of acting roles, is a gifted singer and dancer as well. While the cast generally wears festive and playful modern attire representing assorted personas (the geek, the hipster, etc.) her costume recalls a sort of hippie-chick vibe, and she becomes the first, and seemingly most innocent and sincere, person to commit her life to Jesus, long before he has impressed the rest of the cast with his wisdom and compassion; her rendition of the hit single "Day By Day" is just precious. It also turns out that Mark Ziegler can sing soul like few white boys can, and that Michael Hazin can do imitations of just about every celebrity who ever existed, including a spot-on Bill Clinton, and even his Ash character from last summer's Evil Dead the Musical. Shannon Earle's luxurious voice on "By My Side" was for me the most outstanding and appealing.

Unlike works that incorporate the historical aspect of the life of Jesus, Godspell doesn't try to explain why Judas betrays his master, except that this it to fulfill how the prophets foretold it would go down. I'm not sure if it was Mario McClean's nuanced body language and expressions, or blocking and direction by Scott-Wiley, or just my imagination, but here I always got the impression that McClean as Judas never quite bought into the entire devotion-to-the-Lord thing. The odd-man-out effect was quite subtle, but effectively set up the climactic betrayal. McClean is always a strong performer, and he channeled a bit of the singer Seal in his performance of "On the Willows."  There seem to be a lot of little touches by Scott-Wiley, in fact, that try to make the material (which, however updated, is still 2000 years old) as accessible as possible. Vaughan, for example, has a seemingly random line about how this is the beginning, at which point several of the performers echo Pharisees and other naysayers who question his teachings. By having Vaughan accentuate that line, and then making the three performers seem creepy via sound, lighting and costume effects, the audience sees more clearly (and perhaps follows more nearly!) where the roots of the finale stem from. Of course, there's only so much author John-Michael Tebelak's script can do while being faithful to the original language of the Gospels. As above, if you know these stories already, you'll enjoy silly, irreverent play-acting that enlivens them, but there are still plenty of references to Caesar, Samaritans, the Prophets and the Law, farmers sowing seeds, and people tending goats and pigs, which may be lost on some attendees. 

Chad Henderson's set incorporates lighting effects (by Marc Hurst) to suggest a cyber-wasteland of hi-tech servers in front of which the passion of Christ plays out. Jeremy Polley's sound design takes advantage of the theater's recently upgraded audio system, and there's not a single microphone glitch or snippet of feedback. Costumes by Amy Brower Lown and Molly McNutt intentionally look like a frenzy at a thrift store, but also seem comfortable and fun to play in. Thankfully, at least to me, the face-painting and hippie-meets-clown garb has been relegated to the past. Choreography by Caroline Lewis Jones works well in creating fast-paced, MTV-style dance and movement. Music Director Randy Moore capably leads a capable band that rocks out a little more than one normally experiences at a stage musical, but his greatest triumph is in the cast's uniformly rich vocals. 

Ultimately, however, it's still Godspell. Revamped, and reimagined for a new generation, but with 100% of the lessons from Jesus and the entire Stephen Schwartz score intact. If you're turned off by religion, or conversely if you're offended by performers taking artistic license with the way in which religion is presented, or for that matter if you’re not wild about 40-year-old show tunes, then this is one to skip. If on the other hand you like the material or are intrigued by this description - whether or not you're particularly religious - then you won't find a better realization of one of the most popular and influential of modern musicals.  And if you're hesitant, I want to stress again that no one is going to try to convert you or ask you to sing "Kumbaya."  Godspell runs through Saturday, April 18th, but dates and times are a little different than usual, with extra matinee and weekday evening performances, but no shows on Easter weekend. So more importantly than usual, be sure to visit www.trustus.org or call (803) 254-9732 for ticket information and availability.

   

Solid Direction Elevates Workshop Theatre's “Stick Fly” From Mere Drama to Art 

Review by August Krickel

I'm not sure if Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, is a great play, or just a good one. In the corner for greatness are its themes of class, privilege, race, relationships, and family dynamics, as discussed and argued by eloquent intellectuals over a tense (and sometimes alcohol-fueled) weekend. Yet much of the action and conflict stem from the most basic and familiar patterns of human interaction: how the presence (or absence) of fathers can shape a child's world view, and how couples interact with each other.  Diamond's extremely naturalistic dialogue accurately replicates the type of conversations we've all heard, when some smart friend or relative gets on a soapbox about a pet peeve, or when a pointless spat threatens to ruin a family gathering. One thing is certain: director Bakari Lebby is a rising star on the local theater scene, and his expert touch can be seen throughout this thought-provoking production, presented by Workshop Theatre, and running Wednesday, April 2 through Saturday, April 4 at the Market Space at 701 Whaley.

Two sons visit their stern and demanding father for a weekend at their posh vacation home in Martha's Vineyard. Dr. LeVay (Jabar Hankins) is a prominent neurosurgeon who is disappointed in both children's choices: older son Flip (Tyrell James) is a successful plastic surgeon, seemingly more concerned with bedding socialites than changing the world, while younger son Kent (Carlton Boyd) has drifted through law and business school (funded by his father) but now announces that he wants to be a novelist. Bright Cheryl (Deonica Thomas) is the teenage daughter of the family housekeeper, filling in for her ailing mom, and eager to start a college career that will enable her to achieve the same status and affluence that she has seen throughout her childhood. That affluence is resented by Kent's fiancée Taylor (Deborah Adedokun), similarly the daughter of a famous father, but raised by a struggling single mom; she sees the LeVays' prosperity as the life she should have enjoyed, but instead she's had to attain academic success as an entomologist entirely on her own.  The play's esoteric title refers to a technique scientists use to examine fast-moving flies under a microscope, and Taylor admits that as an outsider, she tries to analyze patterns of behavior in social situations as well. Taylor is pretty and vivacious, but also has a chip on her shoulder, and can be uncomfortably blunt. Despite (or because of) verbal skills that tested off the charts, she's not used to the walking-on-eggshells patterns that keep peace within the LeVay household, and when she speaks her mind, all hell breaks loose. Thrust into this maelstrom is Flip's new girlfriend Kimber (Katie Mixon), another child of privilege who teaches inner city children, and may or may not be falling to into various stereotypes by dating a black man.

Wait, did I not mention that?  The other characters are all African-American, giving them a unique perspective on the academic and professional success that all have found. Everyone does a great job at defining their characters, with Hankins challenged by portraying a character some 30 years older than he - a little suspension of disbelief is required, but he generally succeeds, relying more on tone and mannerisms, plus a little gray in his hair, than actual age make-up. What's so impressive, however, is that Adedokun and James are completely new to acting, although their bios indicate extensive backgrounds in music performance. I give all credit to the director, who elicits believable performances from everyone in a very talky play. This is Lebby's mainstage directorial debut, although he has directed several small-cast shows in brief runs previously, including two excellent productions of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things in 2013. In many ways he is an invisible director, casting the right types in the right roles, and allowing them to follow where the dialogue takes them naturally, but I spotted any number of subtle touches that clearly speak to a precise directorial style and voice. These include the extremely genuine interactions among the performers, which are always immediate and real, and the use of a lively jazz instrumental score from the album A Day in the Life, by Wes Montgomery, which helps set the tone for specific scenes.

That realism is a two-edged sword, however, because sometimes the actors are so convincingly engaged in conversation that they forget that they need to project for the benefit of the audience; fortunately, the intimacy of the Market Space venue (the one-story building with the porch adjacent to the larger 701 Whaley building) allows the audience to very nearly be part of the LeVay living room, so it's not a huge problem. They also take the normal pauses that we all do when discussing matters of importance, leading to a few scenes dragging at times. My hope is that the pace will pick up significantly, as a good 20 minutes of the show's two-and-a-half hour run time could be shaved off  if they were to speed things up.  Also, the situations and disputes that play out are quite commonplace in the context of family behavior and interaction, and seem even moreso because of how skillfully the playwright has crafted her dialogue. The result is that at times we seem to be seeing stock scenarios from a soap opera, until one or more of the hyper-intelligent, highly-educated characters places everything in a broader context of socio-economics. Yet, as Cheryl pointedly observes, human pain and emotion are real and immediate, however they may fit into some academic theory.

There are clearly echoes of some of the greats of American theater, from O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night to Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as the works of August Wilson and Lillian Hellman. Yet the accessibility of Diamond's language and the stock domestic drama that is stirred up sometimes seem to drift into Tyler Perry territory, with the set-up of vacationing couples debating relationships reminiscent of Why Did I Get Married?  I suspect that Diamond faces the same challenges as Neil LaBute: when you try to depict modern life as realistically as possible on stage, without the flowery and eloquent monologues of a Blanche Dubois or a Maggie the Cat, you risk seeming trivial. Yet she unquestionably is tackling bigger issues, while never becoming didactic or tiresomely preachy. Which is why I'm still not sure whether she has  created a literary masterpiece, or just an interesting family drama.

 Either way, I cannot stress enough how adeptly the six performers embody their roles, and how masterfully director Bakari Lebby has crafted it all together. Billy Love’s set design never quite captures the supposed opulence of the LeVay home; less realistic scenery that only suggests the setting might have worked better, although the weathered exterior porch is nicely detailed.  Yet the wide stage and the dimensions of the venue really work for this type of production, where everything takes place in the family’s living room, kitchen or front porch, and as above, you think that you are right there. Alexis Doktor’s costumes are normal street clothes, but are appropriate for the characters, and a nice touch is how costumes change for each scene, to signify passage of time. It’s also worth noting that with this week’s beautiful weather, the outside porch and walkways at 701 Whaley make for a nice setting for pre-show socializing and beverages, just like the old Workshop courtyard, plus the beer and wine selection is now more diverse, and the restrooms are about a thousand times larger and spiffier. A few years ago I wrote that Workshop exists to do important drama like the works of Tennessee Williams, but it also exists to present newer, challenging works like this one, and to nurture, develop and showcase the talent of new directors, like Bakari Lebby. There are four more chances to see Stick Fly , with evening performances this coming Wednesday through Saturday.  For ticket information, visit www.workshoptheatre.com, or call 803-799-6551.

 

Touching and Amusing, Trustus Theatre’s “You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce” Holds a Mirror Up to Nature

Review by August Krickel.

You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce is in no way the downer that its title might lead one to expect. Running in the Trustus Side Door Theatre through Saturday, March 7, this one-act's script is taken virtually verbatim from interviews with the original cast's parents, but plays more like a comedy than a drama. Four talented performers, some of whom you may never have seen before, use every possible vocal inflection and physical mannerism to bring these ostensibly ordinary people to life.

Originally crafted in 2009 by The Civilians, who describe themselves as "an investigative theatre group," the play is essentially a documentary, acted out for a live audience. Four actors interviewed their parents about their marriages which had all ended in divorce, then with the help of their director and a dramaturg, arranged their responses thematically and chronologically, creating "characters" which they then played on stage. All four mothers participated, plus one father (allowing the audience to see both sides of that divorce). While the questions they respond to are what one would expect (e.g. How did you meet? Why were you attracted? When did the marriage first start to break down?) each character's experience and perspective is very different. Patti Anderson plays a traditional Catholic, Raia Jane Hirsh is a working class Jew married to a preppie, Joey Opperman is a lively and expressive Texas suburbanite, while Patrick Dodds plays two liberal academics married to each other.  

The format is reminiscent of the couples talking to the camera in the film When Harry Met Sally, as well as the five ladies recalling moments from their lives in last year's Love, Loss and What I Wore.  Hirsh is the brashest, explaining a custody battle over a lamp, while Anderson is perhaps the most sympathetic, as she describes coming to terms with her ex-husband's death. Opperman gets the biggest laughs, partially because he's a man effectively depicting the feisty mannerisms of a larger-than-life, older Southern woman, but partially because in South Carolina, we recognize this type of character so quickly.  (Imagine Laurie Metcalfe as Sheldon's mother on The Big Bang Theory, or Vicki Lawrence in Mama's Family.)  Dodds has the biggest challenge, alternating roles and genders as two characters whose personalities are much lower-key than the others, and he handles the necessary subtlety well. Anderson and Opperman are new to Trustus, while Dodds and Hirsh have done good work around town, but only a handful of shows here, so this is a good chance to see all four up close and personal in this intimate, 50-seat black box venue. The play is designed for the four actors to sit in chairs and tell the story of their lives directly to the audience, making it a perfect fit for the tight confines of the Side Door. Yet Scott Herr, makes his local directing debut, allows them to occasionally rise, pace, and sit on the edge of the stage at moments of particular poignancy. And there are plenty of those - each character is brave enough to admit unflattering details of their lives, and sees what went wrong in their marriages, including their own mistakes, in retrospect. These five parents simply happen to have a way with words that is often hilarious, and one isn't surprised at all that each raised a child who became an actor. Another nice touch by Herr enables the actors to listen and react to each other, rather than waiting in silence for their next line. 

Mention must be made of a technical device that helps the narrative. A screen is located above the actors, and titles, captions and images are projected onto it, first identifying the individual characters, then establishing particular scenarios, for example the wedding, or the mechanics of the divorce proceedings. Occasionally one of the play's original creators had a question or a comment that is necessary to make the parent's response clear, and these are also projected, rather than incorporating an off-stage voice. As the play ends, be sure to hold your applause, however, because the final moments allow the audience to hear the actual words of the parents whose lives and voices we have just seen recreated. 

At not quite 75 minutes, You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce is alternately touching and amusing, and certainly entertaining. No great wisdom or lesson is given or even attempted, nor is that necessary - it's simply actors holding a mirror up to nature, as they are prone to do. In the great scope of things this work may not change lives or scale new literary or dramatic heights, but the concept is certainly intriguing, and Herr's capable cast makes this a good choice for an enjoyable date night in the Vista. Only three performances remain, and ticket information can be found by calling the Box Office at (803) 254-9732, or online at www.trustus.org.

 

   

Despite Flaws, Town Theatre’s “Sugar” Offers Light Entertainment

Review by August Krickel.

Sugar Kane is a delectably-named blonde bombshell, and the lead singer in an all-girl band who play their jazz just as some like it: hot. Sugar was also the title of the 1972 musical adaption of Some Like It Hot, the classic movie named by the American Film Institute as the funniest American movie of all time. In that era, musicals chose different names from their source material, whereas nowadays My Fair Lady would surely be marketed as G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion: The Musical. While Town Theatre's new production uses the hybrid title from more recent revivals, we'll just call it Sugar here. The original production ran for more than 500 performances on Broadway, and was a moderate hit, if not a blockbuster.  Sugar just isn't done that often at the local level. I can only recall once in recent memory, at the Village Square in Lexington, in 1990 with Steve Strickland and Marty Hillyer, so catch this rare gem while you can. Although Town's incarnation never entirely escapes the limitations of community theater, adrenaline-fueled star turns by the leads and terrific tapping by some talented teens ensure that Sugar will satisfy anyone's craving for light musical comedy entertainment.

It's 1931 in a Chicago ravaged by mobsters and the Depression.  Jerry (Frank Thompson, taking the Jack Lemmon role from the film) and Joe (Rob Sprankle, in the Tony Curtis role) are roguish musicians on the lam, after having accidentally witnessed a gangland slaying. Disguising themselves as women, they join Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, the same band that employs Sugar (Abigail Ludwig, in the Marilyn Monroe role), just in time for a gig safely far away in Miami. All three actors are challenged with bringing to life less-than-admirable characters and making them appealing. Sugar drinks too much, has a thing for bad boy musicians, and hopes to snag a rich husband in Miami, while both guys are just looking for some easy conquests.  Joe dons yet another disguise in order to seduce Sugar, while Jerry finds the tables turned as he, still in drag, becomes the object of desire for aging playboy Osgood Fielding (a puckish Gerald Floyd.) While Jerry discovers he enjoys being placed on a pedestal and wooed, he too is still scheming, planning to marry Osgood, then score a hefty divorce settlement once he reveals the truth. Ludwig is to be commended for taking on such an iconic role, and for her willingness to spend a fair amount of time on stage in lingerie. She doesn't go for a Marilyn impersonation, and as a result makes Sugar a little more vulnerable and sympathetic, while still retaining 100% of the va-va-va-voom factor.  Sprankle, an accomplished comic actor, tones his performance down in order to emphasize Joe's humanity. His solo on "It's Always Love" is quite touching, as he unsuccessfully tries to rationalize toying with Sugar's affections:

It wasn't a bad deal you know
Think how good it made her feel you know
When all is said and done you know
She had a bit of fun you know
I didn't see her run you know
She's over twenty one you know

The downside is that while Ludwig is his romantic partner on stage, Thompson is his acting partner, and it's dangerous to tone anything down when Frank Thompson is around. While this marks at least the 14th role I've appreciated Thompson in over the last five years, I don't think I've ever seen him enjoy himself so much, and indeed, in program notes, he admits his long-standing desire to play this role. Joe and Jerry's banter zips back and forth at light speed, and while Sprankle makes an excellent straight man, I hope that as the show's run progresses, he will cede less and less focus to Thompson, who is like the rabbit in the briarpatch with this type of comedy. He and Gerald Floyd have a nice rapport as well, leading to perfect precision and timing in their scenes.  Jerry is the kind of broadly comic role that Floyd might have played himself not so many years ago, and in a sense, this beloved figure of Columbia theater is passing the comedic mantle to the next generation. Osgood is a smallish role, but has the show's closing (and most memorable) line, and Floyd sells the character via sheer magnetism and irrepressible stage presence. Also deserving of mention is petite dynamo Allison Allgood as bandleader Sweet Sue, playing a commanding authority figure with deep stentorian tones. Yet when she glams up for the second act's final number, it's Sue not Sugar who takes center stage on "When You Meet a Man in Chicago," and her rich mezzo-soprano voice will just blow you away. Someone cast this young lady as the lead in a musical now.

Peter Stone's book condenses much of Billy Wilder and I.A. L. Diamond's classic dialogue from the film in order to make room for musical numbers by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill. Most of the songs are pretty and innocuous, but there's not really a hit tune in the tradition of other shows they worked on separately or together (e.g. Gypsy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Funny Girl, Hello Dolly, etc.)  An exception, however, is a decidedly inventive tap number, with David Quay as mobster Spats Palazzo. It starts as a nifty gimmick: the bad guys are all tap dancers, and their machine gun fire is represented by rapid and stylized rhythmic stomping of their feet (rather than trying to recreate a bloodbath on stage.) This leads into "Tear This Town Apart," where Quay and the other dancers do a sort of percussive back-and-forth with offstage drummer Patty Boggs, feet dueling with cymbals, and alternating with syncopated lyrics, half-spoken and half-sung in time to the beat. While I seriously doubt there was ever any connection or influence, this isn't too far from the technique employed in Stomp a generation later, and the echoes of modern drum and bass might make "Parents Just Don't Understand"-era Will Smith a little jealous. What's particularly impressive is that this number was choreographed by Rachel Glowacki, one of the ensemble and still a teenager, as is Quay and many of the other dancers. That's one risk with community theatre: often younger performers have to fill out casts, since one is unlikely to find age-appropriate look-alikes for Robert DeNiro or James Gandolfini who can tap.  At least not in Columbia.  So you have to imagine that Spats Palazzo is a baby-faced young punk mobster, as are most of his gang. (And if some of them look a lot like the pretty young girls from Sugar's band, just remember the suspension of disbelief that comes with community theatre, and/or imagine that Spats was an equal-opportunity employer.) Gower Champion created this number on Broadway, and I'd love to see more dance groups recreate it in the future.

Musical Director Sharon McElveen leads a five-piece band of keyboards, drums, bass, trumpet, and reed, and that's a nice combo to capture the jazz-era sound. "Reed" means that Gabe Bertolini rocks out on saxophone and clarinet, but I especially enjoyed delicate trills and fills on flute that accompanied softer songs.  Opening night was rough vocally, however, with a number of singers struggling to hit their notes, even at times a few of the leads. Harmony sometimes presented a problem for the women's ensemble, although the score is not that difficult or complex. Every single one of them, however, has experience in director Jamie Carr Harrington's previous shows (Miss Saigon, Shrek the Musical) or in other vocally-challenging musicals presented at Town recently (Oklahoma!, Les Miserables, Tarzan), and you don't get cast in shows like those if you can't sing. My guess is that a) it was simply an off night, and b) with the relative youth of many of the ensemble, they are more accustomed to having a couple of heavy hitters in the chorus with them, anchoring all the ensemble numbers. So my advice is: it's just you ladies, so in the words of Mama Rose, "Sing Out!" - and you'll do just fine. Possibly some in the cast were not used the volume of having the band closely located at the rear of the stage (as opposed to in an orchestra pit.) At any rate, the leads carry the show, so all is well, and vocal problems have a way of working themselves out as a run progresses.

Sugar features a LOT of rapid changes of scene, including everything from a garage to a nightclub to interiors of a train, and a yacht, so Scenic Designer Danny Harrington does what he excels in, going minimalist with lots of projected scenery and drops that imply each locale. A few years ago I recall wondering why there was such a detailed painted drop for a brief scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but sure enough, that same drop is essential here for scenes on the Miami beach.(I now wonder just where it actually originated!) Although Osgood's yacht looks awfully sketchy, among the most visually appealing are a Chicago street scene, and a posh hotel room painted in an elegant and tropical bright blue, and a glittery arch is all that's needed to create a stage-within-the-stage where the Society Syncopators perform. Choreographer Tracy Steele and director Jamie Carr Harrington move the cast around the stage with varying success depending on the number, but as above, it's the leads you want to be paying attention to.  When the fast-paced zingers from the film are flying, Harrington ensures that they are up to the task, keeping proceedings at the requisitely manic pace that screwball comedy demands.

As noted above, it's not often that one gets a chance to see this show performed live, and while the material isn't quite up to the level of its film ancestor, it's a very pleasant two hours and fifteen minutes of light entertainment, featuring some great performers who are having a blast.  Did I mention that Rob Sprankle and Frank Thompson are in drag, Gerald Floyd is back on stage, Abigail Ludwig is stunning, and Allison Allgood sings her heart out?  That's really all you need to know. Sugar - Some Like It Hot runs for two more weekends, through Sat. March 21; contact the box office at 799-2510, or visit www.towntheatre.com for ticket information.

 

 

A Crazy “Funny Little Thing Called Love” by the Chapin Theatre Company Delivers Laughs

Review by Dell Goodrich.

Chapin Theatre Company’s Funny Little Thing Called Love by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and James Wooten is an amusing peek into a single zany evening of romance under a mystically powerful full moon. In its promotional materials, the Chapin Theatre Company describes its latest rendition of a Jones-Hope-Wooten comedy (all of them beloved through the years by the company’s audiences) as “reminiscent of ‘Love, American Style’…” Indeed the series of 4 one-act vignettes (+ one really short skit) follows the blueprint of the popular late 60’s/ early 70’s TV show,  imitating such elements as presenting unrelated situational comedy sketches about romance, having the same actors portray different characters in several scenes, and the use of recurring central scenery/prop pieces. Each tale of romance in this stage presentation involves an outlandish misfortune of love, set in different geographical locations. The stories begin in a San Francisco newsroom, then move on to Dallas, continuing to a honeymoon in Honolulu, a London roof-top café and ending at an apartment in New York City.

The pre-show music, played in the auditorium just before curtain, positions the atmosphere perfectly. My favorite tune was “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor, which manages to take a recently released hit and lend it the air of a 1950’s girl-group--- Think- the Shirelles. The song’s lyrics “You gotta know how to treat me like a lady/ Even when I'm acting crazy/ Tell me everything's alright” pretty much sum up the plot of each mini-scene.

Director Tiffany Dinsmore chooses many such ingenious devices to enhance audience engagement throughout the play. Before the actual narratives even begin, she makes inspired use of a large projection screen for the normally dry explanation of the house rules and to introduce the cast. Photos of the cast (in character) interpreting or flat-out breaking the house rules, as they are explained, provide a charming way to take care of such “housekeeping.”

“Magic Moments” by Perry Como supplies the soundtrack for cast/character introductions. Dinsmore again evokes “Love, American Style” by positioning the cast’s photos within comedic ‘thought bubbles,’ an homage to the TV series’ use of heart shaped outlines to frame its cast introductions at the beginning of each episode.

The screen is used on a final occasion to project the first mini-sketch. “Love Is In [On?] the Air” during a TV news broadcast, as the female news anchor unashamedly makes advances to her co-anchor, while they are live on camera.

The outrageous plots of the ensuing four narratives involve a womanizing used-car salesman in Dallas, who is lured into a trap by his three resentful girlfriends and his mother; a party-crashing group of Hallelujah Girls, who join their friend and her new husband on their honeymoon in Honolulu; two British strangers, an ancient waitress and a loud Nebraskan tourist, who happen upon each other at a roof-top London café; and finally the convoluted failure of a marriage proposal, devised by a very unlucky man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Overall, despite some high points, the first act lacked momentum and the writing was mostly to blame. Performances by Ripley Thames, Rachel Middleton, and Debi Young were especially enthusiastic in Scene 2 (in Dallas). Meesh Hays, George Dinsmore and Gayle Stewart overcame the slow beginning dialogue of the Honolulu honeymoon scene and stood out in roles they reprised from last season’s “The Hallelujah Girls”. There was an uproariously funny bit by the group of Hallelujah Girls, very evocative of an Ethel Mertz/Lucy Ricardo escapade, in which the Girls try to escape the hotel room while walking behind and gradually moving a Chinese screen.

By the second act, the pace had picked up, to the delight and hilarity of the audience. Actress Katie Mixon, recently returned to town, joins the show to their paroxysms of delight. She arrives on the stage and immediately establishes an arresting presence. She is a standout in both the London and New York City storylines, possessing both great timing/delivery and a mastery of physical comedy. Highlights from her loud, American tourist- Brandi-(London scene) include breaking up with her boyfriend (“We broke up over religious differences. You think you are God’s gift to women and I say to Hell with that!”) and the effortlessly hilarious use of an extension claw to grip her camera phone to take selfies. Mixon is joined in the London sketch by the equally witty Jim DeFelice- as a droll, stuffy British man who discovers an unexpected romance with Kitty Hinds- a dryly humorous English lady who wickedly assists DeFelice in fending off the strident Brandi. Sandy Steffen is a riot as an elderly waitress attempting to provide live music to café patrons through the use of a sousaphone and a kazoo. Ripley Thames makes a diverting cameo as Brandi’s boyfriend, Ferlin.

The final scenario, “Upper West Side Story”, centers around George Dinsmore, as Stan, a man dealing with his mid-life crisis by proposing to a much younger woman (frequently and humorously referred to as ‘the teenager’ by his best friend, Jake- in a stand-out cameo by David Fichter). Stan, wearing the top of a tuxedo with yellow boxer shorts, engineers an elaborately designed proposal that epically fails with each phase. The French cuisine he orders is delivered by a French woman (played by the fabulous Gayle Stewart, proclaiming “J'adore Le Bling”) who proceeds to have an allergic reaction and pass out cold in his living room, wearing his intended bride’s engagement diamond. The paramedic that arrives to assist is Rita (portrayed by Cathy Carter Scott, a very believable psycho-stalker), who has formerly treated Stan for an injury and is convinced they are destined to be together. Enter Katie Mixon again as a tap-dancing singing telegram with wishes for good luck from Stan’s work mates. Her attention to comedic detail is again notable, as she uses the giant heart costume to witty advantage in many clever ways. Worthy of mention is a comical moment in which the costume becomes a hindrance to a hasty exit, as she must turn sideways to get through the doorway.

 What ensues is an onslaught of romantic mayhem, culminating in an encounter with Stan’s ex-wife, Meredith, (an impressive, snort-laughing, plastic Kitty Hindes) and a refusal of Stan’s proposal by the tennis-instructor-loving Deena (commendably portrayed by Samantha Roberts), who declares Stan is pretty cute for an “old guy” and then beats an abrupt exit. Add in the appearance of a nervous superhero inching across the upper level window ledge and you discover the magic of the full moon governing the events.

Funny Little Thing Called Love continues its run March 4-6, 8pm and March 7, 3pm at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College, 7300 College Street, 29063 in Irmo. 

 

Columbia Children’s Theatre ‘s “Bunnicula” Is One For the Kids

Review by August Krickel.

There are creepy goings-on in the hitherto complacent, suburban Monroe household. A strange creature with long teeth sleeps by day, but prowls with glowing red eyes by night. Vegetables are found in the refrigerator, drained of their juice. This can only be the work of (cue pregnant chord of music) ...Bunnicula!  Columbia Children's Theatre's revival of Bunnicula  is based on a popular series of children's books by James Howe, and features music and lyrics by Chris Jeffries and Jon Klein.  Yes, this is a musical about a vampire bunny, and while not quite the madcap romp often seen in CCT's original shows, this production is sure to entertain the age 3-8 set.

To clarify, Bunnicula isn't exactly a vampire - he's an adorable little rabbit found by a family right after seeing a vampire movie, and since he has big teeth, why not name him accordingly?  This doesn't sit well with their existing pets, however, especially the catty and obsessive housecat, Chester (Paul Lindley II.)  Unknown to their humans, Chester and the older, wiser, yet also goofier dog Harold (Jerry Stevenson) can communicate, sing, dance, and even read. Chester clearly never learned what curiosity can do to cats, and sees the newcomer as a dire threat.  Hilarity and hare-brained schemes ensue, and at one point the furry duo get their folklore wrong and try to vanquish their foe with a steak - yep, from the refrigerator - to the heart.

Lindley continues to grow as a character actor, and has perfected feline mannerisms down to a T. He speaks with a little bit of a Southern drawl, mimicking a cat's languid mee-ow, and often drapes himself in ridiculous poses across the furniture. His expressions of discomfort are priceless when mom Mrs. Monroe (Toni Moore) wants to kiss such an adorable little kitty, and his humiliation is complete when she makes him put on his little sweater. Stevenson as Harold is better behaved, but he too has his issues, including tremendous fear of their worst nightmare: the dreaded vacuum cleaner.  Stevenson directs as well, and (with Jim Litzinger) designed the set, which is rendered entirely in shades of gray, to replicate a color-blind animal's point of view. Even the humans' clothing is all gray, leaving the dog and cat with the only color to be seen. Their costumes, by Stevenson and Donna Harvey, don't try to replicate fur, but look comfortable and colorful, with moderate make-up to suggest an animal's features without obscuring the actors' faces. (Imagine a scaled down variation on the musical Cats, or John Candy in Spaceballs.)  Moore does fine in a role she often plays at CCT: the harried, somewhat authoritarian, slightly clueless grown-up, and is joined by Julian Deleon as her husband, with Riley Smith and Kate Chalfant as two rather bratty kids. Deleon gets to play a normal dad for a change (as opposed to, say, Santa Claus, a cross-dressing wolf, or an especially festive Happy the Dwarf), and like Lindley is becoming a dependable part of the CCT stock company who can always be counted on to deliver a good performance, whatever the role may be. This CCT's tenth year, meaning that many of the students who have grown up in their children's acting classes and performed in their youth productions are now experienced veterans who are ready to join the adults on stage. A few years ago, young adults would probably have been cast as the Monroe kids, but instead, it's Smith and Chalfant, both talented and age-appropriate youngsters.

