REVIEWS 2018

 1/4/2018        A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM                       BroadwayHD.com

 

****½  ( A ) 

CAN YOU FEEL THE LOVE TONIGHT

 

So, for my first 2018 column, I return to that ever-more important source of "What to Watch When I can't Get Out of the House," BroadwayHD.com, in this case, a 2014 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (and a 2017 Fathom Features Event), directed by everyone's favorite Wunderfrau, Julie Taymor.

 

To be honest, I've always been a beet leery of Ms. Taymor's reputation -- yes, The Lion King is filled to the brim with stark creativity and verdant imagination, but, to my mind, it fell short in the basic stagecraft department -- I initially saw it from a seat on the extreme side of the orchestra, and much of the show, indeed most of it, was obscured by the proscenium arch, though I did have a marvelous view of props hanging backstage and actors waiting for their entrance.  It was as if no attempt was made to "adapt" it to its Broadway venue.  Seeing a touring production a few years later from a center seat, "filled in the blanks" and made all the gloriousness of concept and design come alive.  But I couldn't help thinking, "What good is genius when it leaves a large chunk of the audience blind to the final battle?"

 

I was impressed with her 1999 movie of "Titus" (based on Titus Andronicus), not so impressed with her 2010 Tempest, so my expectations for another Shakespearean foray were, to say the least, mixed.

 

Fortunately,  A Midsummer Night's Dream, a video record of the sold out stage production (*) puts Ms. Taymor's strengths Center Stage, and hides her weaknesses in a maelstrom of wonderful and creative choices.
 

Shakespeare’s “Dream” is probably his most accessible and familiar story.  Theaterreview.com lists no fewer than twenty productions, five of which have my own reviews attached.  I have personally been part of three separate productions, and seen at least a dozen more in venues in and out of Atlanta (including Canada’s Stratford Festival – and the less said about that Zorba-esque exercise, the better.  "Offa," Indeed!).

 

To recap, I’ve seen “Midsummers” set in a forest of beds-on-stilts, cast with “tag-team” Pucks, with mechanicals dressed in thatch, 2009’s GSF backstage-centric extravaganza, even one in which Puck wore Buddy Holly glasses and a superman shirt.  It should be difficult to surprise me with this one.

 

And yet, here we are, watching a clown-faced Puck start the play by falling into a slumber, only to have his bed ride to the rafters on barren branches that are soon chain-sawed by a modern-day "mechanical."  Here we have a magical forest composed of an ensemble of "Rude Elementals" holding quarterstaffs they use to block paths and pound rhythms.  Here we have rough-and-tumble mechanicals rehearsing in a bower with sod-upholstered chairs and sofas.  Here we have floating clouds of fog that lift characters and rock them to sleep.  Here we have a gender-fluid Puck who comes across as an impossibly limber vaudeville clown.  Here we have an angry lovers scene that quickly descends to a frantic pillow fight with everyone stripped down to their underwear.  Here we see a "Bottom Head" with moving lips that actually synch with the lines.  ALL of which were new and exciting ideas that worked perfectly, that elevated a sense of place and magic to timeless wonder.

 

And, we had a cast, comfortably fluid with Shakespeare's language, creating familiar characters that were new and original.  The "Mechanicals" were especially well-cast -- a large hairy man to play lion, a thick-set man to play Wall, a small accented youth to play Thisbe, an effete cynic to play Starveling, and a Brooklyn "wise guy" (The Lion King's Max Casella) to play Bottom.  On the fairy side, we have TV's David Harewood ("Supergirl") as a marvelously virile and "native" Oberon, a diminutive (and extraordinarily flexible) Kathryn Hunter as Puck, and an alluring, ethereal Tina Belko as Titania.  PLUS an army of talented children to play all the "Elementals."

 

As the lovers, Lilly Englert (Hermia) and Mandi Masden (Helena) were school-girl flighty, and over-the-top "tragic," and Jake Horowitz (Lysander) and Zach Appelman (Demetrius) were perfectly frat-boy cocky and lust-at-first-sight passionate.  It's a credit to their performances, and the way they created distinct characters, that I coudn't imagine them "switching" parts, giving the lie to the oft-quoted "the lovers are interchangeable" jibe.  Like the recent Tavern stagings of the play, their "battle in the forest" was the comic highlight of the show, making the low comedy of the Mechanicals' final scene (slightly) pale in comparison.

 

So the remarkable thing about this production is that it still reminds us that, no matter how familiar a particular Shakespearean piece may be, creative and inspired directors and actors can make it seem new and fresh and rich with “I-never-noticed-that-before” moments.  Going out on imaginative limbs can be fun and can be revealing, but not more so than simply knowing these characters so well they can move and amuse us with their fanciful story.

 

This is a supremely funny play, and, a truly memorable video record of an ephemeral moment in theater history, and it was a perfect way to spend a frigid January day.

 

It is definitely a treat to see the lovers’ plot on an equal comic footing with the “Rude Mechanicals” and a treat to see seasoned Shakespeareans at the top of their form, with an immensely creative force-of-nature in the wheelhouse. I could even forgive her bringing in a few ideas from Lion King for the "Morning After" Deer Hunt.   In this video, the well of laughter truly hath no bottom!

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #BroadwayHD.com  #Midsummer)

 

 

* To be honest, I'm having trouble finding the provenance of the production.  Some sources say New York, others London.  It boasts a cast of both British and American actors.  All I know for sure is that it happened in 2014 and, wherever it was, it was a sold out limited engagement.

 

Official Trailer Here     https://vimeo.com/159991440

 

 

 

1/5/2018        SILENCE: THE MUSICAL                             OnStage Atlanta / MAT Fundraiser

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
TONGUE IN CHEEK  (RECIPE TO FOLLOW)

 

(Bias Alert:  I am friends with literally everyone involved in this production.  They are all mean and vindictive.  I don't want to be black-balled from future MAT consideration.  Zac Phelps will be my boss on a February production.  Russ Ivey blames me for everything.  Barbara Cole Uterhardt is a grammar Nazi who is not shy about pointing out my compositional shortcomings.

 

Read into all this what you will.)
 

 

Begin with a block of salt grains.

 

Preheat Oven to 400 Degrees.

 

Take a popular Thomas Harris Novel made into a popular Academy Award Movie.

 

Filet the source material, keep the bones and dispose of the fleshy good stuff.

 

Invite some good (preferably talented) friends to add their own "stuff" to the bones.

 

Season with several cups of silliness, a few grams of meta-mugging, and enough musical talent to fool folks into thinking this is "Art!!!"

 

Quickly stir into a production that goes by so rapidly, the stale script and blandly unseasoned songs cannot be tasted.

 

Place in a container you will not miss when it gets stricken from existence after completion.

 

Keep the oven on, because, dammit, it's still cold in Georgia!

 

Serve to a dinner party composed of a thousand of your best friends and kindest critics.

 

Ignore the groans, count the laughs, and note the post-meal smiles to judge your own effectiveness.

 

If you must, wrap the tongues in the cheeks, sauté with butter and shallots, serve on Ritz crackers with a squirt of canned string cheese, and call it a reception.

 

Don't forget the Chianti.

 

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Silence  #OSA  #MATAwards)

 

Yeah, how can I be objective on this one?  I had a wonderful time, despite the fact that I love both the original novel and the movie it spawned.  ALL the performances were top notch, the direction quick and easy, the tech okay, the costumes fleecy.  So thank you Zac Phelps for "tucking" (it's still going to be a tough image to forget), and thank you, Ladies, for not letting the smell of your {Deleted by the Good Taste Police} reach me in the front row.

 

 

 

 

1/13/2018        THE GIVER                               Georgia Ensemble Theatre Family Stages

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

 

Imagine, if you must, a world in which memory, emotion, and color have been removed.  It is the ultimate equalization, the ultimate "uniting," the oft-fantasized place where hard choices are never needed, where hard emotions cannot occur, where hard memories fade into a mist grayer than the world itself.  Even hills and valleys have been removed, so the "Community" can exist on a literal "even playing field."

 

Such a world is the setting for Lois Lowry's 1993 Dystopian Young Adult novel, The Giver, a book that has become a mainstay of Middle School reading lists.  It has been adapted for the stage by Eric Coble, and is being given a marvelous production in the Georgia Ensemble Theatre Family Stage series.

 

Truth to tell, adult viewers will have a "been-there seen-that" experience, as this is a theme, indeed a world, that is mirrored in countless stories, movies, and novels.  I am inclined to be a bit lenient, because I think it is a perfect background for Middle Schoolers, as it introduces them to the concepts of dystopian societies, questioning authority and valuing experience and memory.  More apparently, it introduces them to imaginative fiction, hopefully lighting a spark that will grow into a true love of reading.

 

Jonas is twelve years old and is about to learn his "lifetime role."  This is a rite of passage, and the young are assured that the "Elders are always right," that they know best what niche every person in the community will fill.  And, of course, Jonas' best friends are given assignments that are, indeed, perfectly suited to their personalities.

 

But Jonas is passed over.  After all the other children have gone off to live their lives, Jonas is taken aside and told his assignment is "special," that he has been chosen to be the "Receiver of Memory," he who carries the burden of everything that has gone "before."  He, alone within the community, will now know the highs of elation and the lows of despair, the truth of the past and the perpetual sameness of the present.  He, alone within the community, will see color, and perhaps even hear music.

 

And so, he begins his training with "The Giver," the elder with all the memories.

 

Jonas, alone within the community, will recognize the heartlessness of the fates of the old and the outcast.  He will see the "mercies" granted infants who do not "fit in," who do thrive, who possess "skills" that are unnecessary to the community.  He alone, will learn why his is a dangerous calling, how some before him have chosen oblivion rather than knowing the harsh realities of history.  He, alone within the community, will be moved to take action.

 

Georgia Family's resident ensemble -- Erik Poger Abrahamsen, Shelli Delgado, Robert Lee Hindsman, Asia Howard, J.D. Myers, and Angelica K. Spence (replaced for the 1/13 performance by terrific understudy Rylee Bunton) -- fall into multiple roles and tell the story clearly and cleverly.  Director Laurel Crowe keeps the pace quick and painless, telling the story in an hour, letting her company "fly" with an imaginative vigor totally alien to Ms. Lowry's characters, and all the more effective for that "otherness."  I assume Technical Director Diana Lynch is responsible for the marvelous lighting design, which uses hints of green to drain faces of color and make it as if we're watching a black-and-white movie (like much of the 2014 movie version of this story), an effect immensely aided by Mariana Wegener's monochromatic costume plot.

 

This piece is on a school tour with the series' other shows -- Miss Nelson is Missing, And Then They Came for Me, and The Jungle Book -- but will have public performance on the next two Saturdays.  I am extraordinarily happy that these gems are becoming more accessible to those of us beyond school age, and, IMHO, the Atlanta Theatre Scene is the richer for this marvelous ensemble of artists and crafts-folk!

 

If nothing else, it is positively joyful to share Jonas' first experiences of color and emotion.  As Ms. Lowry puts it:

 

Now, through the memories, he had seen oceans and mountain lakes and streams that gurgled through woods; and now he saw the familiar wide river beside the path differently. He saw all of the light and color and history it contained and carried in its slow-moving water; and he knew that there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #TheGiver  #GETFamilyStage)

 

**  Y'know, after writing the first draft of this column, I had to watch the 2014 movie version, which I thought was very good indeed.  In retrospect, I semi-sorta wished this stage version had taken the time to include some of the darker aspects, and some of the "brighter" moments -- especially that ecstatic finale.  It's as if, in order to "tone it down" for middle-schoolers, the adaptation chose to be like the community -- devoid of extreme emotions and staying on a more-or-less even keel.  Of course, I've never read the books, so the moviemakers may just have pumped up the emotional volume to appeal to us older folk.  All this being said, I'll stand by my first draft here, as well as my initial "grade."

 

 

 

1/13/2018        ANGELS IN AMERICA:  MILLENNIUM APPROACHES        Actor's Express

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
EYES WIDE SHUT

 

And lo, it has come to pass, that the deadly plague that descended upon mankind in the 8th and 9th decades of the 20th century, those decades being the late '70's and early '80's to clarify for those with ordinal-parsing-deficit disorder, a disorder made manifest by the plethora of pundits who proclaimed the Millennial year 2000 as the "First Year of the 21st Century" (It was not), has, in the due course of time and medical expediency, that expediency being the spread of the disease to those for whom there is no social stigma, been reduced to a controllable "pre-existing condition."

 

And lo, it has come to pass, that the much-lauded conservatism of the Reagan years has been discarded in favor of a "winner take all" political bloodbath in which ideology is subsumed by the desire to "WIN" against those who disagree, resulting in a social climate in which that Reagan conservatism, as unappealing as it was to those of us with a more liberal bent, would be welcomed back with open arms.

 

And lo, in a true miracle of our theatrical times, the benchmark epic chronicling that plague, that time, that climate, Angels in America," a gay fantasia on national themes," is being revived at Actor's Express (and indeed, soon to be revived on Broadway itself) and has, in the ineluctable course of time, attained a patina, an aura, a compellingly complex heartbeat that playwright Tony Kushner would find foreign, but perhaps welcome.

 

Welcome to the "Belly of the Beast," a playing area that puts us, like Jonah before us, within the confines of Leviathan, that metaphorical Gargantua that could be said to be the inevitable crush of history, of politics, of unknown afflictions that strike those of we, or at least "those of we" who control the means of redress and treatment, prefer remain invisible.  We semi-surround the playing area, leaving the far end free for elevated playing areas, and hidden stage effects.

 

Scene after scene, story after story engage our attention.  There is the story of Prior Walter, a young man who lay with Louis, another young man whose revulsion at the Plague far outweighs his love for Prior.  There is the story of Joe Pitt, a young political operative of Latter Day morality and conviction, offered the apple of temptation in the form of a Federal Appointment.  There is the story of Joe's wife Harper, a woman of wavering faith and stability, struggling with addiction and solitude, recognizing Joe's need for a sexuality she cannot provide, a sexuality totally abhorrent to their shared Mormonism.  There is the story of Roy Cohn, an actual figure from actual history, a friend of Joe McCarthy, a ruthless operative in the coliseum of gladiatorial politics, an eyes-wide-shut denier of his Plague-ridden persona, as a "Disease of Losers," not of one who can get Reagan himself to pick up the phone.

 

And through Six Acts of Phantasmagoria, we get a portrait of an era, a struggle, a yearning for belief, a yearning for absolution, a yearning for a return of the old gods and angels whose departure made a seeming wilderness of modern civilization.

 

This production is a recounting of the first three acts.  In "Bad News," Prior and Roy learn of their fatal prognosis, while Joe learns of his fatal-to-his-wife's-sanity career advancement.  In "In Vitro," Prior and Roy are hospitalized, Louis and Joe struggle with their losses and desires, Joe's sternly-judgmental mother (Hannah) decides to come from Salt Lake City to "set him straight," and Harper abandons hope for her marriage, and, indeed, for much of anything.  And, in "Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward-Dreaming," Prior and Roy lie in judgmental fury, as the ghosts of their pasts come to shepherd them on their way.  And it all climaxes with an Angel from Heaven appearing to Prior to charge him with a mission, the details of which will be revealed in (Part Two**).

 

According to the author's wishes, the "fantasia" of the play must needs be centered on the magic of theatrical illusion.  We need to see the "seams," the fast changes, the multiple characterizations, even the "wires," if there is the need for any angelic "flight."  Accordingly, here we see multiple characterizations actualized by purposefully inelegant trappings -- a wig and mustache that makes an actress look like Groucho Marx, a rabbi dripping with the most clichéd costume and accent available, ancestors played by recognizable actors in fast-change costumes, an angel wearing Christmas Pageant wire-hangar-and-linen wings.  And a sound and light plot that paints it all with marvelous allusion, illusion, and delusion.

 

And this is a cast seemingly blessed from on high.  Joe Sykes, more mature than we've seen him before,  plays Joe as a passionately confused man, rock-solid in his faith for a belief-system that seems to be failing him. Cara Mantella is beautifully lost as Hannah, desperate to connect without sacrificing that tiny spark of the "Real Harper" she sees slipping away.  Grant Chapman is brilliant as Prior, not afraid of making himself weak, painfully sharing his agonies and ecstasies.  Louis Gregory is good as Louis, ambivalent in his guilt and desire, subtly sympathetic despite his many questionable choices.  And Robert Bryan Davis is absolutely superb as Roy Cohn, perfectly playing an amoral figure struggling with the idea that the universe may have a different concept of "what he really deserves."  It doesn't hurt that he looks a bit like the real-life Roy Cohn..  It should be noted that they ALL play multiple characters, as does Thandiwe DeShazor (the drag queen Belize, and others), Parris Sarter (the Angel, and others), and Carolyn Cook (Hannah, and others).

 

Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins have directed this piece brilliantly, keeping the scenes quick and fluid, utilizing the thrust venue to full effectiveness.  I loved how the intimacy highlighted the "theatricality" of the concept and the "trappings," but underscored the emotional sincerity, the anger and passion, the ambivalence, even the political "stakes."

 

This is an experience quite unlike the original production or the HBO film version.  And it is an experience that puts the actual era "farther" back in our rear-view mirror, letting all that has happened since affect our perception of these characters, these stories.  And, given the emphasis on "political WINNING," the character of Roy Cohn is especially vibrant, given today's climate.

 

This is a long play -- any three-act play seems "long" by today's Attention-Deficit culture -- but it is exceptionally deep, exceptionally moving, and exceptionally rewarding.  Now, I just have to be patient for Part Two!

 

GREETINGS, PROPHET!

THE GREAT WORK BEGINS!

THE MESSENGER HAS ARRIVED!

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AEAngels  #MilleniumApproaches)

 

** Alas, I will be unable to see Part Two until February 3, so, I'll need to just exist for three weeks on that haunting cliff-hanging Angelic image and proclamation.

 

 

 

 

1/16/2018        MAYTAG VIRGIN                               Aurora Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
WHY ASK WHY?

 

So, I have to confess, I am a sucker for a good Romantic Comedy.  I love witnessing the course of true love failing to run smooth (until, of course, it does).  I love watching quirky characters fall into a relationship that, by all reasonable standards, should not work (until, of course, it does).  And I especially love witnessing ALL the resources of a top-notch theatre venue be marshaled into the service of two actors in peak form, telling the story of two un-extraordinary people who slowly find the extraordinary in each other.

 

And then there's Maytag Virgin, Audrey Cefaly's little romance that finds itself on Aurora's main stage in a no-expense-spared production that delights, moves, and satisfies ALL my "requirements" for a perfectly tuned Romantic Comedy.

 

Jack Key has moved next door to Lizzy Nash.  Both are teachers at their small-town high school, but she is on an extended sabbatical, due to the accidental death of her husband.  He is, well, mostly silent.  Throughout the course of a full year, they squabble, they bond, they fall into the rain-drenched depths of despair, they fall into the moonshine-drenched delirium of drunken confession, and their disparate personality "spikes" eventually mesh into a relationship that will, against all odds (if not expectations) lead to an inevitable final embrace.

 

This is a production that scores in literally every aspect -- writing, acting, directing, design.  It is a script filled with very character-specific dialogue, a script that takes its time exploring all the edges of these two people, a script filled with southern charm and character-driven humor.  Courtney Patterson and Brad Brinkley totally inhabit these characters, bringing out their considerable charm without denying them human failings and quirky eccentricities (she has never used a dryer, an oddity Ms. Patterson makes completely believable.  He insists on keeping his dryer on his back porch -- again, odd but credible).  Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have given us a ginormously attractive set, two full houses, the back porches of which are the arena for the inevitable gladiatorial courtship.  Kevin Frazier has given us a lighting design dripping with naturalism, keeping day and night separate yet equal, throwing in a heaping helping of Christmas lights and thunderstorm strobes.  Sound Designer Daniel Terry has given us appropriate ambiance and musical fill, and truly impresses with a thunderstorm that approaches slowly but arrives suddenly (you WILL jump at one point, thanks to the perfect synchronization of sound and lights).  And Melissa Foulger directs it all with a professional ease that allows the actors and designers give full gallop to their prodigious talents.

 

So, you may ask, why was so much talent and expense put in the service of a quirky little two-character comedy?  I'll tell you -- I have no idea.  I admit to being fully thankful that Aurora has chosen to do so.  This production is a marvelous Valentine's Day gift to Atlanta, though, unfortunately, it will be gone by February 14.  But, I definitely fell in love with Lizzie and, to some extent, with "Mr. Key."  And I found their story compelling and attractive .  I believe Ms. Cefaly has created a confection that makes the thrilling discovery that the world is a better place with this couple together.  Not to mention putting a final nail in the coffin of that mindset that couples have to be compatible to "work."**

 

And, it just makes sense that it takes them a full year to discover this for themselves.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AuroraTheatre  #MaytagVirgin)

 

** Confession time (and I hope my patient spouse will forgive me for sharing this) -- I am a liberal atheist baby-boomer married to a conservative Catholic Gen-Xer.  "On paper" we should not work.  And yet, here we are, enjoying our twentieth year of marriage, good times far outweighing the rare spats and tantrums (and yes, I can throw a tantrum like a toddler).  It's easy to say we "work" because we share a love and devotion to theatre, or that our differences are so extreme they remain unspoken, undiscussed, or that we simply enjoy each other's company and make each other laugh almost every day.  The truth is probably more complex, bound up in the human heart and mind, so we fall back on "Why ask Why?" attitude towards our marriage. Which is to say, when I see Romantic Comedies centered on couples that manage to mesh in spite of massive incompatibility, it simply reaffirms all the choices we seem to have made to get to this point.

 

 

1/20/2018        NATIVE GUARD                            Alliance Theatre (On the Road)

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
WAR AND REMEMBRANCE

 

We leave Marietta at noon; Saturday traffic

harmonizing Google Maps noisy fanfare—

all the way to Paces Ferry. What we see

first is the museum, its newness shining

in the icy sun, its meager entrance a

half reminder of those who weekend there—

an unweathered monument to some of the dead.

 

Inside we follow the usher, hurried

though we are to get to the play. She tells

of brevity and verse, of thoughtful discussion

fed by Saturday wine and arty pretense.

We are given tags to remember our dead,

our stories, our families, the dread fears

of our most-forgotten people and deeds.

 

I have myself just lost a friend,

a friend from my northern past who

has drifted into the vast fog of

those not daily seen.

In sadness, I scrawl his name,

attach it to the set, and iPhone

a photo to his widow,

who has also drifted into the vast fog of

those not daily seen.  It is gesture

devoid of passion, devoid of reason

but a part and parcel of the story

being told, being sung, being witnessed,

his name now witness to an Atlanta Theatre Scene

he never had witnessed or seen.

 

A vocalist, in the style of Lady Day,

warms the preshow auditors

with a voice that yearns and pleads

for sympathy, respect, worth.

An actress, in the style of Poet Laureate

Natasha Trethewey,

inhabits the words and poems

of a life in the south,

a daughter of Jefferson

born of parents of mixed race,

a Dixie Woman of talent and promise

desperately navigating the waters

of the social political literary south,

seque-ing seamlessly into her

work about the Native Guard,

the sons of slaves bound up

in the Civil War of their masters,

spoken by an actor of talent and skill.

 

In the fort on Ship Island

a short ferry from the Gulfport shore, 

The Daughters of the Confederacy

has placed a plaque, at the fort’s entrance—

each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard

in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—

2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.

What is monument to their legacy?

 

This work is that monument,

a lyrical stream of words

flitting from image to image,

from story to story,

from speaker to auditor,

becoming one as a monument

to those who write of those who lived,

to those who sing of those who died,

to those who witness,

to those who remember.

 

On Ship Island, split by post-bellum storm,

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—

water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,

and we listen for what the waves intone.

 

On the stage, the remembrances

left by audiences past,

my lost friend's name among them,

glow in a projector's light,

aping a distant arrangement

of tombstones randomly placed,

but lovingly restored.

 

Away from the stage, on Ship Island,

Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,

round, unfinished, half open to the sky,

the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.

 

But, thanks to the Alliance's Road Trip

To the Atlanta History Center,

We will witness, we will remember.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AllianceTheatreOTR  #NativeGuard)

 

(It should be noted that so much of this was lifted from Ms. Trethewey's "Elegy for the Native Guards" that I may have crossed that legal line from "Fair Use" to "Plagiarism."  But her voice is so beautifully compelling, I can't take it out, and can only beg her forgiveness (or at least that of her lawyers).

 

 

 

1/21/2018        LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL                Theatrical Outfit

 

*****  ( A+ ) 
      
LADY SINGS THE BLUES

 

Welcome to Emerson's Bar & Grill, a South Philly institution of mid-twentieth century Green Book entertainment, 1959.  Billie Holliday, Lady Day herself, is performing for us, putting her best and worse faces forward, ripping her soul out for our listening pleasure.  We may not know it yet, but her death is mere months away, and this is her last, perhaps her best, hurrah.

 

Playwright Lanie Robertson inserts as much biographical (and apocryphal) detail as possible between the songs, and, indeed, they give a marvelous context to the music we are experiencing.  "My mother married my father when she was 16 and he was 18 and I was 3," painting a portrait of a hard life desperately lived, with music being the dominant shelter, lifeline, and aspiration.  Lady didn't just "Sing the Blues," she WAS the blues.

 

And it is the music that is the driving force behind this experience.  Holliday favorites, like "God Bless the Child," "Strange Fruit," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," share time with other songs I was discovering for the first time.  "Crazy He Calls Me, " "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)," and the final "Deep Song" are especially memorable.

 

Terry Burrell, as she did as Ethel Waters a few years ago, literally inhabits Holliday, bringing her alive with her glorious talent and inglorious demons intact.  She gives her voice that recognizable Holliday raspy squeeze, and isn't afraid to project a voice damaged from too many years of drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Pianist William Knowles pulls double duty, playing Lady Day's accompanist, Jimmy Powers, AND accompanying Ms. Burrell.  He even gets a few solos moments when Lady Day's demons drive her from the stage.

 

This is a tremendous-looking production, the set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay the very model of an over-sized Philadelphia Honky Tonk.  Jeff Cone has dressed Ms. Burrell in a stunning white gown (a perfect match to the gardenia in her hair), that, under different lights from Rob Dillard's superb design, becomes gold, or blue, or pink, or, in the case of "Strange Fruit," blood red.

 

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is as much a concert experience as it is a play -- Ms. Burrell's rock solid performance makes us believe we've gone back in time and place, and are really witnessing the end of a career.  But it is a play, and Ms. Robertson's script paints a sad but beautiful portrait of this legend and the music she apparently lived for (and through).  And Terry Burrell gives us a characterization that plays on our every emotion, thrilling in its highs and lows, ecstatic in its "best of" covers, and devastating in its ultimate silence. 

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Theatrical Outfit  #LadyDayAtEmersons)

 

So, an interesting biographical note -- Billie Holliday was born Eleanora Fagan, the "Fagan" coming from an Irish slave master, who fathered countless children on Billie's Great-Grandmother.  My lovely and talented spouse was born a "Fagan."  I'm wondering if my Ancestry.com researches into her family will reveal a connection to that randy Irishman?  After all, my wife and Lady Day were BOTH born in Philadelphia ....

2/2/2018        PICNIC                                                                          Stage Door Players

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
A BASKETFUL OF GOODIES

 

(Bias Alert:  I've worked with actors JD Myers and Liane LeMaster, and think the world of them.  In fact, I tend to view Ms. LeMaster as one of my favorite people in the universe.  Accordingly, I tend to view her work -- and his, for that matter-- with approval-tinted glasses.)

 

William Inge's Picnic, winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has, until now, but one of those elusive "Great American Plays" that has escaped my attention.  This is the first time I've seen it on stage, and, truth to tell, I went into this production knowing only the bare bones of the story.

 

To my delight, I found a play drenched in character, incident, humor and pathos, telling an oft-told tale of love, rebellion and snap judgment, but keeping an unmistakable aura of Americana, a hazy-glow memory of late summer days and rapidly approaching chill and maturity.

 

It's Labor Day, it's anywhere in America (but specifically Kansas), and it's an early year of the Eisenhower era.  We're in the back yards of two houses, owned by two widows of "a certain age."  Preparations are afoot for an "end of summer" picnic, as the school year is about to begin.  Mrs. Potts has hired a day-laborer, Hal Carter, to do some odd jobs, but it's plain to see she just likes having a young (and healthy) man around.  Mrs. Owens, is trying to "rein in" her daughters, Madge, the "beautiful one," and Millie, the "smart one."  Madge is engaged to Alan Seymour, the heir to the town's richest family, but he is returning to college while she returning to a dull job at the local five-and-dime.  Mrs. Owens' boarder, Rosemary Sidney, a self-described "old-maid schoolteacher," is desperate to turn her passionless relationship with dull-as-gray-water Howard into something more ... um ... interesting.

 

Just as we're getting to know these people, Hal takes his shirt off, Madge and Millie are both spellbound, a nearby band fills the yard with convenient dance music, and adolescent hormones foxtrot forward with apparent glee.  All thoughts of a picnic are soon dispersed with the still-too-warm late summer breeze.

 

So, I suppose this is the part of the column where I try to articulate what about this production appealed so much?  I mean, apart from the play itself, which captivates with its characters and their examination of the eternal conflict between the young and old, the mind and the heart, the lonely and the brave, which puts rebellion into the hearts of the most staid and (un)predictable characters, which washes over us with sunlight and shadow, and triggers thoughts of choices made, wrong roads taken, regrets submerged.

 

Let me start with Chuck Welcome's stylized but evocative set.  Inge has written that the porches need to be realistic, that they are, in fact, the "stages" these characters use to present themselves to the world.  But, Mr. Welcome has chosen to ignore that dictum, creating skeletal structures that only suggest the walls that bind these families.  I suppose the choice was made to enhance sight-line access - it's easier to keep characters in view from both halves of Stage Door's split audience when there are no walls blocking the way.  But the choice adds a thematic dimension -- how can these characters remain "prisoners" when the "cage" is obviously open air?

