09/27/2020 BARBARA’S BLUE KITCHEN Aurora Theatre “Our Stage Onscreen”
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR BUSINESS
Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre is beginning a quarantine-friendly effort to bring its creative and professional “brand” to a wider on-line audience. As its first offering, it brings us Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, a “country-fried musical” with book, music, and lyrics by Lori Fischer, and all its major roles played by a single actor, Chloe Kay. This is a very familiar show set in a small town diner filled with just-plain-folks that too often find themselves on the wrong side of stereotype and stories that too often come across as been-there seen-that stale, even trite. There are some toe-tapping up-beat numbers, and some sweet ballads, and even some grin-inducing novelty numbers (“Let’s fall in love for just a little while”), so it wasn’t a chore to watch. Still, this initial production shows that, tech-wise, Aurora still has a learning curve ahead of them.
Just to recap, It’s morning in Barbara’s Blue Kitchen diner. Barbara Jean herself is breaking in a new waitress (Jeanette) who would rather be selling Tupperware. You see, Barbara Jean had to fire her own sister (Melissa) for alienating too many customers. It’s not long before Melissa shows up, three rowdy children in tow (Tommy Lee and the twins) Mel is also upset because the sheriff had just detained her dog, Killer, just because it bit Tommy Lee. Also on hand are Tessie, a senior citizen from the “Happiness Home”, Miss Morris, a fifty-something nurse who despairs at the mistreatment of children (especially Tommy Lee), and Lombardo, Barbara Jean’s beau, who runs the local hair salon.
I can forgive the play for its collapsed time frame (closing time and night are only ninety minutes after opening and morning), or for its characters who seem to have been created with more condescension than affection. Maybe I can’t so easily forgive this -- the play supposedly celebrates community, the connections we all yearn to find. But it comes across to me as far too mean-spirited. Melissa is an abusive parent and this “community” should take her to task rather than look the other way. Lombardo is a philandering creep who doesn’t deserve Barbara Jean. And most of the talk around the diner is pure gossip. This “community” is one filled with hungry teeth, with knives out.
What I find even more difficult to forgive is the relative sameness of most of the characters. Of course they are all played by the same actor, but little effort was made to differentiate them beyond costume and wig changes. Melissa and Miss Morris are so similar in fact, I sometimes had difficulty knowing who I was seeing. The two characters are played with identical angry energy and youthful posture; I really had no idea the nurse was supposed to be twenty years older. Even Tessie speaks with the same rhythms as all the younger characters. Only Tommy Lee emerges as a unique character, and that is undercut by him sporting the same arm tattoo as all of Ms. Kay’s characters. Worse, Lombardo is given a comic-opera Italian accent that is so far over-the top it is blatantly offensive (“Take-a Care-a my Fish-a”).
In any case, it soon becomes obvious that this one-actor approach would never work in a live-audience setting. It seems to be trying to echo the “Tuna” plays with their multiple characters played by two actors. In that case, however, the plays are constructed to give (less-than-minimal) time for off stage quick-changes in costumes. Here, the stage is literally filled with clones of Ms. Kay, all wearing different costumes. And, even though it’s obviously filmed on the Aurora Stage (we see audience seats that are sometimes filled with musicians) with a beautifully detailed set by Jon Sandmaier, this is first and foremost a FILM, with some modicum of editing skill required. Here there is no evidence of pre-planning (storyboarding) as characters often walk in front of seats and spaces we know are occupied by other characters.** There is no evidence that any effort was made to “color match,” to ensure that consecutive shots at least give the illusion of being shot at the same time in the same place. And the editing too often is too languid – a pause or two beginning and ending shots that hinder the overall pace, which would zoom with a tighter hand on the timer. To paraphrase a pace-obsessed director of my acquaintance, “You could drive a truck through some of those pauses,”
But But But…
In spite of all these carps that blunted my enjoyment of Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, I will concede that Chloe Kay has a beautifully expressive voice that really sells ALL her songs. (Kudos also to her only co-star, Skylar Brown, who plays a singing DJ and Barbara Jean’s guitar-strumming cook). Yes, listening to a soundtrack would make me skeptical that we were hearing different characters but the songs themselves soar, and make me (almost) want to watch the show again. Or to at least listen to that elusive soundtrack album.
Finally, I really have to admire the thinking behind the “Our Stage Onscreen” concept. To quote Aurora’s Press Release:
The Our Stage Onscreen series will stream small-cast performances – providing artists a safe space to create without risking their health and giving audiences an alternative to encounter fully-realized theatrical productions safely.
Aurora Theatre continues to engage audiences through free digital programming, including Cyber Stage, a play reading event that has recently pivoted to provide relevant stories and themes with a more diverse representation to amplify marginalized voices.
“Our Stage Onscreen is exciting for a few reasons: it fulfills our mission of producing professional theatrical events for our community, it allows us to employ artists and it gives us a creative platform we’re all so desperate for at this time,” said Ann-Carol Pence, Co-Founder and Associate Producer of Aurora Theatre. “We’ve used this opportunity to implement safety protocols for our artists and staff so when we’re able to gather, we’ll be ready. Barbara’s Blue Kitchen affected me so deeply because the show speaks to the ache we all have to be part of a community. This diner is the center of town, much like Aurora Theatre has become the central place for Gwinnett County. The show provides an opportunity to innovate by bringing a fully-realized production to the homes of our community, who we know are starved for great musical theater. This show is relevant, yet full of hope, heart and marvelous music.”
Yes, I had some problems with this initial production, especially with the script, with the “Film tech” shortcomings, with parts of the central performance(s). But, in the final analysis, it is a pleasantly tuneful visit to a small-town diner, that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
I just wish so many other shows didn’t already do the same thing and do it better.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #BarbarasBlueKitchen #AuroraTheatre #OurStageOnscreen)
** There is a sequence near the end in which Ms. Kay appears twice in the same shot, so that sort of technology was available to the editors. I have to wonder why it wasn’t used more often.