Like the best theatre for young audiences, there are plenty of jokes that only Mom and Dad will get. For example, kids will squeal with delight when screeching strings and scary lighting effects accompany a particular event (and the start of a running joke) but parents will recognize the score from Psycho. Similarly, when Stevenson uses a British accent while narrating the show's intro with an accompaniment of playfully mysterious music, children will understand this as a parody of the start of a ghost story, while it might take Grandmom or Granddad to realize he's imitating Alfred Hitchcock, right down to theme from Hitchcock's television anthology series from 60 years ago. Jeffries' score is quite good, especially the peppy "Nothing Like a Pet" in which dog and cat details the benefits enjoyed by their owners, and the bluesy jazz song "Poor Cat," after Chester is placed outside. In keeping with their characterizations, Chester continues to yowl and complain after misbehaving, while Harold is genuinely crestfallen after, for the first time in his life, he is thought to have been a "bad dog." (Note to actresses looking for an audition piece or cabaret number - sung by a woman, "Poor Cat" could be an awesomely vampy torch song.)

You'll note I haven't mentioned the title character. Matthew Wright is an energetic performer who has grown up with CCT, and played a great Donkey in Shrek the Musical last year at Town Theatre; clad entirely in gray stage-ninja attire, he performs as puppeteer for the rabbit character, which has no lines, and is basically a stuffed bunny doll. Its head turns, its limbs move a little, its eyes glow in the dark, but the show is more about the dog and the cat, and so Wright doesn't get much time in the limelight. I really hope that when this show is revived again, Bunnicula can be more fully realized as a Muppet-style marionette, or at least as a hand puppet. Kids in the audience won't mind, however, and Wright's silent presence lends an added eerie effect. I also wasn't wild about the hasty plot resolution, a sort of lepus ex machina (only Stevenson will get that reference) that tidily ties everything up for the finale, but I'm sure that follows the plot from the original book. The production runs right at 70 minutes with no intermission, and the cast as always is available for autographs, hugs and selfies afterwards.  

My favorite productions at CCT have been their original spins on traditional fairy tales, which allow for more improvisation and interaction with the audience. Children, however, are guaranteed to enjoy seeing one of their favorite books come to life on stage, complete with musical accompaniment. This is also a chance to see Mr. Jerry (CCT’s Artistic Director) in a rare acting role on stage. Making this show worth sinking your teeth into.  Bunnicula runs through  March 1 with a closing Sunday matinee performance.  Call (803) 691-4548, or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/bunnicula/ for more information. Also, don’t forget – this Friday, Feb. 27, there is a Late Night (ok, ok 8 PM) Date Night performance for Mom and Dad, or for local theatre enthusiasts who want to support their actor friends in an adults-only environment – details can be found at http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/event/late-night-bunnicula/ .

  
 
Fresh Talent Shines in USC's 
Translations at Longstreet Theatre

Review by August Krickel. 

Brian Friel's acclaimed Translations, running through this weekend at USC's Longstreet Theatre, is an important play, full of important themes and ideas. The power of language, the inexorable march of time as one culture supplants another, and a people's connection to their land are all presented in the context of the assimilation of 19th-century Ireland into the English-speaking British Empire. While some of its complexities may be lost in the ....well, the translation, a talented new batch of MFA students on stage and behind the scenes make this a thought-provoking evening of live theatre.

Much like the works of Friel's literary ancestor Sean O'Casey (and for that matter, like Gone With the Wind and other popular historical fiction), Translations depicts the personal relationships of everyday characters playing out against the backdrop of social upheaval. Rural youths scrape together coins to be tutored in the basics of language and mathematics at "hedge schools," sometimes held outdoors near hedgerows, but in this case at a ramshackle barn that doubles as classroom and home to hard-drinking schoolmaster Hugh (Chris Cook) and his adult son Manus (Benjamin Roberts.) Latin, Greek and Gaelic are on the curriculum, but restless Maire (Grace Ann Roberts) wants to learn English, her head filled with visions of opportunity in America. Jimmy Jack (an amusing Dimitri Woods) fantasizes about hooking up with the goddesses described in Homer and Vergil, while silent Sarah (Nicole Dietze) is an attentive pupil, but due to some impediment is barely able to vocalize words. Inescapable change comes to the village of Ballybeg with the arrival of Hugh's other son, Owen (an appealing Matthew Cavender), now working as an interpreter for the sappers, i.e. the Royal Engineers, who are tasked with surveying the country and creating standardized maps, complete with standardized - and Anglicized - nomenclature for all Gaelic place-names. It's the tip of the iceberg, however, as hedge schools are due to be replaced by a system of English-language-only national schools.

Friel's genius is seen in the trick he uses to portray the language barrier: everyone in the cast speaks English, but the English and Irish characters are unable to understand each other. This leads at first to comedy, when characters ask the interpreter what the other is saying, and actually all they're saying is "What is he/she asking?"  The supercilious commanding officer (Park Bucker) rambles pedantically, while Owen's rendering of his words is clear and succinct. Sympathetic and impressionable Lt. Yolland (Josh Jeffers) struggles to understand Gaelic, and somehow hears Owen's name as "Roland," which he proceeds to call him for most of the play. Yolland is mesmerized by the local Irish beauty ... but apart from Maire, he also likes the culture and countryside.  (Thank you, I'll be here all week - try the corned beef and cabbage.) Their budding romance is adorable, and their fluency in the international language of love (while not being able to understand a word the other is saying) sets up a central thematic question: how important is language anyway?  Owen says he's still the same person however he is called, and Hugh's students learn the nuances of mythology and grammar in their Latin and Greek lessons, yet the implication is that Gaelic will soon join the roster of languages no longer spoken, with its cultural heritage similarly destined for ancient history status. This might seem of little import to a modern audience, until one considers the native languages all but obliterated here in America and elsewhere, and their cultures along with them. In one of many moments where the action on stage has greater symbolic meaning, the British, until now fussy bureaucratic mapmakers, turn menacing when an officer goes missing, and threaten literally to wipe Ballybeg out of existence.

Senior Grace Ann Roberts, memorable as Tecmessa in Ajax in Iraq only a few months ago, shines in every moment she is on stage as Maire. Jeffers as Yoland is nearly as energetic and attractive, and their scenes together are a delight. Visiting director Paul Savas has some clever blocking that takes advantage of the plentiful open space on stage, which is an expanded thrust, with the audience surrounding perhaps 80% of the action. Maire and Yoland circle each other like combatants in a cage match of flirtation, enabling the audience to see them from every possible angle, while catching some of the dizzying exuberance of young love. Chris Cook takes a stock role (the boozy, dreamy, learned Irishman, originally played off-Broadway by Barnard Hughes, who made a career playing that kind of role) and fleshes it out admirably. Sophomore Wes Williams brings a nice assertive physicality to his role as Doalty (a role originated by the young Liam Neeson), with Rachel Kuhnle convincingly playing young school girl Bridget through restless body language and perky line delivery. Park Bucker's characterization of the officer Lancey almost seems over-the-top, until one realizes that we are seeing him through the eyes and ears of the local Irish. He's a caricature of a rigid Englishman, as seen and translated (and for that matter written) by an Irishman, and he finds just the right note to remain believable. Nicole Dietze as Sarah has almost no lines, and minimal blocking, yet she impressively commits to the role, and is always engaged in the action on stage. Even tiny bits of business have significance: during a storm, characters come running in with shawls or their jackets over their heads, and one realizes that in this impoverished region, few would have umbrellas.

My only issue with the production is the accents, which I'm sure are authentically Irish, and which the actors have clearly mastered. But almost too well. I found myself struggling to follow details of plot and character, simply because I couldn't understand specific words. Part of this is Friel's fault: he explains just about every plot point and relationship backstory in exposition, but it's only a sentence here and there, making every single word in a talky and cerebral script quite important. It's like an American playwright explaining that a character "hasn't been the same since 'Nam." An American audience would immediately pick up that this is probably a baby boomer suffering from PTSD, but that one syllable "Nam" would be crucial for understanding. Yet part of this was my own fault, because I was fascinated by the Latin and Greek references, and as I tried to translate them in my mind (recovering Classics geek here, just like Jimmy Jack) I realized I was missing important dialogue. At times one or two characters take center stage while the others simply watch and listen, and I found myself following their expressions and movement, because they were so skillful at seeming natural (as opposed to looking like an actor stuck with no lines on stage.) Dietze was the champ in this area... but again I realized I was missing vital exposition that wouldn't be repeated. But part is simply that the accents are just a little too strong, as if one were listening to Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis in one of their many eloquent but incomprehensible interviews. I will concede that the accents are vital to establishing the Irishness of the setting, but since we're supposed to be hearing Gaelic not English anyway, I hope that they will have mellowed a wee bit by the time you read this. I will say, however, that I still followed the broader themes of the play without a problem, and that the cast's performances are excellent throughout.

USC's Theatre Department not only trains actors, but also technicians, and three first-year MFA students created a richly authentic environment for the production.  Baxter Engle's set is painstaking in its detail, with random, angular panels signifying parts of the whole, which is an old, weather-beaten wooden barn, with the lush Irish countryside seen in the distance. Rachel Harmon's costumes are the wool and muslin and flannel that the working class of the era wore, and look lived-in, i.e. they're not crisp creations direct from the costume shop. Chris Patterson's lighting design is similarly subtle, recreating the ambient light one might find in such a setting, and inconspicuously dimming or narrowing in on a particular actor when appropriate. (I have to give kudos to the stage veteran Cook here, who invariably manages to find the exact spot on stage where the lights illuminate him best.)

Translations is a significant work from a giant of modern theatre, but it's not the sort of play that's likely to be performed more than once every generation or so in Columbia, and then only in a university setting. It's the sort of play that might be analyzed in detail by an Irish Lit or Sociology class with great rewards to be found therein, but it can be enjoyed on surface value as well, like the best of great literature. For me, however, as is often the case, my enjoyment was all about the work by the actors and technicians. Translations runs through Saturday, February 28; for information, visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/translations-longstreet-theatre, or call (803) 777-2551.

 
 
Young Leads Are Highlight of  Shakespeare's 
12th Night at On Stage Productions

Review by August Krickel

"You love her but she loves him - and he loves somebody else; you just can't win." So went the lyrics in the classic J. Geils Band rocker "Love Stinks," but they are an apt summary of the core plot of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, running through this Sunday, February 22, at the On Stage Productions Performance Center in West Columbia. Thanks to the energy and commitment of some attractive young leads, Twelfth Night is a good reason to explore live theatre at a venue you may not have attended before.

The play's title comes from a Middle Ages festival celebrating the end of the twelve days of Christmas. A combination of Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve, and Hallowe'en in Five points, festivities included drinking, carousing, singing, dancing, pursuing the opposite sex, and dressing in costume or disguise, all presided over by a Fool. Which is likewise a summary of the action on stage. Shakespeare likely composed this work specifically for such an occasion, naming it with all the creativity of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson calling their band "The Band," and adding the subtitle "or What You Will." Yes, the English language's greatest writer suggested an alternate title of "whatever, dude." But that ties in with the generally carefree tone of the script, which is neither complex nor profound, but as a result is quite accessible for modern audiences. All one has to accept in advance is that love at first sight is indeed real and genuine, and that a girl will be indistinguishable from her twin brother if she dresses up as a boy. The narrative benefits from age-appropriate casting of college-age actors by director MJ Maurer.

Noble Viola (a radiant Rachel Rizzuti) believes her brother Sebastian (William Hendley) to have perished in the shipwreck that has left her all alone in a strange land, and for safety pretends to be a young man, Cesario. She lands a job in the court of local Duke Orsino (JJ Woodall) and within days has fallen for her master. Orsino doesn't suspect why he is strangely drawn to this pretty youth, and so sends Cesario with messages and entreaties of love to the lovely countess Olivia (a feisty Haley Claffy), who instantly falls for ..... yep, Cesario.  If you've seen any of a half dozen other Shakespearean comedies, you know it won't be long before the lookalike Sebastian shows up, at which point hijinks ensue. In a subplot, Olivia's hearty-partier uncle Toby (Steven Nessel) is angling for her to marry the dim but wealthy Sir Andrew (Mark Ingham), since Andrew doesn't mind buying and sharing drinks throughout the night with Toby, Maria the maid (Linda Brochin), and their cronies. When Olivia's supercilious head servant Malvolio (Lucas Bender) tries to quash their revelry, they devise a plot to make him look foolish. Or, to put this in a modern context, Hawkeye and Trapper enlist the aid of Klinger and Radar to make Winchester think Hot Lips loves him, while Lucy Ricardo dresses up as a man to help Ricky, but ends up having to fend off advances from some starlet.  These are timeless tropes of comedy that predate Shakespeare by 2000 years, but their familiarity helps if one is struggling with the flowery Elizabethan language. The program notes that this is "a comedy by William Shakespeare (sort of)" because Maurer has inserted a handful of one-liners, essentially ad-libs in modern vernacular developed with the help of the actors, to make a few lines more clear, as well as to generate laughter. For example, when Malvolio reads a letter instructing him to act in a haughty manner, he notes "Well I do that already," which is what every single audience member is thinking, whether or not Shakespeare technically ever wrote it down. There are perhaps a dozen of these, and while purists might be outraged, I found all to be amusing and appropriate. After all, the text we have of Shakespeare's works is what was printed later, not what the actors may have improvised on stage at the time (while ducking tomatoes and cabbages flung at them by the notoriously rowdy and drunken 17th -century audience.)

Top acting honors go to Claffy, whom I last saw as a sexy vampire-babe in the 2013 High Voltage Dracula. Resembling the young Andie MacDowell and full of fire and vitality, Claffy is first regal and assertive, then convincingly vulnerable when smitten by unrequited puppy love. Adept at the blank verse and ornate prose, she nevertheless uses recognizably modern tones of voice and facial expressions to bring out subtleties in her speeches; she also has the technique of the aside to the audience down pat.  Rizzuti is a perfect foil for her on stage, and as the two discuss the nature of love and attraction with each other and with other characters, we are treated to some of the playwright's most insightful thoughts on the subject.  Bender is similarly proficient, fleshing what could have been a stereotypical, starchy Puritan with a myriad of comedic tricks (body language, pauses, sighs, sneers, doubletakes, and general manner) that help to create a memorable character. He is the master of those contemporary ad-libs referred to earlier, and gets some of the show's biggest laughs when he intercepts a letter, and "accidentally" breaks the wax seal, impishly adding "Oops!" Brochin is another strong component of the cast, speaking every line so simply and clearly that you'd think she had written her own dialogue.  Woodall, however, is cast against type as Orsino, and he's never entirely convincing as a melancholy dreamer whom I imagine as a wispy Edward Cullen type. Nessel and Ingham are clearly veteran actors, and their jokes are easily understood, but somehow they miss the loveable side to Toby and Andrew, who typically steal the show from the young lovers.  Hendley has less time on stage than some of his peers, but generally acquits himself well, and benefits from a dead-ringer resemblance to Rizzuti. Both Viola and Sebastian are clad in identical gold and white outfits that are quite striking and attractive, with cutely anachronistic horn-rimmed glasses and gray caps, and from 50 feet I'd have had a hard time telling them apart. Harrison Ayer has some good moments as a rascally pirate with a heart of gold, and of the cast most closely looks like an Elizabethan rogue. Rizzuti Claffy, and Bender embrace the poetry, while Brochin goes for a natural sound, but Ayer is fascinating to watch, as he plays with the natural rhythms of the words as if he’s found a new acting tool for his repertoire.

Two friends accompanied me, and both declared that their favorite was Jolie Frazer-Madge as the jester Feste. The youngest in the cast, she has a pretty voice and a nice stage presence, running errands and carrying messages between participants in both plots, and performing the show's many musical numbers a cappela.  With the character's name signifying the carnival atmosphere of the script and the locale of its original debut, Feste is saddled with a lot of puns and wordplay that are elusive to anyone born after 1650 or so, and so it's easy to miss how committed the actor is to the role. While she has some issues with projection, I particularly enjoyed her mimed expressions, signifying boredom or ridicule or frustration, and reminiscent of some of Harpo Marx’s vintage tomfoolery.  A number of folks newer to acting fill out the cast as assorted courtiers and servants.

Director Maurer incorporates some good physical shtick straight out of vaudeville into the blocking. As above, by using actors in their late teens or early twenties to portray the romantic leads, she makes their headstrong actions and emotions seem more believable. She also has wisely trimmed a good bit of extraneous dialogue, resulting in a compact run time of about two and a half hours, including a generous intermission. On Stage Productions embraces a mission of providing acting opportunities (and classes) for people at all levels of experience and ability. Executive Director Robert Harrelson explained to me that actors and audience members alike had repeatedly asked for Shakespeare, and that not being his forte, he recruited an eager Maurer to direct her favorite play.  Working within the all-volunteer context of community theatre, she has done a decent job. It's not the RSC, but then what is? Sets are perfunctory but serviceable, as are most costumes, and a little recorded lute or harpsichord music between scenes could have livened up the proceedings. Yet the leads I mentioned above make this an enjoyable rendition of a classic. One friend observed that I could have taken him to whatever I might consider the best theatre in town, with the best cast and material, and he probably wouldn't have enjoyed it any more than watching these young performers challenge themselves. I might not go that far, but I think Twelfth Night is worth seeing a) to support an emerging venue, b) to enjoy some Shakespeare - always a worthwhile endeavor, and c) to see some great young talent tackling challenging roles. It's easy to get there:  from downtown Columbia, you simply cross either bridge at Blossom or Gervais, and head out Charleston Highway, veering on to Airport Blvd., then turning right onto Cherokee Lane. That's the right turn just before I-26, which it parallels, and you’re there at 680 Cherokee in only a few minutes. C'mon - it's Shakespeare in West Columbia, y'all - get out there and show them some post-Valentine’s Day love. For ticket information, visit http://www.onstagesc.com/ or call  (803)351-6751.

 

Town Theatre's Tightly Woven Driving Miss Daisy an Example of Local Community Theatre Excellence

Review by August Krickel.

Driving Miss Daisy, currently running at Town Theatre, is a sterling example of the excellence to which community theatre can aspire, thanks to a happy intersection of talent, design, and material. Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play inspired a Golden Globe and Oscar-winning film, and has entered the canon of modern classics along with other often-produced works of Southern charm and eccentricity, like Steel Magnolias.

A long one-act running only 75 minutes with no intermission, the story is simple: Miss Daisy (Kathy Hartzog) is an older Jewish lady in 1940's Atlanta whose son Boolie (Chris Kruzner) decides she shouldn't be driving anymore; Boolie hires African-American Hoke (Chadwick Pressley) as her chauffeur, with the warning that his mother is high-strung and difficult. Hoke needs the work, and through extraordinary patience (and more than a little cleverness and wisdom) manages to make Miss Daisy accept him over the next 20+ years. Both characters are proud and stubborn in their own way, but both grow as human beings, and develop mutual respect. The banter between Hoke and Miss Daisy is fast and furious, with the expected clashes of class and culture, as barbs and zingers fly every which way. One is quickly won over by the characters' appeal and familiarity, meaning that more serious moments are guaranteed to tug on the audience's heartstrings.

Actors often say that comedy is hard; I can imagine performers accustomed to only Shakespeare, Sophocles, and O'Neill struggling to master the split-second timing and nuances of inflection required to make Miss Daisy and Hoke's repartee believable yet still amusing. Hartzog, however, has been playing this type of feisty older Southern lady for years now, and has the mannerisms down pat. It's just that for a change she's not simply a stock character or comic stereotype, but rather the central figure, and her characterization never wavers, as Miss Daisy remains fiercely independent and opinionated into her 90's. Pressley is also to be commended for a genuine, multi-faceted, and I dare say brave performance.  Hoke is already a grandfather as the play starts, an illiterate man of color from a rural background in the era of segregation, and he expresses himself in the vernacular of the time and locale, responding to Miss Daisy's orders with "Yes'm," and "No'm." He sums up their situation with simple and ungrammatical eloquence:   "You needs a driver, and I needs this job." Often his expressions verge on poetic, as when Miss Daisy begins to show signs of confusion: "Your mind just done took a wrong turn this morning." Pressley masters these colloquialisms with sincerity and ease.  

The play's narrative skirts the civil rights movement without exactly tackling it directly or seeking any resolution.  One of the script's strengths is its authenticity: Miss Daisy and Hoke bond in a way appropriate for white employer and black servant, yet both are still aware of the differences that divide them. How often did similar relationships develop so happily in actual history?  Probably never, which is likely why Uhry, who grew up Jewish in 1940's and 50's Atlanta, and whose father could have been around Boolie's age, had to invent one for this story. Kruzner as Boolie has only a fraction of the time on stage as his castmates, and many of his scenes are designed as transitions for one or both of the others to make a change of costume or wig, yet he too creates a three-dimensional character. Particularly effective is his pragmatic description of how subtle prejudice, against both blacks and Jews, works in the business world.

Danny Harrington's set follows the design of the original, and is exactly the type at which he excels. A realistic desk and bookcase unit define Boolie's office at stage right, while drapes and a window seat create the backdrop for Miss Daisy's living room, which features a prominent chair and ottoman. Most of the rest of the stage is left open for the suggestion of a vehicle, accomplished by a raised pedestal with one seat and a steering wheel for Hoke in front, and a bench representing the back seat for Miss Daisy. While the actors mime turning the ignition key and opening car doors, their movements are inconspicuous and unobtrusive - in other words, you never are distracted by thinking "there's an actor pretending to open an invisible door." Everything else is accomplished via lighting and projection: a suburb at Christmas, a busy downtown street, the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly, and stunning images of clouds, the sun, and the moon. 

Lori Stepp's costumes accurately reflect the times, and Justin Lee's sound cues are timed perfectly. Of special note is the use of a recorded score from the original production, which includes a melancholy banjo (instantly placing the action in the South of an earlier era) and an elegant violin (which alerts the audience to the affluent suburban milieu.)  Even wig design, by Mark Ziegler and Abigail Ludwig for Miss Daisy, and by Tracy Green-Pressley for Hoke, is superb, aiding verisimilitude on stage. A single wispy strand of white hair falls into the face of the normally perfectly-coiffed Miss Daisy, signifying her slow decline into old age, while Chadwick Pressley's long contemporary braids are capably concealed, leaving Hoke a credible member of his generation.  

With a cast of three, and settings implied rather than constructed, Driving Miss Daisy is a famous work that can easily be staged at the local level.  Its themes of race, religion, personality conflict, acceptance, and personal growth are blended with just the right smattering of nostalgic Southern charm to create a story that is both warmly sentimental and family-friendly, yet still meaningful to adults looking for some depth in their entertainment. Yet the result would be disastrous without performers up to the challenge of creating convincing characters, and of mastering Uhry's eloquently-crafted dialogue. Director Allison McNeely has woven all the right components together to create a theatrical experience that is just as entertaining as the wacky sitcoms and perky musicals that dominate so much of local theatre.  Driving Miss Daisy proves that Broadway hits can be recreated faithfully for Columbia audiences with no accompanying sacrifice in quality. All that's needed is the right material, and the right cast.   Driving Miss Daisy runs through Sunday, February 15 with a closing matinee performance; call the box office at 803-799-2510 or visit www.towntheatre.com for ticket information.

 

Trustus Demonstrates the Art of Theatre With In the Red and Brown Water

Review by James Harley 

Theatre is among the most interesting forms of art largely due to its multidimensional nature, drawing together literature and its inherent ideas, sound (both vocal and manufactured), images and motion, all presented live and thus demanding a high level of perfection. No other form really matches this depth of artistry, at least when such artistry is taken seriously. Often a theatrical production will simply tell a story in a believable manner, ultimately relying on the words to govern the impact of the show while using the other elements as simple accentuation. Fortunately, however, there are directors who embrace each element fully and creatively exploit them all, producing the true artistic “show” that sets theatre apart from (and above) television, cinema and literature.

Chad Henderson (Next to Normal, Avenue Q, Passing Strange) is one such director and his latest effort, “In the Red and Brown Water” at Trustus Theatre, clearly demonstrates the importance of this approach. Frankly, despite its recognition in some major markets playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the red and Brown water” is little more than a standard soap opera drama, utilizing basic human conflicts to keep the audience interested in the story. Oya, a female high school track star living in the projects in Louisiana, faces the many challenges of growing up; dealing with an aging mother, finding the right partner, choosing the right path in general and learning of the consequences of her decisions. These issues make for a typical story which has some added intrigue via its connection to Yoruban culture and cosmology, as each character loosely represents a spirit within this vision. McCraney adds a bit more spice with his poetic style and also the narrative aspect of the play, which has characters directly addressing the audience with stage directions that would normally remain unspoken. Still, while the style points and basic story ingredients keep you very interested, it ultimately goes nowhere, finishing in an abrupt and unsatisfying manner with nothing substantial learned.

Now, this sounds like it may be a bad review based on the assessment of the script, but that is where Henderson steps in. The show is actually a must-see, if for no other reason than to realize that theatrical art is the complex collaborative entity described above. Henderson employs every resource at his disposal to create a unique production that goes far beyond what the story itself offers. From the opening image where we see the projects – artfully designed by Kimi Maeda -- silhouetted in blue light, to the creative manifestations of scenery (a bed, a clothesline) enacted by the actors themselves, to the constant stage pictures formed by the ensemble in support of the central action, one could simply watch the entire show without audio and still enjoy the visual art before them.

Of course, that would deprive you of fully appreciating the cast that Henderson has put together, particularly Avery Bateman as Oya, who brings everything she’s got to the role including tears as she successfully expresses virtually every existing emotion during her transformation toward adulthood. Jabar Hankins’ range is not quite as wide in the role of Ogun, one of Oya’s suitors, but he navigates between anxiety and charm quite effectively in perhaps the most realistic portrayal on stage. Bakari Lebby brings a natural comedic sense to his role as neighbor Elegba, and Annette Dees Grevious is powerful as Oya’s mother and downright scary as “the woman who reminds you,” a local mystic. There are no weaknesses among the cast, with show stealing honors clearly go to Katrina Blanding as the sassy Aunt Elegua, whose gift for classic comic relief had me thinking I was watching “The Jeffersons” on numerous occasions.

“In the Red and Blue Water” is full of racy language and visuals, so don’t take the children, but if you want to see what a director can do to make a theatrical experience memorable then you should check this one out as it is not your typical production. As noted above, you won’t leave with any profound revelations on the individual topic, but perhaps regarding the form itself and how much fun theatre can be with truly detailed and creative effort behind it.

The show runs at Trustus Theatre through February 7. For reservations call the box office at 803-254-9732. For more information visit our Press Release page.

 

Workshop Theatre Stages Pleasantly Engaging “Broadway Bound” at 701 Whaley

Review by August Krickel

That magnet for the hip young art scene, 701 Whaley, is the site for a new production of Broadway Bound, a powerful drama about the unravelling of a nuclear family. Incisive wit and precision insight into human nature combine with eloquent dialogue to make ordinary characters sympathetic and appealing:  battling sisters who want to care for aging parents, a straying husband beset by mid-life malaise, and sons ready to start adult lives and careers. Yet the material is technically a very, very funny comedy, written nearly 30 years ago by Neil Simon as a quasi-autobiography, and the ambitious presenting organization is Columbia's venerable Workshop Theatre, now in its 48th year.

Workshop productions are now staged in The Market Space, i.e. the rectangular brick structure with the front porch railing, adjacent to the main event hall at 701 Whaley. Great care has been taken to make the new venue as user-friendly as possible, with one helpful person directing traffic into plentiful parking spaces, and another stationed inside the main building to guide patrons to the restrooms. The same friendly box office personnel and ushers greet each audience member upon arrival, and beer, wine and snacks are available for purchase as always (but with new options including Yuengling and Blue Moon.) The new stage is actually slightly wider than the stage at Bull and Gervais. These are, however, temporary accommodations, and therefore not lavish. The stage consists of platforms built specifically for this site, perhaps a foot or so off the ground. The set is necessarily on one level only, which is actually an improvement for this show - its original design called for a second floor where actors would be challenged by sightlines and audibility. The house has 150 seats, arranged in five rows, 15 seats on either side of a center aisle, meaning that even the back row is close to the action on stage. Seating consists of simple wooden chairs with high backs; they're perhaps not the most comfortable in the world - I mainly missed having armrests - but cushions are available if requested. All in all, it's a very pleasant and perfectly adequate set-up for a production, as long as the play is enjoyable, and this one most certainly is.

Ryan Stevens plays Eugene, the protagonist of Simon's earlier Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues; Eugene still talks to the audience, and is still a daydreamer and master wisecracker, but at 23 he's maturing into a perceptive and supportive son, brother and grandson. Stevens manages the tricky mix of playing goofy yet likable, alternating between scenes of hilarious repartee and moments of profound pathos. William Cavitt is cast against type as the comically neurotic and obsessive older brother Stanley, as if Brad Pitt were to play Woody Allen, but generally hits the right note. It's a fascinating character study by the playwright, who concedes that his fictional alter-ego, however talented, was driven to success by collaboration with his lesser-known brother. While the boys spar with expected rapid-fire Simon banter upstairs, the conflicts downstairs could have been written by Eugene O'Neill. Chris Cook as father Jack is ostensibly a harsh and distant parent, beaten down by life, yet Cook manages to find his humanity. Stunning Samantha Elkins convincingly conveys middle age with mannerisms and tone rather than make-up, pleading with her father (David Reed) to allow her to take care of him, and to return her love. Both Cook and Elkins are especially proficient at finding the perfect spot on stage with the just the right angle of light on their faces, enabling every person in the audience to see subtle changes of expression, and suggestions of inner pain and turmoil in their eyes. Reed as grandfather Ben kvetches and kibitzes like older Jewish men from Brooklyn do in a dozen works by Simon, and steals every scene he's in, yet he also maintains a caustic dignity. (Full disclosure: Reed and I once played Jack and Stanley a quarter-century ago, with the late Lou Kaplan as Ben, and Reed does Kaplan's memory proud.) Lou Boeschen is most deserving of praise, however, as mother Kate. Chatty and fussy, alternately stoic and defiant, Boeschen has a scene with Stevens that's very nearly a 20-minute monologue. There's no particular point or punchline to her narrative, yet she holds the captivated audience in the palm of her hand as she recounts slipping out of the house as a teenager to go dancing. Director David Britt ensures that timing and pace complement the mood and the characters, while Jimmy Wall's set design appropriately and inventively depicts the domestic setting.  

Broadway Bound marked the progression of author Simon's "serious" period; Biloxi Blues had taken the Tony the previous year, and he won the Pulitzer just a few years later. If you think Simon writes only lightweight comedy, this is the play that will change your mind. Similarly, it's easy to think you have to be downtown to see a Workshop show, yet many of us recall seeing Workshop Theatre productions in borrowed space at Fort Jackson and A.C. Flora not so many years ago. It may be Simon, and it may be in Olympia, but Broadway Bound is as good and as engaging a production as you could ever want. 

“Broadway Bound” runs through January 25. 

 

Created by Local Artists, Columbia Children’s Theatre’s “Jack Frost” is a Cute Variation on Traditional Holiday Tales.