 

Lights by J.D. Williams and Sound by Rial Ellsworth set the time, the season, the mood.  Everything from bright afternoon to lyrical moonlight is constructed perfectly.  The music is distant at first until it overwhelms the characters and us.  And it all is as gentle as a late evening calm, the heat of the day gradually falling into the cool breezes of night.

 

But chiefly, I have to credit director Tess Malis Kincaid, for creating a perfect ensemble, filling the roles with actors who inhabit their roles, who, in fact, disappear into them.  In my bias alert above, I cited two friends in the production -- to their credit, I never saw "them," only who they became.

 

Blake Burgess and Shannon McCarren were lively as Hal and Madge, their mutual attraction an unstoppable force.  Mr. Burgess, in particular, beautifully navigated that razor-sharp edge between sensitive lout and overbearing jock.  Both characters wielded their attractiveness as sharp weapons. 

 

Shelby Folks also impressed as young Millie, giving a widely ranging performance that captured both the awkward teenager and the fully-formed woman on her horizon.  And JD Myers was wonderful as Alan Seymour, capturing both the aristocratic bearing of the town "rich kid," and the pathos evident in the the realization that the poor girl Madge was still "out of his league."

 

As the older generation, Kara Cantrell was warm and welcoming as Mrs. Potts.  As Mrs. Owens, Vickie Ellis Gray gave the perfect combination of overbearing and nurturing that made her such a monstrous treasure to her daughters.  Rachel Frawley was a delight as the spinster schoolteacher, as were Liane LeMaster and Suzanne Roush as fellow teachers.  And Jonathan Wierenga and Larry Davis also impressed in smaller roles.

 

This is truly a delightful play that mixes humor and sentiment in just the right amount, that gives a slice of Americana that is recognizable in any state, any era.  It is clear-eyed in its depiction of the pitfalls of snap judgments and quick attractions, but also generous in its acceptance of the choices coming from them . 

 

It is a reminder that the joys of a fast ride down a country road will always be preferable to a day behind a five-and-dime counter, that the beautiful man or woman will always "trump" the reliable and dependable friend, and that "Common Sense Never Wrote a Poem."  Or staged a play.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #StageDoorPlayers  #Picnic)

 

 

 

 

2/3/2018        ANGELS IN AMERICA:  PERESTROIKA                         Actor's Express

 

****½  ( A ) 
           
RELUCTANT PROPHET

 

From Dictionary.com: 

 

noun: perestroika   /perəˈstroikə/

 

(in the former Soviet Union) the policy or practice of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system. First proposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika originally referred to increased automation and labor efficiency, but came to entail greater awareness of economic markets and the ending of central planning.

 

And lo, it has come to pass, that two weeks after our first visit to Tony Kushner's Angels in America, we have returned to the belly of the beast for its resolution.   In the grand spirit of theatrical commentary, it is incumbent upon us to recap the premise, a "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," a chronicle of the deadly plague that descended upon mankind in the 8th and 9th decades of the 20th century, that has, in the due course of time and medical expediency, (that expediency being the spread of the disease to those for whom there is no social stigma), been reduced to a controllable "pre-existing condition."

 

As in Part One (Millenium Approaches), welcome to the "Belly of the Beast," a playing area that puts us, like Jonah before us, within the confines of Leviathan, that metaphorical gargantua that could be said to be the inevitable crush of history, of politics, of unknown afflictions that strike those we, or at least "those of we" who control the means of redress and treatment, prefer remain invisible.  We semi-surround the playing area, leaving the far end free for elevated playing areas, and hidden stage effects.

 

But, the set could just as easily be seen as the inverted hull of a wooden sailing ship, the rips arching over our heads to a keel that is, apparently, rudderless, to help you fill in any metaphorical blanks this observation leaves in your mind.

 

Perestroika is longer, denser, more classically structured than its precedent.  Here we have five acts of story, five acts of history, five acts that recreate the pivotal moments of the few characters' lives.

 

As a reminder of whose stories are being told, please forgive another recap from Part One:  There is the story of Prior Walter, a young man who lay with Louis, another young man whose revulsion at the Plague far outweighs his love for Prior.  There is the story of Joe Pitt, a young political operative of Latter Day morality and conviction, offered the apple of temptation in the form of a Federal Appointment.  There is the story of Joe's wife Harper, a woman of wavering faith and stability, struggling with addiction and solitude, recognizing Joe's need for a sexuality she cannot provide, a sexuality totally abhorrent to their shared Mormonism.  There is story of Joe's mother, Hannah, who acceptance of her son means a rejection of her faith.  There is the story of Roy Cohn, an actual figure from actual history, a friend of Joe McCarthy, a ruthless operative in the coliseum of gladiatorial politics, an eyes-wide-shut denier of his Plague-ridden persona, as a "Disease of Losers," not of one who can get Reagan himself to pick up the phone.

 

Act One is entitled "Spooj," for reasons that will become evident.  Prior Walter has awakened from his angelic visitation covered in Precious Bodily Fluids, but is reluctant to take on his "mission."   Act Two is entitled "The Anti-Migratory Epistle," in honor of the angel's complaint that all the ills of mankind, (and the apparent desertion of God from his Heaven) is a direct result of Mankind's Penchant for wanderlust, for meeting new peoples for more conflicts.  Act Three is "Borborygmi," a semi-obscure medical turn that describes certain sounds made in the belly of man and beast.  Act Four is "John Brown's Body," which chronicles the final moments of Roy Cohn, devil and victim, evil incarnate and unwitting savior,  And Act Five takes us to "Heaven, I'm in Heaven," where Prior Walter makes his final stand.  An epilogue four years later provides a lyrical coda to the end of the Reagan era "War Against Us."

 

As before, through four hours of Phantasmagoria, we get a portrait of an era, a struggle, a yearning for belief, a yearning for absolution, a yearning for a return of the old gods and angels whose departure made a seeming wilderness of modern civilization.  We also get a razor sharp view of the unfocused divide between dream and wakefulness, between hallucination and unbearable reality.

 

As a reminder, according to the author's wishes, the "fantasia" of the play must needs be centered on the magic of theatrical illusion.  We need to see the "seams," the fast changes, the multiple characterizations, even the "wires," if there is the need for any angelic "flight."  As in Part One, we here see multiple characterizations actualized by purposefully inelegant trappings, the angel still wearing Christmas Pageant wire-hangar-and-linen wings, though they flow lyrically during a climactic "rasslin' match," though at times they blocked the stage completely when she stood in front of me..  As before, the sound and light plot that paints it all with marvelous allusion, illusion, and delusion.

 

And this is a cast seemingly blessed from on high.  Joe Sykes, more mature than we've seen him before,  plays Joe as a passionately confused man, rock-solid in his faith for a belief-system that seems to be failing him. Cara Mantella is beautifully lost as Hannah, desperate to connect without sacrificing that tiny spark of the "Real Harper" she sees slipping away.  Grant Chapman is brilliant as Prior, not afraid of making himself weak, painfully sharing his agonies and ecstasies.  Louis Gregory is good as Louis, ambivalent in his guilt and desire, subtly sympathetic despite his many questionable choices.  And Robert Bryan Davis is absolutely superb as Roy Cohn, perfectly playing an amoral figure struggling with the idea that the universe may have a different concept of "what he really deserves."  It doesn't hurt that he looks a bit like the real-life Roy Cohn. And it doesn't hurt that his final agonies is tooth-gritting and vivid.  It should be noted that they ALL play multiple characters, as does Thandiwe DeShazor (the drag queen Belize, and others), Parris Sarter (the Angel, and others), and Carolyn Cook (Hannah, and others).

 

Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins have directed this piece brilliantly, keeping the scenes quick and fluid, utilizing the thrust venue to full effectiveness.  I loved how the intimacy highlighted the "theatricality" of the concept and the "trappings," but underscored the emotional sincerity, the anger and passion, the ambivalence, even the political "stakes."  This time I was seated in a first row corner seat, and as such, had my sightlines often obscured by actors and angels.  But it was never for long, and the "obscured actors" retained their clarity, their focus, their story.

 

This is an experience quite unlike the original production or the HBO film version.  And it is an experience that puts the actual era "farther" back in our rear-view mirror, letting all that his happened since affect our perception of these characters, these stories.  And, given the emphasis on "political WINNING," the character of Roy Cohn is especially vibrant, given today's climate.

 

This is a very long play -- any five-act play (two Intermissions) seems "long" by today's Attention-Deficit culture -- and four hours is unusual for even "long" plays.  But, the play is exceptionally deep, exceptionally moving, and exceptionally rewarding.  There is enough humor, enough incident to keep our attention engaged, and, it is credit to this production, that there were few if any walkouts at Saturday's performance, despite the fact that a good percentage of the audience had seen Part One that same day.

 

Now, that it is over, I feel a sense of completeness, a sense of forgiveness, a sense of grace.  And an unending gratitude to Actors' Express for granting us this experience.

 

Blessed be these Creators, above and beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations, that are uttered in the world!  And say AMEN!

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AEAngels  #Perestroika)

 

 

 

 

 

2/9/2018      FIRST DATE                                                 Marietta Theatre Co

NR   (Lighting Designer Bias) 
 `
FIRST IMPRESSIONS
 
(By now, you know the drill.  I'm deeply involved with this project, and, as such will refrain from passing judgment on it.  I will NOT refrain from writing about it.  So, NEENER NEENER!)

 

Have any of you noticed the similarity between buying a CD of a show you don't really know, and going on a blind date?

 

Case in point -- when I was assigned the gig of lighting First Date: The Musical, I ordered the Original Cast CD and played it through once.  As background to a housecleaning chore.  I thought "Meh!"  Bouncy, but not memorable -- I'll listen more closely as Tech Week draws near, and follow in the script to match characters with songs.  In other words, due to my commitment, I was REQUIRED to give the score a second chance.  Which, of course, I failed to do before starting rehearsal last week.  I am nothing, if not foolish.

 

And now, I can't get those songs out of my head.  Which is the natural course of events after spending a tech week hearing the songs over and over.  And you know what?  I like having them in my head.

 

This, if anything, is more anecdotal evidence supporting the theory that First Impressions are NEVER right, that true appreciation comes with deeper knowledge and increased familiarity. (*)

 

Which, of course, is the very point of First Date: The Musical.  Casey and Aaron are thirty-something New Yorkers hitting a local bar for a Blind Date (HE works with HER brother-in-law).  At first glance, they are totally unsuited for each other,  He is a buttoned-down cubicle drone still obsessing over the woman who left him at the altar.  She is a wannabe-free-spirit artistic type who has left a trail of bad boy beaus in her wake.  They go through all stages of First Date Angst -- First Impressions, Awkward Silences, Pre-Arranged "Bailout" Calls, Missed Communications, Unintentional Hurts -- truly the full list.

 

And, along the way, they receive advice (and condemnation) from all the people in their imaginations (roles filled by the other couples in the restaurant as well as by the high-stepping waiter-with-a-heart-of-show-tunes.)

 

This is a musical, that, we hope, will appeal to anyone who has ever endured a blind "first date" or even a not-so-blind one.  There are so many songs and moments that strike recognizable chords, even in older folks like me.  And so many moments that are just laugh-out-loud funny, even after hearing them over and over during the past week.  (It helps that there are a few -- limited -- opportunities for ad libs, all of which challenge the cast to KEEP A STRAIGHT FACE, DAMMIT!)

 

For my part, i identify most closely with Casey's wrenching "Safer" ballad, in which we learn her spirit is NOT as free as our First Impression would have us believe.  Let's just say that there is a reason I didn't lose my -- umm, will to remain alone -- until 26 and didn't marry until 45 (Forgive me if that's TMI, but I AM, after all  trying to wright an autobiographical style of writing about theatre.)

 

I know I shouldn't "pass judgment" on the production itself, but I have been greatly impressed with this cast, and DEFINITELY impressed by the Musical Direction -- the show came without tracks, so the ever-talented and impressive Gamble chose to create the tracks, and they are a joy to hear.  Will Brooks' set is as elegant as can happen in such a small venue, and my lights will probably be dismissed as "too busy and distracting" (which, truth to tell, is NOT an incorrect observation -- I just think Musicals, by definition, thrive on a "busy" lighting design).

 

For the record, First Date has seven remaining performances -- 2/15-18 and 2/22-24.  Tickets are available at http://www.mariettatheatre.com/

 

Here is our cast and crew:

 

Casey -- Ashley Prince

Aaron -- Chris Saltalamacchio

Man # 1 -- Michael Vine

Woman # 1 -- Abi Sneathen

Man # 2 -- John Jenkins

Woman # 2 -- Becky Ittner

Waiter (and others) -- Brian Brooks

 

Director -- Zac Phelps

Music Director / Sound Design - Gamble

Asst Director / Stage Manager - Nick Suwalski

Set Design/Construction -- Will Brooks

Light Design/Board Operator -- Brad Rudy

 

Wave at me in the Light Booth when you come.  But don't get too close -- I'm usually hungry and I bite.  Consider me a zoological Display of "Lumensmeister Anciens."

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #MTC  #FirstDate)

 

* As long as we're stooping to "anecdotal evidence," my most awkward "First Date" was a mostly silent dinner at a cheap pizza place with an fellow actor in a production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.  I was mostly tongue-tied, she was mostly angry at why I brought her to such a cheap and seedy place (truth to tell, I didn't know the area and it was close to the theatre).  Worst. First. Impression. Ever.  OTOH, here it is more than 20 years later, and she still seems to be content to be my lovely and talented spouse.

 

It should also be noted that I was initially cool to the scores of so many shows that have rapidly become favorite favorites -- Company, The Last Five Years, Hamilton, Floyd Collins, In the Heights, The Light in the Piazza, The Wild Party (Lippa version -- I'm still cool towards the LaChiusa version).

 

 

 

2/10/2018        THE BALLAD OF KLOOK AND VINETTE           Horizon Theatre

 

***½  ( B ) 

           
LIVING LIFE TO THE RHYTHM OF A JAZZ LYRIC

 

(Note:  The following will go down better if recited to an extended Charlie Parker record, one on the mellow side.) 

 

In a cheap room under a lazy fan, a man prepares to die.

The law is armed and angry, the air is thick and fraught.

A throbbing bass and pulsing keyboard syncopates

As a life improvises its final riff

And we tap our toes in rhythm.

 

His ballad begins at the end of his life

He leaves it to his (f**king) memory to tell.

His solo takes us back to a time of calm,

A time of fast moves in slow dives,

A time of sweet music and sweeter women,

A time when the miracle of Vinette

Walks into the room and banishes forever

the pale musak of every other woman --

Vinette of the sweetest eyes and purest song

Vinette of the perfect talks and still(est) walks.

Vinette as the saving angel of his final chord.

 

Klook has a past, he's made mistakes

He's done his time, he's played his solo.

He works for men not worth his notes

He cleans a pool for those who fail

To recognize the hard-played melodies

That now accompany his life and love.

 

Vinette has a child she never sees,

She has a talent she never shares,

She has a song that fills their lives,

Her hasty scat and improvisations

Fail to stop those degradations

That we have come to know

As the end of the song, the end of the show.

 

The songs of the Ballad are short and sweet,

Evocative soulful strains,

Their tender tunes enhance the beat

Of a tragedy that starts with life

Lived to the structure of a jazzy rhythm

A life that could be saved by a simple lesson,

A plan to read the music of what will come,

A deed that anyone will forgive,

If not excuse, a song that's played

At a a moment's desperate whim.

 

And so, the ballad ends as it has begun,

A man named Klook, he won't say why,

A sacrifice so large an upright bass

Will fail to hold its fiery cost.

But we have seen Vinette and know

The worthiness of the end.

The sadness that will be her chord

Her harmony, as her song unfolds.

 

Che Walker's tale of Vinette and Klook,

Assayed with skill by Brittany Inge,

Amari Cheatom, Joined in their riff

by Keyboardist Christian Magby

by Bassist Maurice Figgins

by DIrector Author Che Walker

by Set Designers Curley-Clay

by Light Designer Mary Parker,

Left me, if not moved, at least compelled,

A tale I could only Like, not Love,

A Ballad Better on the Page

Than in my uncaring ear,

 

But a Ballad best heard alive

A Ballad about the Life and Death

Of a man named Klook, who won't say why,

The syncopated song he starts with love

When he meets the woman Vinette, who now

Will take his melody and add her own notes

As it plays to the end of quite another Ballad

As yet unheard unseen unwritten,

But not unfelt.

 

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Horizon  #Klook&Vinette)

 

 

2/17/2018        THE JUNGLE BOOK            Alliance Family Series (On the Road)

 

****½  ( A ) 
           
LAW OF THE JUNGLE (AMENDED)

 

Rudyard Kipling is experiencing a bit of a revival.  Lately dismissed as a racist imperialist writer from a racist imperialist age, his reputation fell into a quagmire of taboo and politically expedient neglect.

 

And, indeed, there is much of his work that causes the most historically "aware" reader to shudder a bit.  "The White Man's Burden" is especially hard on those of us struggling to recognize and subvert our own lingering shreds of unconscious racism.

 

But he's experiencing a bit of a revival, and the latest "Live Action" Jungle Book film went out of its way to subvert any innate racist subtext.

 

Which begs the question, should this sort of analysis be part of the discussion of a production aimed at kids?

 

For the time being, let's leave that decision with parents.  For now, let's just talk about, well, The Jungle Book, at least as presented in this breezy little adaptation by Tracey Power.  For any of you new to this story (is anyone REALLY new to this story?), Akela the wolf adopts an abandoned "man-cub" named Mowgli, and, together with Baloo (a bear) and Bagheera (a panther) tries to protect him from the harsh jungle justice of Shere Kahn (a tiger).  Along the way, there are games and adventures, and threats, and music, and, eventually a "new" law is formed that allows "family" to be whatever the family chooses it to be.

 

This is an admitted over-simplification, but it is a perfect introduction to the story for the under-ten set, and, to its credit, the production kept the large roomful of under-tens totally spellbound for the short 50-minute run-time of the show.

 

It doesn't hurt that Kat Conley has designed a simply wonderful "Jungle Gym" of a set that provides a marvelous playground for the characters.  In fact, one of our ushering duties was to prevent the young audience from going up and playing on it -- heck, I wanted to go up and play on it.

 

It doesn't hurt that Movement Director Jen MacQueen has trained the cast to physically suggest their characters' species (and most cast members do play more than one character).

 

And it especially doesn't hurt that director Rosemary Newcott has cast the play with a troupe of chameleon actors who contort their bodies and their voices into a veritable zoo of critters and folks.  Young Caleb Baumann is Mowgli completely, giving vent to the innate wildness of a "man-cub" raised by wolves and giving heart to Mother Wolf and to all of us in the process.  I also really liked Jonathan Horne's sinister and gravelly voiced Shere Khan (youngest viewers may find him a bit frightening, but not nightmare-causing frightening).  Ashley Anderson gives us two insanely flexible characters in Tabaqui the Jackal and a Monkey who can't help being a monkey.  Adrianna Trachell is a warm and earthy Akela (Mama Wolf), Markelle Gay towers over all as Baloo the Bear, and J.L. Reed nicely rounds out the cast as Father Wolf and Bagheera the Panther.  These are all remarkable performers, whom Ms. Newcott uses grandly and to great effect.

 

S. Renee Clark has put together a couple of musical numbers, which, though they evoked Africa more than India to my tin ear, were perfectly suited to the piece, and helped propel the story.

 

So, if you have small ones looking for a morning's entertainment, I strongly suggest you wend your way to the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center for a fun trip into the world of British Colonialism and child abandonment ....  oops, sorry ...  into the jungle world of Mowgli and all his friends.  Just have a good talk with them before they fall into the Google-hole of Anti-Kipling rants and invective.  Because, we all know that the Politically Correct response to "Do you like Kipling?" is "I don't know!  I've never Kippled."  #YeahIWentThere

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AllianceFamilySeries  #JungleBook)

 

 

2/19/2018        IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU                                        Out of Box Theatre

 

****  ( B+ ) 

           
AMUSING AND CHARMING

 

(Bias Alert:  I often work with Out of Box Theatre and have many friends in this cast and crew.  So I probably watched this production through inclined-to-approve-tinted glasses.)

 

The Steinbergs and the Howards cordially invite you to the wedding of their heirs, Rebecca and Brian.  The best man, Greg, and the Maid of Honor, Annie, are scrambling as hard as the Wedding Planner, Albert, to make the wedding perfect, and the bride's long-suffering older sister, Jenny, has assumed the role of our host.  Not invited, is the Bride's ex, Marty, but he shows up anyway.  What can possibly go wrong?

 

This is a mixed bag of a show, a charmingly amusing comedy that is blessed with a few charmingly amusing songs and a bevy of charmingly amusing characters.  It is also cursed with a rather contrived and clumsy script, characters who are too close to stereotypes for comfort (despite their amusing charm),  and more than a few totally forgettable numbers.

 

But, in the final analysis, thanks primarily to a cast full of truly wonderful performances and more than a few excellent design and directing choices, I left the theatre with a warm and pleasant afterglow.  Just don't expect me to run out to find recordings of the score.

 

Just to quickly brush off my issues with the script, there is a major reveal just before intermission that is startling only because it is so badly set up.  Without going into spoiler-alert territory, the reveal frankly contradicts pretty much all we have seen before, with no sub-textural hints provided, even when characters had an opportunity to do so.  Ironically, this unexpected turn was almost expected, especially after the opening number in which we're led to believe the Bride's sister is actually the Bride.  But I digress.

 

I also didn't like how so many characters could be reduced to stereotypes -- Jewish Mother, overweight sister, alcoholic spouse, clueless fathers, hot-to-trot cougar aunt, foggy old uncle, outrageous wedding planner.  Even the stereotypes aren't consistent -- the jock hard-partying Best Man of Act One becomes something completely different (and equally shallow) in Act Two.

 

These lapses are more than made up for by the cast, all of whom bring extra dimension to these characters, all of whom ladle out the charm as freely as punch at a Free Bar.  Carolyn Choe and Zip Rampy play the Bride's parents with a goopy slathering of New Yawk accents and Jewish cliché.   Bob Smith and Emily Kalat play the Groom's parents with a WASP-y reserve -- and a fondness for alcohol that is a joy to behold.  And when the four of them join up for an 11th-hour song-and-dance ("That's Family"), the production truly soars.  Half of the pleasure is seeing my friends really sink their teeth into the fun of this number, and the other half is recognizing that this is the moment when the professionals show the kids how it's done!

 

As for the younger generation, Hannah Marie Craton is delight as the Rebecca, the Bride, Jacob Jones is a gawky joy as the Brian, Groom.  Dylan Parker Singletary and Taryn McFarthing tear up the stage as Greg and Annie, the attendants with their own delightful secrets to reveal.  Bryan Montemayor is charming (and amusing) as the Marty, Bride's ex, Trevor Perry does his most-welcome Trevor-Perry thing as Albert, and Eric Lang and Eileen Howard are a total hoot as Albert's minions (and a few other characters).  But it is Kelsey South who is the heart of the show, as the Bride's sister Jenny, a hard-pressed, little-loved open-wound of a woman, who's heartfelt "Beautiful" is the emotional highlight of the show.  Ms. South has a talent for wearing her heart on her sleeve, making us love the elegance and attractiveness of her larger-than-life physique and personality.

 

In all honesty, as little as I liked how the pre-Intermission reveal was set up and executed, I absolutely loved where it took the play for Act Two.  In the most generic terms, it is a reminder than family is where the heart is, that every other consideration should, well, if not stay hidden, at least stay irrelevant.  And, I suppose, that's all the spoiler police will let me say about that.

 

Director Keirnan Matts has staged the piece with confidence and flair, putting a lot of people on a small space, and using all available nooks and crannies, and making it look easy.  He and Ms. Choe have designed a glittering Wedding Cake of a set, and Nina Gooch has lit it well, with heaping helping of wedding pink-tones and not a few practical on-stage razzle-dazzlers. Saving (possibly) the best for last, Ali Olhausen has put together a costume plot that would be the envy of any plus-sized wedding anywhere, not to mention anyone planning the sartorial plot of a Bar Mitzvah OR a D.A.R. reception.

 

Okay, I admittedly liked this a little bit less than my enthusiastically raving spouse, but a little bit than a snarky-clever review title of "It Shoulda Been Better" would justify.  I really liked about four of the nineteen numbers, but I didn't really hate the rest.  In the final analysis (and apparently the final sentence), It Shoulda Been You is an amusing and charming (I hope I'm not overusing that phrase) little musical that will (or at least SHOULD) leave you with a smile on your face.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy   #OOB  #ShouldaBeenYou)

 

 

 

 

 

2/25/2018        DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS                               Atlanta Lyric Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 

 

FELONIOUS CHARM
 

Excessive Charm should be a Felony.  And, in Atlanta Lyric Theatre's recently ended run of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, there was enough felony flowing from the stage to keep the Paris Police busy for months.

 

Based on a sweet 1988 movie (featuring Michael Caine and Steve Martin), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a caper story, a tale of con artistry on the French Riviera, a portrait of a wager as to who can best swindle an innocent American tourist.  Lawrence and his French friend Andre have made a fortune, convincing rich (and lonely) women to "support" a mythical counter-revolution in an entirely fictional country.  Into their world comes Freddy, a crass American grifter more happy with penny-ante quick scams.  Taking an instant dislike to each other, they briefly work together to rid Lawrence of a "mark" who gets a little too close, then make a wager, the stakes of which are the entire Riviera "territory."  Into their world comes a fresh-eyed American, Christine, a "soap heiress," and we're soon "off to the races."

 

Filled with a pleasant (and often hilarious) score by David Yazbek (The Full Monty), this show has the potential to be a fun-filled romp, an I-Hope-They-Get-Away-With-It  Caper, with laugh-out-loud gags, winning characters, and enough plot twists to keep a smile on Keyser Soze's mug shot.  (Does any other Broadway CD include a "Spoiler Alert" Disclaimer from its star?  Well, Drood, but you get my point.)  Elegant melodies such as "Here I Am" and "Love Sneaks in" fight (elegantly) with songs of extreme silliness, like "Love is my Legs," "Oklahoma?" and "All About Ruprecht."

 

And A.L.T. has pulled out the stops, filling the stage with glittering elegance, outrageous humor, and a Protean ensemble that slips into and out characters with reckless abandon.  This show was a full delight from beginning to end.

 

Let's start with the look -- Christopher Dills has designed a beautiful French Resort Portico, complete with sunshine and silhouetted Banyan Trees.  The look dominates, as "other site" scenes are merely suggested by rollaway furniture and set pieces (My favorite meta-line as a Balcony was gliding off for a transition -- "Is this balcony moving?").  Everything is lyrically supported by Ben Rawson's Lighting Design which highlights locales and characters, while throwing enough colors onto the wide-sky cyclorama to make Crayola feel jealous.  The lights even (occasionally) "throb" to the beat of some of the music (especially "Great Big Stuff").   And, Costume Designer Amanda Edgerton West has clothed the cast in the best the Riviera has to offer, gowns and suits and uniforms all with a designer "feel" about them.

 

Now let's talk about the cast.  This cast is a Dream!  As Lawrence and Freddy, Bryant Smith and Chase Peacock are a brilliant team, a chalk-and-cheese combination of elegant charm and amusing gaucherie.  Both strike perfect attitudes on every entrance and they play off one another like the classic comedy teams of yore.  Galen Crawley is sweetly wonderful as their "mark," a clumsy charmer overflowing with excitement ("THESE FRIES ARE FRENCH!!!") and naiveté.  It's plain to see how she makes these con artists fall under her spell, which makes the (Sssssshhhhhh!) plot secrets all the more effective.

 

Adding to this swirling soup of felonious charm are Jessica De Maria as Muriel, the heiress first seduced by Lawrence (who apparently prefers to be conned than to be left alone), the brilliant Steve Hudson as Lawrence's "partner in deception," Andre, and Allison McDowell, the oft-married oil heiress from Oklahoma, whose tribute to her home state would make Rodgers and Hammerstein roll in their graves.  They are all ably supported by an 11-member ensemble who play waiters and maids, vacationers and tourists, sailors and gendarmes, Frenchfolk and Greekfolk, and Muricanfolk, slipping into and out of character and costume with a breezy savoir faire that can be breathtaking.

 

This was a production that fired on all cylinders, bringing together a perfect storm of script and song, sound and light, set and costume, performance and direction.  It is a glittering jewel box of a caper plot that left an apparently permanent smile on my face.

 

So, since I can only see A.L.T. productions on their final date, your opportunity to see this show is past.  And, if you missed it, that's probably the real crime!

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #ALTScoundrels    #GreatBigStuff)

 

 

 

3/15/2018        SHELTERED                                   Alliance Theatre (On the Road)

 

*****  ( A+) 

 

KINDERTRANSPORT

 

"To take a child from its mother seemed to be the lowest thing a human being could do. Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Every parent we met seemed to say: 'Here. Yes. Freely. Gladly. Take my child to a safer shore.'"

Eleanor Kraus

 

What is the cost of survival?  What is the cost of family unity?  These two questions, here in direct conflict, form the backbone of Alix Sobler's wonderful new play, Sheltered, now on stage at Actor's Express as part of this season's Alliance Theatre "On the Road" Series.

 

In 1939, a Philadelphia lawyer and his wife, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, undertook a mission -- to bring Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Austria to "safe haven" in America.  At the time, American immigration policy wouldn't allow a single Visa over established quotas, meaning, under normal circumstances, it would take over five years to legally bring even a single child into America.

 

But Krause was a lawyer and had important friends in Washington D.C., so he was able to "use" 50 "unused" Visas -- people who had died, or who failed to meet their immigration dates.  He and his wife traveled to Vienna, and to Berlin, navigated the Byzantine Bureaucracy of Nazi government, and safely brought fifty children to America.

 

Their story can be found in the 2012 HBO Documentary, "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus."  To put this accomplishment in perspective, between 1938 and 1940, thousands of Jewish children were being brought safely into England and other havens in the "Kindertransport," itself the subject of a 1993 British play by Diane Samuels.  But America, the hope and haven of "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," had slammed its doors.