Review by August Krickel

Jack is like any other teenager. Although at heart a good kid, he sometimes neglects his chores, and prefers to sneak out of the house to play pranks and engage in mischief, often coaxing his otherwise well-behaved BFF Crystal to come along for the ride. Unfortunately, Jack's escapades can cause winter to come in the middle of autumn, since he's the son of the Snow Queen and the Frost King, and grandson to both Old Man Winter and Mother Nature, while Crystal's last name is Kringle, making her the daughter of Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Jack Frost is an innocuously cute little variation on traditional holiday fairy tales, running through this Sunday, Dec. 14 at Columbia Children's Theatre (CCT). Pre-schoolers might not grasp every nuance of the nevertheless simple and straightforward plot, but will still enjoy the festive colors and some amusing slapstick. First through third graders are probably the target audience, but at a recent matinee performance, dozens of middle schoolers were there too, probably imagining themselves quite chic and sophisticated, sitting with neither parents nor younger siblings. Yet every one of them seemed to be having a good time over the course of the play's one hour run time.  In fact, I'd say that tweens, moms, dads and grandparents were about equal in number to younger audience members, which is common at CCT. There are generally enough funny jokes and one-liners to keep the grownups entertained, while kids can appreciate the surface fairy tale plot. 

This particular story, however, is entirely new, with book and lyrics by Crystal Aldamuy, and music by Paul Lindley II. Both CCT regulars, Aldamuy doubles (triples?) as stage manager and choreographer, with Lindley as music director and actor, in the title role. Jerry Stevenson directs this delightful new addition to the holiday canon.  CCT is in the middle of their 10th season, and a number of their youth theatre participants are graduating into mainstage roles, including Kaitlyn Fuller as Crystal (alternating with Jerryanna Williams), and Anthony Harvey as both Old Man Winter and a particularly annoying elf. Fuller is bright and perky as the ideal daughter who never gets grounded or put on the naughty list, and is convincingly sympathetic to Jack's despondent moods. Harvey is hilarious as the Eddie Haskell of the elf world, way too eager to narc on Crystal for any tiny transgression she's caught in.  You really, really want to slap him upside the head. Both teen actors blend seamlessly with their older castmates, and in fact are probably the best at projection. Rachel Arling (full disclosure: my colleague and fellow theatre writer) plays both Mrs. Kringle and Mother Nature, and skillfully runs through a myriad of emotions as the play's most volatile characters. Julian Deleon plays Chris Kringle as a down-to-earth, flannel-shirt-and-jeans-wearing guy-next-door, but with a really expertly applied white beard. It's the Kringles' industrious lifestyle (caring for their reindeer herd, and keeping on schedule to create all the toys for Christmas) that inspire the icily royal Frost family to suggest that their children switch homes, to get a taste of how the other half lives. Lindley, as Jack, doesn't care, proclaiming in a rousing solo that like the winter, he's not meant to be tamed. Intentionally or by chance, there are thematic echoes of Stephen Schwartz's Pippin, who found everyday things to be so secondary, and who dreamed of his own corner of the sky. Sooner or later Pippin will be revived locally, and some future director wouldn't go wrong with Lindley in the lead. 

Aldamuy's script touches on some of the existing folklore, with Jack seen painting seasonal colors onto foliage, and with allusions to the Snow Queen's own teen years. Jack's mother is called Isis in the script, but is implied to be the Hans Christian Anderson character, i.e. the inspiration for Elsa in the film Frozen. There are amusing references that only the adults will get, like Jack's accidental creation of the Aurora Borealis, complete with some nifty lighting effects. Lindley, Harvey and Fuller engage in some really fast-paced physical comedy that wouldn't be out of place in a Laurel and Hardy film. And there are a number of heart-warming moments and lessons to be learned, as when Jack admits that even when he screws up, he still wants his parents to love him. And if you think about that for a moment and then reflect on your own teen years, you will understand this play's winning appeal.

What impressed me most, however, was Lindley's score. He's a recent college graduate, and has only been acting for three years; all that was necessary was a simple set of hummable tunes to accompany some winter-themed lyrics that would be pleasing to the ear of the average elementary school child in the audience. While the accompaniment is simply his pre-recorded performance on piano, the subtleties and complexities of his songs are quite impressive. So much so, that I had to enlist his help to be able to describe with correct terminology what I was hearing that I liked so much. In a number of songs, the singers take the main melody, while the piano makes runs up and down the scale using passing nonharmonic tones within the chord progression, that help thicken the accompaniment. At other times, two characters will duet, but with each singing independent melodies against each other in counterpoint. Most often the lyrics are extensions of the dialogue, i.e. not just songs inserted randomly. In other words, Lindley and Aldamuy are doing things that remind one of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Claude-Michel Schönberg, just simplified down for a small stage, one keyboard, and an audience of tykes, toddlers and tots who wouldn't have known the difference.  One particularly enjoyable number is a sort of variation on the core notes of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," done in a minor key. (I was quite proud when I guessed that term correctly!)  As he describes it, Lindley continued the tune in an imperfect fugue to arrive in minor, but then the song takes off in its own direction, and becomes an aggressive sort of tango.  Given that I can't read music, and that I don't have children, the fact that I bothered to figure out how to describe all of the preceding should be sufficient indication of what promising young talent is at play here, and how impressed I was.

There are a finite number of Christmas stories for children, and it’s always nice to see something new, especially when created by local artists. Jack Frost is the perfect solution for the child who’s just a little bored of the same old same old. But it just runs through this Sunday, with multiple morning and matinee performances, plus an adults-only, PG-13-rated “Date Night for Mom and Dad” (as well as the local theatre community who may want to go support their friends in the cast) on Friday Dec. 12th at 8 PM.  Call (803) 691-4548 or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/jack-frost/ for ticket information.

 

Theatre USC's Our Town Maintains Appealing Simplicity

Review by August Krickel. 

Our Town is an ode to the ordinary, a love letter to simpler times in early 20th-century America, and seeing it live on stage for the first time is like peering through a window into the past. Steven Pearson directs a cast of undergraduates and eight new MFA students in a straightforward rendition of this Pulitzer-winning classic, which runs through Saturday November 22 at USC's Longstreet Theatre.  While contemporary audiences may find what was groundbreaking in 1938 to be a little familiar in 2014,  author Thornton Wilder's portrait of simple human nature and emotions still rings true.

Wilder's abandonment of traditional stage conventions (sets, props, an unbroken fourth wall between cast and audience) wasn't original; everyone from the Greeks to Shakespeare incorporated speeches directed to the audience describing broader settings and themes, and every child has imagined some prop while playing "house." Still, theatre-goers in 1938 must surely have wondered what they were in for when a stage manager enters onto a bare stage, and proceeds to describe the layout and population of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, population 2,642.  Actors enter in character and mime daily activities like delivering papers, preparing breakfast, and cleaning house, with the stage manager periodically providing further narration and explication. Probably half the plays produced today incorporate this technique, and 75 years of high school and community theatre productions of this play, as well as multiple film and television versions (with everyone from William Holden and Paul Newman to Hal Holbrook and Robby Benson in lead roles) may have diminished some of its novelty, but the text still works. Also, Pearson has emphasized as much minimalism as possible, if you can imagine that in an already minimalist play. By this I mean that the mimed actions are performed very inconspicuously, allowing for greater focus on dialogue and plot. One pivotal conversation between two teenage sweethearts is performed with the actors simply facing each other, expressing their feelings, with no intricate blocking required. This simplicity is quite appealing, and echoes the simplicity of the (non-existent) set, which is realized through nothing more than a rich wooden floor, a few chairs and tables, and a pair of stepladders. Those stepladders are perhaps the show's most memorable element, as they become the upstairs windows from which the puppy-lovers gaze at the stars and each other.

Nicole Dietze and Matthew Cavender are believable as the teens, as we follow them from crush to love to marriage; Dietze masterfully carries the final third of the play as the adult version of her character, who discovers some insight into the meaning, or at least the nature, of life and living.  Josh Jeffers, Dimitri Woods, and Candace Thomas are all fine as the parents, although they and most of the cast have some issues with projection and audibility. The show is performed in the round, meaning that at any given moment, each actor is facing away from part of the audience, but this is an expected challenge, one which the cast of last month's Ajax in Iraq overcame. That said, Rachel Kuhnle, as Dietze's mother, and Benjamin Roberts as the local choirmaster, are almost always easy to hear and understand. Kuhnle also has some great moments with Dietze where the mother is faced with her teen daughter's question, to which there can be no right answer: "Am I pretty?" The mother replies, with typical New England reserve, "You're pretty enough for all normal purposes."

With an ensemble cast of 17 representing an entire town, and with action taking place at four points over twelve years, there is little opportunity for the actors to flesh out their characters beyond thumbnail sketches. The stage manager, played by Carin Bendas, gets the most time on stage, but is primarily a narrator, and occasionally steps in to double as a town resident.  This figure is traditionally played by a male actor, often a crusty older gentleman whose homespun manner reflects the small town setting. Bendas, however,  is a striking young woman in contemporary business attire, with a commanding stage presence. While she has the rural dialect down pat, the character's folksy observations are at odds with her crisply modern demeanor, and she somehow seems out of place.  Still, of all the new MFA students, she is the one I now anticipate the most in future roles.

Wilder's prose is undeniably elegant and vividly descriptive, but extended sections on the town's demographics and topography drag; slice-of-life moments, while often touching or amusing, offer little conflict - just warm vignettes like a teen who neglects his chores, or a skittish bride-to-be.  Wilder's message seems to be that we must cherish those seemingly insignificant little details of our day-to-day existence, as they both enrich us, and ultimately define us as individuals and as a society. Which is probably true, but I'm not sure how easily the MTV and X-Box generation may embrace the idea. There is, however, a more important component to this work, although it may have been secondary to Wilder. At one point the stage manager makes a significant observation:

Y’know—Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts... and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,—same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.   So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone {of a building which will contain a time capsule} and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us.

Posh big city audiences when this play premiered were already a generation removed from their own small town roots, and may have found it quaintly and charmingly nostalgic. We are now 101 years into the future from the setting of the first act, yet human nature hasn't changed much. Our Town enables us to see that. And if many of the show’s innovations have inspired countless iterations and variations in successive decades, it’s always nice to see how the concept became so popular.

Our Town runs Wednesday November 19 through Saturday, November 22 at LOngStreet Theatre on the USC campus.  All performances are at 8 PM, with an additional matinee at 3 PM on Saturday November 22.  Contact the box office at 777-2551, or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/our-town-longstreet-theatre-nov-14-22 for more information. 

 

 

Town Theatre's White Christmas a Good One For the Old Folks

Review by August Krickel

There are probably two types of people in the world: those who hear that a local community theatre is producing a stage version of White Christmas and think "That sounds like fun - let's go!" and those who think that is the last thing they'd ever want to see. If you fall into the latter category, read no further, because this is a review of a family-friendly musical based on a 60-year old Bing Crosby film, that is running at Town Theatre just in time for the holidays. And for what it is, and what it sets out to accomplish, the production is quite enjoyable.

Officially billed as Irving Berlin's White Christmas, a more accurate title might be Backstage Romance (accompanied by some Irving Berlin songs including White Christmas.) While the movie, directed by Casablanca's Michael Curtiz and starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney (aunt of George) was a huge hit and the year's biggest-grosser when it premiered, the plot is a fairly by-the-numbers story of a couple of Broadway song-and-dance men, Bob and Phil, who become involved onstage and off with a sister act, Betty and Judy. Plot devices lead them to mount a show to save a struggling Vermont inn, with some musical numbers done as part of the show-within-the-show. Why is the inn struggling? It's an atypically warm winter, meaning no snow and no visitors, so I think we can all guess what everyone is wishing for as December 25th approaches. Original screenwriters Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were among the top practitioners of their craft at the time, even if this may not be their best creation; the latter two worked on many of Crosby's "Road" comedies with Bob Hope, and would go on to write both the screenplay for Danny Kaye's Court Jester, and the book for the stage musical Lil' Abner.   The film incorporated a number of earlier Berlin hits - the title song, for example, won an Oscar when it was featured in 1942 in Holiday Inn - along with new compositions, and this stage adaptation, which debuted in 2004 with a book by David Ives (who wrote Venus in Fur, believe it or not!) and Paul Blake, similarly adds more unrelated songs from the vast playlist of Berlin hits. 

Of the four main characters, Abigail Ludwig as Betty is the standout; she's a tall, striking beauty, natural and confident, and always seems to be center stage even when she physically is off to one side. Celeste Mills as Judy, Scott Vaughan as Phil, and Frank Thompson as Bob turn in good work as well, with Vaughan and Mills getting some laughs in what starts as a waltz and turns into a sort of aggressive dance-off. Thompson and Ludwig created these same roles four years ago, and have a nice and easy rapport; he's a decent singer, if not exactly Bing Crosby (then again, who is?) but interestingly everyone in the show sounds even better vocally when harmonizing/dueting with him. Mills (with help from Vaughan) takes the spotlight in the show's biggest and liveliest production number, I Love a Piano, where she and the ensemble demonstrate some mad tap dancing skills. Don't recall that from the film?  It was actually a prior hit for Berlin from 1915, which shows you how deeply this production's creators dug into the composer's repertoire. 

Lindsay Harmon and Kristy O'Keefe are amusing as the Snookie and J-Woww of their day, tacky yet delectable showgirls whose advances on Phil they hope will similarly advance their careers. Kathy Hartzog turns up in her patented role as the feisty old battle-axe, the inn's concierge who just happens to have been a musical star in her youth. As I noted when I first saw her perform in 2011's The Drowsy Chaperone, Hartzog may not be the world's most accomplished soprano, but her irascible characters aren't supposed to be, and she can sell a song with characterization and enthusiasm as few others can. Her rendition of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is a rousing celebration of musical theatre, and it's even better when reprised by adorable Caroline Quinn, as the innkeeper's young granddaughter who discovers her own flair for performing.  (Ellen Rescigno will alternate in this role.) Another highlight is Vaughan and Thompson vamping it up in "Sisters," flirtatiously copying Mills and Ludwig's choreography move for move, down to the last shimmy and bat of the eyelash. Full disclosure: many in the cast are friends, former castmates, and/or long-time acquaintances of mine, including an old roommate from the 90's whom I first met in 4th grade, and who will love it if I say he makes a great cameo on stage as himself. Still, I feel sure he would confirm that I've never had a problem criticizing him – or anyone - about anything, meaning that I can say with some degree of professional impartiality that everyone does just fine, although in material that isn't particularly difficult.

Director/choreographer Shannon Willis Scruggs and musical director Sharon McElveen Altman establish a pleasant and leisurely pace throughout, although I both hope and expect that it will kick into overdrive as the run continues. While White Christmas isn't a zany screwball comedy, it could be played like one, with the right audience, especially if everyone has a nip or two of eggnog in advance.  (OK, I mean the audience, but possibly the cast as well.)  Some components of Danny Harrington's set design are as good as anything I've seen him create, especially a minimalist depiction of a barn that doubles as a playhouse. Detail isn't needed, and the suggestion of the setting allows us to pay more attention to the cast, plus we're able to see more freely a huge projected effect of a beautiful crescent moon just in time for a love song. Later in the play, when Ludwig sings alone in a club, all that's necessary is a silver curtain full of sparkles, and a perfectly aimed and focused spotlight. Some other settings, for a nightclub and for the interior of a train, seem unfinished, but are only seen once en route to more important scenes and locations.  Lori Stepp's costumes reflect the era appropriately - wider ties and baggy trousers for the gentlemen for example - and some whimsical get-ups for the Ed Sullivan Show are hilarious.

I mentioned initially that this is a decidedly family-friendly production. It is, however, faithful to the style of the 1950's, and I don't mean Elvis, I mean Bing Crosby. In other words, younger family members may or may not enjoy the clean-cut music and overall wholesome tone after watching Miley and Beyoncé. If the kids eagerly join in on family night to watch Turner Classic Movies, then by all means bring them along, but otherwise, this might work better as a treat for parents and grandparents' night out. The show runs through Sunday, December 7, but the schedule is tricky: there are performances this Thursday through Sunday (November 20-23) followed by performances on Friday the 28th and Sunday the 30th, but no Thursday (Thanksgiving) or Saturday.  And then a final Thursday through Sunday, December 4-7, and all those Sundays are 3 PM matinees. Better still, just visit http://towntheatre.com/white-christmas/ for details or call the box office at 799-2510.

SC Shakespeare Company's King Lear Well Crafted, Easy to Follow

Review by August Krickel

I didn't think it was possible. King Lear has never been among my favorite Shakespearean plays, or characters, but the South Carolina Shakespeare Company's production, running through this weekend in Finlay Park, has made me reconsider. With excellent performances by the lead actors and precise attention to the text and its meaning by director Linda Khoury, this King Lear is a fast-paced tale of palace intrigue complicated (or perhaps instigated) by family dysfunction.

The familiar story revolves around the aging ruler of Iron Age Britain who plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. While the eldest two heap insincere flattery on him, knowing that this will enlarge their husband's dukedoms, the youngest, Cordelia, has inherited her beloved father's pride, stubbornness, and volatility, and balks at the notion of having to prove her love to obtain her dowry. All hell breaks loose, and Lear banishes both Cordelia and Kent, a loyal earl who dares to question Lear's decision. When his two remaining daughters take control, Lear realizes too late that he is at their mercy, pitches a royal fit, and shows his ass (on opening night both literally as well as figuratively, in an unplanned wardrobe malfunction.) Storming out into bleak terrain just as a literal storm commences, accompanied by only his jester and Kent (now disguised in order to continue serving his liege),  Lear is driven over the edge into actual madness by prolonged rage and exposure to the elements.

Lear is a difficult character for many to sympathize with, since he has few redeeming qualities, apart from an eloquent way with words, courtesy of that dialogue-writing William guy. Yet plenty of characters remain loyal to him, and risk their lives in a conspiracy to restore him to power. I never understood how he could be seen as a tragic hero, until I experienced the interaction between Chris Cook as Lear and Katie Mixon as Cordelia. As Lear's fury subsides (thanks to rest, and to some inventive staging by Khoury where we see doctors bearing soothing herbs - probably some ancient brew of chamomile tea and St. John's Wort) he realizes how cruelly he has treated his daughter. With body language, expressions, tears, and just a few lines, Mixon allows us to understand the genuine connection that once existed between father and daughter. Lear's tragedy as protagonist, if not exactly hero, becomes apparent in his remorse for his actions, which have resulted in fatal consequences for both family and kingdom, and the pain in Cook's voice and face is heartbreaking. He's awfully vigorous and spry for such an elderly character, but his command of the eloquent blank verse is just beautiful to see and hear.

What I had forgotten from both high school English class and from seeing two previous productions, or possibly never realized, is that Lear's sons-in-law are likely to go to war once the kingdom is divided, and that Edmund, bastard son of the loyal Earl of Gloucester, realizes that if he can get his father and brother out of the way, he can rise to power in the imminent conflict. The knowing looks and provocative glances from Lear's daughters - another clever bit of business from Khoury - can only increase his prospects. Meanwhile, the "good" characters are all in touch via letters with Cordelia, now Queen of France, who is leading an army to rescue her father (since the French rarely need an excuse to attack the English.)  By emphasizing the text and therefore the story, Khoury enables the audience to follow the larger plot, which is more than a little reminiscent of Game of Thrones. She has trimmed the script down to a run time of a little over two and half hours (plus intermission), but wisely leaves in every tiny moment of exposition, while ensuring that her actors speak trippingly on the tongue, suiting the action to the word and the word to the action (to steal a few lines from Hamlet.)

Raia Hirsch and Sara Blanks, as Goneril and Regan, Lear's older daughters, are appropriately evil, and happily resemble both Mixon and each other. A nice subtle touch is their seemingly reasonable request that Lear give up his retinue of knights; their clarity of delivery reveals that however economical, their plan will "coincidentally" leave Lear with no bodyguards and therefore no defenses. Bobby Bloom as Edmund is the master of both the soliloquy and the aside, gleefully keeping the audience posted as each component of his plot unfolds. Jeff Driggers as the Fool goes for a post-modern interpretation, less a jester and more a wickedly sarcastic adviser to the King.  Scholars have always debated why the Fool disappears halfway through the play; one possibility is that the same boy actor also played Cordelia, but Khoury has a fascinating alternative answer.  Tracy Steele does good work as Kent, although the role needs more of a grizzled Sean Connery/Liam Neeson figure, while Steele suggests a handsome young knight as played by Bradley Cooper or Ryan Reynolds. Among the supporting cast, in general, the smaller the role, the less proficient and/or experienced the actor appears, but as above, not a word is missed, and every syllable on stage is clearly understood.

Lee Shepherd's set design is simple, stark, and effective, consisting of stone architecture and flying buttresses that place the setting in ancient times, and giant wooden double doors that not only make for grand entrances, but also give the actors plenty of room to wait unseen before entering. Alexis Doktor's costumes for the principals, especially Lear's nuclear family and Edmund, are appealing and sumptuously detailed, incorporating rich shades of purple and crimson along with black.  I suspect half the audience was dying to know where she found the incredible fabrics, although the attire of some of the supporting cast looked more like pajamas. Bloom doubles as fight choreographer, and although some of the cast need a few more days in stage combat boot camp, his own duel with William Cavitt (as Gloucester's noble son Edgar) is impressive:  Edmund draws two shortswords or long knives to attack his brother, and the possibilities with two combatants, three weapons and four hands are almost limitless.

King Lear continues Wednesday 10/22 through Saturday 10/25 in the amphitheater in Finlay Park. If you're going, be sure to take folding chairs or comfy cushions, a picnic basket if you're inclined, and a blanket or jacket in case the weather turns colder. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, right as night falls, so grab hold of the railing as you navigate the stairs to your seat.  Also, assume it's a manifestation of Lear's delusion if random park patrons and passers-by accidentally wander onto the fringes of the stage.  (The City really needs to station a few of those Yellow Shirt guys to ensure that doesn't happen again.)  The play has challenged students in classrooms for centuries, so you owe it to yourself to see this excellently-realized rendition of a classic. It's easy to follow, thrilling to watch, and c'mon - it's Shakespeare in the Park, which gives our little town and all of us in it some big city arts cred.

     
 
 

Strong Acting Drives Trustus Theatre's The Other Place

Review by August Krickel

In Sharr White's play The Other Place, running through Saturday, Nov. 1 in the Trustus Side Door Theatre, nothing is guaranteed to be real. Juliana is a confident, eloquent (if slightly acerbic) professional, presenting at a symposium on drugs for the treatment of dementia. Or possibly she is a patient being given a mental status exam. She may have brain cancer, her oncologist husband may be divorcing her, and the doctor examining her may be his mistress, and/or colleague. Her daughter may have disappeared a decade earlier, and/or be happily married to Juliana's former research assistant. A reunion of mother and daughter may be imminent at the family's vacation home on Cape Cod (the titular "other place"), or it may have been sold long ago.  While the audience will probably guess what's really going on long before it's completely explained, The Other Place offers compelling performances by its cast in an intimate, 50-seat venue, and touches on familiar issues that are increasingly important in today's society.

As Juliana, Erica Tobolski is always on stage, and has the lion's share of the lines in this long one-act. (The show runs perhaps 80 minutes with no intermission, so grab a beverage and/or visit the facilities beforehand.) It's an acting tour-de-force, as she journeys through pivotal emotional moments in her life, jumping quickly from narrator to participant. The strength of her performance when she is in control makes moments of vulnerability all the more poignant. Particularly moving is a scene where we see what led her teenage daughter to run away, and a scene of reconciliation that is actually something else entirely, although still satisfying. Bryan Bender, as her husband Ian, serves mainly as a foil for Juliana, alternating between concern and frustration, but he and Tobolski have a nice chemistry that makes them believably three-dimensional as a married couple. Jennifer Moody Sanchez plays multiple roles, and is particularly effective as the doctor; while her delivery is underplayed and understated, we understand every word and every implication, no matter how softly she speaks. Two other scenes with Tobolski are just painful to see, but in a good way, as raw human emotions are on full display, and both performers wring every drop of pathos from the material. G. Scott Wild has the least time on stage, but speaks volumes with the pauses and breaks and exasperated sighs in between lines like "Errr...." and "ummm..."

The set by Brandon McIver and director Jim O'Connor is basic, and O'Connor effectively moves his cast around every inch of the available space. Jeremy Polley is credited for Sound Design, but whoever was running sound deserves much praise, as there are a lot of little cues (phones ringing, music being played) that are timed perfectly. Jean Gonzalez Lomasto's costumes are similarly basic and appropriate, although I must say that Tobolski's suit is just gorgeous.  The playwright and director O'Connor take what is fairly common (realistic vignettes concerning illness and family dysfunction) and use stage conventions (actors in multiple roles, segues in time and location with no change of costume or scenery) to create something more. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are commonplace now, in everything from Highlander to Lost to those commercials where a woman wonders what other bad choices she has made, but they are used well here, contributing to the idea that the narrative is less reliable than we initially think. Had this play been written a century ago by Pirandello, its exploration of what is reality would have been ground-breaking. Nowadays we have seen similar themes many times before, and so this work's appeal lies in the immediacy of actors doing good work only a few feet in front of you, and in the high quality of their performance. I suspect that the more these characters' experiences reflect episodes from your own life and family, the likelier you are to connect with the play's themes. Still, for me, the actors were what made this an enjoyable production.

 

Theatre South Carolina Breaks Ground With Finely Tuned “Ajax In Iraq

Review by August Krickel.

Theatre South Carolina's Ajax in Iraq, running through Oct. 11 in USC's Longstreet Theatre, is as good a piece of ensemble acting and as professionally and proficiently staged a production as I've seen in 20 years or more. While playwright Ellen McLaughlin's clever mashup of classical and modern themes is often but not always successful, and while her script sometimes verges on preachiness, the commitment by director Peter Duffy and his cast to convey the emotions and experiences of men and women at war is outstanding.

A long one-act running approximately 90 minutes (with no intermission), Ajax in Iraq juxtaposes the tragedy of the mythical hero Ajax, taken directly from the play by Sophocles, with the plight of A.J., a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq.  Using the Trojan War as a metaphor isn't new. James Joyce patterned Ulysses after the adventures of Odysseus, poet Allen Tate wrote Aeneas at Washington (a possible inspiration for this play's title) as a lament on modernism during the Depression era, and even television's Hercules - The Legendary Journeys depicted the hero Ajax as a crazed, Rambo-like leader of disenfranchised veterans. The author has previously penned more traditional adaptations of other Greek tragedies, incorporating modern dress and drawing parallels with contemporary issues.  To my knowledge, however, this is the first time that she has directly inserted modern American characters and plotlines into a classical story. In doing so, and by incorporating hot-button issues like the futility of our involvement in the Middle East, the challenges faced by veterans (and their families) upon returning home, and the victimization of female soldiers by superior officers, McLaughlin demands to be taken seriously, and creates a story of relevance not only to enthusiasts of literature, drama, and classics, but to the broader public as well.  

Ajax, played by Reginald Leroy Kelly, Jr., is second in strength only to Achilles among the Greeks at Troy, and Kelly does a nice job as a swaggering, ripped warrior crippled by his own pride; he could project a little more, however. To use the vernacular of the Viet Nam era (also referenced in this play), Ajax is denied commendation for valor under fire, decides to frag his CO, goes dinky dao (i.e. has a psychotic meltdown), and is unable to live with the dishonor he has brought to the uniform. Was Ajax the first documented case of PTSD?  Apart from the whole being mythological thing, it's a safe bet that Bronze Age poets incorporated real-life experiences told by soldiers in the same way authors do now.  An unexpected treat is the sympathetic performance by Grace Ann Roberts as Tecmessa, Ajax's "battle-bride," i.e. a freeborn woman taken by the Greeks and given to Ajax as a concubine. Meaning that her recent life has consisted of rape and enslavement, but she has tried to make the best of her fate, becoming a supportive partner to Ajax and bearing his child.

Jasmine James, as an icily regal goddess Athena who slips into hip and sarcastic modern slang, sees all, and provides the link to similar events occurring in the present, where seemingly stoic A.J. (Jamie Boller) is the top soldier in her unit, but is becoming moody and withdrawn. Boller and Kelly technically never interact, but they perform next to each other, in a gripping denouement to their parallel stories. Even though she is the play's central figure, Boller is shortchanged by the script, but makes the most of her time on stage, particularly in an unsettling scene of abuse with A.J.'s sergeant, played by Wes Williams. In one of countless inventive moments, director Duffy separates the actors, allowing the audience to see each fully, as they realistically act out an assault, while never actually touching.  In a similar instance of carefully planned and choreographed movement, Roberts crumples into Kelly's arms while he is already reclining. It's a sudden movement, the kind that usually results in an actor's elbow accidentally going into an eye, but it's expertly timed, and instead they lock together like pieces of a puzzle.

I mentioned the ensemble acting. The performance begins with modern soldiers on patrol, functioning like a Greek chorus, with each actor speaking in turn, expressing the conflicting thoughts and emotions that troops feel. The play is staged in the round, allowing each soldier to move around the stark set in semi-darkness, connecting with a different portion of the audience with each line. As these are representative of internal monologues - and reportedly based on interviews with actual veterans - there is no direct interaction among the cast, meaning that each performer has to take his or her cue solely from the sound of the previous actor's voice in the dark. There are no microphones, and everyone can be heard clearly, even when the actors occasionally speak in unison like an actual Greek chorus.  With the configuration of Longstreet's seating, they perform within inches of the first row, and never break character.  The age-appropriate cast perfectly captures the frustration of grunts on the front lines, wanting to do a good job, but unclear on why they are fighting to protect a foreign people who don't want or appreciate the protection. "Are they crazy?" one asks, with the obvious realization "Are we crazy?"   One soldier observes that the troops ironically find themselves in a war to defend someone's freedom to say they disagree with the war; another complains that when people demand to "Bring the Troops Home," they ignore the fate of those who are left behind.

A devotee of Fox News might take this and other scenes as an indictment of the Bush administration, but I guarantee you that G.I.'s at Normandy were similarly griping about Roosevelt and Eisenhower. As part of this work's bending of time and location, we also get Andrea Wurzburger as a British official, describing how the Allies carved up the Middle East after the First World War, while Michael Ferrucci as a modern officer provides a counterpoint as he details the ridiculous paradoxes that resulted in later decades. What could have been a dry lecture topic instead becomes easy-to-follow exposition, thanks to the actors' constant movement, believable stage business, and ease with engaging the audience.

Also deserving of praise are Raven Massey as a soldier who appears to have hardened her heart against what she calls the "pity party" of troops suffering from their experiences in combat, and Rebecca Shrom, Alissa Holmes and Grace Stewart, who along with Massey comprise a believable barracks-poker-game foursome, bantering with gritty battlefield humor as soldiers have from the dawn of time. Jay Fernandes, light years away from his portrayal of Eugene in last spring’s Biloxi Blues, is effective as both another wisecracking soldier, and as a therapist counseling a veteran's troubled wife (Kelsea Woods.)  Woods is terrific in a closing speech as a soldier who sums up many of the show's themes: no one knows why they are there or what they are fighting for, so she focuses on her duty. Yet as she guards a supply of energy drinks in a convoy, she realizes the absurdity of fighting to protect energy drinks.

The play is full of memorable lines like that, although by throwing in the kitchen sink along with many other themes, the playwright tries to make too many statements and touch too many bases. Had the play gone beyond its 90 minutes, I might have become annoyed with some of the heavy-handed social messages. Yet each topic she covers is an important one, and wisely USC is sponsoring talkback sessions following some performances for further discussion of the issues raised. 