 

Playwright Sobler has fictionalized the Krauses as Evelyn and Leonard Kirsch, but has kept intact most of the facts of their story, creating an incredibly rich and moving experience, using a very traditional theatrical structure that brilliantly puts the questions I posed at the top of this column in direct conflict.

 

Welcome to the beautifully furnished sitting room of the Kirsch's Philadelphia home.  They are entertaining their friends, Roberta and Martin Bloom, a "blowhard accountant" and his wife.  They talk about their children, the theatre (Our Town had recently had its premier) and, of course, the politics of Europe.  Martin Bloom is a strict isolationist, who loudly proclaims that America has no business in another European conflict ("We have to think of America first!"), and that the "stories" of Jewish oppression are more propaganda than fact.  He treats his wife with all the gory splendor of old school masculinity.  When she ventures an opinion, he tells her, "Not now, Dear, the adults are talking."

 

But Evelyn gets Roberta alone, and convinces her to sponsor one of the children they are planning on rescuing.  But, Roberta, who knows her husband better than anyone, knows she must manipulate him into coming up with the idea himself.

 

In Act Two, the Kirsch's home magically transforms into their Vienna Hotel room, where they are engaged in the heartbreaking task of deciding which of the fifty children will be torn from their families and brought to America.  At one point, Evelyn looks at a pile of discarded files and describes it as a "pile of bodies."  Enter Hani Mueller, the mother of one of the selected children, who has changed her mind, who wants her son to stay with her -- their family has been in Vienna for over 500 years, and it just doesn't make sense to send him off to a strange place like America.

 

The remainder of the play is a confrontation between a rich American who thinks she knows what's best for a poor Austrian, and a mother who just wants to keep her son.  Of course WE know what's coming (*), so WE know "what's best," but it's important to remember that the Jewish population of Vienna still thought it was only a temporary political aberration that would "correct itself" with the next election.  After all, they didn't even have to wear the Star of David, like their Berliner counterparts.  Yet.

 

Director Kimberly Senior has staged this piece in the Actor's Express "Semi-thrust" configuration with audience on two sides, a choice that seems to work to heighten the intimacy -- it feels as if we're in the room with the Kirsches, and their desperation and passion is as vivid as a Concentration Camp tattoo.  It helps that set designer Jack Magraw has designed two completely different sets that are similar enough in color and architecture to make the intermission transition seem almost magical in its simplicity and effectiveness.

 

And I simply adored ALL the performances, particularly Amanda Drinkall as Evelyn Kirsch, the heart and soul of the piece.  John Skelley is also very good as Leonard, all crisp righteousness and fervent intention, looking very much like a latter-day Leo Frank.  As the Blooms, Lee Osorio and Park Krausen bring their usual high standard of excellence, giving us a hint that these less-than-ideal parents may actually "come through" for their new ward.  And Lauren Boyd Lane is remarkable as Frau Mueller, flawlessly coherent through a thick Austrian accent, heartbreakingly ambivalent at being separated from her son.

 

I liked how the playwright uses a traditional style -- Act One is, quite literally, a basic "drawing room comedy," with sophisticated characters talking about sophisticated topics, casually revealing flaws with thoughtless comments or gestures, using old-school dramaturgical tropes to get characters off stage and back, making the bourbon and cheese-puffs as relevant as the talk of children in peril.  Act Two is drenched in suspense, the paranoia of two Jews in a Nazi-occupied city, the heartbreak of choosing who gets to live and who gets to die, the conflict when the price of life is the destruction of family.

 

Eleanor Kraus's granddaughter describes her as "Not a saint -- after all she did all this while staying at luxury hotels and dining at fine restaurants.  She was determined to save these children, and she did it wearing a fine hat." (Please forgive my paraphrasing.)  This real quote should resonate nicely when you see the Act One discussion about women's hats.

 

Sheltered may be dismissed by some as "just another IMPORTANT Holocaust play," but I think it achieves greatness by being an important CHARACTER play.  This script, this production, this cast truly makes these characters come alive and take up permanent residence in memory, right beside the fifty children they ultimately saved.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #AllianceOTR    #Sheltered)

 

 

*  One of the more heartbreaking details of the HBO documentary is the description of the boy who had to be dropped from the program because he got sick the day before departure.  At the end of the film, we're casually told that that boy perished at Sobibor two years later.

 

"50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus" is not available on YouTube or Netflix, but, if you are an HBO subscriber, you should be able to find it "On Demand."  In the meantime, you can see a trailer HERE.  And you can find a companion book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSFJOSPEZ8g

 

 

3/29/2018        MAMMA MIA!                                   Aurora Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 
 

IN PRAISE OF ROUGH EDGES

 

First, a confession. During the '70's and '80's, I was a despiser of all things Disco, was underwhelmed by ABBA and their hits, and would not be caught dead at any of their concerts. When Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway all those many years ago, I went my ho-hum way and ignored its success, resisting my normal urge to buy and play to death any Broadway Musical CD.

About ten years ago, though, I heard "Winner Takes it All" somewhere and thought it was a great song (bear in mind, during its original release, I was a true Musical Geek, and most pop hits were way under my radar). Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was an ABBA song from Mamma Mia!  So, still not wishing to invest any of my own funds on what amounts to a compilation disk, I put the Original Cast CD on my Christmas List (near the bottom), and, of course, my lovely Dancing Queen of a spouse indulged me, and I found it in my (oversized) stocking.

Okay, I liked it!  And now, almost ten years have passed, and I've seen the show (and its somewhat lackluster -- all hail Meryl Streep! -- movie version), many times over.  I continue to find it not only makes the songs enjoyable and more layered, but the songs themselves enhance the story and are the driving force behind the musical Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus never knew they wrote.

 

And, when you stir in its contagious sunniness and overwhelming joy, I've grown to love this play!

To recap the plot, Sophie is a twenty-year-old about-to-be bride. She has been raised by her single Mom on an idyllic Greek getaway Island, never knowing who her father was. A few months before her wedding, she finds her mother's diary, identifies three men who could be her father, and secretly invites them to her wedding. Chaos, reconciliation, time-unhealed emotional scars, tears, recrimination, and laughter ensue. Right here, Mamma Mia! shows an edge over most other "jukebox" compilation musicals. This is a story that could stand on its own, as a light comedy without music, and is, in fact, reminiscent of the 1968 movie, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.   The fact that these songs can be "shoehorned" into this plot is testament to the fact that they were more than the "Disco Fluff" I had judged (and dismissed) them to be --  they had a narrative power of their own, they were structured with their own plots, and the body of work itself had enough consistent motifs and themes that they could recall this (somewhat) familiar narrative.

If some of the musical "fits" aren't exactly seamless, more often they are a perfect match, with the songs revealing undercurrents in the characters and the story revealing undercurrents in the songs. In fact, the ease with which some of these song engage the plot spark actual chuckles of joy.


I have to commend the choice made by music director Ann-Carol Pence (or was it director Justin Anderson or the actors themselves?) to begin many of the songs non-musically, to treat the opening lyrics as lines until suddenly the stage explodes in color and melody.  This choice makes the transitions more elegant than ever before and eliminates almost all of those "doesn't quite fit" moments that those-who-go-to-musicals-to-judge-by-pedantic-standards find so aggravating.

 

I also have to commend the cast itself for fully inhabiting these roles, for making the songs themselves evoke ABBA rather than slavishly imitate them, for creating enough on-stage chemistry that the various "groups" overlap emotionally like some complex Venn diagram with a "common space" that grows as the play advances its story.

 

Kristin Markiton is heartbreakingly powerful as Donna, who actually brought me to real tears with "Winner Takes it All" and "Slipping Through my Fingers" (though this latter probably affected me more this go-round due to my daughter turning 18 sooner than I'd like and all the drama that comes with having another almost-adult in the house, not to mention my increasing "powerlessness" and irrelevance in her life).  As her friends, Marcie Millard and Terry Henry bring a full helping of Sass and Style and show all the interaction expected from old friends.  As the "Father Block" of the ensemble, Chris Kayser, Travis Smith and Greg Frey create compelling personalities that make the "who's the Dad?" question essentially moot -- we like them all and would like to see them all in Sophie's Life.  It helps that they all sing better than their movie-version counterparts.  As the younger generation, Hannah Church is lovely and earnest as Sophie, and Nick Arapoglou is terrific as her intended, Sky.  Their "Lay all Your Love on Me" is sexy and warm and exposes the true affection and outright friendship that is the foundation of their relationship.  Alexandra Karr, Sarah Elaine, Joseph Pendergrast, and Benjamin Strickland are all terrific in the smaller parts of "friends of bride and groom" and they're all backed up by a 15-member ensemble of young folk, strong voices, and dynamic dancers.  This is a full stage!

 

Speaking of the stage, Set Designer Julie Ray has created a large and multi-storied Taverna, a beautifully designed and built construction that smoothly works no matter the scene's locale.  Kevin Frazier has lit it with a combination of warm Greek sunlight, cool Mediterranean evenings, and throbbing Disco Colors that I bet ABBA wishes they had the technology for "back in the day."  Costume Designer Alan Yeong has dressed the large cast in very character (and period) specific clothes that simply burst into new life in the musical numbers, easily conforming to Ricardo Aponte's energetic choreography, choreography that would destroy the clothes of a lesser designer.  And when the over-top togs of the curtain call appear, the costume design passes from the level of terrifically competent to truly inspired, even great!

 

So, this is a show that I like, given a production by a creative team that never fails to impress me, and performed by a cast that is near-perfect.  The whole thing goes down as smoothly as a summer tonic, and I can't wait to take my wife and daughter to see it after it moves to Georgia Tech, though I daresay "Slipping Through My Fingers" may be even rougher for my doting mother of a spouse than it was for me.

I've been told that people like this show, but don't exactly respect it.  They consider it a fun, fluffy show, but it isn't O'Neill or Ibsen. Well, no. And I'm sure the pleasures you get from High Drama couldn't be confused with those here. Or can they? What we have in Mamma Mia! is a story of loss, love, redemption, confusion, living with bad choices, surviving with emotional wounds, being impulsive in spite of "lessons learned," letting go, holding on, and finding dreams. What's so fluffy about that? The bouncy lights and throbbing music that gild the edges do not lessen the range of emotion on display, do not lessen the range of emotion evoked.

 

I've also been told that there are just too many plot holes for the show to be "truly great."  And, to be honest, just where does Sophie know where to send the invitations, and since when was 1976 the "year of flower power?"  I honestly believe the "rough edges" are a positive, not a negative.  After all, to echo the producers' front-of-program notes, this is nothing if not a show celebrating the "rough edges" of family, of memory, of relationships, of love itself.  There are tons of "rough edges" where the songs don't (quite) fit the logic and timeline of the story.  There are even some "rough edges" of performance and design -- lighting technology not available in the supposed 1996 period of the story, voices a tad too large for the (seeming) intimacy of the Aurora space, purposefully "unevened" pitches and occasional discordances.  Disco-haters like myself would even consider the ABBA songs themselves a bit of a "rough edge" to be borne and swallowed.

 

But, yet it all works, beautifully.  All those edges remind us that "perfection" is dull, that honest performances are better than "canned" and computer-adjusted sound, that abrasions make the pearls.

So, all I can say is, "Thank you for the Music," and Thank you for this Production!

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #Aurora    #ATMammaMia)



**  From the Dedalus Dictionary: Theatre Magic -- That quality that only theatre has that convinces you that music you used to hate isn't so bad after all. Yes, folks, it took a Musical to make me like ABBA!

 

 

3/30/2018        DISNEY'S THE LITTLE MERMAID                                 Serenbe Playhouse

 

***½  ( B ) 
 

UNDER DE SKY

 

So, this'll be a fairly simple one to write.

 

(1)        MY BIASES

            The Little Mermaid is # 2 on my list of all-time favorite Disney movie.  I anticipate a major "who gets the DVD" battle when it's time for my daughter to swim free of the nest.  I am also a major Serenbe fan, reveling in their sense of creativity and their use of "found" outdoor spaces.

 

(2)        THE PLOT

            Do you really need me to recap this?  Rebellious "Daddy's Favorite" sees the air as fresher on the other side of the air/sea fence and longs for what she can't have.  Magic, romance, and conflict ensue.  Happy ending (VERY unlike the Anderson source material).  It's Disney, so there are dastardly villains and whimsical sidekicks.

 

(3)        THE ADAPTATION

            There are changes from the movie and a podful of new songs, some of which work ("She's in Love," "Her Voice"), some of which seem to be just filler ("The World Above," "If Only").  And, of course, the familiar ones from the movie kick some serious fish tail ("Under the Sea," "Kiss the Girl," "Les Poissons").  The climax and resolution are very different from the movie, and are effective in a stage venue way, but not necessarily in a plot resolution way.

 

(4)        THE SETTING

            Other than a single reference to the stars above, this production would have worked just as well inside.  It's on a lakeside, so the references to the sea fall a little flat, and the sandy-beachy ground layer under the audience is just messy, especially since it disappears-from-mind as soon as the show begins.  So, it doesn't really enhance the story, but it doesn't distract, either (chilly* and/or rainy nights notwithstanding).

 

(5)        THE DESIGN

            I liked how no effort was made to hide the fact that the "mer-folk" (and other sea creatures) were really humans with feet and legs.  Stylized movement and context were sufficient to goad our imaginations into filling the fish-tail blanks, as it were, and the original-production roller skates were thankfully jettisoned (flotisoned?). The set (by Shannon Robert) of side platforms and trash-heap ambiance worked perfectly to make separate "undersea" and "dry land" ambiances, though I wish the lighting would have contributed more to those distinctions.  A "close-up" space close to the audience's faces was used very effectively, and the costumes(by Erik Teague) were creations of wonder and beauty.  There was a major sound fail at Friday's performance (covered professionally by the cast), but, essentially, the design worked well, especially all the icky-squishy sounds accompanying Ursula's every move.

 

(6)        THE CAST

            Everyone was top-notch perfect, especially Deb Bowman's nasty-and-menacing Ursula, India Tryee's crowd-pleasing Sebastian, Derek Dixon's stern and full-voiced Triton, and Nikki Badua's energetic and breathtaking Ariel.  If Chase Peacock's Prince Eric came across as typically Disney-bland-good-guy, his singing voice more than compensated with strength and heroic virtue.  Other Serenbe regulars (Austin Tijerina, Kenny Tran, Brian Jordan, Chase Anderson and Jordan Patrick) provided the expected character-centric support, and the entire ensemble worked beautifully together, as smooth and synchronized as a school of darting fish or a team of Olympic water dancers.

 

(7)        THE DIRECTION

            Nothing really relevant to say here -- other than terrific work by director Ryan Oliveti, Music Director Chris Brent Davis, and Choreography Bubba Carr.  But I've come to expect no less from them.

 

So, yeah, it's The Little Mermaid, and, if you're a Little Mermaid fan, I daresay you'll enjoy this production.  There's enough creative freshness here to keep it new and exciting for long-time fans (or those who have endured "Junior" versions for the sake of the children), and enough energy and winsomeness to please the youngest (newest?) of fans. 


    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #Serenbe    #DisneysLittleMermaid)

 

*  I couldn't help thinking as I was shivering beneath my car blanket that Titanic would have been a better colder-season choice.  Aren't iceberg's cold-weather phenomena?  If Little Mermaid had been left until summer, maybe some real-water applications could have been used for storm and shore.

4/2/2018        HOSPICE   +   POINTING AT THE MOON                Alliance Theatre (On the Road)

 

****½  ( A ) 

 

UNDER ONE ROOF

 

For its latest excursion in its season of travel, Alliance Theatre has landed at Fulton County's Southwest Arts Center, and staged two one-act plays by Alliance Playwright-in-Residence (and all-around Atlanta Treasure) Pearl Cleage. As background, "Hospice" was written thirty years ago and focuses on a young woman's attempts to reconnect with her dying mother.  "Pointing at the Moon" returns to that character thirty years later, when both she (and Ms. Cleage) have experienced all those intervening thirty years.  It is a rare opportunity to experience the unseen impacts time can have on both a character and her creator.

 

That this production features four performances from two actors of rare and uncompromising talent is simply a spring gift to be cherished.

 

So, "Hospice."  We are in the ancestral home of the Anderson family (a beautifully designed construction by Tony Cisek). Jenny Anderson (Tinashe Kajese-Bolden) has "come home" to have a baby, baby-Daddy having left the scene.  She is also starting a career as a movie critic and is struggling with a self-imposed writing deadline.  But there is an unpleasant surprise waiting for her -- her own mother, renowned poet Alice Anderson (Terry Burrell), has come home to die.  Late stage cancer.  Now, Alice had abandoned her family when Jenny was only ten, running off to Paris to "soak up" the literary ambiance.  Let's just say, there are outstanding issues to resolve.  What follows is a lyrical waltz in family dynamics, a conversation laced with both affection and bitterness, a late-stage attempt to heal a riff that seems to be more susceptible to remission than Alice's tumors or Jenny's baby (or writer's block).  With a few well-placed wallows in Puccini and Lady Day(*) to pace out the dramatic beats, Ms. Cleage has wrought a beautiful play, a two-character study in how music and art and words are the glass through which a history of family and hurt can be darkly seen (and semi-healed).

 

After intermission, we return to the house, now thirty years later, Jenny now being played by Ms. Burrell.  The walls are comfortably filled with thousands of books, the writing desk comfortably filled with home-bar fixings, the sofa comfortably emptied of "Death Watch" linens and pillows and blankets.  A screen on the second floor punctuates the play with projected snippets of Ms. Cleage's wonderful dialog, reminding us that not only is the action of the play conspicuously tech-friendly contemporary, but the leitmotifs that run through it are indicative of how tech is rapidly replacing many aspects-of-life-and-art some of us stubbornly hold dear.

 

And Jenny has grown into a college-level professor stubbornly holding onto the love of books over e-readers.  Ms. Kajese-Bolden is now playing Isabel Matthews, a young acquaintance who is now the only surviving member of the small "clique" of literature lovers they were all part of.  The two now need to find a way to build a friendship on its own terms, not one defined by the elder mutual friend whose funeral they have just attended.  In a fast-paced fusillade of anecdotes and observations and political commentary (yes, the 2016 election is definitely a hot topic for both characters), we bear witness to a new kind of friendship, one built of shared attitudes and opposed viewpoints, one that attempts to bridge the chasms we increasingly find in our homes and communities.  This play is much lighter than "Hospice," despite its post-funeral setting, but the characters are equally compelling, equally demanding of our time and affection.

 

And, it's a measure of the success of the performances that it doesn't take long for us to lose our recognition of them as the same actors in Act One (It, of course, helps that both undergo a dramatic physical adjustment).  In fact, it is so easy to see the Jenny of "Pointing at the Moon" as the same "Jenny" from "Hospice," that I often had to remind myself she was now a different actress.

 

Maybe the real reason I enjoyed "Pointing at the Moon" so much is that it takes an attitude towards bibliophilia that I share.  Yes, I'm grudgingly getting some books on e-readers, but only because my aging eyesight makes reading actual books -- especially small print paperbacks -- actually painful unless I'm in direct sunlight.  Still, you'll take my library only when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers, which, I might add, is my lovely wife's plans for it if I pre-decease her.

 

But, when all is said and done, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself, a book -- even an e-book -- is not the book itself.  The book is actually the words delivered by the author and the mental images delivered by the reader.

 

It could just as easily be said, that these plays, as delivered by Ms. Cleage and the Alliance production team, are not the real plays. at all  The real plays are the experiences we have, the memories we take with us, the affections that remain for the characters and their stories, and the ideas that float up as we (well, I) sit down a few days later to write about them.

 

Let me just leave you by repeating my belief that Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta treasure, that she creates stories and characters that grab our attention and our affection, that she creates dialogue that is built from the wellspring of poetry, wallowing  in imagery and music, and lingering in the mind like a long-loved song from our youth.

 

"Hospice" and "Pointing at the Moon" provide a rare opportunity to experience Ms. Cleage's creativity at two vastly different points in her life, and to see the common threads around which artistic growth can spread and prosper. Experiencing them together is a rare treat to be savored.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #AllianceOTR    #HospiceMoon)

 

* This is a real "Easter Egg" for Atlanta theatre-goers, given Ms. Burrell's recent success as Lady Day.  The only thing that would have made it more memorable would have been her own rendition of the Billie Holliday song we hear.

 

NOTE -- The Alliance Theatre has announced that their 2018/2019 will include another new play by Pearl Cleage -- Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous.  i hate to pre-judge a play by its title, but you gotta love that one!

 

 

4/8/2018        MASS APPEAL                                                Stage Door Players

 

****  ( B+ ) 
 

CATECHISM

 

Bill Davis' Mass Appeal is a 1980 play (and a 1984 movie) about two priests.  So, in my unending quest to wright these reaction pieces in the style of the play, the temptation is to craft a catechism-esque dialogue that summarizes the play, the production, and the effect it has had on me and my play-centric sensibilities.  But this is an old play that I have read often and seen often.  And, also, I'm not Catholic, and I suspect the Catholic Catechism deserves a little more respect than what I could provide with a last minute Google search.

 

Father Tim Farley is an easy-going and charming priest, well-liked by his parishioners, comfortable after a long career shepherding the same congregation.  One Sunday, ("Dialogue Sermon Day") he is confronted by Mark Dolson, a young seminarian on the priesthood track.  Mark is confrontational, abrupt, idealistic, and appalled by anyone who doesn't meet his exacting standards.  He is chalk to Father Tim's cheese, flammable oil to the older priest's soothing water.  So, it is inevitable that the two quickly become paired in a mentor/protégé dynamic that is anything but gentle.

 

This being 1980, the topic on hand starts out as "Women in the Priesthood," but quickly expands to include homosexuality and Diocese Power Politics.  Actually, this production is relatively period-neutral, and could just as well be happening now as when the play was written, especially given the unchanging nature of priestly raiment and Catholic Hot-Button Issues.  Apparently, Mark has had "history" with "both men and women," and, in the mind of the off-stage monsignor, this disqualifies him from EVER being a priest, vows of chastity notwithstanding.

 

Of course, I could now go on a long rant about the hypocrisy of an organization disallowing "priests with a past" while at the same time protecting pedophile "priests with a present," but that discussion is outside the scope of this script, and thus deserves only this passing mention, "food for thought," as it were.  The bottom line is that, no matter his past, Mark is now an idealistic practitioner, a fervent force for help in the community, and, if perhaps a bit too blunt for Father Tim and his parishioners, still an excellent choice for the priestly life.

 

This is, in essence, a two-character play in which the two characters are diametric opposites -- young/old, abrasive/easy-going, fervent/complacent, brutally honest/tactfully fib-friendly, sober/not-so-much-sober.  They each learn from the other, but never really change the core of character that provides motivation and drives choices.  And their journey is always an entertaining and compelling story to watch.

 

Here, Mark Gray gives Father Tim a pleasant demeanor, a man whose fondness for his congregation is almost matched by his fondness for wine.  He is like a puppy, wanting to please everyone, unwilling to "upset the apple cart" for even the most idealistic causes.  Brandon Lee Browning is a brash and dedicated Mark, a "Bull in the China Shop" unafraid to smash some fragile egos on his headlong rush for "perfection."  The two are perfectly matched, physically and emotionally, and watching their "dance" is as rewarding as watching a balletic pas-de-deux.

 

Set Designer Chuck Welcome has given a bifurcated stage picture, mostly taken up with Father Tim's blandly furnished office (That god-awful couch color is pure Father Tim,  and I couldn't help smiling at the appropriateness of the choice even before the play began.)  But, to the right is  richly wood-carved pulpit from which Father Tim and Mark address the congregation, their voices given the perfect amount of reverb by sound designer Rial Ellsworth. 

 

I think it's very apt that the play opens with Father Tim greeting the front row of audience as if we are his parishioners, and how for that first sermon, Mark's "from the house" challenge is from a side aisle, with us, but definitively apart.  Father Tim returns to the front row later in Act Two, but Mark never does -- he remains aloof and distant, in spite of his protestations of affection for us.

 

This is a play I've always liked for its clear-eyed depiction of faith vs dogma and for its critical view of how dogma derives more from prejudice than from actual faith and goodness.  These are always compelling characters, and every actor who assays them brings so much that is new to the portrayals that the play can't help but seem fresh, no matter how often I've seen it, or how well I think I know the script

 

And Stage Door's production, under the seamless and confident direction of James Donadio, is like a visit to an old friend, the one who serves the best of wines and provides the best of stimulating conversations.

 

And that, my friends, should be the very definition of "mass appeal."

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #SDPMassAppeal)

 

 

 

4/18/2018          BUDDY:  THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY              Georgia Ensemble Theatre
 
*****   ( A+ )

 

NOT FADE AWAY

 

(Sloth Alert:  In 2009, Georgia Ensemble Theatre staged one of their most popular shows ever.  Just to show that the love a certain generation feels for Buddy Holly will "NOT FADE AWAY," they are remounting it again to sold out houses.  400+ on a Wednesday Night?  Rave On!  Anyway, my reaction this year is almost identical to my reaction nine years ago, so my words will look very familiar to those with eidetic memories, or access to TheaterReview.com's archives.)

 

Let it be admitted at the start, I am now a Buddy Holly fan, I have been a Buddy Holly fan for more years than he lived, I will probably be a Buddy Holly fan for as long as music never dies.  I truly adored GET's 2009 mounting of this piece.  And, I approached their new 2018 production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story with anticipation, and not a few Great Expectations.  I was not disappointed.  This was a high-spirited, talent-filled pseudo-concert that worked as a showcase for Buddy Holly’s music.  That it contained just enough “script” to enhance a few of the songs and give the actors some actual challenge was just icing on the cake.

 

Essentially a “juke-box” musical, it passes my primary test for such an endeavor – it’s actually a bit better than a simple concert of the same material, with the libretto enhancing the songs in ways mere mimicry could not.  Admittedly plot-thin, the script concentrates on Buddy’s music, on his obsession with doing his songs “His Way,” and on the few incidents in his life that informed his hits.  Moreover, there was nothing that undercut the songs, or felt forced or contrived.  Other writers have complained that “The Crickets” disappeared from the plot with little explanation, but I found the little explanation given to be enough.  The bulk of the second act was made up of Buddy’s final concert, in which the Crickets did not participate.  I don’t think further explanation was necessary, simply because it really had nothing to do with that concert.  Having the musician-actors playing the Crickets part of band that backs up the final concert didn’t hurt. 

 

Still, keeping the dialogue at a minimum lets the production wallow in the music.  And it is a beautiful, happy wallow.  Jeremy Aggers slips on Holly's iconic glasses, and, like Rob Lawhon nine years ago, gives quite possibly the best musical performance of the year, inhabiting Buddy Holly in deeper ways than a mere impression.  I believed his passion about music, his impulsiveness and playfulness, and, most important, his musicianship.  Playing his guitar like a hero, Mr. Aggers appeared to be channeling the real Buddy -- he dominated the show like no one else I can imagine.  Well, perhaps Mr. Lawhon nine years ago.

 

The rest of the cast disappears equally into their roles.  I have to give credit to Andrew Patton and Mark Schroeder for giving the Crickets individuality with minimal dialog (is there any musical instrument Mr. Schroeder can’t play better than anyone else?).  I also have to praise Ethan Ray Parker and Ricardo Aponte for bringing powerhouse energy to their single-number roles (The Big Bopper and Richie Valens),  to Chad Martin for performing the lion’s share of exposition as Disc Jockey Hipockets Duncan, and to the rest of cast for playing multiple roles with precision and distinction (Andrea Mora, Googie Uterhardt, Kate Johnson, Xylina Cassandra -- who seemed to be channeling a young Tina Turner -- Sean Paul Bryan, and Jacob Jones).  This is a wonderful ensemble, and I hope they get commended as such.

 

But this is first, and foremost, Jeremy Aggers' show.  He gives equal plausibility, equal commitment to the early Crickets hits, the later hard-rocking full-tilt-boogie stuff, and the soft and gentle ballads.  I especially liked his acoustic rendition of “True Loves Ways” sung to his wife Maria on the eve of his last concert tour.  I can’t praise his work enough, here.

 

The lesson drawn from this play is quite simple – true greatness comes with total commitment to your vision, to your insistence on doing things “your way,” even when the “experts” disagree.  But lessons and themes are afterthoughts to what this play is really about – A celebration of the short life and timeless talent of Buddy Holly.  In that, it succeeds better than any “jukebox” musical I’ve seen.  Even my normal pickiness about lighting choices – here there are many computer-driven 21st-century effects that could never have been produced in the 1950’s – will be left at the door.

 

My “Rave On” may be informed by my long-standing fondness for these songs.  On the other hand, because of my fondness for it, I’d been disappointed by earlier versions, such as the Gary Busey movie and a touring production of this show I saw a bunch of years ago.  So, do you honestly think I’d let a sub-standard production pass critical muster?

 

That’ll Be the Day!

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #GET_BUDDY)

 


 

 

 

4/21/2018        THE JUNGLE BOOK            Georgia Ensemble Theatre Family Stages

 

****½  ( A ) 
           
LAW OF THE JUNGLE (AMENDED -- AGAIN)

 

Rudyard Kipling is experiencing a bit of a revival.  Lately dismissed as a racist imperialist writer from a racist imperialist age, his reputation fell into a quagmire of taboo and politically expedient neglect.

 

And, indeed, there is much of his work that causes the most historically "aware" reader to shudder a bit.  "The White Man's Burden" is especially hard on those of us struggling to recognize and subvert our own lingering shreds of unconscious racism.

 

But he's experiencing a bit of a revival, and the latest "Live Action" Jungle Book film went out of its way to subvert any innate racist subtext.

 

Which begs the question, should this sort of analysis be part of the discussion of a production aimed at kids?  After all, this is the second for-kids stage adaptation I've written about this year.

 

For the time being, let's leave that decision with parents.  For now, let's just talk about, well, The Jungle Book, at least as presented in a non-musical adaptation, this time by Greg Banks.   For any of you new to this story (is anyone REALLY new to this story?), Akela the wolf adopts an abandoned "man-cub" named Mowgli, and, together with Baloo (a bear) and Bagheera (a panther) tries to protect him from the harsh jungle justice of Shere Kahn (a tiger).  Along the way, there are games and adventures, and threats, and, eventually a "new" law is formed that allows "family" to be whatever the family chooses it to be.

 

This is an admitted over-simplification, but it is a perfect introduction to the story for the under-ten set, and, to its credit, the production kept the roomful of under-tens totally spellbound for the short 60-minute run-time of the show.

 

As happened in the season's previous productions by the always-busy, over-talented Georgia Ensemble Family Repertory Company (Erik Pager Abrahamsen, Shelli Delgado, Robert Lee Hindsman, Asia Howard, J.D. Myers, and Rylee J. Bunton), a few folks portray a stage full of distinct characters, often by merely changing a cloak and a posture (sometimes in full view of the young audience).  Even if many characters had the same face, the youngsters in the audience (apparently) had no trouble following the story and relating to the characters.

 

Unlike the Alliance's visually stunning production earlier this year, this production keeps things simple -- a literal "jungle gym" made out of ladders and planks, a few bolts of green fabric, and a lot of young imaginations fill the edges of the stage brilliantly, even with corners of GET's "Buddy Holly" set in full view.  Kudos to Scenic Designer Jon Nooner and Costume Designer Mariana Wegener for proving that simplicity and imagination can be as wonderfully effective as costlier, grander choices.

 

Once again, director Laurel Crowe keeps the pace moving and the story clear, and there are many memorable moments, mostly due to this terrific cast.

 

So, if you have small ones looking for a morning's entertainment, I strongly suggest you wend your way to Roswell for a fun trip into the world of British Colonialism and child abandonment ....  oops, sorry, into the jungle world of Mowgli and all his friends.  Just have a good talk with them before they fall into the Google-hole of Anti-Kipling rants and invective.  Because, we all know that the Politically Correct response to "Do you like Kipling?" is "I don't know!  I've never Kippled."  #YeahIWentThere   #Again

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETFamilyStages  #JungleBook)

 

This piece is on a school tour with the series' other shows -- Miss Nelson is Missing, And Then They Came for Me, and The Giver -- but will have public performance though April 28.  I am extraordinarily happy that these gems are becoming more accessible to those of us beyond school age, and, IMHO, the Atlanta Theatre Scene is the richer for this marvelous ensemble of artists and crafts-folk!

 

 

4/29/2018      ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE                          Atlanta Lyric Theatre

***½  ( B ) 

HONKY TONK ANGEL

 

Funny how time, distance, change of venue and change of cast affects how we react to a particular production!  Four years ago (almost to the day), and nine years ago, two small scale productions of Always, Patsy Cline had me scrambling for superlatives, and praising the small-venue intimacy that made Patsy and Louise seem like our own best friends, the sort with whom we would share hot coffee, bacon and eggs, gossip, and tales of woe.

 

Now, here comes Atlanta Lyric's production, designed to the rafters and expansive enough to fill the large Jennie Anderson venue, filled to the brim with explosive musical talent and still excellent enough for a theatrical wallow in some old favorite songs.  But the intimacy here is forced, confined to some well-rehearsed interactions with the band, and a few forays into the front row for some fun with fans.  In other words, the intimacy seems "tacked on," and truth to tell, I really missed it.  This is a show that doesn't "scale up" particularly well, that soars higher in smaller spaces.

 

That being said, it is still quite an enjoyable production, and the talent on display goes a long way in alleviating that "outside looking in" feeling I had.

 

For the uninitiated, Always, Patsy Cline is essentially a "juke box" musical, giving us many, MANY of Ms. Cline's "greatest hits."  It's framed as an interaction between Ms. Cline and Louise Seger, a fan who became a friend and correspondent.  We see Ms. Cline singing at the "Grand Ole Opry," at a smaller "Juke Joint," and, essentially, in Louise Seger's memory and imagination.  In spite of the dearth of dialogue about her, we get to know Ms. Cline very well indeed, based almost entirely on her "songbook" (none of which she actually wrote  --    Sometimes, we learn more about a "star" by what she sings (and how she sings it), than we would with a whole script-full of dry biographical "facts").  It certainly helps that Laura Hodos is a charismatic singer and actress, seemingly channeling the essence of Patsy Cline and bringing her back to life.

 

We do get to know Louise in great detail.  And, in Karen Howell's marvelously energetic hands, we get a full-fledged character who fills the evening with her recollections, her enthusiasms, her amusing turns-of-phrase *, and her devotion to Ms. Cline.  It’s also a pleasure to see a “Fan Geek’s” fantasy come true – an evening gaining the confidence of a star, building a friendship, experiencing a rare view “beneath the façade.” 

 

In Lee Shiver-Cerone's beautiful set, Louise's crowded kitchen is actually roomier than a palace (with storage spaces you'd need a ladder to reach), and the small Honky Tonk (which doubles as Louise's living room) has one juke box, two chairs, and no place to rest a bottle of beer.  The "bandstand" is upstage with a small platform in front to accommodate Ms. Cline on occasion.  A cyc in the background provides all the colors of the rainbow.  Have no doubt, this is a beautiful set, and provides suitable "eye candy" for the (non-existent) moments when our attention wavers from Patsy and Louise.  But, really?  These are locations Patsy and Louise may aspire to, but which probably never could have been inhabited by them.

 

On the other hand, this band was truly spectacular.  Music Director (and pianist) Amanda Wansa Morgan deserves full credit for collecting the talented musicians needed for this sound, and full credit for bringing Patsy Cline's music to full and vibrant life.

 

So, in the final analysis, I liked this production not quite as much as its previous incarnations, though Ms. Hodos is by far the best of the Patsy Clines I've seen.  The music (and the top notch band) went a long way to quell my disappointment at the lack of intimacy (and the hugely inappropriate set).  Call me “Crazy,” but I almost wish they would stage a few supplemental performances at Atlanta Lyric's cozier studio space, despite the fact that demand for tickets would far exceed the limited availability.  But, that's a production that would truly hit the stratosphere.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #ALT  #AlwaysPatsyCline)

 

*  I have to ask, is it even possible to "fall through your own butt-hole and hang yourself?"

 

 

5/9/2018      CANDIDE                           Alliance Theatre (On the Road)

****½  ( A ) 

THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE JUXTAPOSITIONS

 

(Disclaimer:  Wednesday's performance was the first preview -- the official opening is actually 5/11 -- and, as such, should be not be rated or judged just because it's the only performance I could get to.  That's not to say it won't be discussed...)

 

In a castle of Westphalia, belonging to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, lived a youth, whom nature had endowed with the most gentle manners. His countenance was a true picture of his soul. He combined a true judgment with simplicity of spirit, which was the reason, I apprehend, of his being called Candide. 

 

Thus begins Voltaire's 1759 satire of politics, religion, and philosophy, particularly Liebnitz's Monadology, a treatise to justify evil and tragedy as part of a universal plan that ultimately leads to paradise and salvation.  This is indeed, the "Best of All Possible Worlds," notwithstanding, war, plague, violence, disaster, and theatre critics.

 

In 1956, Leonard Bernstein premiered his operetta, based on Voltaire's text.  The production was an unmitigated failure, a disaster of legendary proportions.  But, that was for the best, because it led to a recording that is still "in print," and to later revisions, with lyrical and textural contributions from sundry writers such as Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, and many others.  The result was a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music, that, to be blunt, remained pretty much unproducible on theatrical stages. But, that was for the best, because it led to an eminently producible "concert version," which has become a favorite of high school and college music departments.  Bernstein's score is nothing if not exquisite, the Candide overture has become a popular favorite for concert-goers, and "Glitter and be Gay" remains a touchstone for aspiring coloraturas (not to mention becoming the end-title theme for the old Dick Cavett show). 

 

See?  Everything is for the best and couldn't possibly be any better!

 

Which brings us to the first (and hopefully not last**) collaboration between Woodruff neighbors Alliance Theatre and Atlanta Symphony, a collaboration that, to my ears, does true justice to Bernstein's score, Voltaire's satire, and the patchwork libretto that thrives on sly meta-moments and pointed anachronism. 

 

Just to recap the plot, Candide's Westphalian idyll is abruptly ended by banishment, abduction, and invasion.  He is joined by his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, a foppish lecher who implants the lesson of optimism ("I know they all died!  But, think what future sufferings they have thus avoided!").  They wash up on the shores of Portugal, where a volcano has "fulfilled its natural function and erupted," snuffing out hundreds of thousands of lives. As foreigners, they run afoul of the Inquisition.  Candide is flogged, Pangloss is hanged.  Through further adventures in Paris, in Montevideo, at sea, and in Constantinople, Candide loses and regains friends at will (often with absolutely no explanation of how they survived the previous deadly encounter).  His companions include his beloved Cunegonde, virtuous of heart if not loins (she seems to be a "ravishment" magnet); her brother Maximillian, of fair face and fairer face and really good-looking face;  Paquette, a saucy maid; and "Old Woman," who is, well, an old woman of royal background fallen on hard times, whose tale of a missing buttock you'll have to go back to Voltaire to learn, as she never quite gets to that story here.

 

The cultures they encounter are purposefully clichéd, a comment on the provincialism of both Voltaire's audience and Bernstein's.  For example, you may say, the Eiffel Tower wasn't built until a hundred years after Voltaire died, how can Candide carry around a model.  Because it's Paris, durn it, and nothing says Paris like the Eiffel Tower!  This pointed anachronising is underscored by numerous topical asides and ad libs, and by a "Puppet Master" wandering around in modern coveralls, with a Stage Manager's headset and a clicker to control the large screen projections we see.

 

An equally pointed theatricalism also imbues this production, with the ensemble on stage, changing costumes and characters in full view.  The presence of the orchestra and the LARGE chorus are acknowledged and "part of the action."  And the narrator is (almost) always on stage, on a pulpit-like platform that gives a tongue-in-cheek religious solemnity to the story.  Yes, he does step "into the story" as Dr. Pangloss, but, even as the foolish doctor, he is still an inexorable part of us, our contemporary, the story teller extraordinaire.

 

I wasn't completely enamoured of the puppetry, which we see projected on two giant screens, but only because I had a lot of difficulty actually deciphering what the puppets and models were and what they were doing.  This criticism may be 100% on me -- I came to the show with my eyes still a bit dilated from an earlier Eye Exam -- but, the fact that the screens themselves were often washed out by the stage lights made my struggle to focus a tad more difficult.  I'm not sure the concept worked completely -- it seems like one of those ideas that are good in concept, but do not produce the expected effect.

 

As to the cast, they all had breathtaking voices, though I would have preferred a Cunegonde who loved consonants as well as those well-rounded vowels -- a lot of Alexandra Schoeny's solos were pretty much unintelligible ("Ha Ha HAha haHA's" aside).  But, my goodness, did she ever knock "Glitter and Be Gay" out of the ballpark.  This is one of the most intricate and difficult aria's written, and Ms. Schoeny was up to the task, both musically and theatrically.  Aaron Blake gave Candide all the requisite naiveté and optimism required, and his disillusionment in the lessons of his master was almost painful to watch,  The always excellent Terry Burrell is a true joy as the "Old Woman," making this the third time this year she has given us the best of all possible performances.  Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Janine DiVita are near perfect as Maximillian and Paquette, and I hope they stick around for future Atlanta work.  Christopher Siebert is an amiable and snarky story-teller, whose Dr. Pangloss is a perfect foil for his own ridicule.  And the ten-person Ensemble is filled with familiar Atlanta faces (including Jeremy Aggers, Jeff McKerley, Ben Thorpe, and Logan Denninghoff);  they slip into and out of various individuals and "groups" like the seasoned professionals they are.

 

But, the true stars here are the musicians, conducted by ASO Grammy winner Robert Spano with the full Symphony.  Over 140 voices fill the chorus, and when they are fortissimo, they shake the rafters and our bones, especially in the final "Make Our Garden Grow."  Alliance Director Susan Booth has staged the piece so it seems like a full production rather than a simple concert, and I absolutely adored the stark creativity that informed much of this show.

 

This will not be a long run, so I recommend you hie your way ASO-ward with undo celerity.  But, I suppose we could say, that's all for the best, since the few of us who see it will have a cherished memory we can "Neener Neener" over those who don't, and those who don't see it will have missed out on another heinous commute through Atlanta traffic and parking. 

 

And that couldn't possibly be any better!

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AllianceOTR  #ASO  #Candide)

 

**  For a future collaboration, may I humbly suggest Tom Stoppard's marvelous "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," a 1977 "play for actors and orchestra," with music by Andre Previn. I was fortunate enough to see the 1979 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by Andre Previn and starring Rene Auberjonois and Eli Wallach, and loved it!

 

 

5/11/2018      TRIASSIC PARQ:  THE MUSICAL         Out of Box Theatre


**  ( C ) 

AMBER-DEXTROUS

 

(Bias Alert:  I often work with Out of Box Theatre and have many friends in this cast and crew.  So I probably watched this production through inclined-to-approve-tinted glasses. That being said, WTF???!!!)

 

In my humble opinion, the best of musicals appeal to the widest range of audience members.  Oh yes, there are some shows that seem strictly designed for a particular segment -- older nostalgia buffs, drag show aficionados, young newly-minted adults, or {Fill in your favorite demographic here}.

 

Triassic Parq: The Musical is apparently aimed at a demographic of which I am not a part, and, well, I truly hated it.  That's not to say it was badly performed -- it wasn't.  This is a very talented cast whose range of skill goes a long way to "selling it," and whose vibrant energy goes a long way to making it a favorite for a good portion of the Out of Box audience.  It will definitely appeal to anyone with a taste for singing and cross-dressing dinosaurs, and to anyone with a taste for rampant silliness and absurdity.

 

This last "appeal" may not be as universal as my comment suggests.  After all, I like to think I have a taste for "rampant silliness and absurdity," and yet, here I am, saying nasty things about a show produced by the company who will be giving me my next lighting gig.  To repeat my disclaimer above, WTF???!!!

 

Ostensibly a retelling of the Jurassic Park story from the point of view of the dinosaurs, we meet a group of female dinos, mostly T-Rexes and Velociraptors, who are dismayed to discover one of them has spontaneously "changed genders," growing what is described as a "Dude Stick," a phrase which quickly becomes a portmanteau** with which we're all familiar.  One which you may use to describe me before the end of this piece.

 

This throws the menagerie into an existential turmoil, as Velociraptor of Faith has no "words" to describe what is happening, and T-Rex 2 as no "clue" to what is happening.  Along the way, there are hints of deeper themes -- gender identity, faith versus science, and controlling one's own destiny.

 

The problem is that the script is too scattershot, too unfocused for any of these ideas to stick.  And the overall tone is just too cruel and too unfunny for me to enjoy any of the silliness or absurdity.  Apparently, the writers think it's a good idea for the "newly male" T-Rex 2 to actually urinate on an audience member (Don't sit in the front row unless you want this to happen to you).  The writers think it's a good idea to characterize "Dudes as chicks who can do arithmetic."  The writers think it's a good idea to include a character for the sole purpose of being bullied (Pianosaurus), and, in fact, includes "Drink anytime Pianosaurus annoys you" as part of a "drinking game" included in the program;  my inclination was to take a drink anytime I was annoyed by how she was treated.  To make things worse, Pianosaurus is such an underwritten character, the "game" seems to be more of an appeal to justify bullying.

 

Thematically, it doesn't really make sense for all the "gender identity" angst, if the gender of the cast makes no difference.  Biologically, it doesn't make sense for the T-Rexes to be smaller than the Velociraptors.  Schematically, it doesn't make sense for the "electric fence" to lose its function at the whims of the plot, or for there to be a place of "exile" within the confines of the park.  Structurally, it doesn't make sense for there to be no narrative "drive," no reason to go on to the next scene, no reason for the final jubilant "We are Dinosaurs" anthem.  Musically, it's just dull, with not a single memorable melody or lyric.

 

Considering how many of my friends are involved in this show, how many have publicly stated their affection for it, I categorically refuse to characterize anyone who likes it, other than falling into a very broad "Not I" demographic.  I can't even claim it would appeal primarily to "the young," as many folks of my generation have reportedly loved it, and many young folks have reportedly hated it.

 

Like I said above, the only real quibble I have with the production itself (script and score aside) is the decision to stage it in the round, and it's not really done in "true round."  Ten audience members are seated along the upstage wall, with everyone else (50+) in the main body, yet both "sides" are treated by the blocking as if they were equal in number.  A projection in the first act is hard to see (but not impossible) by a few members of the "main body."***  And, any intimacy is completely lost by the constant need to "present backsides" to the greater part of the audience. 

 

OTOH, the large(ish) cast is constantly moving, constantly interacting with the audience, and constantly "on point" as far as energy and commitment.  Trevor Rayshay Perry is especially effective as the soulfully yearning "Velociraptor of Innocence," letting more emotion into his face than the flaccid lyrics should allow.  Dylan Parker Singletary is also good as the "Velociraptor of Faith," as is Hannah Marie Craton as the "Velociraptor of Science."  (Supporting roles filled by Sarah Williams, Sarah Watkins, Savannah Jones, Audrae Peterson and Christopher Carpenter are very skillfully crafted, if not particularly memorable).

 

But real "star" of the production is Ali Olhausen's extraordinaryly silly costumes.  Seemingly made of tutus and burlap and bears (oh my), they do not attempt to suggest the reptilian nature of the characters or to differentiate their "species," but are completey based on the characters, if the characters were human, which, in the final analysis they are.

 

So, do I wish I had enjoyed this more?  Of course!  These are my friends and co-workers.  Would I have enjoyed it more if I had gone in "lubricated?"  Probably not.  There's something about rampant cruelty and gender stereotypes that I find completely off-putting, and those seem to be at the core of this script.  It may have been a New York Fringe Festival success, and it may even be a success here (I truly wish that).  But I just cannot enjoy a script that is this mean, no matter how silly or absurd it aspires to be.

 

Just as a brand new "Dude Stick" cannot change the essence of T-Rex 2, a frolic in absurdity cannot change my aversion to mean stereotyping.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #OOBTriassicParq)

 

** For the benefit of anyone who is not an English Major -- Portmanteau -Linguistics.  A word made by putting together parts of other words, as motel, from motor and hotel, brunch, from breakfast and lunch, or dick, from dude and stick.

 

*** It's been my experience (based on some actual training) that, in an adaptable venue such as this, the decision to stage "in the round" needs to be based on an analysis of "Things Gained" vs "Things Lost" in the choice.  Here, there seems to be a lot lost and not very much gained.  If those things gained are "just to be different" or "so I don't need to build a set," maybe it's not the right decision.  Just Saying ...

 

 

5/13/2018      RIPCORD                         Aurora Theatre

****½  ( A ) 

SENIOR INTERLUDE

 

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has made a career of taking "sit-com" situations and then showing us the squirmy underbelly beneath the frothy surface.  Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo, and Good People all successfully showed depths lurking beneath deceptively simple surfaces.  Even a drama like his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Rabbit Hole did basically the same thing, this time showing us the absurdly banal underpinnings of a family tragedy.

 

In the 2015 off-Broadway comedy, Ripcord, now getting a terrific production at Aurora Theatre, the surface is even more glaring, the subtext even more murky, and, when revealed, even more satisfying.  Straight out of the Odd Couple "playbook," Abby and Marilyn are two mis-matched widows, forced to share a double room at an assisted living facility for seniors.  Abby is taciturn, introverted, most happy when left alone with a book,  Marilyn is an outgoing "Chatty Cathy," a gregarious force of nature who likes nothing more than being with other people.  Cue the sparks and the rest of the plot.

 

Since Abby "never gets scared" and Marilyn "never gets angry," the situation is ripe for a wager.  If Abby can make Marilyn angry, Marilyn will move out.  If Marilyn can make Abby scared, she gets the bed by the window-with-a-view.

 

Because this is a David Lindsay-Abaire play, the pranks push the edges of the envelope of propriety (sometimes tearing right through them), including an involuntary skydiving episode, a doofy haunted house, a faux "mugging," an even faux-er suicide.  Then the pranks get personal -- well, the spoiler police won't let me elaborate, but, suffice it to say, these episodes underscore who these women are, and why they behave as they do.

 

And it all comes down to a final episode that is either easily predictable (based on the sit-com nature of the set-up) or incredibly moving (based on the back-stories we have learned by that point).  After all, we all have the knowledge that in "assisted living homes for seniors," the guests don't always "wake up in the morning,"

 

Much of the success in navigating the entertainment amalgam of the familiar and the surprising is the charisma if the leading actresses.  If we aren't charmed by them, empathetic with them, we'll be easily alienated by actions that are, let's face it, almost sociopathic.  At best they can be described as cold or annoying. Fortunately Aurora, has a pair of top-notch charmers with Donna Biscoe (Abby) and Jill Jane Clements (Marilyn).  They make us smile, laugh, and shake our heads, tut-tutting at their willful blindnesses.  But, when the harsh realities of their prior lives emerge, they win us over completely, even as they make bad, even deadly decisions.

 

They are supported by Megan Rose and Jacob York as Marilyn's daughter and son-in-law, Russell Alexander II as a friendly (and harried) facility orderly, and Seun Soyemi as a family member who is instrumental in bringing this "battle" to a conclusion.  All the supporting characters fall into a few (masked) roles to fill out some of the "pranks," but they are essentially consistent in their function and in their effectiveness. 

 

Jaclyn Hoffman provides a cheerful direction at the helm, and the technical staff of Lizz Dorsey (set), Mary Parker (lights), and Marc Gwinn (sound) turn in work totally professional, totally impressive, and, as is usual at Aurora, totally effective.  This is a good-looking production that is a joyful emotional ride.

 

Yes, it is easy to dismiss this play as sit-com shallow (and some of the reviews of the original off-Broadway production did just that).  Indeed, this would make an ideal pilot episode for a series.  However, I found the two women, the two actresses totally engaging, and more effecting than the average TV characters, and,  more significantly, more subtle in showing us their deeper, darker roots.   Their story is far more memorable than a simple synopsis (and dismissal) would warrant, or a roomful of television writers could accomplish.

 

You don't even need to remember to pull the cord while taking this "plunge."


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Aurora  #Ripcord)

 

 

 

5/20/2018      FIRST DATE                                                OnStage Atlanta

****½  ( A ) 
 `
SECOND IMPRESSIONS

 

(Bias Alert:  I am good friends with director Liane LeMaster, and I have worked with many folks involved with this production, so I am inclined to view their work with my bound-to-approve tinted glasses. OTOH, I worked on another production of this same show earlier this year, so my "bar" may be a tad higher than some would deem fair.  That being said, WONDERFUL WORK, OSA!)

 

Oh, yes, this will be another "razor's edge of tact" piece.  How does one balance the need to celebrate the work of friends while at the same time NOT being critical of other friends?  Oh, yes, I could go through a checklist of "things we did better" or "things they did better" (and will gladly sit down over a drink with anyone who has seen both productions to do so), but, to be perfectly honest, that would be a pointless exercise, applying such a granularity of detail that would tell absolutely nothing to anyone coming to this show for the first time!

 

Suffice it say, I am a big fan of this show, and I absolutely loved OnStage's cast (and design) almost exactly as much as I loved Marietta Theatre Company's cast (and design).  My enjoyment of both productions was pretty much the same!  That being said, I did watch MTC's staging countless times and OSA's only once.  Make of that what you will.

 

Let me start by copying and pasting a few "background" paragraphs from my MTC "preview" --

 

Have any of you noticed the similarity between buying a CD of a show you don't really know, and going on a blind date?

 

Case in point -- when I was assigned the gig of lighting First Date: The Musical, I ordered the Original Cast CD and played it through once.  As background to a housecleaning chore.  I thought "Meh!"  Bouncy, but not memorable -- I'll listen more closely as Tech Week draws near, and follow in the script to match characters with songs.  In other words, due to my commitment, I was REQUIRED to give the score a second chance.  Which, of course, I failed to do before starting tech rehearsals.  I am nothing, if not foolish.

 

And now, I can't get those songs out of my head.  Even three months (and numerous gigs) since working this show.  And you know what?  I like having them in my head.

 

This, if anything, is more anecdotal evidence supporting the theory that First Impressions are NEVER right, that true appreciation comes with deeper knowledge and increased familiarity.

 

Which, of course, is the very point of First Date: The Musical.  Casey and Aaron are thirty-something New Yorkers hitting a local bar for a Blind Date (HE works with HER brother-in-law).  At first glance, they are totally unsuited for each other,  He is a buttoned-down cubicle drone still obsessing over the woman who {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  She is a wannabe-free-spirit artistic type who has left a trail of bad boy beaus in her wake.  They go through all stages of First Date Angst -- First Impressions, Awkward Silences, Pre-Arranged "Bailout" Calls, Missed Communications, Unintentional Hurts -- truly the full list.

 

And, along the way, they receive advice (and condemnation) from all the people in their imaginations (roles filled by the other couples in the restaurant as well as by the high-stepping waiter-with-a-heart-of-show-tunes.)

 

This is a musical that should appeal to anyone who has ever endured a blind "first date" or even a not-so-blind one.  There are so many songs and moments that strike recognizable chords, even in older folks like me.  And so many moments that are just laugh-out-loud funny.

 

For my part, I identify most closely with Casey's wrenching "Safer" ballad, in which we learn her spirit is NOT as free as our First Impression would have us believe.  Let's just say that there is a reason I didn't lose my -- umm, will to remain alone -- until 26 and didn't marry until 45 (Forgive me if that's TMI, but I AM, after all  trying to wright an autobiographical style of writing about theatre.)

 

Now, I will make one comparison between the two productions that may be relevant -- Will Brooks's sets -- yes he did design and build both (which should present an unenviable challenge to the MAT judges).  I really loved what he did for OnStage Atlanta, but, this set, sadly, would never have worked at MTC's limited venue.  Four revolving panels quickly transform from a Manhattan street to a Manhattan bar, and we're off.  It's a good-looking set, and provides opportunities for choreographed scene changes that seem smooth and elegant.

 

I also really loved the leads here, Eric Lang and Suzanne Stroup.  They are charming and flawed, and they capture the attention quickly, not letting it go until the final {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  Their charm is the lubricant that helps us accept their flaws, and their flaws are the "meat" that humanizes them.  Yes, Aaron's thoughts can be annoying at times, especially when he actually listens to his best friend, Gabe, who is a chronic womanizer and "prick."  And Casey's can be just as annoying, especially when she tries to distance herself from her yenta of a sister, Lauren.  But, when they connect at a basic level, it is a satisfying counter-argument to the entire "Romantic Compatibility" dating mindset.  I'm reminded of the old adage, "When two business partners agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary," which I could easily paraphrase, "When two romantic partners are perfectly compatible, it's the same as being alone."

 

They are supported by a marvelous ensemble composed of Jeffery Brown (the waiter and others), Lauren Rosenzweig (Lauren and others), Keenan Rogers (Gabe and others), Jamie Perniciaro (Allison and others), and the large and lively Eric Lang (Reggie and others), whose hirsute features provide grist for a near perfect ad lib during "In Love With You."  Character "switches" are seamless, sometimes even invisible, and all sound great as a group.

 

So, congratulations to Director Liane LeMaster for staging a production that "killed" my natural tendency to wallow in "our show was better than yours" narcissism**, a production that had enough differences to surprise and delight without losing the pleasures that make such a joy to watch.  Over and Over and Over.  Congratulations to Music Director Kathy Baraczynski for her note-perfect accompaniment and for her getting the cast to be so comfortable with these songs that they sounded new and vibrant to my jaded ears.  And congratulations to choreographer Lauren Rosenzweig for keeping the small stage lively (and seemingly uncrowded) for the many group numbers.

 

To put it simply, First Date is a joyful and ultimately moving show, no matter who is doing it!


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #OSA #FirstDate)

 

 

** May I be permitted to indulge my own narcissism to the point of thinking my Lighting Design worked better than that here?  Not that the lighting here was "wrong" or "bad" ....

 

 

 

5/27/2018        LIVING ON LOVE                                             Stage Door Players

 

****  ( B+ ) 

THE MARRIAGE OF THE IRRESISTIBLE FORCE AND THE IMMOVABLE OBJECT

 

Maestro and Diva are on the downward spirals of long and illustrious careers in music.    It's 1957, and the twin specters of Bernstein and Callas are looming over their golden years.  Now is the perfect time for memoirs! 

 

Thus is the premise of Joe DiPietro's charming little trifle, Living on Love, currently on stage at Stage Door Players.

 

The only problem is that both are "forces of nature," and getting them to sit still to discuss their lives with the ghost writers is, well, trying to teach a cat to play violin, or a pig to sing.  Oh, sure they have their stories to tell, none of which are true, all of which serve to inflate their already gargantuan egos, but hardly grist for the best-selling memoir mill.  In due time, they choose to part ways and take up with their (much) younger ghost writers, who seem to have eyes only for each other.

 

This is a pleasant and funny romantic comedy, not a farce, so any comparisons with Ken Ludwig's Tenor comedies is pointless -- the only thing they have in common is a character who is an opera singer.  Still, comparisons will inevitably be made, due more to the dearth of good plays centered on the opera world than any real similarities, and that's too bad.  If you spend your time at this play looking for the frenetic door-slamming chaos and the desperate misbehaving that are the hallmarks of farce, you're likely to miss the gentler pleasures to be had here.

 

Yes, Maestro (Vito de Angelis, if anyone fails to mention it) and Diva (Raquel de Angelis, if anyone cares), as played in splendidly comic style by Michael Strauss and Denise Whelan, are affectionate caricatures of the larger-than-life image we all have of musical geniuses, complete with exaggerated gestures, carefully placed track lighting (no doubt a major expense in 1957), spontaneous arias, and warmly lit portraits.  They contrast perfectly with the shy young "ghost writers" (Robert and Iris), and that contrast is a great part of the fun here.

 

But, when all is said and done, Mr. DiPietro's script does not let his stars down, showing us the real people beneath the clichés, the extraordinary talents that come with an expiration date, the satisfaction (and subsequent bad choices) that come with finding themselves suddenly attractive to young people.

 

And, when all is said and done, Mr. DiPietro has provided a range of humor that I found immensely appealing.  He gives Maestro a comic opera Italian accent which gleefully crosses the dividing line between "comic" and "caricature," that is totally winning, and given his cast ample opportunity to wallow in humor-of-character rather than quick-speed one-liners (though, he's also not stingy with those one-liners).