Production values for this show are extremely high. Choreographer Terrance Henderson has devised a nightmarish scene of surreal motion for the ensemble in which they wordlessly express anger through natural movement, as we hear the band Disturbed's song "Down with the Sickness." Scenic designer Andy Mills has created a bare stage representing the map of Iraq, broken into fragments that suggest both the cracked floor of the barren desert, and a highway shattered by bombing runs or by IED's. Valerie Pruett's hair and wig design is superb, as are Lisa Martin-Stuart's costumes. In yet another ingenious touch, the ancient characters wear modern fatigue pants, with simple leather straps and panels suggesting armor.

As a child, reading a Classics Illustrated Comics version of The Iliad, I was struck by how impossible it seemed for a war to last 10 years, or that military leaders might be hamstrung by personality clashes or power struggles.  Ah, the naiveté of youth!  Accordingly, though, this may be the first review of a gripping drama about tragic and controversial themes where the critic has once acted out the title character's adventures with toy soldiers. Here, the portrayers of both protagonists of the play succeed, but the true stars of the show are the depth of talent among the ensemble, all undergraduates, and the vision of director Peter Duffy. I have never seen this faculty member's work previously, as he has concentrated primarily on developing the department's Master of Arts in Teaching program. Duffy has created an extraordinary piece of work, one which tackles important issues while allowing his young actors to flex their dramatic muscles, and I look forward to whatever he has in store next.

 

Chapin Theatre Company’s “Last Stop Chapin” Is a Pleasant Surprise

Review by James Harley

When you hear that a local community theatre is producing an original work by a local playwright, your initial reaction may naturally be divided between “cool, let’s go support the local scene” and a reasonable fear of potential mediocrity. If indeed you’ve had these thoughts regarding Chapin Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Todd Kemmerling’s “Last Stop Chapin,” rest assured that while not an award winner the show (and play) are both pleasantly surprising in quality.

“Last Stop Chapin” tells the story of Tripp Corbett, a teenager about to graduate from high school in the small rural town of – you guessed it – Chapin. As it so often does at this point, life hits Tripp in the face with numerous options. Should the young man stay at home with his girlfriend and take over the management of his family’s car repair service as his father encourages, or should he leave town to chase his long held dream of becoming a successful songwriter and touring musician? Either option is realistic, as his band has garnered the attention of a major record label. The choice becomes more difficult with each passing scene as issues, often dramatic, arise within and beyond the family, ultimately delivering the profound message that it’s not impossible to follow both your heart and your mind.

Playwright Todd Kemmerling keeps the story intriguing with the periodic dramatic revelations, most of which involve fairly universal issues thus appealing to any standard audience. Chance plays a big role, as do personalities, impulses and loyalties, all things we can relate to. While not necessarily life changing for the viewer, the play’s resolution is certainly life affirming.

The production quality is fairly standard for the Chapin Theatre Company with reasonable scenery, especially given the highly cinematic nature of the script which moves rapidly from scene to scene and location to location. This naturally limits the detailing of each location but does not have an overall negative impact, with the exception of the cemetery where Tripp goes to watch the trains pass. As a key symbolic location, this one could be better manifested. If any other technical element lessens overall quality it’s the overuse of body microphones, a trend I personally dislike but which may not bother others so greatly.

Among the performers, Tyler Kemmerling (son of the playwright) does a good job as Tripp, a role he has been familiar with since its inception several years ago in rough draft form. George Dinsmore is his usual subtle self as Tripp’s uncle Mike, in constant battle with Tripp’s demanding father Harlan, played by not-so-subtle Merritt Vann, who makes sure the audience feels his mood at any given moment, sometimes to a fault.

Worthy of special mention are Cathy Carter Scott as Tripp’s mother, Abby, who is the most natural and believable character on the stage, along with Jim DeFelice who is the most interesting, well-chiseled and entertaining as Walt, Harlan’s elderly employee at the repair shop. The show also provides a special treat in the role of the young and adorable Emma Corbett, played by Eliza Scheider, whose presence generates multiple “awwwwws” throughout the second act. If you have a small child that you’d like to encourage to enter the performing arts, Eliza alone is reason enough to reserve your tickets.

As a community theatre production there’s some overacting to wade through, but Jocelyn Sanders’ effective direction and the fast pace of the action successfully limits that to short moments, providing a pleasant experience overall. The added intrigue of the script being local makes this show worth supporting, this trend worth encouraging and not a waste of your time or money.

“Last Stop Chapin” runs through September 20 at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College, 7300 College Street in Irmo. For tickets call Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or visit the Chapin Theatre Company website to purchase online. For more information visit our Press Releases page.

   

Trustus Theatre's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Offers Frivolous Fun, Little Substance

Review by August Krickel

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (hereafter referred to as Vanya et al.) won six major awards in New York for best new play in 2013, including the Tony. Running at Trustus Theatre through September 27, the show is frivolous fun that doesn't exactly challenge the audience, but certainly amuses and entertains.

The surface plot is simple: fading screen star Masha (Vicky Saye Henderson) and boy-toy du jour Spike (Jimmy Wall) visit her brother Vanya (Glenn Rawls) and adoptive sister Sonia (Dewey Scott-Wiley). Masha paid the bills while her siblings cared for their now-deceased parents, causing them to devolve into dreary recluses in the family's country home. While Spike flirts with nubile neighbor girl Nina (Stephanie Walden), Masha longs for a chance at serious stage or film work.  Vanya seems almost complacent with idle retirement from a career that never was, but Sonia grows increasingly frustrated, after dreaming that she is 52 and unmarried.  "Were you dreaming in the documentary form?" Vanya tartly asks, with one of playwright Christopher Durang's many priceless bon mots.

Durang is best known for work in two genres: wickedly funny comedies satirizing modern relationships, and erudite parodies that spoof everything from the works of Charles Dickens and Tennessee Williams to parochial schools, Hollywood movies, and actors' nightmares. Vanya et al. combines both forms, with the titular siblings painfully aware of their similarity to the Chekhov characters for whom their academician parents named them, yet oblivious to Durang's complex mash-up of Chekhovian themes. 

Fans of Scott-Wiley and Henderson will delight in seeing them at their most comedically unrestrained, careening through depression, elation, frustration, and all points in between. Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, as aptly-named psychic housekeeper Cassandra, tops them in outrageous antics, and it’s nice to see her in a juicy and flamboyant character role.  That said, all three characterizations border on caricature in the first act; they’re hilarious, and they grow on you, but it takes a while to get used to such histrionics. I responded more to Rawls's under-stated, nuanced, restrained performance. His extended paean to the simpler times that baby boomers enjoyed in their youth is quite touching, and drew a spontaneous round of applause from the opening night audience. Walden too is a delight. With fewer lines and less time on stage than the rest, she employs about a hundred different subtleties of body language to define the play's most realistic and sympathetic character. Wall is the newest to acting, meaning that opposite such a powerful cast, he often fares like a Division III freshman tackle going up against Jadeveon Clowney. Still, he gets his share of laughter, recreating a failed audition for a TV pilot, using only his lines without the casting director’s responses. “Maybe you'll come close to getting another part soon,” quips Sonia, in a line worthy of Wilde or Shaw.

Apart from a few expletives and references to sex, the script is almost G-rated.  Vanya et al. is ultimately a lightweight, if cleverly crafted, domestic comedy that is played like the broadest of farces. Spike does a reverse strip-tease to the delight of the gay-in-theory, celibate-in-practice Vanya; Cassandra torments Masha with a voodoo doll, and everyone ends up dressed as characters from Snow White.  Director Jim O'Connor, who managed to wring laughs from serious, uncomfortable subject matter in Venus in Fur and Clybourne Park last year, has presumably empowered his cast to go for broke, and they leap at the opportunity.  A whimsical piece like this wears thin after about 90 minutes (the show originated as a long-one act and was later expanded), yet with intermission and extended pauses for riotous laughter, opening night ran an hour longer. My only fear is that sophisticated newcomers to Trustus and/or to the burgeoning Columbia arts/theatre scene, may assume that Trustus limits itself to frothy fare, which is far from true.  Yet Vanya et al. ran for seven months on Broadway, and was one of the most widely-produced plays in the country last year. Durang enthusiasts and audiences looking for a good time won’t be disappointed.   

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through Saturday, September 27; visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.  Following the matinee on September 21, there will be a post-show audience talk-back session, allowing audience members to ask questions about the production and discuss their reactions to its themes and content.
 
 
Trustus Theatre's Ambitious “
The Velvet Weapon Falls A Bit Short

Review by James Harley 

The annual Trustus Playwrights’ Festival is always a hit-or-miss proposition, with the theatre courageously taking risks in order to live up to its mission of bringing cutting edge work to Columbia. Often the plays presented are interesting to read, but as untested entities their manifestation on stage is uncertain, and sometimes these two distinct aspects simply don’t mesh well when brought together for the first time. Such is the case with this year’s festival winner “The Velvet Weapon,” by playwright Deborah Brevoort.

“The Velvet Weapon” is a combination of philosophy and farce, a comedy that is intended to draw parallels between the peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and a fictional artistic revolution in a professional theatre. The story is set in an unnamed country during the performance of a play by the National Theatre, under the direction of the theatre’s pompous manager. Midway through the play, the audience voices its disapproval of the performance, taking the stage and demanding that another production more in line with their aesthetic sensibility be presented instead. They elect to see “The Velvet Weapon,” a fairy tale by Winston, a playwright of questionable skill. The government is called into action, first via the police force in order to keep the uprising civil and then as the ruling party to restructure the National Theatre and cater to the will of the people. The artistic revolution in the theatre is meant to mirror the political revolution in Czechoslovakia.

The concept is intellectually ambitious, but its manifestation leans toward gratuitous silliness. Not that the farcical nature is bad, it simply loses its impact on an average audience based on two essential problems. First, to fully appreciate the metaphorical nature of the events on stage, one must be reasonably knowledgeable of the actual Velvet Revolution, an event not deeply embedded in the American psyche. In other words, full enjoyment requires some research before seeing the show. Secondly, a huge percentage of the humor is of the “inside joke” variety relating specifically to the theatre community. The backstage drama, divas, and production issues may hilariously appeal to those with theatre experience, but in many cases go right over the heads of the audience, garnering a few chuckles at best. The result of these limitations is that the production loses much of its philosophical value and becomes full-on farce.

As for the physical implementation of the farce, the cast does a fairly good job in carrying their characters over the top. G. Scott Wild is appropriately flamboyant as Monsiuer Le Directeur, and Hunter Boyle is solid, adept and luminous as the egomaniacal actor Pavel, whose choices were interesting. Scott Herr as Winston puts forth a confident front while still capturing the essence of an inexperienced dreamer, while Libby Campbell-Turner embodies the playwright’s overbearing mother. Katrina Blanding and Katie Mixon battle it out as competing actresses seeking as much attention as they can find, and John Edward Ford adds a touch of realism as the grumpy stage manager.

While all of the above have clearly chiseled roles which they maintain throughout, it is actually the “ensemble” performers – Raia Jane Hirsch and John Taylor Kearns – who steal the show, with Hirsch playing five distinct characters while Kearns is promoted to higher government positions with almost every appearance. Both contribute substantially to the farcical nature of the comedy.

On the technical side, the location of the action within a theatre requires a stage within a stage, a challenge not quite adequately met by designer Jimmy Wall. While aesthetically acceptable, the jutting nature of the onstage stage creates significant sight-line problems for those seated in the left side of the house in the first few rows. If you do reserve tickets, be sure to take this into account and request seating in other areas.

Though there’s plenty of fun and humor simply within the over the top characters’ behavior and in the bits of audience participation, those most likely to enjoy “The Velvet Weapon” are knowledgeable history buffs and theatre practitioners. It simply isn’t a show for everyone. Also, be aware that it runs a bit long (about 2.5 hours) and contains extended near-nudity (bra and panties).

“The Velvet Weapon” runs through August 16 at Trustus Theatre on Lady Street. For more information visit our Press Releases page. For reservations call the Trustus box office at 254-9732.

A review of “The Velvet Weapon” by Jasper magazine Literary Arts Editor Ed Madden is also available at the Jasper Blog site.

 

Trustus Theatre's Evil Dead: The Musical Is An Amusing Alternative to Traditional Stage Musicals

Review by August Krickel

Known for cutting edge productions and controversial themes, Trustus Theatre often turns to broader crowd-pleasers in the summer: revues of pop hits (Smokey Joe's Cafe, Ain't Misbehavin'), Tony-winners (Avenue Q), and cult favorites (The Rocky Horror Show.) Evil Dead: The Musical falls squarely into that last category, spoofing and homaging Sam Raimi's famous film trilogy. While the special effects are decidedly low-tech, the humor low-brow, and the bloodshed intentionally hokey, audiences ready to experience campy carnage set to bouncy music won't be disappointed.

No knowledge of the films is necessary. As explained in song, five college students head to an isolated cabin in the woods, and no one knows where they are; what could possibly go wrong?  There they accidentally unleash an arcane force of evil, which can animate everything from the surrounding trees to severed body parts, and possess humans before and after death. The first act follows the plot of the original movie, while the second act reflects the many years that passed until the sequel, in which hero Ash is decidedly older, cockier and more assertive. Random lines that mysteriously inspire wild applause from the audience stem from the third film, which was more of a comedy. Even plot inconsistencies in rookie screenwriter/director Raimi's story - he was barely 20 when shooting began - are replicated on stage, and mined for maximum comic effect.

As Ash, Michael Hazin looks and sounds the part. His struggle with his possessed hand is a triumphant display of physical comedy. Patrick Dodds plays best friend Scotty as a bit of a tool, leading to plenty of good one-liners. Elisabeth Baker is appropriately adorable as girlfriend Linda, while Abigail Ludwig, as Scotty's one-week stand Shelly, plays the quintessential sexy bimbo. Jodie Cain Smith has the biggest challenge, singing in character as Ash's nerdy sister Cheryl, then using a deeper, snarlier rasp to depict possessed Cheryl. Matthew DeGuire is backwoods bumpkin Jake, with Amy Brower as scholar Annie, and Trey Lawson as her overlooked boyfriend. Everyone is well-cast, with Brower taking top honors for most successfully embracing the over-the-top goofiness of the production.  Her every move is stylized, and her every line more dramatic than necessary. When characters recoil in fear from assorted demonic happenings, she manages to strike sultry poses reminiscent of Frank Frazetta illustrations, and as the mayhem continues, her costume conveniently rips to become more revealing.

George Reinblatt's script and lyrics are wickedly witty, and his eclectic score reflects his collaboration with three other composers. Some songs channel the doo-wop sounds of the early 60's, others are contemporary rock or Broadway-style pop, while at least one contains echoes of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen. Dodds and Hazin are up to this challenge, using strong operatic tones and melodramatic choreography as they sing the incongruous lyrics: "What darkness lurks beyond this wooden sanctum? What the f**k was that?"   Most numbers are vocally more challenging than one might expect, and musical director Randy Moore elicits a rich and appealing sound from his cast. Director Chad Henderson incorporates parodies of types of stage delivery and choreography that channel the inexperience found in the first film. Jeremy Polley’s sound design is filled with convincing shotgun blasts, chainsaw hums, and spectral voices. Baxter Engle contributes some spooky projections, and his set, co-designed with Brandon McIver, incorporates a steeply inclined rake, recalling Raimi's disorienting camera angles. Emily Deck Harrill is credited as "run crew," meaning that her assistance is vital for most of the special effects and transformations from human to demon.  Mirroring the B-movie roots and budget of the source material, most of these effects are ridiculously cheesy, but that's part of the fun. Just don't expect much beyond high school level quality.  While the visuals are purposefully unrealistic, I felt there could have been more grace with much of the fight blocking and choreography, which seemed awkward at times, especially with exits following lethal blasts and blows; fortunately, issues like these usually resolve themselves over the run of a show.


Bodies are dismembered by chainsaws, and stage blood squirts and splatters freely (although not as much into the designated "Splatter Zone" as you might expect), but the violence is so absurd that only the most prudish could find offense. The infectious score is surprisingly pretty, and the talented performers will have your feet tapping early on. Hardcore fans of the movies will flock to every performance to make their Evil Dead experience complete, while others should simply be forewarned as to the nature of this type of parody. Designed as an ode to fanboys and the schlocky shtick they love, Evil Dead: The Musical is an affectionate yet irreverent tribute to its cinematic source, and an amusing alternative to traditional stage musicals. 

 

Chapin Theatre Company Keeps the Southern Humor Coming With “The Hallelujah Girls”

Review by James Harley

While not one-dimensional by any means, the Chapin Theatre Company has found its niche, recently producing a number of successful comedies designed to simultaneously mock and celebrate southern culture. A good fit for a rural-based theatre on the outskirts of town, the company continues that streak with the comedy “The Hallelujah Girls” by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten (Dearly Beloved, Christmas Belles, Southern Hospitality) under the direction of Jessica Fichter.

Set in a small town in Georgia, “The Hallelujah Girls” tells the story of six local women as they navigate their various late-life crises. Sugar Lee Thompkins has purchased an old church and is transforming it into a day spa but is not sure she will succeed given the town’s small population. To make matters worse her ownership is challenged by the town’s “old money” in the form of Bunny Sutherland, a smug and pompous sociopath who wants to use the building to create a museum for her own aggrandizement.

Sugar Lee’s friends (and Bunny’s enemies) include Carlene Travis, the “black widow of Eden Falls” who has buried three husbands already and is uncertain of her ability to attract another given this record. Also on the friends list are Nita Mooney, the single mother of a vagrant son who lives at home challenging her sanity, Mavis Flowers, a longtime wife equally challenged by her indifferent husband, and Crystal Hart, a creative goofball whose mind only seems to get younger as she ages. Brought together by the death of a mutual friend, these ladies meet regularly at the spa, sharing their dreams and realities as they watch their lives pass by.

It takes less than a minute to establish the comedic tone of the production as all of these characters are classic southern stereotypes with the accompanying drawl, and the laughs increase with nearly every entrance, timed to create both situational and visual humor. In some cases this is mild, in others way over the top (in a good way), particularly when Crystal (played by Debi Young) takes the stage in one of her many holiday-inspired costumes. Indeed, costumer Sandy Steffen (who also plays the role of Mavis) deserves mention not just for the obvious, but for the small details such as Nita’s various jingling jewelry that contributes to her characterization. Of course, Steffen’s dual responsibilities also make one wonder if those leopard spotted tights actually came from her own wardrobe…

Standing out among the cast is Tracy Rice as Nita, who earns the affection and support of the audience in her battle with her son. Meesh Hays does an admirable job as Sugar Lee given the demands of the role and the fact that it is her stage debut. Gayle Stewart as Carlene broadcasts her stereotype in stereo and Steffen’s comic timing is strong, almost making the show seem like a stand up comedy routine at times. But the highest honors go to Tiffany Dinsmore as Bunny, the rich vulture seeking to prey on the rest. Dinsmore displays the appropriate egomaniacal swagger, making one wish suffering upon her more and more with each appearance. Interestingly, her real-life husband George Dinsmore plays the role of Bobby Dwayne, Sugar Lee’s long lost love, adding a bit of extra outside humor to Bunny’s effort to jealously destroy Sugar Lee’s dream.

George Dinsmore is a bit restrained as Bobby Dwayne relative to the other characterizations, but the same cannot be said of the cast’s other male member, Jeff Sigley, who goes all out and earns some of the night’s biggest laughs as the postman pursuing Carlene’s affection.

Visually the show plays up the appearance of the characters primarily, with a basic set (designed and constructed by Matt Pound) that is neither exceptionally good nor bad, but which handles all of its essential duties.

So, who would most enjoy “The Hallelujah Girls”? As most of the comedy relates to issues of age, the show is likely best appreciated by the older crowd, which was in fact quite vocal in its opening night approval with multiple bursts of spontaneous laughter and mid-scene applause. However, its high comic content makes it fun for anyone into the genre (or with aging parents). Is it an outstanding production? I would characterize it as fairly typical of the Chapin Theatre Company’s offerings on the whole, but again, strong enough on the humor to be worthy on that front alone. I would also recommend taking a long sleeve top with you, as the Harbison Theatre can get quite cold.

“The Hallelujah Girls” runs through July 13 at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College. For ticketing information visit our Press Release page or call 240-8544.

   

 Columbia Children's Theatre's Commedia Snow White Is A Delight

Review by August Krickel

I always look forward to shows at Columbia Children's Theatre. I can think of no other theatre in town that invariably produces shows at the same consistently high level of quality.  Sure, they're children's plays. There's no attempt at big-budget sets or costumes, and the simple themes and messages of each show are aimed at 8-year-olds and younger. The cast performs the broad comedy that we all loved when we were that age, and doesn't try for anything deeper. Most of the season shows are musicals based on popular children's books, but for me, the best show each year is the summer commedia production, always an original piece and indeed a world premiere. This year's entry, The Commedia Snow White (and the Seven Dwarves) is written and directed by CCT Artistic Director and co-founder Jerry Stevenson, and is just a delight. I got up early to see a 10:30 AM performance on a Saturday morning, which has happened... ummmm... never, and I didn't regret it.

Commedia dell' arte (which is shorthand for the Italian term "comedy of the art of improvisation," as opposed to, say, comedy written down by some scholar) stems from the 16th century, and features certain stock character types acting out a familiar story, with plenty of physical comedy and topical references. Just as boy bands and platoons in war movies have "the cute one" and "the shy one," CCT's commedia productions feature five members of the Spaghetti and Meatball Players:  Pantalone (the older one, played this year by Julian Deleon), Columbine (the mischievous ingénue, played by Elizabeth Stepp), Punchin (the cranky clown who inspired Punch the puppet character, played by Paul Lindley II) Rosetta (the broadly comic older woman who inspired the Judy puppet character, played by Beth DeHart) and Arlequino (the devious clown who gave us the term Harlequin, played this year by Anthony Harvey.)  This structure allows for the five performers to step in and out of character; when using Italian accents, they are the frustrated Players, squabbling among themselves as they try to present the tale of Snow White to the audience. When accents and/or costumes change, they're the characters within the story.

Sprinkled in among the traditional story are references to and jokes about Hugh Jackman's jumping performance at the Tonys, Kanye West, documentarian Ken Burns, the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, bubonic plague and Obamacare, Angry Birds, local casting agent Charlie Peterson, CCT's neighbor Theatre Rowe, and funding cuts at the Arts Commission. Not exactly jokes that most kids will get, but somehow every child in attendance loved the humor, while their parents snickered and guffawed at the nuances. A good example is Lindley as the Huntsman who is tasked with killing Snow White: he enters wearing camo and a fake bushy beard, spouting long-winded homespun stories that go nowhere, and we realize this is a Duck Dynasty reference, while the younger audience members just think it's a funny old man in a funny costume,. Stepp, whose features make her a natural for the title role, also turns up as a screechy-voiced female rodent in a polka-dotted dress, representing the Disney Corporation, and claiming they have the classic folk take copyrighted. Which is not much of an exaggeration, if you follow entertainment news and litigation, and so the Players temporarily use alternate names, as we enjoy "The Tale of Really Pale Brunette Girl." Accordingly, the dwarves (whose seven beds cause Stepp to wonder aloud if she's at Kate Gosselin's house) are called Truculent instead of Grumpy, Pediatrician instead of Doc, etc. Deleon, Lindley and Harvey manage to portray all seven, with Deleon channeling his flamboyant wolf character from Shrek as a really, really happy variation on Happy. Deleon also narrates most of the show, and I'm enjoying the bigger and bigger roles he's getting in local productions.

Another performer who continues to grow is Lindley, stealing the show at every chance as he demands the opportunity to sing more, while clad in an Annie dress and a Phantom mask. Music, in fact, plays a large role in this play, with the dwarves entering to "Working in a Coal Mine," Darth Vader's theme music playing during an ominous moment, and "Piece of My Heart" (made popular by Janis Joplin, although I think CCT used a Faith Hill remake) playing as the Huntsman contemplates faking Snow White's death by using the heart of a rabbit. The rabbit, not eager to cooperate, is played by Anthony Harvey, a rising high school senior who has come up through the ranks of CCT's YouTheatre ("youth + theatre" - get it?) productions, and holds his own with the older cast members. Harvey was a terrific John the Baptist/Judas in CCT's recent Godspell, Jr., and plays a half dozen or so roles here, including a sassy magic mirror. Beth DeHart plays the evil stepmother, using a Southern twangy drawl to create a sort of evil Paula Deen character - ok, more evil - clinging to her fading beauty via tanning beds and Thighmasters.  (Kendal Turner will alternate in this role.) As usual, top honors go to Elizabeth Stepp, who gets plenty of laughs as she deflects warnings from the kids in the front row that an apple is poisoned. "Poisson?" she asks one helpful tyke. "You mean French for 'fish?' Do you speak French?"  And as in previous productions, she gets one moment alone on stage to show the depth of her talent.  As she finds herself abandoned in the forest, Celine Dion's cover of "All By Myself" swells dramatically, and Stepp breaks into tears.  But then she really breaks into tears, sobbing as intensely and with as much heartbreaking pathos as Juliet or Ophelia. Stepp is a mainstay at CCT, and never fails to entertain, but I look forward to some production someday where she can really sink her teeth into a dramatic role.

While not as chaotic and elaborate as Sam LaFrage's two commedia plays from 2012 and 2013, The Commedia Snow White (aka "Really Pale Brunette Girl") concentrates on relaying the familiar tale in a fairly straightforward manner, while giving Mom and Dad plenty to enjoy. It runs right at an hour, and could probably stand some trimming of both dialogue and stage business down to 50 minutes or so, but continued improvisation and input from the talented young cast mean that every performance will be a little different. Of particular interest to anyone old enough to be reading this is the special "late night" performance on Friday, June 20th.  Of course, "late" for a children's theatre means an 8 PM curtain instead of 7, but this one is designed for adults, including theatre folks who want to support their friends and colleagues but may hesitate to see a kids' show. If so, this is the one to see, as plenty of adult-friendly humor is going to be added, which means fasten your seat belts, since the regular script is wacky and irreverent enough already.  Then regular performances resume through Sunday afternoon, June 22.  Visit www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com for information, or call (803) 691-4548.

 

Trustus Theatre’s “The House of Blue Leaves” Comedy So Dark It’s Almost Scary

Review by James Harley

“Sometimes I think the whole world has gone cuckoo.” This statement from Bunny Flingus, the pompous and controlling mistress of The House of Blue Leaves’ lead character Artie Shaughnessy, describes the entire play itself with remarkable efficiency. A group of malcontents in 1965 New York, Artie, his wife, son and mistress all seek a better life but cannot seem to secure it, probably because they are all insane in one way or other. Put a bunch of crazies together on the stage and what do you get? You get some very serious issues, and a lot of laughs.

Winner of the 1971 Obie Award for Best American Play, The House of Blue Leaves follows the dream of Artie, a zookeeper who wishes to transform his passion for songwriting into a more enjoyable career. Holding him back is his severely schizophrenic wife, Bananas, who now requires constant care due to her condition. Of course, as the love fades away from their marriage Bananas has her own dream of once again being the apple of someone’s eye. Meanwhile Ronnie, the couple’s neglected son, is in desperate need of attention to the point that he is considering terroristic acts. Finally there is Bunny, whose comfort in life comes from her ability to manipulate and control, and whose desire to be connected to fame impels her to help Artie abandon his wife and move to Hollywood to seek success, a motive that turns out to be quite ironic. Is there a message in here? Sure, you could consider the issues of celebrity and loyalty, but suffice it to say that by the end of the show what you’ve really learned is to stay the hell away from the crazy folks.

One of the keys to a successful production of The House of Blue Leaves is creating a suitably odd atmosphere on stage, and director Robin Gottlieb nails it in this case. From Artie’s first appearance, in which he addresses the audience, a certain awkwardness is established which carries on throughout the show with the addition of each new character. Oddity escalates in this environment, creating intrigue as you wonder what could possibly happen next.

The primary characters’ names are somewhat descriptive of their nature, with Artie having an obsession with creativity, Bananas being, well, bananas, and Bunny Flingus bouncing around from man to man. All of these over-the-top principal roles are well played, with Sumner Bender delivering a breakout performance as Bunny, taking complete control of the stage as her character should. Veteran Trustus performer Monica Wyche as Bananas evokes a range of reactions from pity for her condition to hope for her survival to dumbfoundedness as to what is actually wrong with her, and draws some of the best visual laughs of the evening with her animal personifications. Scott Herr brings the appropriate energy to the role of Artie.

The supporting cast is as insane as the principals, though most are “pass-through” roles designed to simply stir the pot and complicate matters. Ronnie, played by Philip Alexander, actually presents as much substance as anyone in his limited time on stage, while Kayla Cahill presents an interesting Corrinna, a deaf Hollywood actress romantically connected to an old friend of Artie. That old friend is Billy, a successful movie director who may be able to help Artie reach his career goal. Played by Bernie Lee, this is the one character that almost seems normal, such a stark contrast to the other roles that one must wonder if it was intentional. Adding semi-random visual appeal is a group of three boisterous nuns, played by Becky Hunter, Rachel Kuhnle and Erin Huiett.

Indeed, the visuals are strong in the production, both in stage pictures and scenery. If anyone deserves a standing ovation it is Heather Hawfield as scenic designer, who creates a flawless set depicting Artie’s somewhat rundown apartment. The attention to detail is notable and provides a stable, realistic backdrop which serves to further highlight by contrast the craziness that occurs before it.

All told, The House of Blue Leaves is a well done show with substantial talent on display. As for choosing to go see it, it comes down to whether or not you’ll appreciate and enjoy the dark, very freaky humor. The show is clearly a comedy, as seen in the absurdity of the characters, but at times the humor is so dark that you may wonder “am I really supposed to laugh at that?” After all, it’s all about dreams that to some extent turn into nightmares before all is said and done. So, if you like your comedy straight up and sanitary, you might want to avoid this one. If you like it adventurous and unpredictable, then it is definitely a show for you.

The House of Blue Leaves runs through May 24 at Trustus Theatre. For reservations call the box office at 254-9732 or visit the Trustus website. For more information visit our Press Release page.

 

 

Young Frankenstein Closes Workshop Theatre's Season With a Bang

Review by August Krickel.

All your favorite lines are there, from "Abby Normal" to "Schwanstucke." Mel Brooks’ Tony-nominated musical adaptation of his Oscar-nominated film (no, really - for both screenplay and sound!) Young Frankenstein will have unruly teenage boys of all ages and genders rolling on the floor and laughing out loud, as it closes out Workshop Theatre's season, and tenure at the corner of Bull and Gervais, with a resounding bang. (Add your own Mel Brooks punch line to that last sentence.)

After similarly adapting his film The Producers for the stage, and watching it run for over 2500 performances and win a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, Brooks was destined to tackle this project, and indeed, the lyrics of the finale suggest that Blazing Saddles is up next. While the original films were fairly different apart from a broadly satirical - and somewhat satyrish - tone, their musical incarnations are remarkably similar. Young Frankenstein could easily be a third act to The Producers (presented at Workshop just a few years ago), one of those improbable hits that Max and Leo plan. After all, who could come up with a musical comedy based on Dr. Frankenstein and his creature?   The structure is even quite similar: an attractive and slightly neurotic lead partners with a bug-eyed eccentric and a buxom, Nordic blonde bombshell, encountering crazy supporting characters with outlandish German accents along the way. So if you thought that earlier production was a little silly or sophomoric, be forewarned, as Brooks goes for baroque here. I on the other hand spent most of the second half of 10th grade endlessly retelling and acting out every line and every scene from this film with my friends, much to the dismay of our teachers, so consider me as reliable or unreliable a source as you see fit.