 

That being said, I found Robert Payano's Robert a bit too understated, and he had a tendency to drag the pace of the first act down a bit.  And the "vaudevillian" butlers (played George Devours and Stuart Schleuse) would have been better left as a comic duo rather than giving them the distracting "back story" we ultimately get.  That would (no doubt) have worked much better as subtext.

 

Still, Mr. Strauss and Ms. Whelan are an energetic pair and light up the stage every time they clash, which, for the most part, is every time they share the stage.  And, to his credit, Mr. Payano has a delightful rapport with Lauren Boyd Lane (Iris), which goes a long way to making Act II sizzle and the whole thing go down as smoothly as a rapturous aria.

 

Chuck Welcome has designed and built a beautiful set that reflects the life style of the leads, and Kathy Ellsworth has done a beautiful job with props (was any snow globe store in the metro area left un-shopped?).  Rial Ellsworth does his usual near-perfect job with sound, combing music choices with scratch record effects and other sounds, placing them perfectly about the stage, and J.D. Williams' lighting keeps the play warm and inviting.

 

Robert Egizio his directed it all with an eye towards character and story, more than with the breathless bravura he displays when directing actual farces.  This is, indeed, a pleasant, if trifling comedy, that succeeds admirably.


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #SDPLivingOnLove)

 

Is it me, or is the title of this play more bland and non-helpful than this script deserves?

6/2/2018        PETER PAN                                         Serenbe Playhouse

 

***½  ( B )  (Kids)

**½  ( C )  (Grown-ups)


THE SERENE BENEFITS OF HAVING A GOOD HOOK

 

A wise writer (whose name escapes me) once wrote that the secret to a successful "Play for the Young" is having a "great hook," something that can grab onto a still-developing attention span and keep it squirm-free for the length of a one-hour story.  This "hook" should also be able to grab a grown-up's interest, so Mom and Dad won't feel as if they're just "along for the juice boxes."

 

Serenbe's outdoor Peter Pan has two such "hooks."  First and foremost, as is usually the case with Serenbe, is the woodland setting itself.  A not-too-long pathway from the parking area leads us past various familiar dioramas -- Wendy's House, the Indian Camp -- and leads us to the Pirate's Cove, where, sure as shootin', there's an honest-to-Pete pirate ship constructed in a creek, complete with ramps and fallen trees designed to get Lost Boys and Pirates on board.  It looks great, and it brings us into a magical world familiar to whatever child remains in us.  Scenic Designer Scott Sargent does everything right in bringing this Neverland to life.

 

The second "hook" is, appropriately enough, a winsome and welcoming Cap'n Hook (played with energetic glee by Jeremy Gee).  This is not the traditional Hook we've come to fear, but a charming, toddler-friendly scamp, who just wanted to be a dancer until that crooked "Wishing Tree" got it wrong.

 

Which is all to the good in getting us through a script in which almost every choice made by playwright Roger Q. Mason is very misguided.  This is one of the first Summer Children's pieces NOT written by the talented Rachel Teagle, and, frankly, ten minutes into it, I was longing for her creative imagination.

 

The first mistake is discarding the original Barrie story completely.  I know I've written in the past that the Peter Pan story is not my favorite, but still, a little familiarity would have been welcome.  Mr. Mason has chosen to discard Wendy and her brothers completely (overheard as I was leaving from a disappointed youngster -- "Why wasn't Wendy in this?") not to mention Tiger Lily and many of the other familiar names and faces.

 

Instead, we're given a Peter Pan who hates Hook for no discernible reason, who steals Hook's "Map to the Wishing Tree" in the style of a playground bully.  He treats his Lost Boys like indentured servants, and, frankly, is a bit of a charmless boor throughout.

 

Oh yes, there are lessons about friendship and choices and sacrifice and "growing up," there are pleasant little ditties that the cast encourages the little ones to join, there's even some nice sword-vs-dagger combat moments that are smoothly choreographed and executed.  And there are some nice bits of interaction between cast and crowd that keep the story moving and the small ones squirm-free.

 

I just wish the story was a little more memorable, a little more in the spirit of the original Barrie tale, a little more in the spirit of the terrific set and locale.  Even the "flying" was clumsy and awkward, with harnesses larger than seatbelts, with the actors dangling helplessly like hooked scrod -- especially noticeable after last year's terrific Robin Hood wire-work.

 

But, as is usual, Serenbe's apprentice company take to the roles like the full pros they will soon become.  As already noted, Jeremy Gee's Hook is a high-stepping delight, and makes this show his very own.  Alexandria Joy makes Tinker Bell a mother-hen delight, casting her fairy dust in just the right way to glitter under any available daylight.  Destiny Freeman, Cullen Gray, and Karley Rene double as the lost boys and Hook's pirate crew, and they sink into both roles with verve and skill.  Even Aaron Schilling's Peter has moments that transcend his poorly-conceived character, and he makes us actually care for him, despite his earlier bullying.

 

So, of the last {mumble mumble} summer children's shows at Serenbe, this is the one I've liked the least, and, not surprisingly, it's the only one not written by Rachel Teagle.  On the other hand, it keeps the smaller audience members enrapt and focused, even if it disappoints with its abandonment of the known story. Maybe disappointment is the first real part of "growing up."

 

Oh, but that Hook makes the whole thing worth the journey!


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Serenbe  #PeterPan)

 

 


 

6/3/2018        THE TAMING                                             Synchronicity Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 
           
A VIEW FROM THE MIDDLE

 

The scene:  NOT Padua.   NOT Verona.   NOT the road between.

The characters:  Katherine, Bianca, and ... um ... Patricia (?)

 

So, what does this play have to do with Shakespeare's immortal exercise in political incorrectness?  And just who is being tamed?

 

Good questions all!  And, like the snarky minion of the Spoiler Police I strive to be, I will leave those answers for you to discover in this delightful and eminently topical comedy by the insanely talented (and deservedly popular) Lauren Gunderson.

 

Katherine (an exuberant and bedazzling Caroline Arapoglou), is a star-spangled Miss Georgia, singing "America the Beautiful" amidst many flags in her quest to become the next Miss America.

 

Patricia (a scowling but energetic Kelly Criss) is the conservative Chief of Staff to a Republican Senator, pushing a much-needed jobs bill past the finish line, burying a scandal that may upset the applecart.  It needs not be mentioned that she has political ambitions of her own.

 

Bianca (an insanely caffeinated and wired Jimmica Collins) is a "Blogger Warrior," a social media kingpin who has chosen an insignificant rodent to save from the depredations of the pending jobs bill (if you have to ask, you obviously need a refresher course in legislation and politics).

 

So, what happens when a passionate Liberal, a devoted Conservative, and a flag-waving beauty pageant contestant find themselves locked in a hotel room without phones, without pants (for at least one of them), and with raging hangover headaches?

 

Of course, the Spoiler Police won't let me say.  And of course, if I did, half of you wouldn't listen anyway. But that's the point.

 

Needless to say, the point is to suggest that our current penchant for turning politics into a blood sport, for casually making assumptions about those with whom we disagree, and, for closing our minds and our ears whenever the politics become confrontational, isn't really what the founding fathers "had in mind."  Even though, as we see in a rippingly silly dream sequence, they were just as confrontational as we are today.

 

And it all comes with a veneer of snarky humor that is, more often than not, laugh-out-loud funny, regardless of your politics.

 

I really liked how all our assumptions about these characters get stripped away bit by bit.  I loved how Ms. Gunderson takes a passionate "From the Middle" viewpoint -- that, "even if your side is right, what you're doing about it is wrong."  I love the irony of which of the three women gets to play the slavery-defending Charles Pinckney in the Founding Fathers sequence.  I love that Katherine gets three roles in that same sequence, all of whom are unique, but still, strangely, "Katherine."   I love how all the "Founding Fathers" seem to hate Hamilton ("Even Hamilton hates Hamilton!").  And I love how James Madison's detestation of parties and "factions" becomes the raison d'être for a new Constitutional {semi-deleted by the Spoiler Police}.

 

Most of all, I really love how these three actresses constantly surprised me, how, they seemed connected at the heart, even when they were steadfastly NOT listening to each other.  I loved how Kate's final "Shrew" speech found its way into the script in a way that was pure delight.  And I loved how director Suehyla El-Attar kept the concept alive, the pace lively, and the humor streaming constantly.

 

Lauren Gunderson is, to put it fan-boy bluntly, a national treasure, and all her work needs to be in constant rotation in every theater company, no matter the size or location.

 

The Taming is a timely lark, a bit of fun with political brinkmanship, a pointed look at "original intent" and Constitutional fallibility, and a beautifully ironic view of three characters, all of whom are probably on our Facebook Feeds under (presumably) different names and viewpoints.

 

I will answer one of my spoiler questions -- I have seen the rage and wildness in the eyes of those needing taming, and it is us!


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #SyncroTheatre  #Taming)

 

 

 

 

6/16/2018        MAMMA MIA!                                   Aurora Theatre (At Georgia Tech)

 

****½  ( A ) 
 

IN PRAISE OF ROUGH EDGES

 

(Note:  Way back in March, I wrote the following after seeing Mamma Mia! in Lawrenceville.  I revisited the show after its move to Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts, and, I really believe it bears repeating.  This is a Kick-Ass Good Time, and I stand by all of this.  The show is a good fit at the Ferst -- if a tad less intimate -- but everything that worked so well in Lawrenceville eased down the highway with the grace of a Greek Tourist Cruise.)

 

First, a confession. During the '70's and '80's, I was a despiser of all things Disco, was underwhelmed by ABBA and their hits, and would not be caught dead at any of their concerts. When Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway all those many years ago, I went my ho-hum way and ignored its success, resisting my normal urge to buy and play to death any Broadway Musical CD.

About ten years ago, though, I heard "Winner Takes it All" somewhere and thought it was a great song (bear in mind, during its original release, I was a true Musical Geek, and most pop hits were way under my radar). Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was an ABBA song from Mamma Mia! So, still not wishing to invest any of my own funds on what amounts to a compilation disk, I put the Original Cast CD on my Christmas List (near the bottom), and, of course, my lovely Dancing Queen of a spouse indulged me, and I found it in my (oversized) stocking.

Okay, I liked it!  And now, almost ten years have passed, and I've seen the show (and its somewhat lackluster -- all hail Meryl Streep! -- movie version), many times over.  I continue to find it not only makes the songs enjoyable and more layered, but the songs themselves enhance the story and are the driving force behind the musical Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus never knew they wrote.

 

And, when you stir in all its contagious sunniness and overwhelming joy, I've grown to love this play!

To recap the plot, Sophie is a twenty-year-old about-to-be bride. She has been raised by her single Mom on an idyllic Greek getaway Island, never knowing who her father was. A few months before her wedding, she finds her mother's diary, identifies three men who could be her father, and secretly invites them to her wedding. Chaos, reconciliation, time-unhealed emotional scars, tears, recrimination, and laughter ensue. Right here, Mamma Mia! shows an edge over most other "jukebox" compilation musicals. This is a story that could stand on its own, as a light comedy without music, and is, in fact, reminiscent of the 1968 movie, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.   The fact that these songs can be "shoehorned" into this plot is testament to the fact that they were more than the "Disco Fluff" I had judged (and dismissed) them to be --  they had a narrative power of their own, they were structured with their own plots, and the body of work itself had enough consistent motifs and themes that they could recall this (somewhat) familiar narrative.

If some of the musical "fits" aren't exactly seamless, more often they are a perfect match, with the songs revealing undercurrents in the characters and the story revealing undercurrents in the songs. In fact, the ease with which some of these song engage the plot spark actual chuckles of joy.

 xxxxxxxxxxxxx
I have to commend the choice made by music director Ann-Carol Pence (or was it director Justin Anderson or theactors themse lves?) to begin many of the songs non-musically, to treat the opening lyrics as lines until suddenly the stage explodes in color and melody.  This choice makes the transitions more elegant than ever before and eliminates almost all of those "doesn't quite fit" moments that those-who-go-to-musicals-to-judge-by-pedantic-standards find so aggravating.

 

I also have to commend the cast itself for fully inhabiting these roles, for making the songs themselves evoke ABBA rather than slavishly imitate them, for creating enough on-stage chemistry that the various "groups" overlap emotionally like some complex Venn diagram with a "common space" that grows as the play advances its story.

 

Kristin Markiton is heartbreakingly powerful as Donna, who actually brought me to real tears with "Winner Takes it All" and "Slipping Through my Fingers" (though this latter probably affected me more this go-round due to my daughter turning 18 sooner than I'd like and all the drama that comes with having another almost-adult in the house, not to mention my increasing "powerlessness" and irrelevance in her life).  As her friends, Marcie Millard and Terry Henry bring a full helping of Sass and Style and show all the interaction expected from old friends.  As the "Father Block" of the ensemble, Chris Kayser, Travis Smith and Greg Frey create compelling personalities that make the "who's the Dad?" question essentially moot -- we like them all and would like to see them all in Sophie's Life.  It helps that they all sing better than their movie-version counterparts.  As the younger generation, Hannah Church is lovely and earnest as Sophie, and Nick Arapoglou is terrific as her intended, Sky.  Their "Lay all Your Love on Me" is sexy and warm and exposes the true affection and outright friendship that is the foundation of their relationship.  Alexandra Karr, Sarah Elaine, Joseph Pendergrast, and Benjamin Strickland are all terrific in the smaller parts of "friends of bride and groom" and they're all backed up by a 15-member ensemble of young folk, strong voices, and dynamic dancers.  This is a full stage!

 

Speaking of the stage, Set Designer Julie Ray has created a large and multi-storied Taverna, a beautifully designed and built construction that smoothly works no matter the scene's locale.  Kevin Frazier has lit it with a combination of warm Greek sunlight, cool Mediterranean evenings, and throbbing Disco Colors that I bet ABBA wishes they had the technology for "back in the day."  Costume Designer Alan Yeong has dressed the large cast in very character (and period) specific clothes that simply burst into new life in the musical numbers, easily conforming to Ricardo Aponte's energetic choreography, choreography that would destroy the clothes of a lesser designer.  And when the over-top togs of the curtain call appear, the costume design passes from the level of terrifically competent to truly inspired, even great!

 

So, this is a show that I like, given a production by a creative team that never fails to impress me, and performed by a cast that is near-perfect.  The whole thing goes down as smoothly as a summer tonic, and I relished the opportunity to take my wife and daughter to see it at Georgia Tech in a pre-Fathers Day adventure.  And I was correct in my March observation that "Slipping Through My Fingers" would be rougher for my doting mother of a spouse than it was for me.

I've been told that people like this show, but don't exactly respect it.  They consider it a fun, fluffy show, but it isn't O'Neill or Ibsen. Well, no. And I'm sure the pleasures you get from High Drama couldn't be confused with those here. Or can they? What we have in Mamma Mia! is a story of loss, love, redemption, confusion, living with bad choices, surviving with emotional wounds, being impulsive in spite of "lessons learned," letting go, holding on, and finding dreams. What's so fluffy about that? The bouncy lights and throbbing music that gild the edges do not lessen the range of emotion on display, do not lessen the range of emotion evoked.

 

I've also been told that there are just too many plot holes for the show to be "truly great."  And, to be honest, just where does Sophie know where to send the invitations, and since when was 1976 the "year of flower power?"  I honestly believe the "rough edges" are a positive, not a negative.  After all, to echo the producers' front-of-program notes, this is nothing if not a show celebrating the "rough edges" of family, of memory, of relationships, of love itself.  There are tons of "rough edges" where the songs don't (quite) fit the logic and timeline of the story.  There are even some "rough edges" of performance and design -- lighting technology not available in the supposed 1996 period of the story, voices a tad too large for the Georgia Tech equipment with a thin metallic veneer over all that robs it of some (not much) humanity.  Disco-haters like myself would even consider the ABBA songs themselves a bit of a "rough edge" to be borne and swallowed.

 

But, yet it all works, beautifully.  All those edges remind us that "perfection" is dull, that honest performances are better than "canned" and computer-adjusted sound, that abrasions make the pearls.

So, all I can say is, "Thank you for the Music," and Thank you for this Production!

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #Aurora    #ATMammaMia)



**  From the Dedalus Dictionary: Theatre Magic -- That quality that only theatre has that convinces you that music you used to hate isn't so bad after all. Yes, folks, it took a Musical to make me like ABBA!

 

 

6/23/2018        WINNIE THE POOH                                                 Alliance Theatre

 

****  ( B ) 

A SMART BEAR OF VERY LITTLE BRAIN

 

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.

Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet and all the denizens of Hundred Acre Wood have been entertaining (soothing?) wee folk since they first appeared in 1926.  A creation of A.A. Milne, the characters were modeled after his son's stuffed animals, and, in essence, were designed to become a child's imagination brought to life.  Espousing such desirable qualities as friendship and honesty, the characters have spread their domain to songs and poems and films and television.  And, of course, to the stage.`

 

Even though Winnie describes himself as a "Bear with Very Little Brain,"(**)  he possesses a simple wisdom that often comes to the rescue, in times of drama, even crisis.

 

In a new adaptation by actress and "drama therapist" Le Clanche du Rand, we see snippets from early stories (hence no Tigger), all leading up to a surprise birthday party for a very unhappy Eeyore (and when is Eeyore ever NOT unhappy?)  We see a whirling dervish of a piglet, trying to make everyone happy, we see an overprotective Kanga who WON'T take her eyes off of Roo, and we see a scheming Rabbit who never met a bad decision she doesn't like.

 

And, like the calm in the middle of a storm, we have Winnie-the-Pooh, making sense and making friends.

 

This is a gentle, almost soothing production, one filled with excellent design and acting choices, peppered with a few simple songs and a few quiet chuckles. 

 

Partnering with the High Museum's new display of the original E.H. Shepard drawings for the stories, the Alliance has created a set that could have been designed by Shepard himself (though Mariana Sanchez gets the credit).  A soft and "fuzzy" hillock dominates the stage with a Piglet-sized Tree and an Owl-Shaped Hanging (Owl is played by a puppet, btw) getting fair usage.  All are painted in pastels, and all serve to bring the story to life.

 

Fortunately (or not, depending on your age) Costumer Fabian Fidel Agular has chosen not to slavishly recreate the Disney "look" of these characters, but has chosen to dress them in comfortable, character-suitable clothes that work (for we adults) so much better than "Actor in Pooh Suit" could accomplish.  Eeyore is dressed in working-class dungarees, Kanga in frilly petticoats and layers, and Pooh himself in a simple coat (with trousers) and a perfectly sensible hat to shade his perfectly sensible brain.

 

If these characters don't LOOK like the characters kids may be used to, they certainly act like it.  The performance are excellent throughout, and this cast brilliantly brings them to life.  Grant Chapman and Joe Sykes, in performances diametrically opposed to their recent work in Angels in America, bring a healthy and hearty goodness to Pooh and Eeyore.  Young Mabel Tyler is a sparkling dervish of energy as Piglet and Maria Rodriguez Sager is perfectly frumpy as Kanga.  Isake Akanke gives the story a bolt of naughtiness as Rabbit, and Caleb Baumann and C.J. Cooper fill out the cast as Christopher Robin and Roo.

 

This is a short play (about 45 minutes), so it should be perfect for those with young attention spans,  If Saturday morning's crowd was a bit noisy and squirmy, well, this is a slow and gentle story with none of the razzle-dazzle young audiences have been "programmed" to expect.  Still and all, it was obvious the young ones adored the characters and their story and, let me say it, their exposure to live performance -- most of the post show questions were refreshingly all about the "workings" behind the scenes -- "How do you get the costumes on?" "How does the Owl work?"  "Is the Birthday Cake Real?"

 

So, if you have young ones in your life, or if you just want to revisit some "friends" from your own childhood, Winnie-the-Pooh is a marvelous and smooth segue into nostalgia.

 
    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #Alliance   #WinnieThePooh)

 

** When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it. (The House on Pooh Corner)

 

 

 

6/24/2018        TARZAN                                                              Atlanta Lyric Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
FABULOUSLY FORMULAIC

 

Y'know, it would be so easy to sit here, Monday-morning quarterbacking, casting aspersions on Tarzan as a Disney movie, and as a stage adaptation.  The script hits EVERY Bullet Point in the "Disney Formula" --  Orphan Hero (Check), Plucky Heroine (Check), Doddering Parent (Check), Narcissistic Villain (Check), Comic Sidekick (Check), Grit and Virtue saving the day (Check).  Add the "Disney Musicals" list and you get Theatrical Spectacle (Check), Earworm-Worthy Score (Check), and (my least favorite) "Filler" songs added to "Fill Out" the script to full-length Broadway Musical proportions (Sigh - Check).

 

It's all here.

 

But, I'm almost ashamed to admit it, I was completely dazzled by Atlanta Lyric Theatre's just-closed production of Tarzan.  The score was better than I remembered from the 1999 movie (one of the few Disney "neo-classics" that did not make it into my "permanent collection").  The performances were, as expected for A.L.T., over-the-top perfection. And the physical design and execution was breathtakingly vivid and entrancingly beautiful.

 

Sometimes a formulaic story simply works, not because it surprises us, but because our enjoyment at seeing all the bullet points satisfied surprises us.  Familiarity does not always breed contempt.

 

So, you know the story.  British Couple shipwrecked and marooned in a jungle wilderness (Africa or India?  Does it matter?), parents killed leaving orphan infant, orphan adopted by a gorilla family who raise it as their own.  Orphan becomes ripped adult, meets a woman "of his own kind", falls in love, and conflicts ensue, both jungle-borne and "civilization"-borne.  Villainy is defeated (What?  No Spoiler Police?), hard choices are made, and all ends happily with a tidy moral and a bouncy melody.

 

Phil Collins' (mostly) forgettable movie score has been enhanced with more than ten new numbers (also by Collins) with the best being the best from the film, "You'll Be in My Heart," Mama Gorilla Kala's earnest anthem to a Mother's devotion.  Most of the rest of the score is pleasant and bouncy and worth even repeated listenings, but I didn't find them particularly memorable, the Act II scat-filled (*) opener "Trashin' The Camp" a notable exception.  Still, there were no songs -- the new "Filler" songs included -- that slowed the action or that did not significantly contribute to the story.

 

And I really adored the cast of this production, especially the insanely versatile Leslie Bellair as Kala.  She fully recreates a human mother with a gorilla veneer, making us love and ache with every one of her choices.  Of course Stanley Allyn Owen is physically imposing as Tarzan, but he surprises with the depths of his emotional reactions, deftly handling the abrupt changes between "human-speak" (when alone with us and his "family") and "gorilla-speak" (when interacting with other humans.  It doesn't hurt that he sings (and swings) beautifully and elegantly.  His younger counterpart, Vinny Montague, is equally effective, and, more appropriately, plausible as a younger "version" of the same character.  Allison Wilhoit is a starched and proper delight as "Jane," loosening gradually as the jungle affects (and infects) her spirit, and Steve Hudson as her doddering father is a joy to behold.  Hayden Rowe (as the "villain" Clayton), Marcus  Hopkins-Turner (as Kerchak, Tarzan's gruff and skeptical "father"), and Commodore Primous (as Tarzan's "sidekick" Terk) all bring impressive individuality to what are essential stock characters, or, less charitably, mere bullet-points in the Disney formula.  A large ensemble of youthful (and flexibly supple) gorillas fill the stage with energy and motion and imaginative human/beast hybrid support.

 

But it's the physical aspects of the production that impress the most. Daniel Patillo has designed a set that smoothly segues from one part of the jungle to another, from one time of day to another.  Essentially based on a finely-detailed flat backdrop painting, the combination of painted detail of light (and actual light from designer Mary Parker) make the painting look positively three-dimensional, make the SAME painting appear as several locations.  Color and intensity convincingly change time of day. The whole stage looks as verdant and fertile as a primeval jungle-scape and provide an impressive "playground" for Tarzan and his family.

 

So, the show is gone, the sets have been packed, and the loincloths are at the dry cleaners.  Still and all, any show that was this enjoyable deserves a modicum of praise, even if a week late and few paragraphs short.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #ALTTarzan)

 

* I can't help but ponder the effect of this word's more excremental homonym on this jazz-centric phrase.  Especially when applied to beasts of the jungle.

7/15/2018        SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE                                                    Stage Door Players

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
BABY, THAT IS ROCK AND ROLL

 

Casual wallowers in the classic early-years-of-Rock-and-Roll hits may not be familiar with the names Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but I guarantee you, they WILL know their work.  Lieber and Stoller were the songwriters of over 70 charted hits, including favorites from Elvis Presley, the Drifters, and the Coasters.  They were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and had their work collected in one of Broadway's finest "Juke Box" Musicals, Smokey Joe's Cafe (1995).

 

More a concert than a play, Smokey Joe's Cafe features nine singers performing 39 of Leiber and Stoller's hits.  There is a beautiful set (well done, Chuck Welcome!) that is the patio of a street-level cafe, a pair of Brownstone stoops to give occasional vertical variety, and a window-front "stage," which, often becomes, well, a stage.  The marvelous 6-piece band, under the assured direction of Nick Silvestri, can occasionally be seen behind the window, especially for protracted dance numbers, and the flashy lighting of J.D. Williams places the songs in the still of the night, in heat of the summer, in a romantic limbo, or in every corner of the imagination

 

And what songs!!!  Familiar hits like "Neighborhood," "On Broadway," "Jailhouse Rock," "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "Spanish Harlem," "Hound Dog," and "Stand By Me"  (the last written with Ben. E. King, of course).  New (to me) gems like "Baby That is Rock and Roll," "Falling," "Keep On Rollin' / Gonna Find Her," and "I Keep Forgettin'."  ALL drenched in toe-tappin' rhythm or straight to gut soulful yearning or rueful observation of HIS/HER idiosyncrasies.

 

Since there's no real story, the performers are playing themselves, and, again, there's not a weak "link" in the group.  Xylinda Cassandra, Fenner Eaddy, Trey Getz, Solita Parrish, Kiona D. Reese, Lindsay Ricketson, George P. Roberts, Kendrick Taj Stephens, and Brian Wesley Turner all get a chance to shine on individual solos, but, more to the point, blend very well together as a group.  Though it's difficult to pick out favorites, I do have to commend Mr. Stephen's soulful "Stand by Me," Ms. Ricketson's jittery shimmy in "Teach Me How to Shimmy," and the solo moments in "I'm a Woman" by each of the women.  David Rosetti's choreography keeps them moving and projecting more energy than a supernova, and Mr. Silvestri's musical direction keeps everyone selling the numbers almost better than the original recordings.

 

So, if I sound a bit starry-eyed and a bit fan-boy gushery, it's because I love these songs.  Most of them were hits as I was becoming a teenager, so they have been part of life for, well, most of my life.  That this show has managed to slip under my "play-dar" until now -- yes, this is the first time I've actually seen it -- I can only ascribed to chronic short-sightedness.  And, maybe, not recognizing the names of Lieber and Stoller.  So, thank you so much to Robert Egizio and Stage Door Players for taking my breath away and reminding me why Rock and Roll will never die.

 

So, I'm keeping this fairly short, because, well, what more needs to be said?  The experience of seeing Smokey Joe's Cafe was identical to seeing my first Rock and Roll concerts, and it made me feel like a kid again.  It made me feel like a teenager in love for the first time.  It made me feel like a young man confused about the "other" gender.  It made me feel like a newly-married man sharing "our song" for our first dance.  It made me feel like a father hearing the word "Daddy" for the first time.  And it made me feel like jumping out of my seat and dancing in the aisle like the doddering old fool I'm too rapidly becoming,

 

And, Baby, That IS Rock and Roll.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #SDPSmokeyJoesCafe)

 

 

7/17/2018        From the Bookshelf:  TYRANT:  SHAKESPEARE ON POLITICS

                          by Stephen Greenblatt


EQUIVOCATION

 

Perhaps this book would have been more appropriately read as a companion to the Shakespeare Tavern's 2016 production of Bill Cain's Equivocation.  Then again, at that time, it would have been, well, unnecessary.

 

Make no mistake, although this is a book about how Shakespeare defines and dramatizes the rise and fall of tyrants, it is very much about American politics today, as the author makes clear in his afterword.  Still, no names are named, no party affiliations are trumpeted, no "wedge" issues are discussed. 

 

This is, purely and simply, an analysis of what makes a tyrant, how they gain their influence and power, and why they necessarily must fail.  And the arguments are all made through the lens of some of Shakespeare's greatest works.

 

The author, Stephen Greenblatt, is a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner as well as the "John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University."  Despite that erudite background, this book as easily accessible, clear and concise in its arguments and research, and, not to equivocate, a real pleasure to read.  I got through it cover-to-cover in the back seat of an SUV enroute from Atlanta to New Orleans.

 

Professor Greenblatt begins with an introductory chapter in which he discusses Shakespeare's "equivocations" about politics of his day.  As a matter of course, any discussion of contemporary politics, especially the nature of Elizabeth's rule, would be treasonous, and Shakespeare's contemporaries -- Ben Johnson, Thomas Kyd, and Christopher Marlowe -- all experienced official censure and imprisonment.  Even Shakespeare's one oblique reference -- a short praise of the Earl of Essex's Irish campaign at the end of Henry V -- almost resulted in dire circumstances when the Earl fell out of favor.  Greenblatt also cites a performance of Richard II that was given a public production at the request of one of the eternally battling factions in the court, that could have resulted in imprisonment, even execution for the playwright and performers.

 

So, Shakespeare chose to couch his commentary in stories about "ancient" or "far off" tyrants, and historical Kings about whom the official censors happily overlooked parallels.  It is telling that Shakespeare's only "contemporary" work was the apolitical comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, though even that work skirts the edges of middle-class vs noble-class ideas.

 

Professor Greenblatt then takes a number of aspects of tyrants and illustrates them with Shakespeare's great despots -- Macbeth, Richard III, Coriolanus, Leontes, and Lear.  He uses the onset of the Wars of the Roses in 1 Henry VI to illustrate how "Party Politics" engenders despotism -- it's telling that the initial argument between York and Somerset is never clarified, and, in general, doesn't really matter.  All that matters is that it is the starting part for decades of bloody conflict and four plays that lead to Richard III's ascension.