Director Chad Henderson often enlivens his productions with inventive stage business to help with pacing, but here the show moves so fast that all he has to do is let the comic madness transpire naturally. Henderson is blessed with a remarkably strong cast, including five of his See Rock City principals (which I recently called a "vocal dream team') including Kendrick Marion, Chase Nelson, Linda Posey Collins, and as the Doctor and his girlfriend, Kyle Collins and Vicky Saye Henderson.  Joining them are plenty of folks you've enjoyed in lead roles all over Columbia. There's Thenardier from Les Mis (Frank Thompson as Igor) Clayton from Tarzan (Chad Forrister as Inspector Kemp) Black from Wild Party (Jason Kinsey as the Creature) plus Hunter Boyle and Elena Martinez-Vidal as the Hermit and Frau Blucher ("Ne-e-e-e-igh!!") respectively. Even the ensemble is filled with the likes of the King from The King and I (Rob Sprankle) Sandy, Frenchie and Roger from Grease (Catherine Hunsinger, Haley Sprankle, and Mark Ziegler) Harpo from Color Purple (Bobby Rogers) and Kala from Tarzan (Laurel Posey.) That's almost the entire cast, so let's mention relative newcomer Courtney Selwyn as Inga, with Carol Beard, Katie Hilliger, Virginia Owen, Daniel Gainey, and Kathy Sykes rounding out the ensemble.  That ensemble is just 8 girls and 5 guys, but music director Tom Beard helps them achieve a rich sound, proving that less can be more. In other words, packing the stage with multitudes isn't always necessary, if you can get just a handful of excellent singers and dancers.

Collins as the Doctor capably channels Gene Wilder's manic energy, adding an extra layer of initial innocence and naiveté. Frank Thompson likewise provides low comic relief to the already low comedy as Igor; his duet with Collins ("Together Again for the First Time") allows him to flex his vocal muscles while still getting lots of yuks from the inventive rhymes and outlandish lyrics, and he unexpectedly takes most of the high-notes. (Both he and Collins, along with Rob Sprankle, harmonized beautifully together a few years ago in Plaid Tidings.) This is a dangerous thing to say, but these two veteran laughmeisters and scene-stealers could milk the laughs even further, and surely will, as they realize how the continuous laughter from insanely appreciative audiences necessitates holding and holding and holding until it dies down. If it ever does.

Courtney Selwyn is best at recreating both her film counterpart's characterization, as well as the musical/vocal style on the 1930's era in which the show is set. At one point on opening night, applause began long before she finished a particularly impressive note. And, she yodels!  Selwyn is a great sport, as a significant portion of the show's humor involves jokes about her anatomy and sexuality. Her famous line "Roll in ze hay" becomes a hilarious musical number in which she bounces delightfully along a road with lots of bumps. LOTS of bumps. Yet unlike the screen Inga, Selwyn takes a more assertive role in seducing the Doctor, urging him "Let's be stupid together" in "Listen to Your Heart." Brooks’ lyrics are by no means subtle, nor particularly family-friendly. Martinez-Vidal gets this show-stopper, referring to her lover, the original Doctor: "I vas as pure as a virgin meadow...then he turned to me, that charmer, whispered, 'Let's play farmer,' and plowed me 'til the cows came home!" 

Both she and Forrister replicate the over-the-top German (by way of Transylvania) accents of their characters; Martinez-Vidal gets some of her biggest laughs, however, from pregnant and unexpected pauses, while Forrister gets a wonderfully awkward dance number as the character you least expect to dance. Hunter Boyle's comic timing and pleasant voice are also used well in two different roles/scenes.  Vicky Saye Henderson shows off her customary and powerful vocal range, as she discovers the sweet mystery of life, and Jason Kinsey often steals the show as a surprisingly sympathetic Creature. I was never a huge fan of Peter Boyle's screen characterization, and Kinsey channels more of Boris Karloff's pathos. His groans and moans allow for some really funny interpretations in "Transylvania Mania" (a madcap Charleston-like dance number by way of "Thriller") and he takes center stage for an extended variation on "Puttin' On the Ritz," singing, tap-dancing, even scatting (!) to riotous applause from the audience.  And he manages to do this on huge, height-enhancing boots!  The eight female ensemble members are experienced and talented dancers, and make this scene a delight.  Special note should be made of Katie Hilliger's wonderful tapping in a visual effect that recalls the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (although that film's director Leo McCarey actually borrowed it from much older vaudeville traditions.)

Mandy Applegate (who played the blonde bombshell in Workshop's Producers) makes her big-cast, big-show debut as choreographer, and scores a home run. Just like the jokes, so many of the dances here are actually parodies of period dance moves. Due to space limitations on stage, she and director Henderson make good use of some simple benches, carried on and off inconspicuously by the cast (who do 100% of the scene changes) to create and enhance any number of settings. Watch out for numerous entrances and exits through the house, however, in case you are tempted to stretch your feet out into the aisles.  Henderson's visual collaboration with Baxter Engle continues to thrive and prosper, with the latter contributing some very effective projected scenery and special effects. Randy Strange's set is neither the best nor most elaborate in his lengthy and illustrious career (Strange is retiring after this season) but it's quite serviceable as a backdrop for the antics on stage, especially in the context of community theatre. 

 

Could there possibly be anything missing from such an entertaining production? Critics of Brooks might suggest subtlety. Maturity. Originality.  Even good taste.  Mel Brooks can be a polarizing figure, since so much of his humor seems needlessly lowbrow to some. If you have seen the film, then you know exactly how Elizabeth the fiancée discovers that sweet mystery, as well as the line that follows “What knockers!” and the answer to the question “Werewolf?” Also, Brooks is referred to as a “hummer” – i.e. he has no musical training, but rather thinks up tunes in his head, then hums or sings them to an often uncredited collaborator who then arranges and orchestrates them.  Accordingly, most of the songs are derivative but pretty, which works fine for me, since they too are parodies of particular style, just as the story satirizes the black-and-white Universal Horror films of the ‘30’s.  Personally, I think about three quarters of the Broadway musical theatre canon could stand a re-write from Brooks, but that’s just me.  He’s one of the few artists to ever win a Tony, an Oscar, a Grammy, and an Emmy, and he created this musical at the impressive age of 81.

Workshop’s final show of its very first season, presented in borrowed space at Ft. Jackson, concluded with the late Jim E. Quick as a broadly comic Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was preceded by A Streetcar Named Desire, featuring the lovely Malie Heider as Stella. As I write this, it is Quick’s birthday, and his partner for the last 16 years of his life, Albert Little, was among the opening night audience, as was Malie Heider, who might have played an incredible Inga to Quick’s Doctor or Igor back in the day.   I like to think that Jim E., as he was called, was watching with an approving smile as Young Frankenstein closes this chapter in Workshop Theatre’s history. The next chapter of course begins almost immediately,  with Disney’s Little Mermaid, Jr. at A.C. Flora in June, followed by a full season at 701 Whaley. Meaning that you have through Saturday, May 24 to catch Young Frankenstein. Contact the box office at 803-799-6551, or visit www.workshoptheatre.com for ticket information. There can be, of course, only word to say in conclusion.  Blucher!

 

 

Town Theatre’s “Shrek: The Musical” Attractive to Both Children and Adults

Review by August Krickel.

Summer is traditionally a time for big-cast, big-budget children's shows in Columbia, and there are plenty of brand-new ones fresh from Broadway to choose from, including Shrek the Musical, nominated for 8 Tony Awards, and based on the Oscar-winning animated film. Town Theatre takes a bit of a risk by closing out their regular season with Shrek, given that children are still in school, but the slightly more mature and irreverent themes along with some excellent performances by Town Theatre favorites make this an attractive choice for grown-ups too.

From the opening scene, when fiery Princess Fiona interrupts Shrek's narration to announce that we are in fact watching "Fiona the Musical," we know that this isn't a traditional fairy tale. The setting is the same - a magical land populated by every public-domain children's character imaginable, from Pinocchio to Humpty Dumpty to the Mad Hatter. Shrek (Scott Stepp) is a comically misanthropic ogre drawn into a quest for an imprisoned princess (Sirena Dib) who is the intended bride of the evil Lord Farquaad (Paul Lindley II.) Yet just as in the film, David Lindsay-Abaire's book and lyrics are slightly subversive, giving a sort of post-modern, self-aware twist to many of the familiar Mother Goose/Brothers Grimm characters and themes.


Stepp's Scottish brogue comes and goes, which isn't a problem, however, since the character doesn't need the accent (a creation of original voice actor Mike Myers.)  Stepp is a large, towering performer with a deep, powerful voice. His vocal range may not be the widest, but no one wants a brutish ogre singing like Michael Bublé.  His delivery of songs of longing like "When Words Fail" is tender and wistful, and the song would fit into just about any conventional Broadway love story's score. Covered in a rubber headpiece and green make-up, the actor seems liberated, creating a very sympathetic, vulnerable, youthful character. Sirena Dib, impossibly lovely and normally regal and elegant in roles like Cinderella a few years ago at Workshop, does a great job as the complex Fiona. At one moment the character behaves exactly like the damsel in distress she has grown up believing she is, but at the next she has a tart tongue, a short temper, and remarkable strength, both emotional and physical. Dib captures both the mannered formality of a princess, and Fiona's decidedly earthier side. While a number of actors were not always easily understood - a combination of  microphone issues, rushing lines, swallowing lines, and the challenges of character voices - Dib's every word is clearly enunciated and projected. 

Another standout in the cast is Paul Lindley II; I've told the actor that it seems as if his voice is richer and more appealing in each successive role, but actually he's just getting better parts with better solos. Part of the joke is that from the neck up Farquaad looks and sounds like a handsome nobleman, but his small stature mirrors his minimal conscience. Lindley therefore does the entire role on his knees, with fake legs painted on the front of his thighs, necessitating what must have been rigorous choreography. The illusion works, and the effect when he joins a chorus line in some kicks, or when he gets down on one knee to propose (remember, he's already on his knees) is just hilarious. A veteran actor at Columbia Children's Theatre, Lindley is just out of college, but his good looks, combined with an opera-caliber voice, and a flair for physical comedy, means that he is going to be a serious contender for just about any romantic lead coming up.

Another actor with extensive credits at the Children's Theatre is Matt Wright as Shrek's sidekick, Donkey. Wright wisely doesn't go for an Eddie Murphy imitation, but instead plays Donkey as a very young and annoying wisecracker.  I sometimes had problems understanding all of his lines (due to the issues above) but his portrayal is amusing, and he displays a lot of energetic athleticism, and a pleasant singing voice. "Make a Move" is his best number, with backing by Three Blind Mice (Susie Gibbons, Allison Allgood, and Elizabeth Stepp, another Children's Theatre regular and daughter of Scott) reimagined here as slinky Vegas showgirls.  Moments like this are where the show succeeds best, playing with assorted conventions as when Wright adopts a Barry White voice to give Shrek advice on wooing a woman. Jeanine Tesori's lively score is more playful than her work on Caroline, or Change, but it similarly incorporates diverse musical styles, from traditional Tin Pan Alley to rock, funk and soul. There are also plenty of satirical references to and snippets from classical music and from other Broadway shows that pop up here and there.

All of this is substantially aided by a strong ensemble, comprised of many performers more often seen in leading roles. This is a credit to director Jamie Carr Harrington, who has managed to attract some excellent singers (including on different nights most of the principals from her Miss Saigon cast last year.) Most of the ensemble members also get to play one or more individual fairyland characters, and many get some priceless lines. Those lines often further the slightly subversive tone which I mentioned, a deviation from the movie.  Here, the theme of accepting yourself, discovered by Shrek and Fiona in the film, is expanded to include all the magical creatures, with a not-so-subtle allusion to contemporary issues of intolerance. Part of Farquaad's evil plot is to banish anyone seemingly abnormal or unusual from his land, but in this stage version, they finally fight back, and march on Farquaad's castle, proudly declaring in song that they will let their freak flag fly. Yep, probably the only time a children's musical (well, sort of) has ever featured a lyric borrowed from a David Crosby protest song. Add to that Pinocchio's declaration "I'm wood - I'm good - get used to it!" and the metaphor should be pretty obvious.  It also allows for some inventive lyrics, including rhyming "granny dress" (worn by Red Riding Hood's Wolf, played by Julian Deleon) with "hot tranny mess." 

Other performers with memorable bits include Jackie Rowe as the Gingerbread Man, perfectly recreating the Muffin Man routine from the film, and Charlie Goodrich and Scott Vaughan, doing all kinds of goofy things as assorted characters, including a Monk credited in the program as Thelonius. Which again gives you an idea of the chaotic satire that pervades the show, much of which is aimed squarely at adults. Especially deserving of praise is 5th-grader Rachael Sprankle, who amusingly plays an elf, a dwarf, and young Fiona, and sings with the uninhibited confidence and volume of a junior Jennifer Hudson. Like Dib, you can understand every syllable she utters on stage.

Shrek is a tech-heavy show, and designer Danny Harrington's vision is ambitious. As always, his use of lighting is superb, including some projected pastoral scenes, the illusion of flames, a beautiful glowing full moon, and some tightly focused green beams that take care of a crucial plot point.  While a few facades and interiors seem unfinished, there is an intricately detailed center piece, suggesting hills, foliage, flowers and a tree trunk, that is used repeatedly in different scenes, but seen from different angles, and the effect is quite convincing.  As in last year’s Tarzan, Harrington has framed the stage with suggestions of forest greenery, and has created a sort of mini-thrust where an orchestra might normally be, extending the performance space out closer to the audience.

A recorded score is used, and sound designer Matt Mills wisely cranks the volume up, making for a rocking good time. The resulting challenge, however, is that scenes have to be changed within the parameters set by the score, as quickly as they were on Broadway. Opening night glitches abounded, resulting in a sometimes ragged pace, but hopefully will have been worked out by the time you read this. Particularly problematic was the Dragon, a huge and beautifully detailed marionette, with Aretha-like vocals provided by Shannon Earle, who rides atop her alter-ego, clad in a pinkish/purple evening dress that matches the Dragon's scales. The mechanics of wrangling the marionette have got to be tricky, and as a result, there seemed to be some unintentional pauses, and some basics of the plot might get lost in the shuffle for anyone unfamiliar with the story. So I'll help with this spoiler: she and Donkey are flirting, and he confesses in song that he likes plus-sized women. Or dragons.  I'll also help with this tidbit: I'm pretty sure that when a curtain only rises partially at first to reveal the feet and legs of some tap-dancing mice, it's not a missed cue but rather an homage to the opening of 42nd St. That tap scene, choreographed by Giulia Dalbec, is one of the production's highlights, and allows Dib to display some unexpected tapping skills. The rest of the choreography is by Tracey Steele, and he and musical director Christopher Cockrell benefit from a talented ensemble, resulting in uniformly strong musical numbers. 

It’s hard to describe this as a children’s musical, given its influence from the raucous vocal antics of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy.  Middle-school aged boys of all ages will snicker at the naughtier jokes which will go over the heads of youngsters enchanted by the surface fairytale plot. Parents may appreciate the pretty songs, the gifted performers, and the script’s uplifting theme, and surely will think this is the most elaborate children’s show they’ve ever attended. (Although possibly the longest, clocking in at 2 and a half hours or more.) Yet adults who can only find entertainment on ESPN and Lifetime may not want to bother. Grandparents and the regular Sunday matinee crowd might be a little disconcerted by some of the bodily function humor (enhanced by detailed sound and lighting effects) and the in-your-face style of much of the comedy.  But all of that is an apt description of the original film, which is capably brought to life on stage by Harrington and her talented cast.  Shrek the Musical runs through Sat. May 24 at Town Theatre; visit www.towntheatre.com or call 803-799-2510 for ticket information.

 
 
 

USC's 
Hamlet Offers Visual Twist, Strong Performances

Review by August Krickel.

As a friend commented after the lights went up, setting Hamlet in a madhouse is a production design concept that deserved to be done. After all, Shakespeare's classic tragedy is full of madness, both feigned (as the title prince assumes an "antic disposition" to divert attention from his plans of revenge) and real (as Ophelia snaps following her father's death.) In fact, if the audience never saw the ghost of Hamlet's father appear to a number of characters, we might add "seeing visions" and "hearing voices" to Hamlet's list of symptoms that include depression and thoughts of hurting himself and others. While this visually engaging gimmick is ultimately just a gimmick, USC's new production of one of Shakespeare's greatest works never strays too far from the beauty of the language and the intensity of the play's themes, thanks to strong performances from the cast.

Department chair Jim Hunter's set is reminiscent of a decaying, late Victorian-era asylum, much like the abandoned buildings found locally on Bull Street.  A series of arches and an upper walkway tower over the stage, and allow for some striking lighting effects. The main performance space is largely bare, with only a few props - a wheelchair, a hospital gurney - used as everything from the royal throne to a bed. April Andrew's brilliant costume design continues in this motif, with some characters wearing street clothes, while some sport pajama-like uniforms, and others are attired in what might be cast-off clothing from hospital staff (especially those who may be untrustworthy.)  Principal characters like Gertrude and Ophelia seem to have fashioned dresses from straitjackets, as has King Claudius, but with his jacket simultaneously recalling an officer's uniform. Yet all of this reinvention notwithstanding, director Robert Richmond's production remains completely faithful to Shakespeare's text. Richmond has, however, wisely trimmed down the dialogue and deleted/combined a number of characters, resulting in a run time of just under 3 hours, including a generous intermission.   The reimagined locale is best seen and understood as symbolic, just as Godspell doesn't really suggest that Jesus and his disciples were late 60's hippies singing show tunes, but rather uses that notion as a storytelling device to enhance the actual dialogue and meaning.  There are echoes of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, although I was reminded most of the film King of Hearts, in which inmates similarly adopt various personas based on the clothing they don and the setting in which they find themselves.

Highlighting the theme of insanity leads to some excellent interpretations and implications: Ophelia may have been extremely fragile all along, Claudius may not only be a murderer but also an aggressive,  violent, and dangerous killer, and Hamlet too may have shown some weakness before the play begins. The unanswered question has always been why Prince Hamlet doesn't automatically succeed his father as king, since he is a grown man,  old enough to recall the jester Yorick who died 23 years earlier. Another interesting notion involves a crucial death that happens offstage, and I must admit, never in all the dozens of times I have read, seen, or actually performed in this play, have I realized that there is only one witness to that death, and that witness is questionable and unreliable at best.   

Visual and conceptual wizardry aside, Hamlet succeeds or fails based on its lead actor, and James Costello unquestionably succeeds. While there is plenty of action and a few scary thrills, his soliloquies explore timeless themes and thoughts on the human condition.  Just as Hamlet advises the visiting Players to do, he speaks every word naturally, allowing the audience to understand the tricky 400-year-old vocabulary and sentence structure. Particularly effective are his reactions after seeing the Players perform, and later viewing a vast army marching in the distance; both scenes can seem long and extraneous, but here they become vital, as each represents the passion and vitality that Hamlet longs for.  (Liam MacDougall's excellent performance as the Player King really helps too.) Yet another touch by Richmond allows Costello to channel the words of Hamlet's ghostly father, and while I would have preferred a greater vocal distinction in place of some groaning and grimacing to signify the change, this is still a concept I've always wanted to see attempted on stage.

Visiting artist Richard Sheridan Willis portrays a vigorous and assertive Claudius, while Trey Hobbs is an atypically clever and perceptive Polonius, orchestrating plans to find out what Hamlet is really up to. As Ophelia, Laurie Roberts fully commits to her role, right down to lying crumpled in an emotionally ravaged heap long after the lights have gone up for intermission. She affects an odd accent, something like a Brit imitating a stereotypical American, but the intensity of her performance is remarkable. Melissa Reed is also effective as a coquettish Gertrude; as in previous roles at USC, she uses her petite size to her advantage, literally leaping into the arms of her husband, and later easily being manhandled by her son.

As above, Hamlet-in-an-asylum is certainly an idea that deserved to be tried. At times, characters adopt assorted ticks and twitches and yelps to signify their madness, and when they really get going the effect can be annoying, but as long as they have plenty of lines to keep them busy, it's not too much of a distraction. For me, the creatively updated setting didn't particularly enhance or expand my understanding of the work, but it didn't detract from anything either, and it is certainly a fascinating visual statement.  My only fear is that undergrads and community members who are encountering the play for the first time might not understand that the dialogue contains the actual plot, while the blocking is the interpretation of the actors and director, and the visuals are largely symbolic.  Still, cast, director and creative folks behind the scenes are to be commended for an excellent realization of a difficult but vitally important work.  Hamlet isn't done that often in Columbia, so get thee to Drayton Hall post-haste, as the show only runs through Saturday, April 26. 


See Trustus Theatre's 
See Rock City and Other Destinations For a Warm Evening At the Theatre

Review by August Krickel

A vocal dream team, comprised of some of the best voices in local theatre, combine their talents to take us on a musical tour through famously kitschy vacation spots - Niagara Falls, The Alamo, and the title locale - in See Rock City and Other Destinations. Resembling a collection of short stories set to music, the new show at Trustus Theatre is at times inspiring, at times sentimental, at times edgy, and at times amusing. Sometimes it's all of those at once, and the resulting effect makes for a warm little evening at the theatre.

Eight actors are featured in combinations of one, two and three, in six separate vignettes. Technically all are related thematically, in that all feature someone looking for some type of connection or sense of belonging, and in most cases, someone must make an important and potentially life-changing decision. Which really just means that all six vignettes are about human beings. Three dysfunctional sisters gather to scatter their father's ashes, an elderly man is brought by his granddaughter to the site where he met his late wife, a jittery bride has second thoughts about taking the plunge - literally - and two teens cut school to hit the amusement park. The dialogue, by Adam Mathias, is simple and natural, but his lyrics allow his characters to become more eloquent, expressing their feelings to the accompaniment of Brad Alexander's pretty score.

A couple of stories are fairly traditional, wistful romances where lonely souls find one another; several play like scenes from a Woody Allen or Nora Ephron comedy, and one or two resemble cleverly witty episodes of the Twilight Zone. Chase Nelson has some of the best moments on stage, first as a true believer in search of aliens in the desert near Roswell, NM, then opposite Kendrick Marion as preppies looking for excitement among the attractions at Coney Island. Their three songs together are perhaps the most lyrical, and the most like tunes found in contemporary Broadway hits. Their interaction gets some of the show's biggest laughs, especially in a number where each tries to dominate the other, using just about every profanity imaginable. 

Many of the other songs, expertly performed by musical director Randy Moore on keyboard, Ryan Knott on cello, and Jeremy Polley on guitar, are pleasantly soft pop rock. "Grampy's Song," however, performed by Matthew DeGuire, is reminiscent of an earlier era, with echoes of Lerner and Loewe, or perhaps Schmidt and Jones (composers of stage ballads like "Try to Remember") which is a nice touch, allowing an older character to sing in the musical style of his youth. There is no weak link in the cast, from Kyle Collins as a smarmy tour guide with an agenda, to Linda Posey Collins, Vicky Saye Henderson and Caroline Weidner as the battling siblings, to Kevin Bush as an uncomplicated wanderer who takes the roadside advertisements urging him to "See Rock City" as a command to find meaning in his life.

Chad Henderson's set is minimalistic, but significantly augmented by inventive use of projected scenery from Baxter Engle. Stars over the southwestern desert, glaciers and the icy waters off Alaska, the walls of the historic Alamo, and posters depicting sideshow entertainment are among the many images we see, projected onto two screens and the side of a steep, elevated platform. That platform is put to good use, its top becoming observation decks for visitors to Rock City and Niagara Falls, and then the deck of a cruise ship, with the projected images filling in the remainder below. Director Dewey Scott-Wiley keeps a really lively pace going at all times, and ensures that her cast performs even the most random of throwaway lines, jokes, or lyrics with intensity and conviction.

While the show is intentionally episodic, each component has a clear story arc and a satisfying resolution. Actually, one plot ends ambiguously in the script, but Scott-Wiley offers a potential solution by a simple bit of blocking that creates a nice “Awwww” moment. Nevertheless, there is only so much depth to be found in a short story, which may leave some wishing for something with greater meaning. I often feel cheated when a gimmick is used, like locating the scenes at tourist destinations when in actuality the settings aren’t particularly relevant to the storylines, but here I didn’t mind at all. There's not necessarily any greater message to be found, but just about anyone who has enjoyed previous work by these talented performers will be more than satisfied by this excellently realized musical production.  See Rock City and Other Destinations runs through Sat. April 5th; visit www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

 

Workshop Theatre Succeeds With Simple “Biloxi Blues”

Review by James Harley.

The second play in Neil Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy,” “Biloxi Blues” follows young aspiring writer Eugene Jerome from his home in Brighton Beach, New York to a boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi during World War II. Surrounded by other draftees in a volatile environment and away from home for the first time, Eugene learns a few lessons about life in the real world as he pursues his goals.

Workshop Theatre’s production features a number of fresh faces, as director David Britt drafted several of his soldiers from the USC Department of Theatre, where he works as an instructor and as production manager of the lab theatre. The young talent, many of which immigrated to this southern school from far away places including New York, naturally fit rather well into their given roles.

While the somewhat autobiographical trilogy is centered on Eugene’s early life, his development and maturity is affected largely by what he observes in others, and so the gathering of disparate personalities creates an opportunity for substantial social advancement as he navigates through their various “issues.” And yes, they all have issues of some sort and must find a way to overcome them in the pursuit of unity.

For a successful comic production regarding serious issues the first requirement is that the hub of the action, Eugene, be likeable, and Jason Fernandes achieves this easily in both look and manner. You simply want this sheepish youngster to find his way. In fact, all of the soldiers look their part, with Colby Gambrell as Epstein the loner nerd and William Cavitt as Wykowski the intimidating bully standing out particularly. With the friction between types producing stereotypical comedy, the cast remains believable through the laughter in most cases via subtle but consistent characterization. There are some over-the-top moments such as Eugene’s visit with Rowena the prostitute, but the pacing is rapid enough that they are quickly forgotten as the story moves forward.

The part of the brash Sergeant Toomey could have been filled with someone more physically imposing, but Lee Williams brings the right spirit to the role.

On the technical front the scenery is very simple, merely suggesting location for the most part, as most of the action takes place front and center.

In general the strength of the show (beyond the script) is in its group interaction between the soldiers, the careful and comic details of which are notable, while the one-on-one moments seem less finely crafted. As most of the action involves the group, the overall result is laughter and a generally fun experience. Be warned: this is not a family show, as there is a lot of language that would be inappropriate for children. Remember, these are a bunch of 18-year olds away from their parents for an extended period of time.

“Biloxi Blues” runs through March 29. For more information visit our Press Release page. For tickets call the Workshop Theatre box office at 799-6551.

   
 
Talented Tammy Stands Out In Town Theatre's “Stand By Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story”

Review by August Krickel.

Hank Williams, Jr. may have written the lyric asking "Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?" but Tammy Wynette unquestionably took the sentiment to heart. The queen of plaintive country ballads of love gone wrong lived a turbulent life offstage, but as suggested in Stand By Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story, she found some level of peace when performing, and via innate talent and her interpretive style as a singer, managed to rise to a level of artistry beyond mere status as a pop entertainer. Thanks to a bravura performance from Dell Goodrich in the title role, Town Theatre's new musical production is enjoyable, down-home entertainment for fans of country music.

When the mature Wynette beholds a vision of the humble Mississippi shack where she grew up as Virginia Wynette Pugh, not to mention her now-deceased Meemaw scolding her teenage self, she realizes that her life is about to pass before her eyes, and ours.  Meemaw (Kathy Hartzog) serves as a sort of spirit guide/Greek chorus/conscience, taking Tammy (her stage name was given by a producer for a resemblance to the blonde film character played by Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee) through a conventional musical biography, in which she sings most of her hit songs at times when those themes occur in her life. Initially, Kitty L. Janvrin plays young Tammy, as Goodrich rolls her eyes, knowing that she's about to marry Euple Bird (Charlie Goodrich), a small town charmer whose prospects are, well, about as good as you'd expect for a Mississippi farmboy who marries a high school girl, and who's named Euple Bird.  Babies arrive faster than steady jobs, and ultimately the adult Tammy discards both husband and a potential career as a beauty operator, heading to Nashville in search of a career in music. Following one's dreams is nothing new, but an uncomplicated woman doing that in the 1960's, trying to find what makes her happy rather than what is expected of her, was not typical of the era, and many of Tammy Wynette's semi-autobiographical tunes , some of which she co-wrote, still resonate with audiences today.

Dell Goodrich has enriched any number of plays in recent years, as Doatsy May in Best Little Whorehouse at Workshop, as an evil wedding planner in Third Finger, Left Hand at Trustus, and alternating as Fantine in Les Mis at Town.  After the show, I asked her if she's an alto who can sing soprano, or vice versa, and she took a long pause before answering that she studied voice as a soprano, but hasn't used her upper register so extensively in a while. Which is ironic, given that I was also really impressed with her range at hitting richer, lower notes. Goodrich has also fronted local bands, where she did mean covers of everyone from Etta James to Dusty Springfield and Nancy Sinatra, so she knows how to rock a house.  Which she undeniably does here, recreating several dozen Wynette hits with sincerity and emotional intensity.  Mark St. Germain's script is not particularly deep, but Goodrich gives 1000% anyway, taking relatively bland and generic domestic argument scenes (with Wynette's hard-drinking third husband George Jones) and playing them like tragedy - which of course they surely were, to the real-life Wynette. Songs from her career appear not chronologically but thematically, so the uncharacteristically peppy "My Man Understands" from 1972 is performed by Janvrin as a paean to young love in the early 60's, as she and Euple dance joyously to choreography by Christy Shealy Mills.  Similarly, Goodrich sings the wistful "Bedtime Story" to daughter Gwen (Ella Rescigno) as she struggles to support her young family, years before the song was actually written. (In one of many nods to authenticity, Wynette puts them up at the Anchor Motel, a dive on the fringes of Music Row familiar to anyone who has spent time in Nashville.) A novelty hit from 1975, "God's Gonna Get Ya For That" (almost certainly inspired by the catchphrase from the TV series Maude) becomes a rousing number for Meemaw to sing in response to Hillary Clinton's 1992 declaration that she wasn't "some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."  Hartzog, by the way, got the biggest applause of the day, at the matinee I attended, for her unbridled exuberance and feistiness in that number.  Most of Wynette's repertoire, however, became the soundtrack accompaniment to her life, as she finds herself "Between 29 and Danger," as she and Jones think that "We're Gonna Hold On" in spite of it all, and as she declares that she will keep on falling in love " 'Til I Get It Right."

Director Frank Thompson has a solid supporting cast, including Will Moreau, channeling the groovy, 1970's polyester vibe of his Engineer character from last year's Miss Saigon, as Billy Sherrill, perhaps the only honest record producer in the business. Kitty L. Janvrin has a lovely voice as teenage Tammy, then returns later as one of Wynette's daughters. Charlie Goodrich only has a few lines in a few scenes as Euple (fortunately sharing most of them with Janvrin and not his real-life sister Dell) but plays with subtle nuances as character flaws are revealed beneath his seemingly innocent facade. Chad Forrister turns up as a convincing Burt Reynolds, the only love that Wynette didn't marry, dueting with Goodrich on "Did You Ever," while joking that he proved he couldn't sing in Best Little Whorehouse. (One of many playful anachronisms, since their relationship predated that film by nearly a decade.)