 

He follows with chapters on "Fraudulent Populism," "A Matter of Character," and "Enablers," showing with many quotes and examples how Tyranny is not only predictable, bit inevitable.  Later chapters on madness, on triumph, and on "Downfall and Resurgence" make the point that, with a tyrant, it's all about the acquisition of power, and few are actually prepared for leadership and must inevitably (if only for dramatic purposes) fall.

 

One thing I found a bit ironic is that Greenblatt totally ignores our "revisionist" knowledge of some of these figures, especially about how Henry Tudor was also a "tyrant" whose propaganda efforts "wrote the book" on the Elizabethan portrait of Richard III.  Of course, Shakespeare, living under a Tudor monarch, could never have acknowledged this, even if he knew it, which is doubtful.  So, apparently, tyrants can succeed, and, even if they themselves were failures as leaders, they can engender powerful dynasties that can change the world.

 

So, what does all this have to do with contemporary American politics?  Well, I'll leave that for you to decide.  I've attached a long excerpt from the "A Matter of Character" chapter below.  This, more than any other passage, defines what "makes" a tyrant. You tell me if any of it sounds familiar (forgive me for the length of this excerpt, but I think it ALL bears reflection).

 

So, is it any wonder that Shakespeare works well in any historical (or contemporary) setting?  There will always be tyrants as long as there is ambition and power to be obtained.  And the shear genius of Shakespeare's plays is that they resonate in any era, and can reflect any chosen leader or figure.  Thank the stars Elizabeth's censors chose to ignore those parallels to their own monarch and politicians.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com     @bk_rudy    #Tyrant  #FromTheBookshelf)

 

Shakespeare's Richard III brilliantly develops personality features of the aspiring tyrant ... :  the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate.  He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant, He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses.  He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out.  He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude.  The feelings of others mean nothing to him.  He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.

 

He is not merely indifferent to the law;  he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it.  He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of public good  that he holds in contempt.  He divides the world into winners and losers.  The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends;  the losers arouse only his scorn  The public good is something only losers like to talk about.  What he likes to talk about is winning.

 

He has always had wealth;  he was born into it and makes ample use of it.  But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him.  What excites him is the joy of domination.  He is a bully.  Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way.  He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain.  He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult.  These skills attract followers who are drawn to that same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree.  Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.

 

His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them more than he desires them.  Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes.  He knows that those he grabs hate him.  For that matter, once he has succeeded in seizing the control that so attracts him, in politics as in sex, he knows that virtually everyone hates him.  At first the knowledge energizes him, making him feverishly alert to rivals and conspiracies.  But it soon begins to eat away at him and exhaust him.

 

Sooner or later, he is brought down.  He dies unloved and unlamented.  He leaves behind only wreckage.  It would have been better if Richard III had never been born.

 

Greenblatt, Stephen.   Tyrant:  Shakespeare on Politics.   New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.  pp. 53 -54

7/20/2018        ENCHANTED APRIL                               The Weird Sisters Theatre Project

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
TENDING ONE'S GARDEN


What is it about an exotic locale, a sense of escape, and a healthy dose of moonlight and wisteria that, in a person, rejuvenates self and soul, and, in a couple, rejuvenates that spark that brought them together?

I don't know.  It's a mystery.

 

And it's a mystery best explored with the Weird Sisters production team of Enchanted April, an elegant and charming adaption of Elizabeth von Armin's 1922 novel,  also the source of an elegant and charming 1992 film.

 

Charlotte Wilton is an upper middle class housewife in 1920's London.  It may be the gloomy rain of the season, it may be the gloomy "settledness" of her marriage to Mellersh Wilton, but her attention is drawn to an advertisement for a "castle to let" in Italy.  What could be better than an escape from all the post-War gloom?  After enlisting the aid (and companionship) of three other women, April is soon upon them and the slings and arrows of gloom and drear, are soon (after the requisitely British "getting to know you" prickles and snarks) translated to sun and serenity.

 

There are twists and coincidences and developments which will remain unspoken here (the Benevolent Overlords of the Spoiler Police smile at my restraint).  It's enough to say that the four women will not be long alone, that the castle comes with Costanza, the Italian housekeeper, and that they will soon be joined by their landlord, the young and artistic Antony Wilding, and two husbands, to be named elsewhere.

 

The magic of the castle (and there is "real" enchantment, involving a walking stick and an acacia tree) has its affect on everyone, and long-lived "unsettledties" become quickly settled, with the sense that everyone will be taking the magic home, that moonlight's effect lives beyond morning and even April's end.

 

The four women are a delightfully British lot -- "Lottie" is a talkative extrovert who has her own magic, easily winning the friendship and support of even the most withdrawn and unlikely people.  Rose Arnott is skeptical and aloof -- her own emotional losses have given her foundation upon which to build a castle of walls and defense through which even her husband, the rakish poet Frederick Arnott, cannot (or will not) breach.   Lady Caroline Bramble is a young and terribly attractive heiress, who, in addition to coping with a tragedy of her own, is fed up with the insincerity and callowness of those charming young men who seem to flock to her.  Is it any wonder she finds solace in arms of an older {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}?  And Mrs. Clayton Graves is an older widow, a child during the heyday of British Romantic Poetry (Tennyson himself knew her as a child, though Keats and Shakespeare may have come before).

 

What makes this story so appealing for me is that it is more than just "sprinkle on some mood music and some moonlight and all your problems will magically disappear."  These people have real problems and must work hard to resolve them.  If you'll forgive me borrowing a metaphor from Voltaire, sure, the "enchantment" provides the soil, the fertilizer, maybe even the water for growth.  But the characters must "tend their gardens" themselves.  They brought the seeds and now they have the space they need to make things right.  Sometimes an enchanted April is all that's needed to strip away the weeds sown by a gloomy post-war London.

 

And this production does the story "right."  Shelli Delgado is pure delight, a blithely needy (and too often oblivious) Lotty, bulldozing her way through the story with many "I really have to share this" aside moments to the audience.  Yet, she also gets to the depths of the character, the ennui at the heart of her life in London, the grief at the dying spark of her marriage.  Amanda Cucher is very appealing as Rose, fragile and vulnerable, peeking from behind her own castle walls,  longing for some of that enchanted serenity to sneak past her parapets and fill the empty place left by {Another Spoiler Police Edit}.  Maggie Birgel is a layered Lady Caroline, a patina of sadness mellowing (and energizing) a natural cynicism.  Holly Stevenson is a pleasantly hrmph-filled dowager Graves, and Stephanie Earle is a delightful Costanza (though I'll leave to actual speakers of Italian any judgment on how well she gets the language "right").  On the more male side of the cast, Josh Brook is splendidly pompous and rigid as Mellersh, with a "melting" under the Italian sun that is totally believable, even compelling.  Topher Payne brings to Frederick the requisite smarminess, but also appeals as he warms to his own wife under that same Italian sun.  And, J.L. Reed is as eager (and appealing) as a puppy as Antony Wilding

 

Director Kate MacQueen and her design team (Isobel and Mariah Curley-Clay on set, Ben Rawson on lights, Cody Evans on sound) have made lovely use of the intimate (some would say cramped) Out of Box space.  Act One is all gray and gloomy, drapes of material hiding the walls as colorless light and continuous rain and thunder create a world that demands escape.  (I especially liked the "grace note" of grey umbrellas filling in "blank" spaces of the "sky").  Act Two is all color and sunshine, with magic moonlight bringing all the plot seeds to full bloom.

 

In the final analysis, this is the ladies' story, and they dominate the stage.  They all take a believable emotional journey, are greatly improved by their vacation, and go off for a "rest of our lives" that will (for the most part) avoid the emotional traps that securely held them at story's start.  This is an engaging, moving production, and it carried a castleful of enchantment to this small part of its audience.

 

            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy   #WeirdSisters   #EnchantedApril)

 

 

 

7/21/2018        DISNEY'S NEWSIES                               Aurora Theatre

****½  ( A ) 

 

           
IT'S A FINE SHOW


Aurora's production of Disney's Newsies is a crackerjack musical look at moment in history, a compulsively energetic explosion of talent, and a brilliant exercise in screen-to-stage enhancement.

 

Please note that, for once, I didn't "bury the lead."

 

Newsies started out as a 1992 movie musical that landed with a dull thud, both critically and popularly.  Very loosely based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899 that led to stricter child labor laws, it followed a group of young newsboys "drawing the line" when publisher Joseph Pulitzer tried to enrich himself on their backs.  It was one of the few Disney Live-Action musicals that did not feature animation.  And, as I mentioned, the reaction was a resounding "Meh!"  (Not terrible, just not very memorable).  I'd offer my reaction to the movie, if I'd ever bothered to see it, which I didn't.

 

But then, in 2011, the story was expanded for the stage with a new book by Harvey Fierstein, and a news-bag full of new songs by original songwriters Alan Mencken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics).  And, here's another newsflash -- it was a big success, earning a bevy of Tony nominations and winning two (Choreography and Score).  For Aurora's production, director Justin Anderson has wrangled a news truck full of talented performers and designers, fueled it with his usual high-octane imagination, and sent it barreling into Lawrenceville like a hot-off-the-presses Extra Edition.

 

Jack Kelly is a teenage orphan, making ends meet by pushing "papes," specifically Pulitzer's New York World, all the while artfully dodging the goons of a crooked orphanage warden and longing for escape to the friendlier climes of Santa Fe.  When Pulitzer increases the paper's cost to the newsies from 50 cents per hundred to 60 cents per hundred, Jack gets his friends to go on strike.  Colorful characters weave in and out of the story -- a crippled friend of Jack named Crutchie,  two new boys (brothers) who are helping their family cope with their father's on-the-job accident, a vaudeville performer named Medda Larkin, Katherine Plumber, a spunky lady reporter who takes on the newsies' cause (and provides a bit of romantic interest), a friendly Deli owner, assorted thugs and hangers on and vaudeville (um) ladies, and, of all people, Governor Theodore Roosevelt.

 

The whole thing is peppered with Alan Mencken's usual array of catchy melodies and power anthems, that I didn't find especially memorable (in the long run).  They go down quite smoothly, but, a few days later, most have faded from memory.  And, to be honest, the score evokes Disney/Broadway more than 1899 New York.  OTOH, I am listening to the score as I write this, and enjoying it immensely;  I am, after all, nothing if not a Disney/Broadway fanboy.

 

Director Anderson has filled his cast with a good number of brand new (to Atlanta) faces and voices -- Greg Kamp (Jack Kelly), Adrianna Trachell (Katherine Plumber), Stephan Jones (Pulitzer), and Mahalia Jackson -- yes, that's her real name -- (Medda Larkin) are all new to me, but they are so impressive, both in voice and in character, that I beg them to stay here and grace our musical stages as often as possible.  Mr. Kamp, in particular, centers the play with a compelling honesty and an infectious enthusiasm, from his yearning for escape, to his attachment to his friends, to his anger at the "powers that be," to his attraction to Katherine.  As to Ms. Trachell, her "Watch What Happens" is a compelling anthem to the possibilities of the future.  Mr. Jones gives Pulitzer enough of a snarl to hit all the "Disney Villain" notes, but has enough depth to make him almost human.  And Ms. Jackson gives the "Vaudeville-esque" "That's Rich" a range and power that is breathtaking.

 

This show sports a very large ensemble, and Music Director Ann-Carol Pence works her usual magic, making their voices gel like the ingredients of a fine wine, and the group numbers "dizzify" the senses more than wine ever could.  Choreographer Ricardo Aponte puts them through their paces, and they shine in both group numbers and athletically aerial solo moments.

 

It doesn't hurt that Shannon Roberts has designed and built a beautiful set that suggests the darker corners of a New York street, a unit set that can quickly segue into any number of locations, backed by a tiny glimpse of a sky that is tantalizingly close and frustratingly distant.  Lighting Design by María Cristina Fusté makes it all look sepia-newsreel and vaudeville crimson.

 

This is a great-looking, sublime-sounding show.

 

So, this show is selling out and will continue its run throughout August.  In the fall, it will move to Marietta's Atlanta Lyric Theatre for another couple of weeks.  I recommend you find the time to add this to the Arts and Leisure section of your calendar!  Then watch what happens!

 

            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy   #Aurora   #DisneysNewsies)

7/22/2018        TITANIC:  THE MUSICAL                                  Serenbe Playhouse

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
AT ONCE A MUSICAL AND THE PERFECTION OF PHYSICAL ENGINEERING


Anyone who has read my columns for any length of time know that I am a rabid fan-boy of Brian Clowdus and the magic he brings to summer theatre in Atlanta.  Filled with big ideas and an unending supply of creative imagination, he sets musicals and plays outdoors in the Serenbe Community forest-ways and water-ways, opening up the possibilities for grand sets and moments that can't be duplicated indoors.  Curly on horseback to open Oklahoma.  A Ferris Wheel and Carousel choreographed in sync for Carousel.  An Ice Castle suddenly appearing out of the darkness for The Snow Queen.  A vintage 60's helicopter to fly over the audience and land just out of sight for Miss SaigonA Walk in the Woods set in the woods, The Secret Garden set in a real garden,  Macbeth set by a Neolithic waterfall and rock face, The Wizard of Oz along a sun-splashed (on good weather days) yellow brick road.

 

And now, he seems to have topped them all.  He built the Titanic and sends his cast to a literal watery end in Titanic, the 1997 musical that swept the Tony Awards, if not the audiences -- it may have been produced too soon after the blockbuster movie, with music too grounded in classical operetta to achieve true pop-culture acceptance.

 

Okay, maybe a scaled down Titanic -- not nearly "a thousand feet in length," only four stories high (not eleven -- and can you imagine any indoor set described as ONLY four stories high -- a few wee little smoke stacks that probably wouldn't even bruise if they fell on you, and life boats that hold fewer than 15 instead of the original 70 or more.

 

But, durn it, he puts in on a lake and, for those who "don't survive," he puts THEM in the water.  And it works far FAR better than the original Broadway production.  It is grand, glorious, and awe-inspiring.

 

I remember liking (not loving) the original New York production.  It featured a tilting set as its nod to a real shipwreck and a tapestry of stories featuring characters from all facets of the journey -- officers, workmen, passengers from First Class, Middle Class, and Steerage.  It was notable mainly for Maury Yeston's rapturously rich score.  To my mind though, the score climaxed too soon, with "We'll Meet Tomorrow," an exquisite group anthem that accompanies the launching of the lifeboats.  Everything that followed seemed anti-climactic -- a "stiff upper lip" scene of doomed men clumsily staged behind a portholed-flat, and a final solo by ship's designer/builder Andrews describing the last moments.  Still it had some haunting moments, some marvelous performances, and, to repeat myself, that beautiful score.

 

So, how does merely setting the show on a real lake improve the story?

 

Well, let's start with that set.  Designer Adam Koch has built an incredibly effective "skeleton" of a ship,  Four stories tall, with a "gangplank" along the front that serves as various decks throughout (and that pulls apart at the climax, spilling the "Kates" into the water).  There is something ALWAYS happening, figures moving in the background, crewmen on the "bridge," passengers going about the decks.  A large chandelier centers the set, and provides a symbolic centerpiece for the story.  A few segments winch down into the water, most effectively with "Still," the Strauss's duet that ends just as they go under water.

 

But, more than these, Andrew's final song isn't just a lyrical description of "this is what happens."  It's mere background to actually SEEING what happens, as cast members fall off the set into the water, including one unlucky cabin boy falling from the "Bridge" level.  I can only imagine the preparation and training that went into making this sequence not only possible, but extraordinarily successful (not to mention safe). 

 

In essence, the immediacy of the lake, and seeing actors (and bodies) actually floating there brings home the enormity of the tragedy in a way an indoor staging could never accomplish.  The sheer size of the ship, even in this scaled-down version, gives a better "feel" of the original ship in a way Broadway's "Ship of Air" could only hint.  And, under Kevin Frazier's excellent lighting design, the whole thing even manages to fade into complete darkness at the end, reappearing as a blue-tinged "ghost ship" behind the shivering survivors -- it's a final image that will haunt me for weeks.

 

This is a large ensemble cast -- 40 strong -- with no real standouts.  Everyone fits in their allotted place and makes the whole show sail smoothly and elegantly.  Purists may carp about the ethnically-blind -- and age-blind** -- casting decisions, but I won't.  The roles are all perfectly performed, and the ensemble as a whole truly "nails" this difficult score. 

 

Okay, yeah, Serenbe favorite Chase Peacock gives stoker Barrett's solos a toe-tingling power and passion, Chase Davidson is memorable as the Marconi operator Bride, Chris Sizemore gives a powerful turn as Andrews, Shannon McCarren gives social climber Alice Beane an enthusiasm that makes her ... well ... less irritating than she could be,  Chris Saltalamacchio is impressive as Murdoch,  Casey Shuler is a pert and pleasant Kate McGowan,  Lilliangina Quinones and Robert Strauss are effectively moving as the Strausses,  ... Um, I seem to be listing everyone here.  Suffice it to say, there is not an ineffective character in the cast, and even the ensemble parts -- the maids and stewards and passengers -- are given distinct personalities and never fade to "just a face in the crowd."

 

I also have to give a special shout out to Sound Designer Bobby Johnson.  This is a very wide set, and, with one exception, the amplified voices sound as if they are coming from the singers.  It was especially noticeable when one character -- I forget which -- takes a long cross along the front "gangway" and his voice crosses with him.  The exception comes during the climactic "We'll Meet Tomorrow" as two groups at extreme left and right fail to achieve amplified separation.  This may have been a deliberate choice to add to the chaos of the moment -- it's sometimes impossible to focus on who is actually singing or speaking -- and, given the general excellence of the sound placement, this "reading" makes sense. And I'd LOVE to know how they waterproofed the head-mike battery packs!

 

So, even though Peter Stone's book has some factual issues -- survivors who died in reality and vice versa, too little time getting the lifeboats off, no explanation for some "left behind" characters joining the "survivors' group" -- Titanic is in incredibly moving, visually explosive experience.  It showcases a beautiful score and puts it in the mouths of an exceptionally talented cast.  And it is staged with an imaginative fervor from a director with a creative engine running with full steam and screws turning at 101.

 

            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy   #Serenbe   #Titanic)

 

**  I suppose the skew-young casting decisions with the first class passengers was a necessary nod to the physical requirements of the finale.  Or am I being "agist" in thinking that?  In any case, I found it interesting that the AJC review cited the wrongly-aged characters as "mis-cast," with nary a word about the ethnically-blind casting.  It all depends on how much you, as an audience, are willing to suspend disbelief and engage with what you're seeing.  I, for one, have a hard time judging other folks' ages, so I'm very willing to accept "age-blind" casting.  If the performances work.  And here, they do.

 

 

7/25/2018        DOT                                Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre Company

****  ( A ) 

           
FACING THE ... THE ... WHAT WAS I SAYING?


The Shealy family is in crisis. 

 

I could go into deep research mode and start a long-winded analysis of Alzheimer's and its impact on families (my own included).   But, in the final analysis, though there is some commonality, every family's story is unique.  Every family's struggle is unique.  And every family's ways and means of coping with a "drifting" loved one is unique.

 

So, let's talk about the Shealy's, the family at the heart (and it's a big, painfully beating heart) of Colman Domingo's Dot, now being given a beautiful production by Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre, under the direction of Mr. Leon himself.  It's almost Christmas, and it's been over a year since matriarch Dotty Shealy has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  Lucid and kick-ass cranky in the best of times, lost and frightened at others (one writer described it "as lost as a four-year old separated from its mother at the mall").  Her primary caregiver is daughter Shelly, harried and harassed, at the end of her rope, and hitting the watermelon vodka by 10:00 AM.  Sure, she can afford to have Fidel come in a couple times a week (Fidel is unlicensed but gently competent, a refugee from Kazakhstan with problems of his own), but, as Dot slips further and further into her own world, more help is needed.  Shelly has to call on her siblings, brother Donnie, barely making ends meet as a music critic for a dying newspaper, and sister Averie, many years past her 15-minutes-of-fame expiration date as a YouTube sensation.  In a roiling cauldron of sub-plots, Donnie is having marital problems with his partner Adam, and friend and neighbor Jackie ("the only white family in this middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood") has "dropped in" to escape her own bad choices and strained circumstances.

 

If this sounds like a dismal and depressing slog, it's not.  This is a household filled to the brim with life, crackling and effervescent.  Dialogue overlaps and orchestrates together like a well-tuned concerto and subplots zip back and forth with wild abandon.  I know my brief description makes it sound like an overstuffed and overwrought Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but it's not.  Dot's condition aside, none of these stories are dwelled on or drum-beated, but are tossed out like bread crumbs, filling the layers of the characters with small victories, major obsessions, and wistful regrets.

 

And centering it all is Dotty. played with bravura naturalism by Denise Burse-Fernandez.  This is a woman who thrives on control, who hates being ordered around like a child, who has a difficult time facing the reality of her condition, but who, in the final analysis, has the strength and courage to face it, and to take each day, each moment, and milk it for the best it can offer.

 

Tinashe Kajese-Bolden is a perfect foil as Shelly, wearing her exasperation like armour, not  letting it overwhelm her devotion to her mother and her irritating siblings.  Gilbert Glenn Brown and Lee Osorio win the year's "incompatibility award" as Donnie and Adam, surprisingly making their relationship believable as it resolves towards the end.  Amber Harris bursts onto the scene as Averie just before intermission, blowing the rest away with her outsized sass and take-no-prisoners attitude.  Benedetto Robinson is a gentle and effective Fidel, convincing in his few moments of Russian dialogue, but more so in his affectionate handling of Dotty at her most vulnerable. 

 

But, for me, it's Rhyn Saver's Jackie who almost steals the show, at least in the beginning.  She plays the "outsider," comfortable with the Shealy's, seeing them as a safe haven from her own issues, but accepted as a "family" member by the others.  (She and Donnie were sweethearts as teenagers, and she still has a bit of a crush, often worried that she "made him gay.") She has an early-in-the-story rant describing the genesis of her trip "home" that is a true delight, one that should be showing up in countless audition monologues for women "of a certain age."

 

Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed and built an intricately detailed kitchen set that looks truly lived-in, and in which the actors seem to feel "at home." In a truly remarkable (literal) twist, Act Two shows us what's "behind" the swinging door -- a well-appointed living room / library that shows that the Shealy's are, if not thriving, at least comfortable.  It's a beautiful "reveal" as well as a family-defining home.

 

Playwright Coleman Domingo has achieved some pop-culture celebrity as part of the Fear the Walking Dead ensemble, but theatre fans know him as a consummate playwright (A Boy and his Soul, Wild With Happy, SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical) and musical performer (Passing Strange, The Scottsboro Boys).  He is also the first cast member of The Walking Dead franchise to have directed an episode (Fear the Walking Dead, Season 4, Episode 12).  With Dot, he shines a light on his native Philadelphia, and proves himself a master at weaving a tapestry of plot-lines into a cohesive whole.  Dot is a funny and moving portrait of a family in crisis, and an anthem to the triumph of courage over insurmountable odds -- if bravely accepting an undignified fade to oblivion counts as courage.  Mr. Domingo makes us believe it counts, and Mr. Leon, his cast, and design team make it sublime.

 

            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy   #TrueColorsTheatre   #Dot)

8/3/2018        WOKE                                    Essential Theatre Festival

***½  ( B ) 
           
(HASHTAG) NOT A RACIST


"I am NOT Racist!" is a line heard often in Avery Sharpe's new play, Woke.  Shouted, whispered, blustered, questioned -- it receives all sorts of readings from the cast.  So, as is made clear, NOBODY wants to be accused of being a racist.  More to the point, few of us want to make the effort to discover if the statement is actually true.

 

Welcome to another examination of "blind biases," those insidious personal biases that lie at the root of more self-evident racism.  If this sounds a lot like the theme of Clybourne Park, it pretty much is, and I left this play with a "been there, seen that" reaction.  Still, it IS an important subject, and I'll go out on a limb here and say we can't have too many examinations of it (or conversations about it).  After all, if we're in denial about our own biases, how can we possibly hope to convince others of theirs?

 

Adrian and Jesse are best friends, and have been since seventh grade.  Adrian is a self-described "Oreo," an African-American white kid.  Jesse is a genius, white, and lives in a gated upper-middle class community, where our scene is set.  They are typical high schoolers on the cusp of adulthood, ready for one last summer of fun before heading off to college, Jesse to Dartmouth and Adrian to Morehouse.

 

But, when a cop-vs-black-kid shooting takes place, Adrian's long simmering insecurities come to the fore, and everyone goes on a quest to be "Woke" -- or to resist that quest.

 

These are characters who, at first glance, are miles away from racist stereotypes -- Adrian is loved by Jesse's parents as if he were their own, and Jesse is head-over-heels in love with Tanisha, who, as her name implies, is black. 

 

To summarize any more would be to rob you of the real pleasure to be had in hearing these arguments, watching these attitudes develop, enjoying these "journeys into self-discovery."  The only issue I see with the script is its easy judgments of the biases of the white characters and its blindness to the equally evident biases of the black characters.  Any writer would probably fall into that trap of their own "blind biases," and any audience member will respond based on theirs, as I'm sure I'm doing here.

 

But what's important is that the EXISTENCE of "Blind Bias" is acknowledged and accepted, and plays like this tend (hopefully) to lead to self-examination and being "Woke."

 

Shouting "I am not a racist!" in high defensive dudgeon leads me to say, "Really? What makes you so different from everyone else?"  As Tanisha so elegantly puts it, "You don't have to burn crosses to be a racist.  You only have to be blind" (or words to that effect).

 

What goes a long way towards making this seem fresher than "another retread" is the vivid and memorable performances by Derrick Robertson as Adrian, Paul Danner as Jesse, DeShon Green as Tanesha, Karina Simmons as Tanesha's friend Natasha, and, especially, by Kathleen Wattis Kettrey and Fred Galyean as Jesse's well-meaning but clueless parents.  Ellen McQueen, always a welcome name after the "Directed by" credit, here keeps the pace fluid and the arguments clear. 

 

Woke is a very good "first" play that shows the promise of Avery Sharpe as a playwright.  It is thought-provoking and eloquent, and leaves us with the satisfaction of knowing that, blind racism or not, real friendship conquers all.

 

            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy   #EssentialTheatre   #Woke)

 

 

 

8/4/2018        BUILT TO FLOAT                   Essential Theatre Festival

****½  ( A ) 

SINK OR SWIM


We meet Tess in a liquid pool of light, supposedly underwater, daylight (and air) leagues above her heard.  It is a vivid and poetic opening to Built to Float, an exciting new play by Rachel Graf Evans.

 

As we soon learn, Tess is a phlebotomist at a small lab, who once had ambitions of entering medicine, but who has been sidelined by an ailing mother.  When a stranger, William, comes into her life, looking too much like her dead (and abusive) father at the same time her older sister, Roz,  returns from rehab, Tess's life begins to sink into an ever-deepening pool of delusion.  It doesn't help that Marjorie (Mom) is a cranky and demanding invalid, forever harping on Tess's inability to become a doctor (or even a nurse).  It doesn't help that Roz and William actually know each other from "Group."  And it doesn't help that Tess is more and more losing her grip on reality.

 

Her life, in effect, is turning into her father's first swimming lesson -- tossing three-year old Tess into a lake and expecting her to swim.  The only question is, will Roz, entertaining her own demons, be "there" to save her this time?

 

This is a terrific play, suggesting an air of "magical realism" to get inside of Tess's head, filled to the rafters with terrific dialog, surprising twists of plot (well, should-be-surprising -- more on that later), and a quartet of very, VERY good performances.  Rachel Wansker is simply luminous as Tess, a wide-eyed innocent traumatized by life and fearful of everyone she sees, everything she imagines.  Heather Schroeder gives Roz a hard-edged practically, but shows us the equally vulnerable girl whose life with addiction was preferable to her life with Father.  Suzanne Roush is perfect as the Passive Aggressive Marjorie, the flip side of her dead husband, though just as cruel and, implicitly, heartless.  And Alex Vann brings a quiet dignity to William, whose back-story shows him to be the perfect "stranger" to be in these damaged lives.

 

For the most part, this is a smoothly directed piece, the wide playing area well used to evoke place and mood.  The only mis-step was the frenetic blocking in an early scene, that more-or-less "gives away" the reveal that comes before intermission.  I'd go into more detail, but I can't without giving away that reveal myself.  Suffice it say, the story would have been better served if XXX had been blocked more unobtrusively.

 

Still and all, this is a very powerful piece, elegantly showing the need for "helping hands," the difficulty in overcoming early trauma, or addiction, or even long-standing family resentments.  It's easy to see how this could have ended tragically, the "sink" option so dreaded by panicking swimmers.

 

But, as implied by the title, we are "built to float," if only we let ourselves lie back and embrace the sky.  And, to be sure, families are born to love, to save, to support, if only we let ourselves reach out and take their hand.  Even the most damaged life-jacket is still a life-jacket.

 

            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy   #EssentialTheatre   #BuiltToFloat)

 

 

 

 

8/10/2018        THUS SPOKE THE MOCKINGBIRD                         Onion Man Productions

*****  ( A+ ) 

A LOVE LETTER TO LITERATURE

 

(Bias Alert:  I have worked with playwright Joanie McElroy and actress Kate Guyton, and consider them exceptional people.  So I ALWAYS look at their work with approval-tinted glasses.  I'm also a rabid To Kill A Mockingbird fan, having played Atticus twice, and am now twice-sad that I have "aged out" of that role.)

Harper Lee took the publishing world by storm.  Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, quickly won her acclaim as well as a Pulitzer Prize.  It is one of the most-loved novels of the century, and, to this date, has never been out of print.

 

Although she made numerous public appearances throughout the sixties, Ms. Lee never published another book (more on 2015's Go Set a Watchman later**), and quickly achieved a reputation of being a recluse, retiring to her home town of Monroeville, AL, where she finally went to rest in February 2016.

 

Merely Players' Artistic Director (and founder) Joanie McElroy has written a lyrically sumptuous "love letter" to Harper Lee, Thus Spoke the Mockingbird, which is being staged in a rapturously beautiful production at Onion Man Production's small black box theatre in Chamblee.  It is being performed by Kate Guyton in one of the finest performances of the year.

 

This is the second "Harper Lee Monologue" seeing production following Synchronicity's August 2015 staging of Melita Easters' Nelle's Story: The World of Harper Lee, and you'd think comparisons are inevitable.  Please indulge me while I succumb here to inevitability.  Although Ms. Easters' script was shorter, it gave the actress playing Nelle numerous opportunities for thespic razzle-dazzle, showing us Ms. Lee at four distinct periods of her life, opportunities which, if I recall correctly, were beautifully realized.  But, I also found that script Wikipedia-thin, giving many incidents but not much depth or reflection.

 

Ms. McElroy's script, on the other hand, shows us in a two-act structure two periods of Harper Lee's life -- 1962 following the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, and 2012, as her mind and body are beginning to wind down.  Rather than "getting under the skin" of Ms. Lee, cataloging physical traits and behaviors to indicate a specific age, actress Kate Guyton chose  instead to "channel the spirit" of the character, showing us someone who remained remarkably consistent in both behavior and appearance.

 

I think this approach is perfect for this script, just as the approach used by Mandi Lee in 2015 for Nelle's Story was perfect for that script.  Ms. Guyton takes us onto her porch, welcomes us as if we were lifelong friends, and tells us her stories.  When she "enters the past," it is always as a storyteller "playing a role," not an actress "reliving a moment."  As was probably true about Ms. Lee herself, Ms. Guyton's focus is the reality of the story and NOT the reality of the character.

 

As in Ms. Easters' play, Ms. McElroy paints a vivid portrait of Ms. Lee, and how she changed (and didn't change) through the course of her life.  She also gives us a series of anecdotes, self-contained stories from Nelle's life that echo her writing style -- one aspect of Mockingbird that seems to be "lost in translation" in the stage and film adaptations is that sense-of-story.  In both Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Ms. Lee plays fast-and-loose with sequence, letting episodes years apart bump off each other and seemingly lead into other episodes.  All the dramatic adaptations seem concerned with creating a "unified" story that occurs over the space of one summer.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does fail to capture the "incident-association" style (almost stream-of-consciousness) of the original book. 

As in Ms. Easters' play, we do get many incidents from her life -- her adoration for her family, her fondness for her hometown, her friendship with Truman Capote (and the real sadness over their estrangement), her struggles with her unexpected success, and ultimately, her love affair with story and with writing and with language. 

 

But, more than Ms. Easters, Ms. McElroy uses language that echoes the lyrical ebb and flow of how Harper Lee constructed dialogue, set scene, reflected on consequence.  This play flows like a classic song, a ballad form the "Great American Songbook" that sets the mind humming, that sets the feet dancing, that sets the smiles of recognition in granite.  Watching this play, and Ms. Guyton's performance, is like lounging on a cool evening porch, sipping lemonade (or even a gin-and-tonic), and telling tall stories from when we were younger.  It is a true delight and I will cherish the memory, even as I pull both of Harper Lee's books down and re-read them again for the umpteenth time.

 

Before closing this out, I also have to commend director Cathe Hall-Payne, set designer Angie Short, lighting designer Kurt Hansen, and sound designer Charlie Miller.  All the technical aspects of the play are nicely integrated and in full support of the story and the character.  If this is the quality of work seen at Onion Man, this will not be my last visit.  Well done all!

 

Nelle Harper Lee  tells us (and please forgive my paraphrasing) that To Kill a Mockingbird is sometimes described as "A love letter to my father.  And it was!!"  Joanie McElroy's Thus Spoke the Mockingbird is indeed a love letter to this writer, to the life she lived, and to the eternal story that she gave the world.

 

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #ThusSpokeTheMockingBird  #OnionManProductions)

 

**  Can it really be said that Harper Lee published Go Set a Watchman?  It's said by some that she enthusiastically approved its release.  It's said by others closer to her that she was failing at the time, was mostly blind and semi-coherent, and "would sign anything put in front of her by someone she thought she could trust."  It was published mere months after her sister Alice's death, and it was Alice who protected her and her interests.  Whatever the "facts" are, I am personally thankful for its publication, and, "beginning writer" mis-steps aside, it gives a deeper look into why she wrote Mockingbird and into who her father really was.  If Mockingbird is about childhood and justice and home, Watchman is about conscience and adulthood and finding your own "moral center."  Together, they give us an astounding look into the mind of a writer.

 

 

8/22/2018        THE BOOK OF WILL                                             Theatrical Outfit

 

*****  ( A+ ) 
           
ENDINGS AND LEGACIES

 

In the year of our liege, King James I, that year being 1619, the actor known to London as Richard Burbage has shuffled off his mortal coil and has joined his muse, William Shakespeare, in that undiscovered country that waits patiently for us, one and all.  John Heminges and Henry Cordell, theatrical men "of a certain age" ponder the loss of the plays of Shakespeare, Burbage being the last who knew them word perfectly, prompt scripts of Shakespeare's REAL words (not those bowdlerized Quarto abominations enriching scoundrels and thieves up and down the Thames) being lost when the Globe burned to the ground just six short years ago.

 

In order to change the end of an era into the start of a legacy, Heminges and Cordell decide to publish a "compleat folio" of ALL the plays, a task as Quixotic as finding that last copy of Cardenio.  Thus begins an odyssey of passionate men (and women), men (and women) devoted to enshrining their friend in the annals of literary history, even if it means turning over every privy seat-side read-file to find scraps of dialog, even if it means going to headstrong rivals for support and investment, even if it means enlisting the aid of the most corrupt printer in the kingdom.

 

As in all stories drenched in the demands of predestine fate, all of us these many centuries later, know the outcome and have gleaned the benefits of that outcome since our student days struggling to make sense out of early modern English and Elizabethan cultural paradigms.  Benefits that take root in those dry classroom lessons will inevitably blossom when exposed to performance by dedicated and passionate actors and directors and technicians.

 

But still, knowing the outcome does not diminish the tale, the story of a quest with dire repercussions for lovers of language and story, but is ultimately meaningless on the grand stage of civilization and cosmic epochs.  Or is it meaningless?  Would a world without Shakespeare be as beautiful, as rife with metaphor and resonance, if not for these plays that multiplied the vocabulary of a burgeoning language, that brought to life figures from history and fiction that heretofore lived only as dry names and dates?  Even if the fiction and the history were inexorably intertwined, as they always are when created in a propaganda-friendly cauldron of politics and dynastic will, the names and dates are still given faces and lives and joys and sorrows and high comedy and higher tragedy.

 

No, this is not a world I would cherish.

 

So, to me, the quest is not "meaningless," but is of utmost importance.

 

That this story has been put to paper by Lauren Gunderson, my current favorite playwright, is merely polish on the diamond.  She has heretofore given full rein to Shakespearana many times, using modern settings to reexamine Bardic tropes and motifs. (Exit, Pursued by a BearThe TamingToil and Trouble.)  She has heretofore shown great skill in recreating "moments in history." (EmilieSilent SkyAda and the Memory EngineThe RevolutionistsChristmas at Pemberly.)  (And kudos for creating this many roles for men -- and women -- "of a certain age.")

 

That this play has been put to stage by Theatrical Outfit assures it is molded to its optimal shape.  From the elegant set (by Isabel and Mariah Curley-Clay) that suggests without mimicking an Elizabethan "wooden O," to the moody and evocative lighting by Mary Parker, to the sound and music choices by sound designer Dan Bauman, all elements of production demolish thoughts of 2018 and deposit us squarely into the height of Jacobean London.  Director David Crowe shows a full grasp of mood and ambiance, keeping the pace lively, and ensuring that even the scenes that "overlap" are clear, that they propel the story forward.

 

That this play is being performed by a troupe of actors at the height of their immeasurable ability is almost an afterthought.  As Heminges and Condell, Tom Key and Doyle Reynolds bring nuance and passion to characters much older than we may remember from Shakespeare in Love.  They are the suns around which all the other characters orbit.  (And brightest of all is when Mr. Reynolds delivers an impassioned monologue that answers the question, "Why tell stories, when God is an arbitrary and cruel Lord.  Why act when we are in pain?")  As their wives, Rebecca and Elizabeth, Elisa Carlson and Suehyla El-Attar are vibrantly full partners and not "tamed" help-mates.  As Alice, the Heminges' daughter, Eliana Marianes is a burst of sunlight on a cloudy day -- she brings to life every scene she graces, and provides the silver lining when circumstance demands clouds.  And, as expected, William S. Murphey brings to Shakespearean rival Ben Johnson an ego and a personality seemingly too large for even this stage.

 

In smaller multiple roles, Kyle Brumley, Paul Hester, and Ryan Vo acquit themselves admirably, and, late substitute Jeff McKErley opens the play with a larger-than-life Burbage, dominating a tavern scene, quoting Shakespeare with fire and fury, then promptly leaving the stage and dying.  It is a beautiful performance, almost matched by his return as the blind and corrupt printer, William Jaggard.

 

So, does this play have the same ecstatically memorable ending as Ms. Gunderson's other works (the tour through the Universe that ends Silent Sky, the computer montage that ends Ada and the Memory Engine, the emotional sucker punch to the gut that ends I and You)?  Being a play about the legacy of Shakespeare, you can probably expect a coda filled with words and scenes and quotes, all musically blended by voices not necessarily expected (a female Hamlet, a male Juliet).  I'm not saying that's what happens.  I'm saying that's what I expected.

 

The Scottish Play once tried to convince us of the following:

 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. (**)

 

This American Play now puts the lie to that speech.  The truth is that Shakespeare's plays are a series of stories told by a genius, full of music and passion, signifying everything.  And The Book of Will proves once and for all that Shakespeare's life was hardly a "walking shadow," and the idea of him being "heard no more" is simply preposterous.

 

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #TheBookOfWill  #TheatricalOutfit)

 

**  Rest assured, after it produced that quote, my laptop left the house, turned around three times on the front porch, spat on the cat, then begged to be let back in.  I'm still considering my response.

 

 

9/6/2018        A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2                                           Actor's Express

 

*****  ( A+ ) 
           
THE DEATH OF A MARRIAGE

 

In December, 1879, at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, a female character did the unthinkable -- she turned her back on her husband and children, and walked out of her life, with a "door slam heard around the world."  Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House had its first performance, and the tradition-bound audiences of the time were shocked and appalled.

 

But Nora Helmer, at least the idea of Nora Helmer, has persisted, the idea that there is always a door, that marriage is not an escape-proof prison, and, more importantly, that the paradigms of society can (with effort) be subverted.  The process may be long, it may be painful, it may even be fatal, but the needs of one woman can indeed face off against the needs of the patriarchal institutions that govern the land, and may even emerge triumphant.

 

Or can they?

 

In Lucas Hnath's 2017 Tony-Winning A Doll's House, Part 2, Nora has come home.  Fifteen years have passed -- profitable fulfilling years for Nora (it seems).  But she has learned that Torvald Helmer has never officially divorced her, putting her at risk for imprisonment for "behaving like a single woman" for those fifteen years.  But, Torvald cannot grant the divorce without exposing his "spotless" reputation to scrutiny and censure.  Youngest daughter Emmy cannot assist without scandal ruining her advantageous engagement.  Judgmental nanny Anne Marie cannot assist without risking the reciprocal judgmentalism of that same society.

 

For ninety intermission-less minutes, we see all their stories, all their points of view, all the small wounds left by Nora's spirited departure fifteen years earlier, all the ethical compromises made (or about to be made) as a result of that long-past "door slam."

 

And, by the way, it's a comedy, but not without its moments of high drama, gut-wrenching and shattering. 

 

In a burst of creative ingenuity, Mr. Hnath has chosen to "period-clash" the piece -- for all the societal paradigms under the microscope, we're in late nineteenth-century small-town Norway, complete with full floor-length dresses and tight-fitting frock coats, complete with patriarchal attitudes and the archaic societal "rules" and laws that are the stock and trade of the masculine elite of Scandinavia.  But for the discussions on marriage and love and emotional connections, we're are solidly in 2018, with modern furniture, modern syntax, modern transition music, modern LED lighting, and modern f-bomb droppings.  The dichotomy works better than expected.  The costumes remind us of Ibsen's characters and the society they inhabit, while the modern touches remind us that "The More Things Change, the More They Stay The Same."  The intellectual clash-of-eras is easily subverted by the emotional unity-of-tone.

 

We NEED to be reminded of Ibsen's era so that Torvald can finally respond to Nora's action, so that Emmy can show her Mother the shortcomings of her "ideals," so that Anne Marie can temper her anger with compassion, so that Nora can prove to her family (and to us) that she can make it on her own, that family is not necessary for survival and success.  Happiness, as usual, is another story altogether.

 

And we NEED to be reminded of everything that has not changed since 1900, that Marriage is still alive and well, that institutional marriage adapts to attacks on its existence and comes out transformed, and perhaps even improved.  Yes, A Doll's House chronicled the Death of a Marriage.  But, as much as Nora would have wished, it did not provide the starting point for the Death of Marriage.

 

I absolutely adored Tess Malis Kincaid's portrayal of Nora.  To be blunt, She fully inhabits the character, giving her a passion and an internal life that can be breathtaking.  More mature that Ibsen's Nora, she is no longer Torvald's "Little Squirrel," but has become a ferocious cat, a lion preening her dominance   It is a terrific performance, and I truly can't wait to see it again when the production moves to Lawrenceville's Aurora Theatre.

 

As Emmy, Shelli Delgado is every bit the "Little Squirrel" that Nora once tried to be.  But she also has a bite -- not afraid to "bend the rules" in the name of expediency, not afraid to challenge Nora's justifications -- "I know what it's like to grow up without a family.  That's the one thing I DON'T want!"  (Please forgive the paraphrase).  As Torvald, Rob Cleveland brings all his skills into creating the quintessential Ibsen man -- insecure in his authority, blustery in his (almost) anger, self-righteous to the point of priggishness.  And as Anne Marie, Deadra Moore is all earth mother nurture, all real mother scolding, all all-mother regret. 

 

All four performances serve the story perfectly and mesh beautifully -- although the play is structured as a series of two-character scenes, the ensemble work is such that they come across like a family unit -- their influences on each other -- even considering the fifteen-year gap -- are unmistakable.  Congratulations to director Freddie Ashley for staging the piece so elegantly, and for bringing out the humanity in these characters.

 

Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay have designed and built a beautifully sterile set -- all beige walls and hard angles, with nary a hint of color or personality.  Nothing of Nora remains -- it's as if she took all the life with her when she left this house those fifteen years ago.  The modern chairs are almost an afterthought -- period furniture would have added more warmth and color than the family could bear.

 

Lighting Designer Joseph P. Monaghan III has created an unusually elegant mixture of traditional and modern -- white general washes echo the color-free motifs, and gobos along the top of the set hint at a wallpaper pattern that may have once been there.  But LED strips that frame the proscenium remind us that, we LIKE using our computers to create jarring moments of color and life.

 

Elizabeth Rasmusson has dressed the cast perfectly -- Nora in "Look at Me" Green, Emmy in virginal white, Torvald and Anne Marie in the blandest of grays.  The characters fidget in the tightness of the collars, as if the clothes themselves are channeling the paradigms that are cutting off all their air.  It's no surprise that Nora sheds her coats as soon as she possibly can.

 

Some would say that giving Ibsen a sequel is the height of hubris.  What can we possible say about Nora that hasn't been said repeatedly in the 135 years since she first slammed that door.  And, perhaps they'd be right.  But Lucas Hnath has written a surprisingly funny and compelling piece of theatre that continues the story, deepens the conflict, and reminds us that stirring endings are often beginnings sneaking in like Eliot's cat-like fog.

 

Silence.

 

There's a knock at my door.

 

Maybe the better part of discretion would be to just not answer. (We all have pasts that may be better not faced.)

 

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AEadollshousepart2)

 

 

 

9/7/2018        IT'S ONLY A PLAY                              Process Theatre

 

****  ( B+ ) 
           
THE UNBEARABLE IMPERMANENCE OF THEATRICAL FAILURE

 

(Bias Alert:  I am friends with almost everyone involved in this production.  In spite of that, I am usually inclined to view their work through approval-tinted filters.  That doesn't mean I won't write about them.)
 

Terrence McNally is a theatrical force to be reckoned with.  His plays and musicals have won Tony Awards galore as well as every award known to playwright and man.  Needless to say, he knows the world of the theatre, and his play It's Only a Play sets out to pay homage to that world while skewering it mercilessly.

 

Maybe he's too close to that world, because, although I found Process Theatre's production enjoyable and amusing, it seemed to me that the jokes were old and tired and the "affection" part blunted the edge of the "skewering" part. 

 

So, we who frolic in the world of theatre have all been here.  It's opening night of a production in which we poured our hearts and souls, and, although we're proud of our work, we temper our celebration with anticipation on what the writers are going to say about it.  Yes, the audience have had their say, but, let's be honest -- opening night audiences are usually friends and family who tend to view our work through approval-tinted filters.  What are the critics going to say, those mavens of the best-seats-in-the-house who pretend to be objective and erudite, but who find unbearable joy in the most cleverly written insults and knives-to-the-back, and who bring into the process more biases and predispositions than your average out-for-a-good-play audience? 

 

And, deep in our heart of hearts, we know we just unleashed a stinkerooni, a yawnfest, an abomination in which every wrong decision that could possibly be made was made (and then some), a turkey of epic proportions (see, if you must, Crane and Coen's Epic Proportions and you'll know exactly what I mean).

 

So, Peter Austin's latest, The Golden Egg, has opened, and everybody who is anybody has gathered in the fancy digs of producer Julia Budder.  The playwright's closest friend, James Wicker, (he SHOULD have been cast in the lead), has flown in from the coast for the occasion, more concerned about the fate of his 9-year-old sit-com, one of those never-ending shows no one will admit to watching or even being aware of.  Star Virginia Noye, is stumbling around searching for a quick fix, or at least a gimmick to rid herself of her ankle monitor.  Wunderkind director Frank Finger is obsessed with LOSING his wunderkind status.  Acerbic critic Ira Drew, like all of us critics, aspires to be a playwright himself.  And Gus the waiter just wants to be part of it all.

 

This is the cast of eccentrics on a virtual deathwatch for the word from Ben Brantley.  Forget about the positive early reviews -- they don't count!  What does the furschlugginer NEW YORK TIMES think?  That's the only one that matters.

 

Well, the word comes down, and it's {Deleted by the Spoiler Police, but you can guess, which means this is where I stop the synopsis spewing from my synapses}. 

 

It's Only a Play has had a convoluted and oft-revised path to us today.  It first saw light in Philadephia (1978) as Broadway, Broadway, with plans for a Broadway, Broadway run.  It was savaged by the critics, ignored by the audiences, and put on the shelf.  Revised and retitled, it next appeared Off-Off Broadway in 1982, directed by Paul Benedict, who played the eccentric Richard III director in The Goodbye Girl.  Significant?  I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no.  But Mr. Benedict also played the critic, Ira Drew, in the play's next iteration, Off Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club (1985), with a cast that also included Christine Baranski, Joanna Gleeson, and James Coco. 

 

It next saw the Lights of Night in 1992 in Los Angeles, with a cast that included Charles Nelson Reilly, David Hyde Pierce, and Željko Šimić-Ivanek, who regrettably has reverted to only two names for his subsequent television roles (24, Damages, Madame Secretary).

 

So, you may ask, what is a play first written in 1978 doing referencing Hamilton, Book of Mormon, and Daniel Ratcliffe (who, BTW, was born ELEVEN years AFTER the first production)?  Thank you, 2014 BROADWAY (Ta-Da!) revival, which revised the show, and added topical references (giving license, I hope, for future productions to keep references current).  The brusque taxi driver, Emma (played by Doris Roberts in the 1992 L.A. production), was dropped, with her functions rolled up into the character of Gus, the waiter.  By December, the production had "recouped its initial capitalization," and was certified (by Variety) as a "megaseller."

 

I mention in passing that the 2014 revival included Nathan Lane and F. Murray Abraham in its cast.  When you see the show, you'll know why.

 

So, why did I take all this time recounting the play's long and failure-ridden history?  Yes, to boost my word count, but, more pretentiously, to drive home the play's main theme -- IN THEATRE, FAILURE IS NEVER PERMANENT!  But then again, neither is success, as ALL the characters (except perhaps Gus) can attest.

 

So, here's the part where I praise to the skies the work of all my friends and colleagues.  I can only hope you agree it's deserved.  Zip Rampy centers the show as Wacker, the friend from L.A.  (Sorry, Wicker).  He is perhaps a bit too manly for the part -- more Harvey Fierstein than Nathan Lane -- but he commands the stage and his jokes never fail to bring a smile -- especially the self-described "not funny" jokes.  Liane LeMaster, who I freely confess is one of my favorite people in the Universe, nails Julia Budder to the wall with a sneer of pretention, a dollop of dilettantism, a wad of ready cash, and an almost perceptible whiff of White Diamonds (The Elizabeth Taylor perfume, not the over-rated gemstones).  Barbara Cole Uterhardt, looking terrific under a brunette wig and a slinky dress, channels every has-been actress known to man to make Virginia Noyes a pathetically laughable, but endearingly vulnerable creation.  (For the record, I can't imagine Ms. Uterhardt EVER being a has-been, so this role was an obvious stretch for her.)  Bob Smith, sporting an elegant Burt Reynolds mustache (moment of respectful silence) and convincingly constricting his voice, creates in Ira Drew a critic that perfectly nails all the we-hate-critics characteristics that make us shudder.

 

As to the folks I don't know so well, Larry Davis was a frazzled and at-sea Peter Austin, a playwright without a clue.  Frankie Asher was all naiveté and ambition as Gus, the waiter. (Can anyone with such a limited knowledge of theatre and with such a limited sense of humor ever hope to become an actor?  Mr. Asher made me believe he can!)  And Pat Young was pitch-perfect as the director Frank Finger, all woe and weltschmerz.  How dare the Universe make him so successful.  I won't say he's the only character who ends up with wish granted, but I probably should.  Spoiler Police be damned!

 

Kudos also need to be spread around to director DeWayne Morgan, Set and Light Designer Harley Gould, Props Designer Frankie Earle , and Costume Designer Nancye Quarles Hilley (Where did you find all those coats?  And would the Hamilton and Lion King casts really come to a party in costume?  Probably!  Actors know the value of a good sight gag.). This was a terrific looking show, and everyone involved seemed to be bringing their quite considerable "A" games.

 

Except perhaps playwright McNally.  I started this review rather negatively, but have upped the "grade" twice as I've been writing.  Yes, I hold to my initial reaction that I wanted to laugh more, that the characters are sit-com shallow, that the situation has more than a whiff of been-there seen-that about it.  But, I am, at heart, totally immersed in the world of theatre, and I totally responded to the story, the situation, and the unfounded optimism that drives the whole thing.  And I REALLY like watching friends and colleagues romp through a comedy with this much skill and success.

 

So, why quibble?  It's only a review!

 

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #ProcessTheatre   #ItsOnlyAPlay)

 

 

 

9/8/2018        THE SEAGULL                                                   Serenbe Playhouse

 

****  ( B+ ) 
           
SEVEN IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER

 

You'd expect a production of a Chekhov play at Serenbe Playhouse, with its acres of bucolic lakes and forests and fields, to be a slam dunk -- put the cast by a lake, find a good translation, and just stand back.

 

What you wouldn't expect would be a contemporary update (Has it been only three years since Aaron Posner's marvelous Stupid F*cking Bird flew into Actor's Express?), a sly avant-garde piece dripping with gender politics and theatrical pretention, an immersive lyrical experience of pure theatricality that uses Chekhov's play as a guide and outline rather than as a blueprint to be followed religiously.  What you wouldn't expect would be an experience that would make the casual theatre-going roll their eyes in disappointment and mutter, "Well, that happened!"

 

But that's exactly what we get, and I for one, relished the experience.

 

Welcome to the lakeside lake side of Peter and Irina's country farm.  A stage has been set up for the premier of a "new work of existential theatre" by Constance, Irina's daughter.  The play itself is a post apocalypse view of no-life in which all the souls of all the humans and fauna (and perhaps even flora) have been embodied in a single creature, who appears every millennium or so to rail at a sterile world and bewail its solitary state.

 

But Irina, an accomplished actress of more traditional repute, can't help but show her scorn, and the play stops, leaving us to unravel the complicated nexus of obsessive love that Chekhov devised in 1895, itself an attempt to upend the theatrical traditions of the time.

 

But has the play truly stopped?  This being Serenbe, we never really leave the lakeside of the opening, complete with its impromptu stage and garish lighting.  All the masks and costume pieces of Constance's opus are left behind, and often find themselves fitting onto unexpected characters as song, dance, poetry, and recitation mark the transition from act to act, or even from action to action within the scene.

 

Yes, this is not Chekhov's Russia, but our own 21st century rural America.  True, the original characters follow their original paths, gender adjustments notwithstanding.  Yes, there have been noticeable omissions from the original -- all the servants, the doctor Yevgeny Dorn, Masha's parents -- leaving a cast of seven to tell the tale.  As before, Simon (Semyon) loves Masha who loves Constance who lives Nina who loves Boris.  As expected, Irina and Boris love themselves more than anyone else, but Irina nurtures an unquenchable attraction to the youthful Boris, who manages to feign attraction for both Irina and Nina.

 

And, true to Chekhov, Peter loves his rapidly failing life and his equally failing farm, though he dotes on all the other characters more than they probably deserve.

 

But, being the Chekhov aficionados I know you all are, I'm certain you already know that.  What you don't know is that making Constance (originally Constantine) female, a note of orientation suspicion creeps in -- are Masha and Nina and Constance in lust or just in love?  After all, Masha does marry and conceive a child with Simon.  Nina runs off to New York to be with Boris, and positively drools over his youthful manliness.

 

And, through it all, especially the "Two Years Later" final act, it is agonizingly apparent that, awkward couplings aside, seven is indeed the loneliest number.

 

Credit for the success of this adaptation has to be shared between Elizabeth Dinkova (who adapted and directed the piece) and Anais Azul (who contributed the eerie songs and incidental music.)  Choreographer Bubba Carr no doubt contributed the stylized movements and "Tableaux" that made the transitions so unique, and lighting designer Maranda Debusk made optimal use of color and computerized timing to create a compellingly stunning visual look.  If I have one complaint about the lighting (and when do I not?), I would have liked to see some background color on the lake, maybe even some reflected moonlight.  Given the earlier sundowns now-a-days, by the time the play starts, the lake has completely been submerged by the dark of night, and remains tantalizing invisible throughout the play.  Oh, we know it's there -- Nina rises soaking wet at the end of a long pier for her stunning Act Four entrance, and there is a resounding splash at the climactic {Deleted by  the Spoiler Police, but come on, the play is 120 years old so you SHOULD know how it ends}.  Still and all, it would be nice to occasionally be granted a glimpse of this "stunningly beautiful lake" everyone praises.

 

To be sure, this is an incredibly memorable cast, all of whom we have seen at Serenbe (and other Atlanta stages) often and to great acclaim.  Maythinee Washington (last year's Lady Macbeth) is brilliant as Constance, giving the character's sobriety and obsessions more maturity than I've come to expect from most Constantines (who, truth to tell, I usually find irritatingly whiny).  Park Krausen is breathtaking as Irina, a character who lives for the stage played by an actress who positively owns it.  That she and Ms. Washington make such a convincing mother/daughter, despite being only about ten years of age (and ten degrees of color-blind casting) apart**) is a tribute to how real they made their interactions and subtexts.

 

Allan Edwards is suitably avuncular and frail as Peter, Skye Passmore is smitten and earnest as Simon, Brooke Owens is gloomy and narcissistic as Masha, Lee Osorio is brilliantly self-absorbed and self-deprecating as Boris, and Shannon McCarren perfectly weds wide-eyed innocence and predatory intention as Nina -- her performance as the "monster" in Constance's play is nothing short of brilliant, and her Act Four entrance out of the lake in a one-piece white bathing suit (ALL her costumes are seagull white) is simply breathtaking.

 

The set by Joel Coady and Barrett Doyle is simple and effective -- a pseudo-stage with a ramp in front and a long pier behind, sided by a behammocked summer house (ish) structure and a beswinged gazebo (ish) structure keep the entire play convincingly lakeside.

 

And kudos to ALL the technical folks for the staging of Constance's opening play -- almost fully behind a back-lit translucent curtain which also occasionally reflects orange front highlights, making it nightmarishly dreamlike.  Personally, I couldn't help feeling a lot of resentment at Irina's churlish interruption of the thing. 

 

So, will you like The Seagull?  I really can't say.  I know a lot of folks have little patience with avant-garde stagings that resist casual consumption, and they very well may leave disappointed.  On the other hand, as confusing as those touches seem at first, they begin to make more sense as motifs and echoes of Chekhov's themes ping-pong through the events, and, as these stylistic flourishes take over the story, they actually become more desired. 

 

So much so that, after the climax, I truly wanted to join the rest of the cast ripping out the guts of that stupid f*cking bird.

 

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #SerenbePlayhouse   #Seagull)

 

** Sometimes we can ignore color-blind and age-blind casting if the production is strong enough and the performances compelling enough (I'm thinking James Earl Jones in the 2014 revival of You Can't Take it With You, or, more recently, Serenbe's own Titanic).  Other times, it's also fun to retroactively justify it in the context of the play and characters.  Here, I imagine a 20-year old Irina adopting a ten-year old Constance, who was probably an orphan apprentice in whatever theatre company she was with at the time

 

BTW, did you ever realize that "The Seagull" is actually a mis-translation of the original Russian Title, Chayka?  Basically, we're miles from the ocean, so how could there be an actual seagull?  More likely it was intended to be a more inland-friendly Lake Gull, also "Chayka" in Russion.  The more you know ....