Goodrich sports a variety of period wigs, courtesy of Mark Ziegler, that are both beautiful and believable. The men's wigs don't fare as well, although 1970's male hairstyles were pretty absurd and unattractive anyway. A highlight of Lori Stepp's many authentic costumes for Wynette is a superb blue-and-white patterned mini-dress, and to quote the Charleston band Jump, Little Children, "she looks so cute in her go-go boots."   Music Director Daniel Gainey does a terrific job at helping the cast capture the right vocal sound of well-known singles of the era, without ever allowing the effect to become too twangy.  A particular type of harmony is crucial, and a number of the cast pitch in at different times either on stage or from the wings.   Andy Nyland does a serviceable turn as George Jones, especially on the all-too-revealing and surprisingly sympathetic "If Drinking Don't Kill Me, Her Memory Will," but when Parker Byun joins him on the chorus of the otherwise forgettable "Love Bug," you really think you're front row center at the Grand Ole Opry.  Bandleader Sharon McElveen Altman on keyboards leads a trio on bass, guitar, and drums through convincing country/western standards without help from fiddle or pedal steel, but the effect is still quite credible.  The band is situated on stage throughout, making detailed sets and scenery changes impossible.  Instead, Director Frank Thompson and Scenic Designer/Tech Director Danny Harrington experiment fairly successfully with minimalism, establishing most locales via one or two simple props or pieces of furniture, and a tight spotlight. Many of the musical numbers are accompanied by lively, projected Spirograph-like effects in the background. Harrington has previously incorporated striking projections of actual locations (the Parisian sewers and riverfront in last fall's Les Mis, for example) and this may be the perfect time for me, as an admirer of his scenic work, to challenge him:  the next time that a show requires a simple or implied set with dozens of quick changes of setting, why not go all-out with projected images? Here, I could imagine visuals of the Opry's Ryman Auditorium, Mississippi farmland, Vegas, state fairs, etc. enlivening the bare back wall of the stage.  Just an idea.

Director Thompson establishes a nice pace in the show's first act, but he must contend with St. Germain's script, which, as above, has some flaws.  There are inspired comic one-liners, as when Wynette sadly concedes that her five marriages were "dating that got out of hand," and when Meemaw observes that she has boiled eggs longer than Wynette's fourth marriage lasted. There are moments of poignancy, as when Sherrill reflects on changes in the music industry, and briefly St. Germain even allows Wynette to assert herself when a chauvinist assumes she has had to sleep her way to the top.  Yet there are some awkward gaps between scenes.  Country ballads don't always feature a big finish, and accordingly the audience doesn't always know when or if to applaud, especially when many tunes conclude with a coda from Meemaw, making some comic observation on the proceedings.  Still, Thompson sets a perfect tone in the finale as Goodrich sings the play's title song and Wynette's biggest hit. Criticized by many as an anti-feminist endorsement of tolerating bad relationships, the lyrics that stood out to me were in fact the gritty and realistic observation that "sometimes it's hard to be a woman, giving all your love to just one man," and the realization that "after all he's just a man."  Each of the men in Wynette's life make a brief appearance, even stage manager Richard Kiraly in a cameo as her fourth husband, and each actor has a moment of acceptance and forgiveness with Goodrich, done entirely with body language and expressions, as if to say "Yeah, that was pretty stupid to think we could work, but I'm OK with it if you are." Little moments like that make all the difference.   Ultimately, a musical bio production like this boils down to the most important factor: the talent of the lead, and here Dell Goodrich gives an outstanding vocal and dramatic performance. 

Stand By Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story continues at Town Theatre through March 22; contact the box office at 803-799-2510, or visit www.towntheatre.com for ticket information.

 

Strong Characterizations Carry Chapin Theatre Company’s “Marvin’s Room”

Review by James Harley.

Do you want to capture the attention of even the most diverse audience? Try creating a story about extended family relationships, as most of us have experienced the gauntlet of love, resentment, trust, mistrust, comfort and awkwardness that comes with that territory. Add a strong dose of mortality to bring everyone together in the same place and you have Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room,” the Chapin Theatre Company’s current production.

A mix of humor and gloom tempered by love, “Marvin’s Room” tells the story of Bessie, a middle aged woman who has opted to spend her life giving love to others rather than seeking it for herself. This choice has her living with and caring for her dying father, Marvin, and her aunt Ruth, who is also deteriorating with age. Bessie’s sacrifices become the subject of serious personal consideration when she learns that she too is in mortal danger, diagnosed with leukemia and in need of a bone marrow transplant. Enter Lee, Bessie’s estranged sister, with her two teenage sons who come to town to be tested for bone marrow compatibility. Dysfunction runs rampant as the testy Lee battles her rebellious oldest son, Hank, who resides in a mental institution after setting fire to his mother’s home in anger. Likewise the two sisters must bridge their own gap created by years of separation. In the end, we learn a lesson regarding the healing and unifying power of love.

Under the direction of Glenn Farr, the strength of the production is clearly in its character acting, as the cast is surprisingly strong from top to bottom. Stage veteran Tracy Rice handles the role of Bessie well (interestingly, she played the older aunt Ruth in the same show 20 years ago at Trustus Theatre), maintaining balance and stability even as she faces a wide range of emotional challenges. Lou Clyde is perfect as the frail aunt Ruth, nailing the comic stereotype of the “crazy old lady” vocally and in her restrained movement. Lisa Litchfield makes her Columbia stage debut as sister Lee, showing believable frustration with her children’s behavior while also transmitting the unchecked egocentricity which is part of that very problem.

As for those children, Jared Kemmerling fits the role of bi-polar Hank quite well, mirroring his mother’s frustration and stubbornness with his own regarding her. Ryan Rogers has the look of the somewhat withdrawn younger brother, Charlie, and while he remains quiet most of the time his obsessive physical behavior plays well.

Supporting roles include Perry Simpson as Bessie’s absent-minded doctor, who kicks off the first act by successfully establishing the comic tone of the show. Don Songer remains unseen as Marvin, wailing intermittently in pain, while Andi Cooper, MonaLisa T. Botts and David Fichter round out the cast as various health assistants and administrators.

In most cases the talented cast is able to override the weaknesses within the script, of which there are few including the play’s ultimate resolution. The characters are so effective at manipulation that one is not sure how genuine or lasting that final moment actually will be, but this is primarily a literary shortcoming. Simply put, there is little basis to believe in the change.

Weaknesses on the production end are primarily scenic, as most of the show utilizes a bare stage with very little flair in defining location. The one stable and developed setting is the family home, which includes an effectively blurry window into Marvin’s room to visually intrigue the viewer.

The overall quality of the show is fairly strong relative to typical Chapin Theatre Company productions, again primarily due to performance quality across the board. Comic timing is solid and the television-like scene pacing (there are 7 scenes within each act) keeps the action flowing. I say action, but the play is actually driven more by conversation than spectacle, and is one of those stories that engages the mind as you wonder what the next turn will be. Don’t expect pretty pictures or even clarity of message, but if you enjoy watching strong characterizations, both comic and serious, “Marvin’s Room” should not disappoint you.

The show runs through March 16 at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College. For more information visit our Press Release page or the Chapin Theatre Company website.

 

“The 39 Steps” Showcases Depth of Talent Behind the Scenes in USC’s Theatre Program

Review by August Krickel.

Technical wizardry, split-second timing, and the boundless energy of four MFA students converge in USC's Longstreet Theatre, as Patrick Barlow's Hitchcock spoof The 39 Steps takes audiences on a dizzying comic adventure. While there's an awful lot of silly schtick, it serves the greater purpose of providing joyously goofy entertainment, while showcasing the depth of talent behind the scenes in USC's theatre program.

In 1935, Hitchcock was still becoming Hitchcock, working with already dated material from John Buchan's 1915 novel. His film incorporated many themes that he explored more fully later in his career: an everyman hero plunged into increasingly dangerous settings, an icy blonde love interest, menacing authority figures, red herrings, plot twists, and a broader plot involving international intrigue that is really secondary to the characterizations and the thrills. North by Northwest was perhaps the culmination of those motifs.  Probably seen as a romantic thriller in its day, his film of The 39 Steps can strike modern audiences as melodramatic, and this is what Barlow's play takes advantage of.  Using the original film's actual dialogue, four actors recreate every twist and turn live on a bare stage, using every tool of the actor's trade - mock seriousness, pantomime, faint suggestions of physical locations, exaggerated reactions and double takes, quickly-changed costumes and wigs, and comic interaction with sound and lighting cues.  Josiah Laubenstein keeps to one character, the urbane, jaded, square-jawed hero, Richard Hannay, while Melissa Reed portrays three women he meets along the way:  a vampy German spy, a smolderingly repressed Scottish farmgirl, and a plucky heroine. James Costello and Trey Hobbs play everyone and in some cases every *thing* else (e.g. a river, a furrow in a field, a thorny bush.) It's like commedia dell' arte on acid, with the 4th wall to the audience rarely broken, but the other three walls completely shattered, as the actors acknowledge to each other that they are recreating and depicting a complex and challenging tale on the fly.

Laubenstein, for example, fights a constant and losing battle with sound effects, which work for everyone but him. Costello and Hobbs, credited as Clowns 1 and 2, struggle with comic exasperation to reach the costumes and props needed for their next moments on stage. Mannequins are used to flesh out a parade, enabling Costello and Hobbs to perform a 6-man Highland fling with only two men, and when one realizes he has the floor to himself, he continues with greater exuberance, much to the delight of the audience.   As the Clowns juggle three hats apiece to convey the effect of a bustling railway platform, they extend their intricately-choreographed shifts into each character far beyond the necessary, causing Laubenstein to finally demand that they get on with the next scene.  Reed occasionally pitches in with changes of scenery, which are usually accomplished via no more than a chair, a table, and the suggestion of a door or window. Most of these are on wheels or rollers, and at one point she pushes Costello in a chair onto stage for his next scene, only to send him careening off the opposite side, where an unseen stagehand helpfully pushes him right back.  Self-conscious and abrupt lighting changes with accompanying mood music occur at specified moments, like the uttering of the play's title, which leads to a dramatic chord of strings and horns (for everyone but the hero.) Any time that heroine and hero come within a few feet of each other, light and sound create an instantly romantic ambience, which, when interrupted, is accompanied by the sound of a needle scratching a record, bringing us back to the plot at hand. Periodically characters will silently concede how much effort will be entailed in miming some physical feat, and not even bother.  All of this makes for delightful zaniness, as we anticipate and root for the Clowns to accomplish each successively more complex feat.

That said, there's a fair amount of stylized nonsense that doesn't serve the actors well. Two guest directors are credited, Jim Helsinger and Brad DePlance, described in program notes as having worked on three previous productions of the material.  Whichever one is responsible for the rapid pace and the blocking of the cast that enables them to keep up with that pace is to be commended. My guess is that many of the odd choices in tone may have worked in previous versions, and so they have tossed in the entire kitchen sink for maximum effect. The jokes that don't work never detract from overall enjoyment of the play, but the material cries for the subtlety and nuance of Frank Thompson and Bill DeWitt as the Clowns in Town Theatre's excellent production of The 39 Steps just two years ago. Which is probably the only time that those two veteran and beloved comedians' names have ever been used in the context of subtlety on stage.

The nature of university theatre is not simply to entertain but also to provide training opportunities for future professionals, and there are nearly 50 people listed in the crew who make everything work for the only four people we ever see. One doesn't normally think of Longstreet as a particularly large space, but Xuemei Cao's set design takes over some 25% of the seating, replacing it with a faux proscenium for several scenes that require the appearance of a traditional stage, complete with box seating and a vast set of rear doors. Most of the action plays out in what would normally be considered a thrust, surrounded by the audience on three sides, except of course the seats in Longstreet rise steeply above this area.  The resulting effect creates the illusion of a huge space, which helps with rapid shifts of location.  The directors cleverly block their actors to play to all sides of the audience; if a character holds a newspaper with a relevant photo displayed, there is always some excuse for the actor to turn all the way around, so that no one misses a thing. Cao has also covered the floor with the representation of deep-hued, richly-burnished wood, which is quite elegant.  Ashley Pittman and Britt Sandusky are credited for excellent lighting and sound design respectively, but kudos absolutely must also go to Light Board operator Jack Wood and Sound Board operator Taylor Canoy, whose perfect timing enable a significant amount of the comedy. Even Todd Stuart's props are intricately designed - I spotted a seemingly real glass of milk and large sandwich which were actually completely solid, so as to avoid any chance of a spill. The faint of heart, however, should be aware that there are a number of very loud gunshots.

There is inspired use of music from Hitchcock films (including the less intimidating parts from the score to Psycho.) Characters periodically drop the names of the director's other movies at opportune moments, as when Laubenstein dramatically declares "You've got... (long pause) .... The Wrong Man!" There is even a spot-on, voice-over imitation of Hitchcock's unique vocal style, introducing the play as he might have done for an episode of his classic TV series. All in all, The 39 Steps is a hilarious celebration of what gifted performers and stage technicians can do when given free rein to indulge themselves. It's not Hitchcock by any stretch, but it’s undeniably fun.

 

Trustus Theatre's Love, Loss and What I Wore Not Profound, But a Pleasant Diversion

Review by August Krickel 

Different women.  Different points of view. Five ladies of varying ages and ethnicities, reminiscing and opining in a cozy setting.  No, it's not The View, but it might as well be. Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, currently running in the Side Door Theatre at Trustus, is a series of vignettes based on a book by Ilene Beckerman, with additional material from the Ephrons and many of their friends. A long-running hit off-Broadway, this play explores themes found in screenplays by the Ephrons like You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. As one might expect, memories of particular articles of clothing turn up in each narrative, but the play isn't about fashion at all - it's about the passages in a woman's life.  While the script isn't profound and has no real linear plot, it provides nice acting opportunities for the cast, and almost anyone will relate to some emotion that is recalled, or find some story that strikes a familiar chord.

Surrounded by four younger performers who voice most of the dialogue, Caroline Jones Weidner plays a serene, motherly type who writes a book, filled with drawings and anecdotes from her life, to ensure that her daughters and grandchildren realize that she was once a girl who had crushes, made bad decisions, and obsessed over clothes. Amy Brower, Emily Deck Harrill, Tiffany James, and Jodie Cain Smith assume the personas of dozens of other women, usually speaking directly to the audience in turn, while their castmates subtly react, as if they are girlfriends swapping stories over cocktails in the intimate cafe suggested by the minimal set. Occasionally a second actor will add the voice of a mother, friend, or counselor for quick repartee, but generally the play is a series of monologues. 

Fashion is a natural connector, since any woman will have a story about her first training bra, or the dress she wore when she met her husband. Smith gets the most opportunity for theatrical flourishes, and probably generates the most laughs as well as the most tears. Brower's moments are the most subtle and naturalistic. As one character delivered a speech on handbags with sweeping generalizations, I noticed Brower give a slight twitch of concern, then stealthily move her own handbag safely away from view. At another point Brower was drinking a Corona, then later a glass of red wine, but when the beer bottle turned up a few scenes later, I realized that the actor was consciously choosing which prop each character would prefer.  Director Larry Hembree (if you've seen his drag alter-ego in various fundraiser skits, you know he's no stranger to women's fashion) incorporates similar nuances throughout, and the overall effect makes for a more accessible theatre experience. He also ensures that his cast maintains a quick pace, essential for a show with virtually no blocking or movement (due to the confines of the small Side Door space.)  

Another addition by Hembree is jazz guitarist Jeremy Polley, who sits next to the stage and provides ambient mood music that complements the story lines. I caught traces of everything from "Danny Boy" to "Girl from Ipanema," in his accompaniment, and Polley gets some laughs of his own, switching to blues and flamenco when appropriate, and adding a discordant twang when Weidner details a questionable relationship choice. 

Some accounts are touching, and have the wistful tone of plays like The Heidi Chronicles; others are cute, as insightful as but no deeper than a Cathy cartoon. The target audience is of course women, especially those of a certain age. The matinee I attended in the 50-seat venue included only five men in the audience, and perhaps only six or seven people under age 50.  Still, anyone who has lived with a sister, mother, wife, long-time girlfriend, or daughter should easily relate to the themes and issues addressed, which means anyone, unless you were raised by the wolves alongside Mowgli. Most of the circumstances and emotions that play out on stage are universal. I was particularly fascinated with a recurring joke about how critical mothers can be (e.g. "you're wearing too much makeup," alternating with "you'd be so pretty if only you'd put on a little makeup") which is later surpassed by women's own criticisms of themselves in the mirror.  

The performance is a pleasant enough diversion for a couple of hours, and a nice chance to see some faces not often seen at Trustus. If all this girl talk this doesn't sound like your cup of chamomile tea, you're in luck. By Sunday morning of opening weekend, the entire run was sold out in advance. Trustus almost always brings back sold-out shows later in the year, however, and in the meantime, it never hurts to check with the box office about last-minute cancellations on a particular evening. For more information, visit our Press Releases page.
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Columbia Children's Theatre's Ho Ho Ho is a pleasant break from shopping.

Review by August Krickel.

Getting ready for the holidays can become a tiring and burdensome chore, in between screaming children, increasing commercialization, and sheer amount of time and effort involved. But what if you're Santa Claus, and you've got the seasonal blues?  That's the question posed in British playwright Mike Kenny's Ho Ho Ho, now running at Columbia Children's Theatre through this weekend. Kenny, an Olivier Award (comparable to a Tony) winner for a presumably traditional stage adaptation of The Railway Children, wrote this amusing little diversion as a piece for British pantomime, or "panto," which is a popular holiday entertainment for children in the UK and its former colonies.   Director Frank Thompson has excised or adapted anything that might be confusing to American audiences, and while the humor is broader than broad, and sillier than silly, Ho Ho Ho is also awfully cute at times; it's just the thing for the first-grader or preschooler in your family, as well as a pleasant little break from shopping that might just help mom and dad get back into the Christmas spirit too.

As Father Christmas (he's only referred to by his British name, and never as Santa) Lee O. Smith sports the traditional long white hair and beard.  He begins the play as a worn-out, burned-out Jerry Garcia-like figure, who simply can't must the energy for one more trip around the world.  Both his voice and body language convey not a stereotypical elderly man, but simply a tired, jaded, older man.  As Mother Christmas, Christy Shealy Mills uses an accent that falls somewhere between Swedish, Sarah Palin, and Fargo's Marge Gunderson. Either way, it's appropriate for the frozen white north, and probably 75% of the play's dialogue falls to her, including most of the exposition, but she also gets the chance to do some nice "slow burns" when she realizes things aren't going her way.  Prior to curtain, Mills also interacts with the children in the audience, engaging them in helping to decorate the set.  A lot her of her lines depend on feedback from the youngsters in the front row; the night I saw the performance, however, Carolina was simultaneously playing Clemson, resulting in  much smaller audience than usual, but Mills was a trouper and gave it her all anyway.  I have previously only seen her on stage as a dancer and choreographer, and so my first Christmas wish (the audience at one point is encouraged to shout out what they want this year) is to see her in an actual full-length play that showcases her acting skills, perhaps something like Steel Magnolias.

Andy Nyland (alternating in the role with Bill DeWitt) and CCT favorite Elizabeth Stepp play troublesome, prank-playing little elves who serve as both Santa's helpers, and surrogate children for Mother and Father Christmas.  Their hijinks (quarreling over dinner, fighting over toys, making themselves sick with sweets) contribute to Father's malaise.  Stepp has few lines, but has perfected a deliciously mischievous elf-giggle, and exits the last scene with a trademark cartwheel.  She's also called on to break into tears repeatedly, and she sobs with convincing gusto. My second Christmas wish is some day to see Stepp in the lead of a mainstream comedy or drama, perhaps The Star Spangled Girl, or The Heidi Chronicles.

As the Musical Elf, Will Moreau is an impish combination of Harpo and Chico Marx. He speaks very little, but sings, plays assorted instruments, and morphs, cartoon-style, into a number of other characters.  Like any old married couple, seasonal gift-giving has become perfunctory and mechanical with Father and Mother; he generally receives clothes, often underwear, while she selects his gift to her and tells him afterwards.  Last year Father got boxers, which then proceeded to fight, while jockeys usually gallop off. This year's present is a pair of Y-front briefs (the British term for tighty-whiteys with a fly in an inverted Y-shape.)  The briefs (played by Moreau) proceed to annoy everyone on stage, while cracking up everyone in the audience, by incessantly asking "Y?" at increasingly opportune moments. The humor is on that level throughout, but as above, it's cute.  British panto usually involves slapstick, audience participation, sing-alongs, bad puns, and a frenzied chase scene or two, all of which are incorporated here.  The only traditions missing are those that might be lost on American audiences, such as sexual innuendo, and cross-dressing (in panto, the older lady or "Dame" is often a man in drag, while a young woman usually plays a juvenile hero.)  There's more bathroom humor than usually found at CCT, including a sound effect gag lifted directly from the "evacuation commencing" scene in Austin Powers, but it's harmless.  There's also some Punch-and-Judy-style slapping and smacking, which might seem a little odd if you've never experienced it before.  Indeed, at one point I almost found myself thinking "Who would think this is funny except for a four-year-old?" but then of course I realized I had answered my own question. 

Panto is a direct descendant of commedia dell'arte, and like that art form, with which regular CCT attendees have become familiar over the years, there's also plenty of references to pop culture. In his Director's Notes, Thompson alludes to overtones of Monty Python and Pee-Wee's Playhouse.  I spotted nods to Popeye and Olive, and to some of entertainment's great Jims and Jimmys (Durante, Stewart, Kirk) as well as the flashback effect from Wayne's World, Groucho's (non)entrance in Duck Soup, the theme music from The Price is Right, the 20th Century Fox fanfare, and possibly the violin solo from Young Frankenstein, among many others. We even see props from previous CCT shows in Santa's bag of toys, including the Knufflebunny, and Cinderella's slipper.  As Mother tries to help Father get his groove back, Smith and Mills even recount the origin of the non-religious part of the winter holidays: at the darkest time of year, i.e. the Solstice, when everyone is depressed, Father Christmas set out to give gifts to all the village children to cheer them up.  It's a nice message for all ages, as is the encouragement to mothers and fathers in the audience not to become disillusioned by all the work that goes into making Christmas special for their children.  My third wish, however, is for CCT's master of commedia, frequent guest artist Sam LaFrage, to try his hand at creating an original pantomime to premiere at CCT next year, as I think everyone involved could top the nevertheless amusing Ho Ho Ho. In the meantime, make those reservations now, as Ho Ho Ho only runs through this Sunday, Dec. 8th

Visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com for more information.

 

Town Theatre's The Foreigner Is Short On Subtlety, Long On Comedy

Review by August Krickel.

Depending on how you do the math, this is either the 4th, 5th or 6th time Town Theatre has produced Larry Shue's insanely popular farce The Foreigner since 1987.  That initial run sold out so quickly that the play was brought back at season's end, then revived with most of the original cast in 1990, and produced again in the mid-90's and in 2004, all with one or more cast members from previous productions, and always including Bill Canaday as Ellard.  Canaday has now passed the comedic baton to the next generation; while director Allison McNeely's revival of this perennial audience favorite is short on subtlety and long on physical comedy and Southern stereotypes, the evening is undeniably filled with laughter, and energetic, entertaining performances.

Shy Englishman Charlie (Frank Thompson) is brought to a rural Georgia fishing lodge (we never see any fishing, so comparable to a bed and breakfast) by old Army chum Froggy (Waldo Medlin), who visits  the US annually to conduct training at a nearby military base.  Despondent over his failing marriage, Charlie yearns for solitude, causing Froggy to tell the locals that Charlie speaks no English.  Predictable hilarity ensues, as secrets are revealed in his presence, and other characters project their assumptions onto him.  It's a double-sided blank slate, where spoiled, selfish heiress Catherine (Erika Bryant) feels safe to reveal her vulnerable side to a man who (seemingly) can't understand a word she confesses,  while her child-like, "slow" brother Ellard (Charlie Goodrich) gains confidence by leaps and bounds - literally - as he "teaches" English to a surprisingly adept pupil.  Meanwhile, repressed Charlie blossoms as a now trusted confidante and a star pupil with amazing verbal skills, as soon as people begin treating him as such.  There's a sub-plot about the Klan scheming to cheat proprietor Betty (Kathy Hartzog) out of her property, but ultimately the show is about the humor that stems from the situations described above. 

As Charlie, Thompson excels at projection, audible at all times even when he is speaking meekly in the first act, and in the body language of frustration.  He creates some inspired moments of comic physicality, as he invents a folk tale from his imaginary homeland, told in his fabricated native language (vaguely Slavic, with occasional turns into Swedish) and seemingly recounting a Little Red Riding Hood figure, as she is devoured by some terrible beast.  Charlie embraces the chance to be an outlandish performer awfully quickly and easily, however, and I wish that Thompson's enjoyable performance were a bit more nuanced, allowing us the chance to see him grow over the course of the play.  

As Ellard, Charlie Goodrich takes great care to make a somewhat mentally-challenged character believable and sympathetic.  As various characters snap at him, Goodrich's pained and fearful expressions, and assorted stage business, imply how rough life has been on someone who probably never had anything more than mild Asperger's syndrome.  Much of the comedy relates to Ellard's deep Southern pronunciation of words, and there's about 5 minutes of non-stop laughter at one point as Thompson and Goodrich go to town with some outrageous schtick, but the script is funny on its own, and Goodrich sometimes overdoes it just a bit. One imagines that as the show continues its run, a more natural rhythm will develop for what is some genuinely funny dialogue.

At the other end of the spectrum Patrick Dodds plays a realistic and appealing David, Catherine's fiancé. A charismatic young minister, David is always the voice of reason, yet Dodds allows us to see the darker side just below his facade. As county property inspector Owen, Bill DeWitt (reprising his role from the 2004 incarnation) manages to find a happy medium between the broadest of comedy and believable backwoods menace, channeling many of his characters from 2008's A Tuna Christmas, as well as (whether by coincidence or design) Merle from The Walking Dead (Come to think of it, Dodds' sinister charm has a bit of the vibe from that show's Governor). 

As Catherine, Erika Bryant is a bit shrill initially, jumbling her words together almost incomprehensibly, and constantly berating poor Ellard. As the play progresses, however, she softens, discovering her humanity. The character is the annoying one at first, not the actress, and Bryant does a nice job at portraying a former debutante (think a younger Suzanne Sugarbaker) suddenly overwhelmed by life.  She's what the late Joe Nettles, a longtime Town Theatre volunteer and Board member in the 50's and 60's, would have called a "toothsome blonde," i.e. a delectable beauty, and she credibly breaks down in tears at one point, just as she accomplished so flawlessly in the recent Les Miserables (in which she played Cosette, opposite Dodds as Enjolras, Goodrich as Grantaire, and Thompson as Thenardier). Plus she gets to wear some truly beautiful dresses, courtesy of costumer Lori Stepp. Costumes in fact are uniformly appropriate for all except Medlin, whose non-com character would probably be wearing fatigues in this day and time.  Medlin's British accent also comes and goes, but he's the perfect type for the role of Froggy, and of course Kathy Hartzog always does well as a feisty Southerner.

Danny Harrington's excellent set is detailed, and as attractive as a run-down old house can be. There's a lot of stone masonry, painted in two dimensions by Jamie Carr Harrington, that really adds to the rustic flavor. I also liked how he and director McNeely allowed the interior to spill out past the proscenium, opening up more space for the actors.

Clearly The Foreigner isn't Bernard Shaw, or even Neil Simon. We're in the realm of Lucy and Ethel, or Barney and Gomer - and can't you just imagine some crisp British guest star like Terry-Thomas visiting Mayberry and encountering this very plot?   Indeed, I long for some time-warp in which a movie version of this play were filmed in the late 40's by Howard Hawks, with Cary Grant as Charlie, the young Andy Griffith as Ellard, Walter Brennan as Owen, and perhaps the young Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis as Catherine and Ellard, with Victor McLaglen in a cameo as Froggy. But if you have no clue what I'm referring to there, you've missed out on some of the tradition, however broad, of comedy in AmericaThe Foreigner wasn't just a runaway smash in Columbia - it ran for two years off-Broadway, and won multiple Obie and Outer Critics' Circle Awards. Here, some of Town Theatre's regular favorites (this makes the 11th role I've seen Thompson play at Town in just under three years) and some promising newcomers sink their teeth into rich comic scenery, and proceed to chew with mad abandon.  And if you think it stretches credibility that gullible Southerners could be fooled into thinking an Englishman doesn't speak English... may I recommend a little dvd called Borat.  

The play continues through Sunday, Dec. 1st; it's worth noting that I admire local theatres that add a final Sunday matinee for a family-friendly show, which The Foreigner absolutely is (apart from a couple of basic-cable, 4-letter words including a "Holy Sh!t" from DeWitt that gets perhaps the biggest laugh of all).  Contact the box office at 803-799-2510, or visit www.towntheatre.com for ticket information.

 

Veteran Actors Carry Workshop Theatre's Revival of Sleuth

Review by August Krickel.

Workshop Theatre succeeds with its new revival of Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer's classic mystery of wit and deception, thanks to its two leads, local theatre veterans Hunter Boyle and Jason Stokes.  A perennial crowd-pleaser at regional, community and dinner theatres for decades now, Sleuth is sometimes forgotten as one of the biggest hits of its era, winning the Tony for Best New Play in 1971, and running for over 1200 performances on Broadway, a feat surpassed by only a tiny handful of non-musicals in the subsequent 42 years.  Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine were both nominated for Oscars for the film version, cancelling each other out and losing to Brando in The Godfather.  One critic recently wrote that shows like this eventually enter into our collective, shared cultural knowledge, and therefore some of its twists, turns and devices may now seem a little familiar, even quaint, to audiences indoctrinated by hundreds of whodunnits every week on television, from C.S.I. to the Law & Order franchise.  Yet in its day, Sleuth was actually a fairly sharp criticism of the old "the butler did it," Agatha Christie-style mysteries that had dominated stage and page for a century, as Boyle's character, successful mystery novelist Andrew, complains about the conventions and paradigms of the genre that he admits even he over-uses.  Shaffer then broke a number of those rules that dictate how Professor Plum did it in the drawing room, and blew the minds of 1970’s audiences through dizzying turns and surprises.

With this in mind I brought along two young friends to opening night, a junior in college and a senior in high school, to see their reaction.  They certainly enjoyed it, although both spotted one of the plot twists (while not completely guessing its significance) and suspected another.  Yet because the script begins with a good bit of comedy and light wordplay, both were clearly surprised and leaned forward intently in their seats when the plot began to take a decidedly darker turn. "Suddenly, it got very real," when a gun is drawn and then fired, the college student observed at intermission. 

Much of the plot simply cannot be discussed, so as to avoid spoilers. In brief, pompous, famous novelist Andrew invites his wife's young lover Milo (Stokes) into his home. Initially, both men banter with crisp witticisms and urbane bon mots. It seems that Andrew has a mistress of his own, and is all too happy to pass along his wife.  "Can you afford to take her off my hands?" Andrew asks Milo, in one of the piece's many memorable and droll quips; he wants to make sure that his wife is supported in the manner to which she was never accustomed until she married him.  Not out of any benevolence, but presumably so he doesn't have to worry about alimony or messy divorce proceedings that might affect his fortune. 

Milo, a travel agent from a working class background, is lured into an increasingly complex scheme involving a fake burglary...but there may be a hidden agenda. Andrew, jaded after years of re-hashing the same tired cliches in his books, has graduated to playing games with people, while Milo may be more resourceful than he seems.  While there are other characters - the wife, the mistress, her friend, assorted police personnel - some are unseen, and one or more may have been murdered off-stage.   The question becomes just who murdered whom, however, as a police investigation commences, and suddenly we don't quite know whom to believe, if anyone, nor can we necessarily trust our own eyes. 

Boyle's Andrew is a little fussier, and more prone to assorted mannerisms that easily generate laughter, than you'd expect from a character who was played by debonair aristocrats like Patrick Macnee (the bowler-wearing Steed from The Avengers).  Boyle's comic interpretation recalls versatile character actors like Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov.  In many ways, Boyle is playing a variation on the grandiose character that he specializes in, but it works, because the audience is lulled into a false sense of security, making some plot developments quite shocking, as the audience realizes this isn't really a comedy at all.  Stokes underplays the part of Milo, providing a nice contrast with Boyle;  Andrew's ego proves to be his undoing, and neither he nor the audience suspect that Milo may be able to match Andrew in a game of cat-and-mouse that turns deadly. It must also be noted that director Eric Bultman is now at least the 5th director in the last year and a half to get Stokes shirtless on stage.

Randy Strange's set is up to its usual high level of excellence, although the limited width of the Workshop stage makes the stately manor setting look more like a posh town house or split level.  Makeup by Robin Gottlieb is surprisingly simple but quite effective.  This type of play is dependent on special effects, including gunshots, props that break at the right moment, even an explosion, and there were some inevitable opening night glitches that fortunately didn't detract from anything.  Special praise goes to Boyle for ad-libbing perfectly, in character, at a critical moment to make a save.  On a side-note, a live version of Sleuth which I saw in Nashville in the 80's had similar issues, as I suspect has every other production of the play. 

The biggest mystery, and a far bigger shock than any surprise ending, was the number of empty seats, even if just a few, on the opening night of an important play at one of the Midlands' major theatres.  Just to be clear, the play is in no way dated, and takes place believably in the present. Also, Workshop is alive and well and doing good work in the exact same space across from WIS-TV that is has for over 35 years. While they will move to a new space next year, I must repeat: they are doing the same quality work as always in the exact same location as always. For this special season they are presenting something of a greatest hits package of shows, or types of shows, with which they have excelled in the past, and Sleuth is a fine addition to the roster.  Sleuth runs though Sat. Nov. 23, contact the box office at 803-799-6551 for ticket information, or visit http://workshoptheatre.com/.

 

Trustus Theatre's “Venus in Fur” More Than Just Good Kinky Fun

Review by Jeffrey Day.

David Ives’ Venus in Fur is a wild ride for everyone involved – the two actors, the characters and the audience -  full of sexy play, word and otherwise, and humor with a vaguely threatening wash over it all. It’s a play within a play within a book wrapped up in a realistic setting that transforms into something not realistic at all.

For all the titillating promotion and pictures of the lead actress in corset, garter and stockings that always accompany productions of the play, most of the “messing around” takes place in the mind. This is an extraordinarily demanding play for the actors, especially the woman who over the course of the play really takes on multiple roles calling for many voices and physical characteristics she must switch into seamlessly. And it calls for a director who can keep all the complicated elements clear, not rush things, but not let them drag either, and maintain the audience’s belief in the mind-bending turns it takes.

Trustus Theatre’s production is ably led by Jim O’Connor, a director whose long and varied experience is invaluable in making all the parts work. With actors Jennifer Moody Sanchez and Bobby Bloom he’s working with excellent resources. There are so many things that could go wrong in a production of Venus in Fur, but they don’t in this one. "Venus in Fur" at Trustus

In the play, Thomas Novachek has written and is planning to direct an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs (in the novel it is plural) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch from whom we get the word “masochism.” When the play opens, he’s on the phone complaining to his girlfriend about how terrible the actresses who’ve auditioned to play the role of Vanda have been. As he’s ready to give up and go home, there’s a knock at the door of the run down-space where he’s holding auditions. It’s another actress ready to try out even though auditions are over, the other reader had gone home and she’s many hours late for the audition appointment she doesn’t actually have. She’s been caught in the rain, groped on the subway and is totally clueless. Her talk consists mostly of “whatevers,” “likes” and string of “f….” She has aggressively bad posture and clops around like a horse in her ill-fitting raincoat that opens enough to show she’s wearing little underneath. Oh and she happens to be named Vanda. How convenient. Thomas tries his best to get rid of her, but finally surrenders and they start reading together, him playing the role of Severin, the man who says he wishes to be dominated.

But Vanda isn’t what she seems. She undergoes a transformation before our eyes as does the play. The two are now in the play within a play and in time in the original book with shifts back to the little studio space where Vanda suddenly blurts out extraordinarily misguided pronouncements about the play and the book. But as the play heads off into a magical not-here place it becomes more and more about here and now and the power balance between all men and all women over thousands of years. If all these flights of imagination and the shifts among the stories within stories and characters sound a bit confounding, on stage they are not.

Both the actors handle well the subtlety that it calls for most of the time. Moody Sanchez is called upon to use a few too many voices, some of them unnecessarily exaggerated and occasionally her shift from character to character gets a stuck in between for a few seconds. It would be easy for the actor playing Thomas to ride on the wave of Vanda – or be drowned by it - but Bloom never does.

There are a few things that don’t work. When an actor is lying on the couch the audience’s view if mostly of their neck and nostrils. The set is unnecessarily grim; the play takes place in a non-descript black box studio theater not a North Korean prison.

Those attracted to Venus in Fur for its “good, kinky fun” (in the words of The New York Times) won’t be disappointed, but Ives’ play will give them much more than that whether they want it or not. Submit to it.

The play runs Saturday Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. (sold out) and 10 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 10 at 3 p.m.; Nov. 14 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 15 at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. 

Town Theatre Scores With Enjoyable Scaled-Down “Les Miserables”

Review by August Krickel

Yes, they pulled it off.

That was the biggest question in local theatre circles for the last six months: could a community theatre - the nation's oldest in continuous operation - stage a credible production of the tech-intense, vocally-intense stage epic Les Miserables in a 90-year old building, with volunteer performers? The answer is a qualified but definite "yes." Building on the success of last spring’s Miss Saigon, Town Theatre once again scores with an enjoyable, if scaled-down, rendition of the huge Broadway hit, based on Victor Hugo's classic novel of triumph and mainly tragedy in post-Napoleonic France.

Les Mis, as it's usually called, translates to "the wretched ones," and yes they undeniably are.  Chris Cockrell plays Jean Valjean, a petty thief who serves five years at hard labor for breaking a window pane to steal a loaf of bread, and fourteen more for fleeing the police.  The French working class suffer through successive revolutions and regimes, but Valjean, stigmatized as an ex-con, jumps parole, changes his name, and prospers as a factory owner and local mayor.  His former jailer Javert (Lee O. Smith) spots him eight years later, just as he's about to assume care of a newly orphaned child. Valjean flees again, and the setting jumps nine years to Paris where he and adoptive daughter Cosette (Erika Lynn Bryant on opening night, alternating with Karly Minacapelli), now a beauty, are swept up in an abortive revolutionary movement.  In a series of coincidences common to 19th-century melodrama, the fugitives are ratted out to Javert (now a Paris cop) by the Thenardiers (Frank Thompson and Jami Steele-Sprankle), predatory bottom-feeders who raised Cosette as a child; their daughter Eponine (Catherine Hunsinger on opening night, alternating with Sami Sessler) and Cosette are both smitten with love for Marius (Garrett Bright on opening night, alternating with Jeremy Reasoner) one of the leaders of the revolution.

It's hard to worry too much about spoilers for a 150-year-old plot with some 15 film and television incarnations; this musical version has been around for more than a quarter of a century, but let's just say that as the title implies, most of the main characters die tragically and pointlessly.  Appealing supporting characters are introduced, get one or two good solos (often the "hit" songs for which Les Mis is known) and then the story moves on.  As Valjean, Cockrell maintains an appropriately tormented, exhausted demeanor throughout, while singing beautifully. Claude-Michel Schönberg's operatic score and Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics (based on the original French libretto by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel) are sung with virtually no spoken dialogue. Hugo's massive novel's plot is significantly condensed into around three hours on stage, and so Cockrell's gift for enunciation is crucial, with seemingly random lines often containing the only explanation for important plot details. Bright, Hunsinger and Bryant hit impossibly high notes in sweet love songs, while Thompson clowns it up with gusto on "Master of the House," which got the biggest volume of applause on opening night. Thenardier in the first act is a sort of loveable, Fagin-like, comic scoundrel; darker days in Act II see him leading a gang of street thugs, then looting the bodies of victims of a street riot, yet Thompson manages to make Thenardier believable, and in fact symbolic of the existential despair that pervades the play's dog-eat-dog world. 

Rebecca Goodrich Seezen makes a welcome return to the Town Theatre stage as the doomed Fantine, and does justice to "I Dreamed a Dream," the song now most closely associated with Les Mis thanks to versions by Susan Boyle and Anne Hathaway; her sister Dell Goodrich will alternate in the role in selected performances, while brother Charlie Goodrich amuses as Grantaire, a college student seemingly drawn to the revolt as an excuse to party. 

Indeed, much of the class warfare and social injustice depicted on stage will resonate with today's audiences, as Marius and friends start something like an Occupy Paris movement, that quickly turns into Kent State, and then the Alamo. Leading the movement and fighting the good fight is Patrick Dodds as Enjolras, part Hector of Troy and part Colonel Travis. In less than two years, Dodds has evolved from the troubled teen with the high hair in Spring Awakening at Trustus, the hip T-Bird with the two left feet on prom night in Grease at Town, and the loveable geek in The Shape of Things at both USC and Workshop, into a charismatic action hero.  His voice has matured with his roles, and I swear you would now follow him into the mouth of certain death without question. Which basically many of the characters do, to the tune of some truly stirring and inspirational songs, including "Red and Black," and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"  If someone is casting a King Henry for a rousing St. Crispin's Day speech, look no further.

Lee O. Smith, better known for lighter roles (including a charming Dr. Dolittle just a few months ago, and an empathetic Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie) likewise sings with passion and sensitivity in "Stars," finding the humanity within a character written to some extent as a plot device.  Perhaps my favorite vocal moment was "The Confrontation," where Javert and Valjean sing in counterpoint, declaring their conflicting rationales; it's almost impossible to make out the individual lyrics (in which Javert reveals that he too rose from the gutter, while Valjean first begs for clemency, then warns that he will not surrender) but the effect is quite moving. While both actors might benefit from watching a few episodes of WWE Raw to make their struggle more believable, they are nevertheless convincing in perhaps the oddest set-up for a duet ever: Cockrell has Smith in a headlock, while both sing lyrically how each will always be there - Valjean as protector to the lifeless Fantine's child, Javert as the long arm of the law in pursuit.  Smith is to some extent under-served by costume and props, however. His uniforms look more like Halloween costumes than official attire, while his bicorne hat, however authentic for the period it may be, just seems awfully cartoonish.  He likewise brandishes his truncheon (someone insert a Benny Hill joke here) which is probably historically accurate, but his character's menace would be significantly enhanced with a nasty-looking sabre and a pistol or two.  Other costumes by Lori Stepp work just fine, though, especially the fancier, upper-class garments worn by Valjean, Marius, and the adult Cosette, and the improvised uniform sported by Enjolras.

Director/choreographer Shannon Willis Scruggs knows how to fill a stage with bodies and wrangle large casts, although at times one is reminded that this is community theatre, with varying levels of proficiency among the ensemble of more than 50 performers.  Musical director Lou Warth still elicits a rich sound from her leads as well as the ensemble, many of whom have played leads in other shows recently.   Will Moreau, the slippery Engineer from Miss Saigon, turns up as a pimp yet again, while Parker Byun, an appealing Tarzan last summer, gets a nice verse to himself in "Drink With Me" as one of the student revolutionaries. I'd say that the young men's subset of the ensemble could easily take their place in any professional touring company of this show, as could a fair number of the principals, including Cockrell, Hunsinger, Dodds, Bright, and Bryant.  

Les Mis is primarily a vocal show, but Scruggs inserts a few moments of dance here and there that are well-done, if not entirely necessary.  Most successful is the cavorting of the Thenardiers and their cronies like the boozy partiers they are. Scruggs pays attention to the tiniest of details, as when Cosette and Valjean quickly don traveling attire to signify an impending journey, and when visible scratchmarks appear on a cad's face. Did Fantine dip her fingertips in red beforehand, or did the other actor covertly apply them afterwards while Fantine sang? Either way, the effect works.  Her curtain call for the cast is non-traditional, since most of them are by this point singing from the after-life. Rather than individual bows, a spotlight (used throughout the performance to showcase a singer during a solo while scenery is changed inconspicuously in the background) shifts from one group to the next, with all performers staying in character.  Meaning that Bryant had to sustain convincing, grief-stricken sobs through an extended standing ovation on opening night, and she succeeded.

Danny Harrington's set design incorporates a number of differing elements; many of the early scenes shift locations every minute or two, and thus rough-hewn wooden beams imply assorted French country settings. Later scenes in cities feature detailed painted drops, and the two entrances to either side of the proscenium also have some decoration to suggest village facades. A garden outside Valjean's home is lovely in its detail, with ivy and wisteria flowing over realistic-looking brick walls and iron gates. The barricade of jumbled furniture and junk erected by the students is similarly effective. The only downside is while all are well-crafted, there isn't one consistent visual motif as with Harrington's recent sets for Miss Saigon and Tarzan.  This is the reality of community theatre, with only a few weeks to construct everything; my guess is that a number of components from previous sets were liberally plundered.  Visually, projections are especially striking, including a moon and stars projected onto the side wall of the theatre, an image (my guess is a watercolor) of the Seine that blends perfectly with 3-dimensional portions of a bridge, and quickly-seen depictions of the cavernous sewers below the streets of Paris that are appropriately spooky.   Many of the set changes have to work at lightning-speed, since a recorded score is used in lieu of a live orchestra, and there is no way to tell a recording to vamp while something is maneuvered into place.  I was particularly impressed with a nifty bit of stage magic used for Javert's demise. 

While by no means a perfect production, primarily due to the natural challenges faced when trying to recreate a big-budget Broadway spectacle at the local level, Les Miserables succeeds where it matters: the vocal strength of the leads (and those student rebels) and the emotions felt by the appreciative audience. Conventional wisdom has labeled a number of "big" Broadway shows as unproduceable in Columbia, yet Town Theatre has managed everything from Cats to Miss Saigon and now Les Mis.  My only questions now are:  when do we get Phantom, and are Cockrell, Hunsinger and Dodds available for the leads?

Les Miserables runs through Saturday, October 12; contact the box office at 803-799-2510 for ticket information, or visit www. towntheatre.com.

 

Trustus Succeeds With Ambitious Production of “Ragtime”

Review by August Krickel.

Trustus Theatre kicks off its new season with a production of epic proportions: Ragtime: The Musical, Terrence McNally's adaptation of the acclaimed E.L. Doctorow novel, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Director Chad Henderson delivers an approximate 1:4 ratio of cast to audience by squeezing 32 performers onto the tiny Trustus stage, and in doing so creates a textbook example of how to create a memorable show with limited resources but unlimited talent. 

Set in early 20th century New York, Ragtime follows the intersecting lives of three family groups from differing layers of society: an upper-class white family in suburban New Rochelle, a ragtime piano player from Harlem, his sometime girlfriend and their illegitimate child, and a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter.  Historical figures are woven in and out, only occasionally interacting with the leads, but in several cases significantly influencing their lives.  The show is a kaleidoscopic and therefore sometimes dizzying tour through themes, characters, and settings, so just enjoy the first few panoramic scenes until it becomes clear who the protagonists are, and who is simply background color. An interesting narrative device recounts the story from the perspective of the young son (Luke Melnyk) of the white family, but with other performers voicing the lines, in third person, that pertain to their characters.

As pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Terrance Henderson begins as a smooth-talking, smoother-singing charmer, courting Sarah (Avery Bateman) after she tries to abandon their child; events that mirror the troubled times turn him into a tragic figure, and Henderson is up to the dramatic challenge. His duets with Bateman inspired the most applause on opening night, and their scenes together are tender and touching. Henderson also choreographs, alternating between actual dance numbers, and scenes of stylized movement to the music when the entire cast is on stage.

Chip Stubbs as doting father Tateh is also effective, conveying how far a parent will go to protect a child. G. Scott Wild is a young man adept at playing older roles, and as the unnamed "Father" of the New Rochelle family, sports an authentic period mustache, and a nice command of the formal speech of the era. Wild manages to find a sympathetic, human side to a character intended to represent the rigid social structure of the Establishment. Kevin Bush uses no more than a goofy grin and a hesitant stammer to clearly depict the family's "Younger Brother" as an impressionable innocent who finds meaning and direction in the midst of political upheaval. Marybeth Gorman as "Mother" joins most of the principals on "New Music," where ragtime music is used as a metaphor for societal change.

By my count, at least 16 of the remaining 25 cast members have played lead roles locally within the last year or two; some form a diverse ensemble, doubling and tripling as multiple characters, while others have smallish but colorful cameos as period celebrities.  Vicky Saye Henderson is particularly impressive as fiery social activist/anarchist Emma Goldman, and Elisabeth Baker is adorable as scandalous party girl Evelyn Nesbit, the Lindsay Lohan of her day.  Baker actually gets a nice musical number centered around her ("Crime of the Century") and indeed some of the best songs are only tangential to the plot. Daryl Byrd, as Booker T. Washington, interacts meaningfully with several protagonists in a pivotal scene, while Scott Vaughan, as Houdini, is enjoyable but under-used. A subset of the men's ensemble, comprised of Bobby Bloom, George Dinsmore, Mark Zeigler and Jason Kinsey, fares best with stage time, scary and menacing as racists, then lovably raucous as baseball fans in "What a Game."

Working with this much talent, director Chad Henderson's biggest challenge was surely how to best showcase it all. His set design wisely leaves most of the stage open, with the simplest suggestions of props and locations wheeled in as needed. Random objects (ladders, trombones, a washboard) adorn a rear wall along with images from turn-of-the-century pop culture (posters, and ads for Coca -Cola and PBR, expertly recreated by Lucas Sams). The overall effect establishes setting and tone, yet alerts the audience that we have to fill in the blanks via imagination.

Music Director Jeremy Polley leads seven musicians (including violin, clarinet and two trombones) who are largely hidden from view, but I noticed Polley was actually conducting his small orchestra throughout. Costumes by Alexis Doktor and one wig in particular by Cherelle Guyton are well-done and appropriate for the time period.

Doctorow's book is often hailed as one of the great American novels; this stage adaptation ran for two years on Broadway, and was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning four, including best book and score of a musical in 1998. That said, I don't entirely understand what all the fuss is about. The music is pretty, and the character vignettes are interesting, although surely condensed from the novel (which I've never read). Sadly I didn't take any particularly uplifting message with me, beyond a vague hope for a better America (which of course we haven't quite reached yet). Also the show runs a solid three hours with intermission, so there's that.  Still, I enjoyed the performances of the tremendously talented cast, and was particularly impressed at how skillfully Henderson has managed to scale down a blockbuster for a smaller venue, while sacrificing none of its spectacle or entertainment value.

Ragtime runs through October 5. For more information visit our Press Releases page. For reservations call the Trustus box office at 254-9732.

 

 

South Carolina Shakespeare Company's “A Servant of Two Masters” Offers Plenty of Laughs

Review by James Harley

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company has resurrected its production of Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters,” playing this week (September 17-21) at Finlay Park and also October 4-8 at Saluda Shoals. The popular farcical production seeks laughter above all else, and succeeds in general despite a few weaknesses.

Goldoni’s ever-twisting plot is far too complex to describe fully, so suffice it to say that the show revolves around cases of mistaken and/or hidden identity, be they accidental, coincidental, or planned. The title character, Truffaldino, seeks to increase his income as a servant by working simultaneously for two separate masters, with each employer – Beatrice and Florindo -- unaware of the other. Things get complicated when it turns out that the two are displaced lovers, each searching for the other. Further complicating matters, Beatrice is in disguise as her deceased brother, which brings her into conflict with Clarice and Silvio, a young couple seeking to get married. Unfortunately, Clarice has already been promised to the brother by her father. As you can easily imagine, comic chaos ensues.

While humorous, the show as a whole is not quite up to the SC Shakespeare Company’s typical standards. Nonetheless it does have its strengths, which include an upbeat tempo, strong costuming, and a few standout performances. Jeff Driggers plays Truffaldino with off the chart goofiness and energy, so much so that he seems to leave much of the cast behind on a completely different level. Kaitlyn Jones as the emotional Clarice joins him regularly, while others such as Philip Alexander as Silvio and Tracy Steele as Florindo venture only sporadically into his realm. That’s not to say that they were lacking, just that it seemed at times like there were two different shows being performed, one a simple comedy and the other a full blown farce.

This extends somewhat to the well performed but more restrained role of Beatrice (Sara Blanks) and also Clarice’s father Pantalone (Rob Sprankle). JoAnna Chriswell, Gabrielle Peterson and Scott Stepp all had their moments as family friend Brighella, maid servant Smeraldina and Silvio’s father respectively.

The performances are fairly polished while the technical aspects of the production are a bit crude, with a set that looks a little thrown together (probably to accommodate the move between venues) and less detailed than usual. There are some sound issues with the stage microphones and a lot of backstage activity is visible from the audience, including prop tables, stagehands, and wandering actors awaiting entry.

Much of this is easy enough to overlook, as the point of the show is laughter and there is plenty of that, but it could also be tightened up with a little more attention to detail.

The Finlay Park run is free to the public with first-come first-served seating, but ends Saturday, September 21. The production then moves to Saluda Shoals for more performances. For more information visit our Press Releases page or the SC Shakespeare Company website.

   

Workshop Theatre’s “Beehive: A ‘60s Musical” Is a Genuine Good Time

Review by James Harley

After a long day of physical and mental labor, I frankly did not feel like going out to see a show on Friday night, as a trip to the theatre to review “Beehive: A ‘60s Musical” just felt like even more “work” at the time. Within ten minutes of the opening curtain, however, Workshop theatre’s high-energy fun-oriented production had successfully changed my mood completely, installing involuntary rhythm in my toes and a smile on my face. This review could probably be summarized in two words – “fun show” – but I’ll go ahead and give you a few highlights anyway.

The musical, created by Larry Gallagher, is essentially a revue of popular songs from throughout the 1960s, delivered chronologically and with historical context provided by the cast of eight during brief transitional scenes between numbers. Issues of race, peace, war, and women’s rights are touched upon, but the driving force of the show is simply fun, as the all-female cast sings and dances its heart out comically enacting the culture of progress that the era is known for.

In that spirit of working together for the benefit of the whole, the audience is immediately invited to participate in the spectacle, first with “The Name Game,” where the cast solicits names to include in the song’s prefabricated rhyme formula, and then later with “The Beehive Dance,” where viewers are given a chance to take the dance floor. If you’re a Columbia community theatre regular then you’ve probably been greeted and ushered to your seat at some point by Suzie Wattenbarger, but you may not know that that woman can move! But be it Suzie or someone else, watching patrons become part of the action always ups the entertainment value, at least for a few moments. "Beehive: the '60s Musical" at Workshop Theatre

Indeed, the audience so enjoyed being a part of the action that on several occasions they joined in on their own, performing spontaneous background vocals for “Downtown” and frequently breaking out in rhythmic clapping.

As for those on stage, there are many fresh faces, with Devin Anderson and Jordan Harper standing out vocally in their respective roles. Anderson definitely earns “Respect” in a way that would make Aretha Franklin proud, and Tameshia Magwood also deserves mention for her brief stint as Tina Turner performing “A Fool In Love.” The accompanying Ikettes, complete with tassled dresses that creep upward with every shake and twist, are also worthy of attention.

While the show is not so much about the acting as it is singing and dancing, Valdina Hall leads the way in this category, her sassy manner alone generating laughs, but even more as she melds her facial expressions with her choreography. Roxanne Livingston also presents more than one entertaining character.

With 40 songs on the playlist, many are shortened versions of the original or are performed as medleys. Among the highlights as performed on stage are “One Fine Day,” “Academy Award,” “Where the Boys Are,” “Ball and Chain” and the closing number “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” Other notable classics are “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “It’s My Party,” “I’m Sorry,” “Proud Mary,” “A Natural Woman,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Bobby McGee.”

As you can see from that list and the premise of the show it is clear that “Beehive” is a musical most likely to appeal to the middle-age and older crowd.

Like the storyline, production values are simple, using an open stage decorated with portraits of musical icons of the period and other symbols of the era’s various fashions. The band is fully visible on stage and is utilized occasionally as another source of humorous interaction for the cast.

Adding yet another twist to the fun, stage manager Bobby Craft makes a brief cameo appearance to open the second act.

Co-directors Jocelyn Sanders and Daniel Gainey, along with choreographer Barbara Howse-Diemer avoided any urge to overdo the production, composing simple yet effective stage pictures and letting the fun take its course naturally through the basic energy of song and dance. “Beehive” is not about teaching a lesson or sending a message, it’s about smiling and tapping that foot, and at this it is a success even with over 100 of Columbia’s musical actors engaged in either “Ragtime” at Trustus or “Les Miserables” at Town Theatre.

Indeed, it is a huge week for theatre in the midlands, with eight shows running simultaneously. So, if you want to start out on an up note, give “Beehive” a try. If you want to save that smile for later the show runs through September 28.

For more information visit our Press Releases page, and for reservations call the Workshop Theatre box office at 799-6551.

 

 

Trustus Theatre’s “Pine” Particularly Engaging, With Flaws Typical of Work In Progress

Review by James Harley.

Regardless of how the production actually turns out, the annual Trustus Playwrights’ Festival provides one of the most interesting theatre experiences in the city. Typically featuring a world premiere of an aspiring playwright’s work, the festival winners, unlike polished Broadway hits, give the viewer an opportunity to see more of the creative process at work as the director and actors venture into uncharted territory. There are always inherent strengths (otherwise the play would not win the festival) and weaknesses (these are still new works in progress), and so it is always exciting to see what the company can do with these works, especially given that there are no established expectations.

This year’s winner, New York City playwright Eugenie Carabatsos’ heartfelt comedy “Pine,” falls right in line, offering an intriguing story with high production values and a few flaws --both literary and performative-- along the way. "Pine" at Trustus Theatre

The story is that of the White family, who traditionally gather at the family home in upstate New York for the holidays. This particular gathering is highly emotional, as it falls in the week of the anniversary of the untimely death of eldest son Colin, killed in a car crash 5 years earlier. Surviving Colin are his younger brother Teddy, who was in the crash also, his sister Julie and their overbearing mother Rita. Adding substantial drama to the occasion is the presence of Rachel, Colin’s girlfriend at the time of his death, and her new boyfriend Miles.

But there is another presence as well, as Colin’s ghost still haunts the premises, hungry for contact with those he loved and unable to move on. It is ultimately his fate which is the subject of the show.

On the literary front, “Pine” has an excellent foundation. The gimmick of having a ghost visibly present at a family event such as this borders on brilliance, as it creates numerous opportunities for humor and interesting stage pictures, all while tapping into strong emotions that are universal, as we all lose family members sooner or later. Add to this the ongoing intrigue of wondering if Colin will ever break through the barrier of death and reach his loved ones again, and you are thoroughly sucked into the action. This complex three-way balance is the strength of the play.

On the literary downside, the relationships between the family members and guests are somewhat over-established. It is clear from very early in the story that Rita is overbearing and bordering on sociopathic, yet there are several unnecessary scenes at the dining table that continue to pound this fact into the mind of the viewer over and over. Some of this could be trimmed, as the message and characterization does not require this level of reinforcement. We get it, and also the relationship between the others. Indeed, these are the tediously dramatic moments where the sympathy of the viewer wanes momentarily under the weight of the negativity until the intrigue gets things back on track. It doesn’t doom the show, but should probably be tweaked for a more positive effect.

The performance, under the direction of Dewey Scott-Wiley, is framed within a solid technical backdrop, with an efficient yet believably realistic interior setting and a very relaxing snow-covered pine forest.

While all cast members have their moments, there is some inconsistency within several characterizations and in the level of performance as a whole. The shifts from comedy to tragedy have some characters swinging wildly in ways that diminish their effectiveness, but there are also standouts that keep the show anchored. Becky Hunter certainly keeps it real as Rita, while Hunter Bolton’s simple characterization of a generally calm and accepting Colin creates adequate sympathy. Jennifer Moody Sanchez and Harrison Saunders provide a breath of fresh, natural air as Rachel and Miles.

Teddy, Julie and Mike (Cory Alpert, Rachel Kuhnle, and Josiah Laubenstein) dip a bit far into comic caricature at times, though they tend to grow on you as the show progresses toward its more serious aspects.

But again, at this point much of the interest in “Pine” is literary, as it is a new work yet to be experienced by the greater theatre community, and to see such a show tweaked and developed is an uncommon opportunity. While the acting across the board is not the finest you will see at Trustus, there is no doubt that the basic story is especially engaging and worth the time regardless of its minor flaws.

“Pine” runs through August 10 at Trustus theatre. For reservations call the box office at 803-254-9732. For more information visit our Press Releases page or the Trustus website.

 

Workshop Theatre’s Minimalist “Doctor Dolittle” Is a Treat For the Kids

Review by August Krickel.

The pushmi-pullyu steals the show.

With such an intro, one can only be referring to Doctor Dolittle, Leslie Bricusse's stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1967 film, which has nothing to do with Eddie Murphy but everything to do with Hugh Lofting's beloved series of children's books.  Scaled down for a smaller, younger cast, Workshop Theatre's minimalist summer musical production will thrill the youngest of theatre-goers, and have them trying to speak rhinoceros - of courseros, can't you?

Set in the geographically and culturally provincial village of Puddleby-on-the Marsh, a series of flashbacks and testimony from locals tell the story of the titular physician, a Victorian doctor-turned-vet who is on trial for murder. Don't despair - it's all a misunderstanding, although Dolittle's claim that he can "talk to the animals" lands him in the asylum... until he's sprung by his feathered and furry friends.

As Dolittle, Lee O. Smith gives an excellent (and for him, subdued) performance, balancing the line between stuffy Brit, kindly healer, and loveable eccentric.  Unlike the books, we rarely get to hear from the animals (played by children and young teens) beyond barks and whinnies, squeaks and squawks, leaving Smith with the bulk of the dialogue as he diagnoses their maladies. He's a vastly better singer than Rex Harrison, and is especially appealing on "Something in Your Smile," a wistful and reflective ballad that channels both "Accustomed to Her Face" and "How to Handle a Woman." That smile comes from Kate Huggins as Emma Fairfax, a tightly-laced-and-corseted spitfire who feuds with the good doctor so intensely on songs like "You're Impossible," that it must be love."Dr. Dolittle" at Workshop Theatre

A number of fan favorites from the books get short-changed with no dialogue, including Jip the dog (Ellie Thomson) Chee-Chee the chimp (Abigail Montgomery) and Gub-Gub the pig (Logan Rush) but the actors often double or triple in other scenes as other characters (In some fantasy voice cast of an all-star animated film, I have always imagined Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe as Jip, and the late Curly Howard as the incessantly whiny and gluttonous Gub-Gub).  Particularly enjoyable is/are the pushmi-pullyu, a two-headed llama played by the aptly named Haley Brooker and Brooke Buckner, who aren't sisters, but according to program notes are classmates.  With nothing to convey their appearance beyond fleecy caps with ears attached, and some fabric that suggests their conjoined torso, these young performers create an entire personality for their "character," a restless, inquisitive, preening prima donna who loves attention.  They shimmy like junior Gypsy Rose Lees, then dip into the old soft-shoe, which is pretty impressive, given that one or the other almost always has to  be dancing backwards.

Also of note is Sabrina Allison's commitment to her role as a myopic horse, cured by the doctor with a pair of over-sized spectacles. In a moment of sublime absurdity only found in children's theatre, the horse proceeds to read a book; when the incensed Emma appears in search of her uncle's runaway mare, Allison sinks her head deep into the book, apparently hoping to avoid detection, since no one would ever spot a horse hidden thus.

It's that sort of story, one that I loved on the big screen when I saw the film at the Atlantic Twin Theatres, which gives Columbians of a certain age an idea of how long ago that was.  The movie was never a huge success, however, and the book and score are not the best work from Bricusse, who found greater fame before, with Stop the World... and The Roar of the Greasepaint..., and later, with Victor/Victoria and Jekyll & Hyde, all done with collaborators not found here. 

The entire production staff returns from last summer's Camp Rock - The Musical: Director E.G. Heard Engle, Music Director Daniel Gainey, Choreographer Katie Hilliger, Scenic Designer Randy Strange, Lighting Designer Barry Sparks, Sound Designer Baxter Engle, and Costume Designer Alexis Doktor.  Yet that show, like many recent summer productions at Workshop, was a lavish, big-cast spectacular with plenty of young adults in the cast, while this production is truly a children's show, with only a handful of grown-ups around.

Sprinkled throughout the ensemble are a few familiar faces (the off-the chain girl from High School Musical, one of the flamboyant brothers from Wild Party, the soulful baritone Star Camper from Camp Rock) but it's primarily kids, and often only a dozen or so at a time. As a result, the production isn't as rich vocally as one might wish, but it works just fine for its intended audience, which I'd say is ages eight and younger, who are there to see their peers bringing a beloved story to life. 

Likewise, some of the simple costumes incorporate masks, while others imply a particular creature mainly by color.  Polynesia the parrot (Marra Edwards and Liza Hunter perform the role on alternate nights) for example wears a colorful mask with red and orange plumage, but one might otherwise think she's just a Mardi Gras reveler; I didn't realize that the gray-clad ballerina played by Ireland Kost represents a seal, until dialogue explained this crucial plot point, but the young dancer is quite proficient, and her pirouettes are vastly more entertaining than any awkward performing seal movements would have been. 

I would say that Randy Strange's set isn't up to his usual standards, but it's really not supposed to be; indeed, this production is more akin to S. Claus and other enjoyable children's Christmas shows that Workshop has often presented in years past, or to productions at the excellent Columbia Children's Theatre.  Most of the sets are simple painted drops or detailed, cartoon-like sketches projected onto a screen behind the action, but the action, and the performances by young actors, is the whole point.  That said, Baxter Engle has created some inventive visual effects involving animated shadow figures, projected onto Strange's beautiful drawings.  Using this technique, the audience is treated to everything from an aerial jailbreak abetted by seagulls, to a trek onto a rocky cliff, and a flight aboard the Giant Lunar Moth. A particular visual highlight is an image of turbulent waves, peppered by streaks of light that signify violent monsoon rains.

Dr. Dolittle clocks in at a little over two hours plus a generous intermission, and is a pleasant rendition of a childhood favorite. The younger the audience member, the more he or she will now clamor for the Dolittle books at bedtime, or better yet, become inspired to read them.  Older children may well discover the rich performance opportunities which children's theatre offers them.  But there are only four more shows, Wednesday 7/24 through Saturday, 7/27.  Contact the box office at 803-799-4876 or visit www.workshoptheatre.com for ticket information.

 

Talent and Rich Production Values Make Town Theatre’s “Tarzan, The Musical” a Must-See For Your Kids

Review by August Krickel.

He's from a gang of free spirits who live for the moment thanks to their physical prowess and agility. She's from a structured, repressed society, and is frightened - yet somehow strangely intrigued - by the wild abandon he displays. That could be the plot of Twilight or High School Musical, but also describes Tarzan - the Stage Musical, currently running at Town Theatre.   Based on the animated film, this Tarzan is more Disney than Edgar Rice Burroughs - the romance between Tarzan and Jane is emphasized, the action and violence are downplayed, and there are clear messages about cross-cultural acceptance and tolerance.  Thanks to rich production values and plenty of stage magic, young audiences are sure to embrace this timeless tale of jungle adventure.

The ensemble, including many children, portray apes and other jungle denizens, and are costumed with only the suggestion of animal features; multi-colored streamers of fabric hint at fur, while exotic make-up usually found at a rave gives an indication of a"Tarzan" at Town Theatre non-human face.  Most of the gorillas look like cavemen playing backup for David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust era, with subtle and occasional chest-beating or knuckle-dragging to remind us that this is a tribe of apes.  Graceful dancers in beautifully patterned leotards represent other animals; particularly effective were two clad in a wavy, surreal, back-and-white stripe pattern, following one another closely, and often dancing with arms linked. With no masks or hooves or bulky suits, they made for an elegant zebra.  Costumer Lori Stepp and Wig Mistress Cherelle Guyton have done an excellent job at channeling the original production design from Broadway.  

Director/Choreographer Shannon Willis Scruggs includes other dancers in chaotic shades of blue to represent choppy ocean waves, and young performers in bright hues of green and yellow spring to life as flowers discovered by budding botanist Jane (Celeste Morris.) I mention these visuals first because Danny Harrington's set becomes an organic part of the story, with every inch a new part of the jungle containing a potential friend or foe. It's just about the lushest, most detailed, most visually appealing set for a children's production that I've ever seen.   Harrington often uses projected patterns to liven up proceedings on stage, but here they enhance the mood and setting, implying the constantly changing patterns of shadows as sun peeks through thick foliage, and is reflected back from running water.

Tarzan (Parker Byun) swings into this tropical paradise right over the heads of the audience, zooming in on a zip line from the light booth, and keeps that level of vigorous athleticism going all the way to curtain call.  When hanging with his simian pal Terk (an impish Jackie Rowe) or his adoptive gorilla parents Kala (Laurel Posey) and Kerchak (Scott Stepp) Tarzan speaks in contemporary American English, but when encountering humans, they all revert to grunts and hoots.  When Jane and Tarzan duet, only the audience is able to understand his thoughts, expressed in English.  It's an ostensibly complex narrative device that works effectively, and is likely to get younger audience members thinking about the possibilities of imagination and story-telling.


Morris bears a resemblance to her cartoon counterpart; she and Byun harmonize well together, as do Jane and her father (Frank Thompson, playing an appropriately hearty and somewhat befuddled professor).  Liberty Broussard and Jadon Stanek show a lot of spunk and energy as the young Terk and Tarzan in "Who Better Than Me," and have strong, clear voices that rival those of the adult performers (they alternate in these roles with Caroline Quinn and Luke Melnyk).   Much of the drama in the early scenes comes from the menace of a wily Leopard (Kristy O'Keefe).  Scruggs interprets scenes of violence as stylized dance numbers, so that older children will understand what a leopard does with its prey, while younger ones will simply think that the pretty lady with the spots took that person off stage.  The chief menace in the second act is Chad Forrister as evil hunter Clayton, and as in previous roles (The 39 Steps, Plan 9 from Outer Space) Forrister channels a vibe of cartoonish villainy while still remaining believable. The matinee I attended had twice as many adults as children, but when Forrister took his bow for curtain call, the entire audience erupted in joyous boos and hisses, which is the highest of compliments if you're playing a Disney villain.

Composer Phil Collins won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Kala's song "You'll Be In My Heart," and he's not in Genesis art-rock mode here (although there are a number of singers dressed as sunflowers) but instead embraces clean-cut, Broadway-friendly, pop-rock-candy tunes.  Posey, as Kala, gets to sing the hit song, as well as "Sure As Sun Turns to Moon," in which she and Stepp are seen as a long-term couple who love each other in spite of irreconcilable differences... and then you realize that it's a couple of gorillas.  Stepp has played plenty of big apes on stage before, but usually the gangster or cowboy kind, and is a believably gruff, alpha-male who fears that Tarzan will discover his true nature: that of a man, synonymous with killer of animals.

Posey is warm and nurturing as the grieving mother who takes in the orphaned infant Tarzan. No one in the audience is expecting anything beyond a pleasant Disney story, but Posey cranks the acting level up to eleven, emoting like Fantine giving away her child, and it's truly a sight to behold, proving once again that a dedicated actress can give a poignant, professional-level performance in just about any scenario.  Even when she's simultaneously scratching for fleas and lumbering towards the next banana tree.

The script, by David Henry Hwang (a Tony winner and Pulitzer nominee for more serious fare like M. Butterfly) is full of metaphors that are obvious but not intrusive. When Tarzan sings "Will someone tell me where I belong? Where I should go? Can someone tell me where I'm going wrong?"  the character is talking about being a human among gorillas, but the loneliness is universal, and the song is quite reminiscent of "Where is Love?" from Oliver. The issues he faces with his adoptive family are those faced by children in any non-traditional and/or blended family, and when he embraces his identity as human not ape, we also see a transition from adolescence to adulthood.  Moments when Kala teaches him that, with similar eyes, fingers, and the beating of their hearts, they're not so different after all - wisdom which Tarzan then  passes along Jane - are clear messages of inclusiveness among mankind. 

The singers perform to a recorded track (ensuring that they can be heard, an important factor to consider with lots of young voices on stage) and the sound design by Matt Mills largely flows smoothly. Head microphones are thankfully invisible due to all the wigs, and several gunshots are timed perfectly, working much better as sound effects than as blanks fired from hand props.

Younger theatre-goers will absolutely be mesmerized by the spectacle on stage and the kaleidoscopic visuals; older children may enjoy the actual stagecraft on display.  Teens will likely develop a crush on the attractive Tarzan and/or Jane... or who knows, perhaps even the slinky Leopard or the devilish Clayton, if they've got a thing for bad boys/girls. Tarzan - the Stage Musical isn't exactly Burroughs, but it's first-rate children's theatre, done with excellent production values and a talented cast, and you owe it to the child in your life to check it out.

For reservations call the Town Theatre box office at 799-2510.

 
 

Trustus Theatre’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” Delivers the Goods

Review by August Krickel.

You always have to be careful how you describe a performance. I learned that last night as I took a break from writing this review, and joined some friends for pints and trivia at the Publick House. One asked me about Ain't Misbehavin’, the new musical running at Trustus Theatre.  I explained how well-done the production was, how talented the cast was, how much fun I had, but made sure she realized that the show is essentially a revue, just unrelated hit songs from Fats Waller.  "So there's not much of a plot?" she asked.  "No, there's no plot, no dialogue - it's just a cabaret show, like a Vegas-style show," I clarified, just really good performers interpreting the material on stage.  "So it wasn't that good?" Mortified, I tried to explain that it was REALLY well-done...but ultimately one's enjoyment will depend on what one is looking for.  

 Ain't Misbehavin' (originally conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, with a host of colleagues assisting with arrangements, musical staging and so forth) offers two hours of upbeat jazz, blues, and swing, performed by five of Trustus's finest.  The play won three Tony Awards in 1978 including Best Musical and Best Featured Actress (Nell Carter - yep, the Gimme A Break actress) for its revival of and tribute to the music of the irrepressible composer, pianist, and band leader Thomas "Fats" Waller.  As such, it perfectly recreates the vibe of the posh clubs of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African-American artists were finding both a musical and creative voice, and  increasing acceptance and popularity in the world of big bands and Tin Pan Alley. 

The set (designed by Brandon McIver and Terrance Henderson) is basic and functional, suggesting the interior of a nightclub. A 7-piece jazz combo, led by Assistant Music Director Camille Jones on piano, performs from a bandstand in the center, flanked by a sweeping staircase.  To either side are a bar and a lounge area. Most songs are performed in front of these, while any performer not in the number carries on naturally in the background, pouring a drink, watching (or ignoring) the singer, or whispering to a girlfriend. "Ain't Misbehavin'" at Trustus Theatre

Director/choreographer Henderson has wisely cast some familiar faces, singers who can really bring out the emotions and nuances of each song, which is important, since there's no real connection between each musical number.  Instead, each singer develops a sort of persona that carries through most of the production as they interact with each other and interpret each song's lyrics.  Kendrick Marion becomes a smooth, slick, rascally hustler;  Samuel McWhite dons the role of the earthier, worldlier man-about-town, and is an occasional surrogate for the impish, extravagant Waller himself, still remembered for his catch phrase, "One never knows, do one?"  Devin Anderson finally gets a chance to be beautiful and sexy on stage, having worn a drab schoolgirl smock in the ensemble of Spring Awakening, overalls as she played the male Gary Coleman in Avenue Q, a toga in Legally Blonde, and most recently  tattered, Depression-era rural garb as Celie in The Color Purple.  Katrina Blanding represents a forceful and sometimes comic diva, and Avery Bateman most often seems the sassy youngster within the group. 

Each gets one or more solos to showcase their vocal skills, with Anderson probably the best at capturing the sound and feel of the era, i.e. 1920's and '30's, especially in "Squeeze Me."   McWhite gets to show off his impressive vocal range, handling almost all of the deep bass parts in a show full of low sultry notes;  he's particularly amusing in "Feet's Too Big" (popularized although not written by Waller) and "Fat and Greasy" (a comic duet with Marion in which the audience gets to clap and sing along.) Bateman is cute and appealing on "Keeping Out of Mischief Now," while Marion makes a great jazz-age hipster extolling the virtues of some late-night reefer in "The Viper's Drag." Blanding hits rich operatic alto notes in a number of songs, and everyone, especially Marion and Bateman, gets to show off dance skills in variations on the Charleston, the Big Apple, and other dance crazes of the era. 

Many numbers, like the hip-hop hits of today, celebrate club life, with titles like "Jitterbug Waltz," "The Joint is Jumpin'," and "Lounging at the Waldorf.”' Most of these songs date to the 1930's and earlier, but the arrangements are as lively as if they had been written today.  I particularly enjoyed "Handful of Keys," which describes Waller's trademark "Stride" piano style, and "Honeysuckle Band" where the cast uses scat to recreate the sounds of each instrument in Waller's band.

With no real script, director Henderson ensures that everything else serves to enhance the period feel, from black+white film clips of New York, to wigs that perfectly capture the appropriate vintage look, to natty suits and hats (courtesy of costumer Alexis Doktor) on McWhite and Marion that place them right in the middle of the Cotton Club.  It should be obvious by now that the music direction by Walter Graham is superb, plus it's clear that the band is having a blast jamming on stage as they accompany the singers.  So much fun is going on, in fact, that one easily forgets the segregation that caused Harlem to create its own social and cultural scene, until "Black and Blue," which is accompanied by newsreel images of disenfranchised African-Americans, one carrying a sign proclaiming "I am a man."  Here the cast are all seated, as they sing the plaintive lyrics: "I'm so forlorn, life's just a thorn, my heart is torn - why was I born?  What did I do? To be so black...and blue."  The moment just breaks your heart, but then the tempo livens and the fun starts back again.

Ain't Misbehavin' was one of the earliest Broadway shows to mine the hits of one composer, then craft a new production around them, and the show has been produced a number of times locally, including during the second season of Trustus, back in 1987 when they were on Assembly Street, but the energy and vitality of director Terrance Henderson's cast is infectious, and you will surely find your toes tapping and your hands clapping along to many of the 32 numbers featured.  Bigger musicals with huge ensembles and intricate plots are often a huge financial gamble for local theatres, plus half the time one or more leads are killed off, and one leaves the performance uncomfortably depressed. Straight plays can likewise tackle uncomfortable subject matter, while most of the truly great stage comedies have been done to death, and thrive in cable reruns of their film incarnations. So one can hardly fault audiences for choosing lighter fare that is almost certain to please, especially when there are supremely gifted performers and creative staff to pull it all together.  Will local audiences tire of musical revues and cabaret shows, no matter how well done?  As a wise man once observed, "One never knows, do one? "  Ain't Misbehavin'  undeniably delivers the goods - just as long as you aren't expecting dialogue, or a plot.  So be forewarned, but then just sit back and enjoy.   

The production runs through Sat. July 20th at Trustus Theatre.

 

Columbia Children’s Theatre’s “The Commedia Rapunzel” is Wacky, Family-Friendly Fun

Review by August Krickel.

It's rare for a man with no children to say he's looking forward to seeing a children's theatre show, but I said just that last year in anticipation of The Commedia Cinderella, and I wasn't disappointed. The same is true for The Commedia Rapunzel, which opened this past weekend at Columbia Children's Theatre, and which is in many ways a sequel to last year's production. Both were written and directed by Sam LaFrage, who also plays multiple roles, designed both set and sound effects, composed original music and lyrics, and for all we know, probably then fights crime dressed as a bat.  In an interview with The State, Lafrage confessed to spending perhaps a day on the Cinderella script, but a month on Rapunzel, and the attention to detail, as well as the multi-talented artist's growth as a writer, is readily apparent. Aided by an energetic cast of primarily 20-somethings who are already old CCT pros, LaFrage has created a wacky, family-friendly re-telling of the timeless tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Commedia dell' arte is a manic, improv-heavy, circus-like story-telling style that developed in Italy centuries ago, and has influenced much of contemporary musical theatre, comedy, and children's theatre.  Stock characters (the young beauty, the bumbling servant, the old fogey, the sharp-tongued-wench) take on multiple roles in familiar plots, cobbling together very loose facsimiles of costumes and sets, breaking the fourth wall to banter with the audience, and tossing in anachronistic contemporary references. The littlest of audience members are likely to be familiar with stories like Rapunzel already, and by seeing how make-believe and play-acting can be crafted into a cohesive narrative performance before their eyes, it's a great way for them to learn how to appreciate live theatre. Parents meanwhile will find plenty of laughs that go over the heads of their kids, much like the old animated "Fractured Fairy Tales." Among other random references, I caught lines about Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashians, "Gilmore Girls," Harry Potter, the Village People, Christina Aguilera, Into the Woods, The Hills Have Eyes, A Chorus Line, Wal-Mart, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Julie Traymor.  There's even a shout-out to Lugoff, and to the obscure 70's Dan Hill ballad "Sometimes When We Touch."  All this in a show about a girl with long golden hair, locked up in a tower by an evil witch."The Commedia Rapunzel" at Columbia Children's Theatre

LaFrage to some extent pads out and makes more palatable his source material, as the Rapunzel story is quite basic:  low-life parents sell their unborn daughter to a witch in exchange for a head of European field lettuce, or "rapunzel," hence the child's name.  The witch locks the child in a tower, but of course the child grows up into a beauty, who allows a prince to climb her tresses, rescue her, and of course they live happily ever after.   Paul Lindley II and LaFrage make for a broadly comic, trailer-trash baker and his wife, while Beth DeHart is a harmless conjurer who only turns "evil" when she curses first the deadbeat parents, then her ungrateful adopted daughter and her new boyfriend.  Lindley and LaFrage return as flighty, fluttery birds (and I don't just mean that they have wings) while Elizabeth Stepp plays the title role, and Bobby Bloom doubles as narrator and Prince.  Everyone picks up additional roles, including the members of the dysfunctional Italian troupe that is presenting the story of Rapunzel to us, while Ashlyn Combs helps out as a zany "Zanni," or clown/servant. Combs has come up through the ranks of CCT's "YouTheatre" productions in which older children from CCT acting classes perform for younger children, and here she holds her own with some really talented grownups. In a moment of comic inspiration, however surreal, she appears in full "Annie" costume and hair, to belt out how she's the real talent among the cast, and she has the voice to prove her point. (Full disclosure: eons ago I did shows with both her mother and her aunt, and she has the dance skills of the former, the voice of the latter, and that means she's just about ready for Broadway as far as I'm concerned.)

As with her portrayal of Cinderella last year, Stepp has the chance for some actual moments of serious acting and characterization amid all the craziness. At moments when she confesses her loneliness in the tower, you hear the sadness in her voice.  LaFrage gives her the task of making sense out of the moral ambiguities within the plot, and she clarifies that the witch's actions were done from misguided love, a message actually aimed a bit more at over-protective parents than their children.   She's a post-modern Rapunzel who hesitates to marry a prince she's just met, but is open for perhaps dinner and a movie to start. 

The show consciously draws from and homages its roots in commedia dell' arte, with several characters sporting authentic masks in lieu of makeup, and with extensive use of expertly-timed sound effects (the term "slapstick" actually derives from the original way commedia performers would smack each other around, feigning loud strikes via a wooden device.)  A working professional now based in New York, LaFrage has taken the time to craft something a little more structured, a little darker, a little longer, and with a little more of a message than one might expect from this sort of production; in other words, if Cinderella was his Star Wars, Rapunzel would be his Empire Strikes Back. (Not an original metaphor, by the way, but an apt one.) 

Honestly, I could have handled a little trimming from its 70-75 minute running time, and perhaps a little lighter depiction of the witch's fits of sorcerous rage, and maybe even a way to accept Rapunzel's parents' actions as something less than horrific, but those are minor quibbles.   As the play ended, my first thought was "Wow, I really hope they bring him back to do a third one next summer."  I realized then that without a tremendous amount of fanfare, I had just watched the world premiere of an original piece of theatre, written by a Midlands native, and one really hopes that LaFrage's works will be picked up for production at the hundreds of other children's theatres nationwide. 

The Commedia Rapunzel runs through Sun. June 23rd, with a "late night" performance for adults at 9 PM Sat. June 22nd, after which it will alternate with The Commedia Pinocchio in weekly matinee performances in July.  Call 803-691-4548 for information, or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com.

  

Chapin Theatre Company Keeps Up the Southern Humor With “Mama Won’t Fly” 

Review by James Harley.

Chapin Theatre Company keeps up its streak of successful farcical comedies with “Mama Won’t Fly,” a tale of a southern family traveling across the country together to attend a wedding on the west coast. Penned by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hops and Jamie Wooten, the story introduces us to Savannah Sprunt Fairchild Honeycutt and her mother Norleen Sprunt as they prepare for the long trip to Savannah’s brother’s wedding.

Despite having already purchased plane tickets, Norleen refuses to fly, claiming that it makes her sick and forcing Savannah to concede to being trapped in a car with the constantly meddling mother for four days. Ouch. To top it off, mama has plans to stop and visit with other family members along the way, opening the door to even more drama. Of course, everything that could possibly go wrong with this plan does, leading to an ever-climbing escalator of absurdity with each scene in this pure farce full of twists.

The strength of the show is really its script, calling on lots of stereotypical southern humor, similar in many ways to the company’s recent production of “Simply Divided.” But the cast embraces their roles and keeps the audience laughing with tons of physical humor as well. Tiffany Dinsmore stars as Savannah, a middle-aged alpha belle who is now single after two failed marriages of her own. Trapped in her own past, she longs for the one that got away, or in this case simply disappeared, while she tries to keep her mother out of her current business. Dinsmore’s face gets lots of exercise showing her wide range of emotion, much of it involving frustration as you might expect if you’ve ever been caged up with your overbearing parent for an extended amount of time."Mama Won't Fly" by Chapin Theatre Company

Linda Durant plays the sneaky mama, with her strong point being her attitude as expressed primarily in authoritative vocal flare-ups. Jessica Fichter rounds out the leading roles as Haley, the bride-to-be whom the Sprunts meet on the journey. Fichter brings a boatload of energy to the stage as she seeks to make a positive impression on her new in-laws. To give too many details would spoil the twisty nature of the show, but suffice it to say that these three work well together under the direction of Jocelyn Sanders, creating comedic visual moments to go along with the text.

The weakness of the show is its overly-simple scenic quality, using the barest possible set design and elements. While it’s understandable to a degree given the television-like scenic pacing (there are 15 distinct scenes as they travel across the country), it is nonetheless a little boring visually beyond the actors’ physical comedy and some humorous costuming. Pantomiming certain acts also leaves a little to be desired. Having a prime facility to work with at the Harbison theatre it seems like more could have been done to dress up the show.

An ensemble of five other actors (Sandy Steffen, Debi Young, Andi Cooper, Steven W. Nessel, Dennis Kacsur) play multiple characters introduced along the path, ranging from family to law enforcement officials, all of whom complicate the plot with each appearance. Most of these identities are fairly clear as the actors push the roles over the top to define them. George Dinsmore also makes a brief cameo appearance, and without uttering a word generates a healthy chuckle.

Is this production a special must-see? No. Is it funny and entertaining? Yes, at least judging by the response of the opening night crowd, which was a bit larger than usual for the company. “Mama Won’t Fly” taps into tried and true situational humor of a universal nature and works as a community theatre production. So, now you may know what to expect in terms of the show’s quality, but you probably won't expect some of the things that happen to the Sprunts along their road to California.

"Mama Won't Fly runs through June 23. 

 

Town Theatre Wins the War Over “Miss Saigon”

Review by James Harley.

Producing a demanding musical like “Miss Saigon” in the Columbia market is a challenging endeavor to say the least, and Town Theatre deserves a standing ovation for pulling it off with such success. Handicapped somewhat by a limited Asian population to draw from, director Jamie Carr Harrington made the most of what she had without skipping a beat, putting together one of the best shows to grace Town’s stage in recent memory.

Set during the Vietnam War, “Miss Saigon” tells the story of Kim, an unfortunate young Vietnamese woman who has lost virtually everything, including most of her family, in the ongoing conflict. With nowhere else to turn she, like many others in her situation, is recruited into prostitution where she meets Chris, an American soldier. The two quickly"Miss Saigon" at Town Theatre fall in love, but the fall of Saigon to the red army pulls them apart almost immediately as the U.S. withdraws, leaving Kim alone and desperate again. Despite an opportunity to be lifted from her predicament by another man, Kim declines, clinging steadfastly to the hope that her true love will somehow find a way to return for her.

To go much further would spoil the production, so suffice it to say that the remainder of the show is an intense battle between love and circumstance told in an extremely touching manner.

Despite reasonable concern that casting a Caucasian as Kim might adversely impact its visual realism, the show is really more about the effect of the lovers’ prohibitive geo-political situation than their differing races. Thus, placing the highly talented Shelby Sessler in the lead role is far from problematic when it comes to the actual quality of the production and its intended message.

Sessler demonstrates clearly why she was among the finalists for Jasper Magazine’s 2012 Theatre Artist of the Year award, exhibiting exceptional vocal strength throughout the show. Indeed, despite the band’s best efforts to drown out the performers on stage (the show’s only significant weakness) they could not touch Sessler, who simply cranked it up a notch and blew them away, making absolutely sure that the audience caught every word that flowed from her mouth.

Lanny Spires as Kim’s lover, Chris, doesn’t compete with Sessler in terms of power but shines in his vocal acting, accentuating his numbers with clear emotion, effectively showing his love, doubt, frustration, hope and confusion when appropriate.

Will Moreau displays classic showmanship as the Vietnamese pimp who dreams the American dream, while several of his scantily clad “employees” deserve mention (and perhaps even some suspicion) for their notable pole and lap-dancing skills. Scott Vaughan, Parker Byun, Karly Minacapelli and the adorable Luke Young are also solid in various supporting roles.

The production’s huge ensemble is utilized with extreme creativity by Harrington, actively establishing the mood in every scene, be it celebratory, imposing or frantic. Her attention to detail amidst the dynamism is notable from the immediately engaging opening to the final curtain. Some other highlights include the crowded strip club scene and the very powerful “Fall of Saigon.”

Also playing an integral role in Harrington’s directorial process is the exceptional wedding of lighting and scenery, both designed by Danny Harrington. With the show’s radical shifts in pace and location demanding a rather barebones set, Harrington gets aggressive with the lighting, energizing the stage and the action through both color and movement. Again the result is a spectacular dynamism that naturally stirs emotion in the viewer.

The range of emotion in “Miss Saigon” is quite wide, as there are many disturbing and many touching moments to enjoy. Of course there are a few minor flaws here and there, but none (other than the band blocking out important lyrics) that diminish the overall impact of the production. Whether or not you are a regular Town Theatre patron, if you enjoy well directed theatre you should enjoy this show.

Be aware that it runs fairly long (about two and a half hours) and that there are a few instances where foul language is used, in addition to lots of skin and sexually suggestive movement on display (it’s about a prostitute, remember). None of this behavior goes too far overboard, however, nor does it dictate the entire flavor of the show.

“Miss Saigon” runs through May 26 at Town Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 799-2510. 

  

Workshop Theatre’s “Songs For A New World” Goes Beyond the Ordinary  

Review by August Krickel.

"I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."

There were times when I felt much like Morgan Freeman's character in The Shawshank Redemption at opening night for Songs for a New World, the new show at Workshop Theatre.  Jason Robert Brown's musical resembles in structure an anthology of poetry set to music, a series of self-contained little stories and character studies that play out in one song only, unconnected to the rest of the production. With no spoken dialogue, no plot, no costumes, and only the most minimal of sets, nine supremely gifted stage vocalists not only sing but act each song, in solo and ensemble numbers. Sometimes touching, sometimes amusing, sometimes inspirational, Brown's score contains echoes of Company-era Sondheim, Godspell-era Stephen Schwartz, and a lot of jazz and soul. I'll confess that at times I wished there were a little more structure, since the point or "plot" of some songs was a little murky, but the soaring voices of the cast and the opportunities for individual performers to shine more than made up for the absence of traditional elements of musical theatre.

Chad Henderson has recruited a Who's Who from some of his recent productions: Elisabeth Baker, Kendrick Marion and Vicky Saye Henderson (no relation to the director) all worked together in Spring Awakening;  Marion appeared with Samuel McWhite, Kanika Moore, and Andy Bell in Passing Strange, while Bell, Baker, and Vicky Saye Henderson explored family dysfunction in Next to Normal, and Paul Lindley II was seen in director Henderson's recent Children's Theatre production of Knuffle Bunny.  Rounding out the cast are Mark Ziegler, who worked with musical director Daniel Gainey on last fall's Legally Blonde (and was a memorable crooner - and mooner! - in last year's Grease) and newcomer Molly Schoolmeester. Great care seems to have been taken to divvy up the right songs to the right singers, with plenty of opportunity to showcase individual skill, range, and talent.  "Songs For A New World" at Workshop Theatre

Vicky Saye Henderson fares best with a series of juicy, character-centric vignettes that explore marriage, motherhood, and choices made in women's lives.  In "Just One Step" she's a brassy New York matron at wit's end as she confronts her husband from the ledge of their penthouse on the 57th floor; in "Surabaya Santa" she's a jaded and broadly comic Mrs. Santa Claus, while in "The Flagmaker, 1775," she sews to distract herself while both husband and son are away in battle. In "Stars and the Moon" she reflects on lost loves and shattered dreams, while Bonnie Boiter-Jolley recreates in dance the emotions contained within the lyrics.

Baker gets most of the numbers dealing with young love, and is particularly appealing in the wistful "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," beginning with a list of trivial fears that others have, but eventually getting around to the boy who is afraid to say he loves her.  McWhite and Lindley duet in "The River Won't Flow," a lively and snappy assessment of the role of luck in our lives.

There's no weak link within the cast, and everyone takes the spotlight for one or more songs, or solos within songs.