 

 

9/9/2018        THE TWO KIDS THAT BLOW SH*T UP                          Aurora Theatre

 

****½  ( A )   
           
THE FRIEND ZONE

 

So.  The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t up.  Written by the (evidently) very talented Carla Ching.

 

We first Meet Di and Max when they get together at age 39 after a four-year estrangement.  Before too many minutes have passed, we're thrust back to their first meeting as nine-year olds.  Before too many similar time jumps have established the unbound-by-sequence tapestry nature of the play, we're thrust into their lives, a pair of life-long friends, seemingly perfect for each other, but bound and determined to make disastrous relationships their lodestone of being.

 

That they are Asian-American is secondary (she has Chinese heritage, he Korean), but it appeals to my sense of inclusion, and, let's be honest, how many Rom-Com situation plays have been written about mainstream-American-White couples?  For that reason alone, thanks to Aurora for keeping this one honest, and even hiring a few behind-the-scenes folks with Asian-sounding names.

 

So, back to Di (short for Diana, but she hates it because that's her grandmother's name and her grandmother is a poxy cow) and Max -- They meet when their parents become tempestuous lovers.  They bond over eccentricity and putting nipples on her Snow-Woman.  They each go through a series of bad relationships and marriages, never letting themselves realize they'd be perfect for each other.  Max is "Man of Honor" at Di's first wedding, and is barely invited to her second.  Di goes to great lengths to save Max from his gambling addiction, even to the point of covering up his lapse into thievery and deceit.  Throughout the years, they have each others' backs as their mercurial parents argue, fight, split up, reconcile, and do it all over again.

 

Di is an artist, Max is a teacher. Di hate-loves her father, Max stays with his mother (at least when she's not back with Di's father).  Whenever they're together, they play a "truth" game, which is really an excuse to get drunk and to vent.

 

And their out-of-sequence story is a beautiful tapestry of life, a full overview of a thirty-year friendship in which the past may be a memory or may be a recreation -- does it truly matter?  But we're left with an investment in what's-to-come.  More to the point, that "investment" may just be the realization that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a lifetime commitment to the "Friend Zone."

 

This wouldn't work without a terrific pair of actors, and these two shine.  Vivi Thai (Di) and Jack Ha (Max) seem as if they've been friends for years.  That they look too young for the 39-year-old scenes, and, of course, too old for the 9-year-old scenes is totally irrelevant.  There is even a joke about "Asians don't age." What is relevant is that they understand each other, and they LISTEN to each other (at least when they want to hear what's being said).  At times they act like irritating jerks to each other, but the skipping-through-time format goes a long way in accepting them as people and as friends.  These are impressive Atlanta debuts, and I hope to see more of them both.  (I've already watched a few mini-episodes of Ms. Thai's Amazon Prime series Personal Space).

 

Commendations also need to go to scenic designer Eric Chamness, who has built (in an "in the round" set-up) a seeming boxing ring of a riser, with a rotating central platform and thousands of nooks and crannies for props and stools and benches and shelves.  Overhead is an LED-Heavy arrangement of lighting panels that focus on the action and cycle through the spectrum in a dizzying array of color and rhythm (Matthew Peddie* gets full credit for the terrific lighting design).  Projections on all four walls, the work of Sherry Zhao, clue us in to the "when" and "where" of each scene, but, truth to tell, the script and performances never leave any doubt as to the where or the when.  And the two actors go through a dizzying array of costumes (by Jae Hee Kim), all requiring very fast backstage changes, so, kudos to the dressers and backstage helpers for making them all appear on cue as if by magic.

 

And Pam Joyce directs it all seamlessly, keeping the pace to a crisp 90 minutes, keeping all four audience blocks fully "in the moment", and keeping the transitions balletic and almost engaging.  I especially liked the staging of a dinner scene in which on stage hands manually rotated the central platform throughout, keeping our focus ever changing, ever subtle.

 

So, do these kids really "blow sh*t up?"  Well, not counting a snowman and a trashcan, only in metaphor.  Yes, Max likes things that go boom, but what they're blowing up are their chances to happiness, their relationships, and (semi sorta) their families.  That it ends on an elegiac coda in a graveyard, without really coming to a standard "Romantic Conclusion" is all to the good, celebrating what is essentially the best of friendships.

 

We all should have friends like these.

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AuroraTheatre  #MarvelLabSeries   #TheTwoKidsThatBlowSh*tUp)

 

* I know Matthew and (more or less) have to answer to him when I do lights for Marietta Theatre Company -- he is the master electrician for Atlanta Lyric Theatre and, as such, is in charge of their studio space.

 

Theatrical Synchronicity #908 through #909 -- I spent Saturday watching The Seagull at Serenbe, and I see a play on Sunday that opens with a quote from The Seagull.  Coincidence?  I'm not saying yes  I'm not saying no.

 

 

9/16/2018        42nd STREET                                                        City Springs Theatre Company

 

****  ( B+ )   
           
TAP HAPPY 


Every now and then, a production comes along that overturns all expectations.  Case in point is 42nd Street, a show I’d always been not-so-dazzled by.  The fact is, the only production I’d seen before 2010 was a tired touring company squeezed in at the end of a run of other back-stage musicals (including Dreamgirls and Tap Dance Kid).  To say that I was a bit tired of the genre would be an understatement.

Imagine my surprise when Atlanta Lyric’s high-energy 2010 production kicked that tired memory right out of my head and replaced it with a show that clicked (I should say “tapped”) on every level.  Now, the director of that attitude-changing production, Brandt Blocker, has chosen to restage it as the inaugural production of Sandy Springs’ New City Springs Theatre Co at the brand-spanking new Byers Theatre.

 

It was definitely the right choice.  Although this time the show didn’t quite have the high-octane impact it did eight years ago, it was still flashy enough, energetic enough, and dynamic enough to please a whole schedule-full of sold-out houses.

Yes, it’s the original “you’re going out there a youngster and coming back a star” plot in which the insanely talented ingénue dazzles the cynical producer and replaces the diva star.  How many times have we seen that one, Ms. Daaé?  But put it into a production as finely tuned and well-performed as this one, and the cliché comes to life and reminds us why it’s a plot that is retold time and again. 

Let’s start with the choreography.  This is, after all, a heavy dance piece with so much tap-dancing one often fears for the stage floor.  Cindy Mora Reiser apparently channels the late Gower Champion and has put together a series of BIG dance numbers that succeed on the synchronized dancing of the cast.  I know how hard it is to get small choruses to “stay together,” but here the large ensemble absolutely astounds with their precision, not once but in multiple numbers.  No, there’re no stunning feats of athleticism, no stand-out solos, no overly-complicated routines that are the stock-in-trade of too many choreographers these days.  Instead, there is a large group of (young) dancers going through their paces and showing us what being part of a chorus really means.

 

My biggest reservation with this production has to be with the performance of Broadway mainstay Shuler Hensley as director Julian Marsh.  Yes, he has the voice and the presence and the moves requisite for the role.  But, he was just a bit unengaging for my tastes, as if there were a limited well of energy available and he didn’t want to risk overusing it.  He was a bit too bland for my tastes, a bit too casual, a bit too “What? It’s my cue already?” “by-the-numbers.”

 

Still, he was not the “driver” of this story, so forgiveness is easy. THAT job goes to young Leigh Ellen Jones, who imbued ingénue Peggy Sawyer with enough energy, enough charm, enough talent, and enough moxie to light every light on Broadway.  I absolutely adored her performance, and hope to see her often in future shows.

 

Other supporting actors were equally “on point” – the exquisite Deborah Bowman as fading diva Dorothy Brock, comic powerhouses Googie Uterhardt and Marcie Millard as the song writing team of Bert Barry and Maggie Jones, Benjamin Taylor Davis as young Billy Lawlor, and an ensemble large enough to fill pages and pages of program bios.
 

The sets by Bruce Brockman were simple enough and attractive enough to convince me I was seeing the biggest of the big and the razzliest of the dazzliers.  The lights by Mike Wood also dazzled, and brilliantly mixed color and timing to suggest the era.  Okay, my usual pet peeve of lights in period shows acting like lights of the period never could doesn’t really apply here – the whole story is imbued with fantasy and glitz, and anything 2018 tech can do to underscore that is welcome.  Besides, to dredge up a comment I made before, Julian Marsh is just the sort of producer/director who would hire a dozen union guys (sorry, ladies, it IS the 1930’s) to sit in the rafters and synchronize their follow spots, or, frankly, to do anything Mr. Wood chose to show us.  And, for the record, I thought his lighting design for “Lullaby of Broadway” was a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. 

 

Costumes and Wigs nicely evoked the period, and, if the sound design by Jon Summers didn’t exactly make me believe I was hearing full-voiced projection from the cast, it surely came close. 

 
So, no one will convince me that 42nd Street breaks new ground or should be in the pantheon of “Great Musicals.”  Its plotline has been overdone by too many lesser shows between its origin as a 1933 movie and its transition to the stage.  But, when delivered with the force of a perfectly directed, perfectly designed, perfectly choreographed, and (almost) perfectly performed production such as this, it’s a potent reminder of where musicals came from and why they still appeal, of why they can still surprise, and, at times, overwhelm.

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #CitySpringsTheatre  #42ndStreet)

 

 

9/18/2018        A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM                Alliance Theatre

 

***½  ( B )   

 

A MIDSUMMER DAYDREAM
 

(Performance Note:  The performance I’m reviewing here was a mid-day school matinee, and, as such, was no doubt very different from the regular evening performances.  For one thing, lighting design was by chance and meteorology, rather than by the credited Lesley Boeckman.  I will attempt to revisit during the evening, but I can’t promise.)
 

So, to start their groundbreaking 30th season, the Alliance Theatre has chosen to team up with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and Chicago’s Looking Glass Theatre to present an abridged Midsummer Night’s Dream that wallows in dance and acrobatics and music and imagination.  It is a production filled to the brim with starkly original imagery and breathtaking theatricality, as we’ve come to expect from the Alliance’s former collaborations with Looking Glass (Looking Glass Alice and Moby Dick).  On the other hand, there were a few choices that struck me as WTF-questionable, and a major late-in-the-show choice that stops the play dead.

 

But, first, let me copy-and-paste my boiler-plate Midsummer recap:

 

Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably his most accessible and familiar story.  Theaterreview.com lists no fewer than twenty productions, five of which have my own reviews attached.  I have personally been part of three separate productions, and seen at least a dozen more in venues in and out of Atlanta (including Canada’s Stratford Festival – and the less said about that Zorba-esque exercise, the better.  "Offa," Indeed!).

 

To recap, I’ve seen Midsummers set in a forest of beds-on-stilts, cast with “tag-team” Pucks, with mechanicals dressed in thatch, 2009’s GSF backstage-centric extravaganza, even one in which Puck wore Buddy Holly glasses and a superman shirt.  It should be difficult to surprise me with this one.

 

And, if you look at my 2018 list of reviews, you’ll see one from BroadwayHD.com, which started off my play-watching year on a near perfect note.

 

So, here, following a pleasant walk past some of the Botanical Gardens’ most visually appealing topiaries, we come to a pavilion over the Skyline Garden Pond.  After we’ve all settled and admired the many-lily-padded set designed by Kat Conley, six gardeners come out, cleaning the area for an upcoming wedding.  They decide to put on a play for the wedding, and land upon A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  (“What?  We’re a bunch of gardeners doing a play about a bunch of laborers doing a play?”)

 

And, soon enough, they’re dressed as Athenians (“Go Dawgs!”  “No!  ANCIENT Athens!”) and Shakespeare’s words begin floating through the air like butterflies of a different era.  Doubling is rife and common and exquisitely performed (I especially LOVED the elegant simplicity with which Puck “transformed” into Titania) and a blithely blissful romp in the woods leads all to a rapturously lyrical conclusion.

 

But then, the cast takes a “five-minute break” (NOT an Intermission) before finishing the play ten minutes later.  Talk about a rude awakening!

 

To be honest, the concept is so clever and the cast so engaging, that it was especially jarring to sit and wait for a final scene, which truth to tell, has been done much better and been much funnier in other productions.  And, to be honest, it made me realize that the venue itself was so closed off and self-enclosed, that the Gardens aren’t really an element – sure we see a few treetops (and I’m sure they disappear after dark), but this same production could have been performed anywhere (even inside) with no change in ambiance or mood.  No effort was made to integrate the gardens themselves into the production, other than the uniforms of the actors at the start.  And the pond itself is completely covered, so we have to be told in a program note that we’re actually on top of it.

 

But, then again, we have this cast, a tight sextet of folks speaking fluent Shakespearean English, who jump from character to character (often mid-scene, even mid-speech), without letting us forget they are really gardeners in 2018 having a ball with the Bard.

 

Courtney Patterson takes control early as Petunia Prune, who naturally falls to the roles of Quince, Puck, and Titania. Joe Knezevich is all bluster and machismo as Brick B. Bottomside, Bottom (of course), and Oberon (“Go Ahead! Play him as a tyrant!”).  As the lovers, Adeyoye (a Suzi nominee for Moby Dick) is Francis Fern, also Demetrius and Flute, Ericka Ratcliff is Gossamer Thistle, also Helena, Travis Turner is a shy Clay Grout, also Lysander, and Devon Hales is Lily Bulb, also Hermia. 

 

These actors are especially good and working with each other, carrying all their “core” characteristics into each role they play, keeping the interrelationships true to Adaptor David Catlin’s concept and to Shakespeare’s original story.

 

This, in the final analysis, is a truly engaging, truly one-with-nature look at an oft-told story, and, for the middle and high schoolers at the matinee I saw, a marvelous introduction into the joys in going out on a limb with Shakespeare, and cutting it off behind you.

 

As to the hiatus after the “morning after” sequence -- Why?   There’s only ten minutes left.  If it’s an Equity rule because of all the “rainfall” just prior (and I suspect this is the reason), the “rainfall” wasn’t worth bringing the show to a screeching halt.  I didn’t even notice the rain until I saw how wet the actors were getting (and, truth to tell, it was very hot so they were already pretty sweat-soaked, if you’ll forgive an inelegant observation).   You have to ask, was the Gentle effect of the rain, worth losing the attention of the audience for the ending?  Would the ending have been better, or at least funnier, without it?

 

Still and all, this is a creatively engaging look at a classic play, and I can’t let you let my quibbles keep you from going.   Just take plenty of water.  And something to do during the “break,”

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Alliance  #Midsummer)

 

 

9/19/2018        9 TO FIVE:  THE MUSICAL                                 Georgia Ensemble Theatre

 

****½  ( A )   
           
WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVING

 

Although the musical of 9 to 5 brings absolutely nothing (other than Dolly Parton’s slate of toe-tapping songs) to the story first told in the 1980 film, although (like the movie) it indulges in paper-thin villains and over-the-top plot contrivances, I still liked it far more than I thought I would. #MusicalGeekConfessions

 

For this, there’s no one to blame but country music idol Parton, and three of Atlanta’s greatest treasures – Jill Hames, Wendy Melkonian, and Alyssa Flowers.  And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Shelly McCook stepped into the Director’s Chair, bringing her considerable comic sensibilities, and making the whole thing work smoothlier than a country sewing machine.

 

It’s 1979 and recent divorcee Judy Bernly (Ms. Melkonian) has to bring her no-office-skills experience to a new job as a secretary (NOT an “Administrative Assistant”).  Office Manager Violet Newstead (Ms. Hames) must show her the ropes, in spite of being overly qualified and overly ambitious.  Throw into the mix the busty Doralee Rhodes (Ms. Flowers) and a pig of a boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Brian Kurlander) and we’re off on a romp that goes from kidnapping to extortion to empowerment.  Let me assume, for the sake of brevity, that you already know the story.

 

Along the way, we’re treated to a bunch of Parton-written songs that, while not breaking any new ground, are nonetheless pleasant in the own right, enhancing the story they support.  For me, the musical highlight was Judy’s “power ballad,” “Get Out and Stay Out,” in which she forcefully tells her ex-husband to… well, to basically go [bleep] himself (only using nicer words).  This number underscored Ms. Melkonian’s already rock solid reputation as a talent for any period, a singer who can hold her own with the best.  I also liked the well-known title song (and its energetically original staging) as well as the Act One closer, “Shine Like the Sun,” Violet’s Here-I-Am anthem, “One of the Boys,” and prissy secretary Roz’s comic “Heart to Hart,” delivered with bravura comic timing by Paige Mattox

 

I really liked Ms. Flowers’ characterization of Doralee, channeling Dolly Parton without slavishly copying her.  Her solo, “Backwoods Barbie,” is a spritely little trifle that lets her show she can “act” a song as well as belt it.

 

Brian Kurlander gives us the expected slimy chauvinism with his Franklin Hart, but he also surprises with a pleasant, well-trained baritone that is smoky enough to convince us why he has always “gotten away” with his casual seductions and sophomoric asides.

 

But it is Jill Hames' Violet who is the heart and soul of this production.  Without undercutting the marvelous ensemble she centers, she gives us a character who is compelling, funny, driven, and simply a joy to watch.  She beautifully “sells” her songs, her character, and the whole story, making us forgive its contrivances as well as its familiarity.  There is no trace of the movie’s Lily Tomlin or even he original cast’s Allison Janney (or the 2010 Fox Tour’s Dee Hoty) here – she has made Violet all her own.

 

I also have to commend the ensemble – Josh Brook, Daniel Burns, Chris E. Ciulla, Kayce Grogan-Wallace, Christopher Holton, Alex Renee Hubbard, JD Myers, Dayanari Umana, and Stephanie Zandra --  who filled numerous smaller roles as well as backing up the principles at every turn.

 

Another writer posted a recent diatribe calling the staging into question, describing the Stephanie Polhemous’ set as downright ugly.  I have to respectfully disagree.  The tall set pieces were gorgeously wood-panel elegant, evoking 70’s corporate décor (and my father’s basement), and moved into place quickly and quietly to engender short scene changes that never slowed the action.  And Lighting Designer Connor McVey skillfully gave us different looks for the “sterile” early scenes, and the warmly subdued later scenes.  Preston Goodson’s projections nicely enhanced (and “set”) many locales, and his sound design was generally “on the mark” (an Act One microphone failure notwithstanding).

 

So, even though this show breaks no new ground and is as shallow as a frat boy’s protestations of love, it’s still an enjoyable romp with a trio of outstanding performances at its center.  It’s a tuneful exercise in pop culture, and a pleasant wallow in nostalgia (for both the movie and the era).

 

And, judging from the joy brought to the stage by the entire cast, all I can say is “What a way to make a living!”

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GET9to5)

 

 

 

9/22/2018         A WRINKLE IN TIME                     Georgia Ensemble Family Stage Series   

 

****½  ( A )   

 

HYPER-TESSER-ACTIVE VOICE


It was a dark and stormy night!

Such is the purposefully banal opening of Madeleine L’Engle’s totally un-banal 1962 book, A Wrinkle in Time, the young adult speculative fiction book that gave us the marvelously eccentric Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, not to mention the faster-than-light travel concept of the “Tesseract,” a “folding” of space and time that found its way into countless classics of science fiction ever after.

And now, Georgia Ensemble Family Stage Series Has given us an abridged version of  John Glore’s 2010 stage adaptation in which six chameleon-like actors give us Tardis-full of odd and alien characters as they tell us the story of Meg Murry’s quest for her father.  This same adaption was staged by Theatrical Outfit a few years ago to great effect (and, in fact, large portions of this essay are being lifted directly from my comments on that production).

 

As an ironic comment on the whole concept of “folding space-time,” (a major leitmotif of the work), I griped that that production may have been too short, too heavily-edited to do the story complete justice.  And yet, I liked this even shorter version more, as if editing the story down to child-friendly length somehow makes the story clearer, more imaginative, more rooted in the awesome wonder that is science.

Meg is a young girl of extraordinary intellect and even more extraordinary imagination.  She is lying in bed as the dark and stormy night rages around her.  The daughter of scientists, she can’t sleep, so she joins her genius little brother Charles Wallace for a cup of late-night cocoa.  Faster than you can say “too much exposition,” Meg, Charles Wallace, and an older schoolmate (Calvin O’Keefe), are “tesseracted” away to find Meg’s missing father.  Their guides are a trio of eccentric characters who hide in the guise of the dotty Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who.  Their adventures take them into the heart of “the black” as they visit the mechanistically grim planet of Camazotz.  They find Father, but lose Charles Wallace during their escape to a kinder, gentler planet, where the nurturing Aunt Beast obscurely leads them to the path of happily ever after.

This is, of course, an over-simplification of an insanely imaginative story, and there’s a lot of story to squeeze into this brisk ADD-friendly one act, with nary a breath-taking pause before we are confronted with a new wrinkle in plot, a new creature breaking the bizarro-tron scale, a new narration sequence to fill us in on what we’ve just missed.  And, unlike the more adult version, we’re never left in doubt as to who’s who, which’s what, and what just happened.

Constructed in the Nicholas-Nickleby style of tight-ensemble-giving-narration-while-flitting-from-character-to-character, the script relies on our listening (and imagining) abilities, but, this is a style I’ve always enjoyed, and here, the ensemble is small and talented and makes the story-telling look easy.

Maybe I have an advantage because I (more or less) went in knowing the story, so I find it difficult to judge how smoothly this adaptation goes down to the uninitiated (and the very young).  But, if I am any judge of audience, this very enthusiastic (but criminally tiny) audience loved it as much as did I.  I especially enjoyed the perception and intelligence showed by the young questioners in the post-show Q&A session.


The costuming by Erin Smith is especially impressive and eccentric, particularly the neck-tie heavy outfit worn by Mrs. Whatsis that magically transforms into long and diaphanous wings when she “becomes” Aunt Beast.  Projections and small set pieces convincingly fit into the space’s 9 to 5 set, cleverly employing bits of stage magic to tell the tale.


And what a cast!  The G.E.T. apprentice company is joined by a pair of more experienced folk to create a six-person ensemble, all of whom create a marvelous array of characters, regardless of age and gender and species.  Chris E. Ciulla, Christopher Holton, Alex Renee Hubbard, Jacob Jones, Amy L. Levin, and Dayanari Umana are talents to watch.  I have already praised their work in the 9 to 5 ensemble, and truly look forward to what they have to offer in the remaining “Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA)” season.

So, in the final analysis, all the critters and creatures and phantasmagoria are merely props and hurdles in what is essentially the story of a girl in a quest to find her Daddy, and to reunite her family.  As fun as the Science Fiction trappings are, it’s the heart and soul of Meg Murry that provide the heart and soul of this play, and it’s the heart and soul of this ensemble and production team that makes it all work.  Director Laurel Crowe has an obvious knack for telling stories enjoyed by young and old alike, and this adds another “win” to her quickly-becoming-overwhelming list of successful TYA stagings.

Ms. L’Engle returned to the Murry and O’Keefe families many times throughout her career, never failing to create a tale that excited the imagination even as it warmed the heart.  This is, in fact, a perfect play to watch with a daughter or a Daddy.  And, in my humble opinion, can be enjoyed by anyone who was ever part of a family.  Or whoever looked at the sky and thought, “I wonder!”


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETTYA   #WrinkleInTime)

 

There is one more performance this time around (Saturday 9/29), but it will return in March for three more public performance.  And, of course, as all TYA productions, it will be touring various school venues over the course of the year.

 

 

9/23/2018     A RED PLAID SHIRT                                           Stage Door Players   

 

***½  ( B )    

GOLDEN YEARS


Marty has recently retired from a lifetime of teaching English, and is at sixes-and-sevens as to what to do with the rest of his life.  His loving wife Deb refuses to let him buy a motorcycle.  So, he settles on taking a class in wood-working with his best friend, Fred, a neurotic bundle of ailments and mysophobic eccentricities. A few bad choices, a few light chuckles, and a barrel-full of warmth follow in Canadian playwright Michael G. Wilmot’s A Red Plaid Shirt, now seeing a very pleasant production at Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players.

 

Yes, this play is sit-com shallow, and, in fact, I was ready to completely “write it off” at intermission, as a barely credible, barely tolerable look at retired life, seemingly written by someone who never experienced retirement themselves.  (Okay, pictures of the playwright make him appear middle-aged, but his script still “feels” like an outsider’s view.) Making Marty’s dilemma no different from a college freshman in search of a major was a young person’s choice, that I found a little aggravating.

 

But, in Act Two, something unusual happens.  The “sit-com” bad choices stop, the characters start to act like real people in “cleaning up the messes” they’ve made for themselves, the heartfelt conversations become honest and compelling, the characters deepen past the surface level, the humor becomes warmer and more honest, and the whole thing ends on an especially joyful note that was totally delightful.

 

Blame director Robert Egizio for finding the heart in this thin story, the colors in these (initially) monochromatic characters.  And blame the marvelous cast for finding the humanity in them, for finding the heart in their relationships, for making me (finally) believe they are indeed friends and lovers who have been together for decades.

 

And, indeed, that’s what truly saves this production for me.  Sure, they all squabble and bicker, but it is with that affection that defines long-term relationships.  And it is the friendship, the love, that raises the story-telling to epiphanic levels (“I just epiphed!”  “Did you just make up a word?”). that makes this a not-as-simplistic-as-Act-One-seems community theatre production (and what a good choice it would be for a small theatre with an aging talent pool).

,

Michael Strauss (Maestro in Stage Door’s Living on Love earlier this year) and Suzanne Roush (Essential’s Built to Float) are Marty and Deb, and Steve Hudson (ALT’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Eileen Koteles (Stage Door debut) are the Baxters, Fred and Gladys.  They are, in essence, the Ricardos and Mertzes, the Kramdens and the Nortons, or any other sitcom quartet you can name.  But they have a unique quality that, if not completely setting them apart from their predecessors, at least makes them memorable in their own right.

 

On the technical side, Chuck Welcome, J.D.Williams, and Rial Ellsworth have done their usual competent job on sets, lights, and sound, and Kathy Ellsworth has once again done an extraordinary job on props -- is there anything she can’t find or build?  Okay, maybe the costumes didn’t really reflect the variety expected for a series of scenes covering so many days, but they were definitely character-specific, and better than the “from the actor’s closet” approach too often employed for contemporary settings.

 

Maybe I was a bit resistant to this story at first because my own retirement has been so durn busy, because I never “defined myself” by my day job, and I never truly understood people who chose that path.  But, in the final analysis, regardless of the Marty's issues, he finally came across as a fully developed person, someone I’d like to know better, even someone I’d like to hang out with, wearing a plaid flannel shirt.  Just not in wood shop.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #StageDoorPlayers   #RedPlaidShirt)

9/25/2018     BE HERE NOW                                                         Aurora Theatre   

 

**½  ( C )    

ODE TO JOY


So, what is it that fills you with joy?  What is it that revives your soul and fills your head with Beethoven?

 

To be blunt, that’s nobody’s business but my own. And the Aurora’s efforts to “Kumbaya” us into talking to strangers about really personal stuff, just rubbed me the wrong way.  And to be honest, this play, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Be Here Now, also rubbed me the wrong way.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I truly love everything that brings me joy, and much prefer a happy, contented state to one of anger, resentment, and cynicism.  I just really resent having unearned joy crammed down my throat.

 

So, since one of my joys is over-analyzing my dislikes, let me couch this discussion in things that rob me of joy.

 

(1)   Woo.  Anti-Science.  Cultural Garbage.  And characters who spout about Horoscopes, birth signs, and judging the suitability of relationships by the partners’ date of birth.

 

(2)   Blatant mail fraud being casually dismissed as eccentricity. Along with the assumption that joy based on a lie is better than no joy at all, a premise I categorically reject. 

 

(3)   Writers who reduce world views and emotional states to biological conditions.  “Oh, no wonder she’s a skeptic and a cynic – she has brain tumor!”

 

(4)   “Meet Cute” scenes that degenerate into blatant sexual assault.  Oh, but it’s okay – she has a tumor.  And it was probably 35 years ago.  And there were no witnesses.  And it’s played for comedy.

 

(5)   Sets that seem to be designed purely for a “Wow” reaction from an audience, never mind that it is totally unrealistic, architecturally unsound, and leads to brutally long scene transitions.

So, if Be Here Now, was supposed to leave me appreciating the joys of my life, I have to admit it partially succeeded – it sent me out of the theatre grumbling and kvetching, and regretting the long rush-hour commute to get there and back, but it made me really appreciate all the joy waiting for me back home, particularly, that bottle of Pinot Noir.

 

What I’m attempting to say (without burning all my bridges to my friends at Aurora), is that joy is a feeble basis for a play.  And this play starts there, then tells a fairly contrived story with characters I found unpleasant and relentlessly aggravating.

 

So, Bari is working on her PhD dissertation and working in the packing room of a mail-order tchotchke company in REALLY small-town New York.   Let’s pause right there – is it believable that an “under the radar” company would choose to invest in an incredibly vast warehouse – and make no mistake – those shelves reach past the sky – in a semi-rural dot on the map “where everybody knows your name?”

 

Bari suffers from occasional epileptic seizures, which cause her to see colors, become one with the universe, and look at her coworkers’ cousin Mike with lust-filled glasses – a lust she’s only too happy to act upon.  But Mike suffers from “playwright’s syndrome,” a contrived condition based on a heartfelt monologue about a past tragedy that makes it so he can’t be in a car.

 

Please tell me I’m NOT the only one NOT buying any of this?

 

Fortunately, this play sports an ideal cast.  Cynthia Barrett is terrific.as Bari, justifiably upset at the lousy hand the universe has dealt her, rolling her eyes at every piece of nonsense that comes out of her coworkers’ mouths.  Travis Smith is fine and dandy as Mike, someone who is just fine and dandy as far as Bari is concerned.  Falashay Pearson and Joselin Reyes are also good as Bari’s co-workers, Luanne and Patty.  Ms. Pearson, in particular, is very enjoyable as a rampaging ball of sunlight, an optimist par excellence who could probably applaud the light show displayed by a Nuclear Holocaust.  They all work together brilliantly, and seem to capture that “small town” feel required by the script.

 

But, that set was nothing you’d ever find in a small-town warehouse – shelves filled with tchotchkes and boxes literally soar past the upper curtain line, with no visible means of reaching them.  When, at one point, Luanne is asked to get something from the “top right shelf,” I couldn’t help thinking, “What’s she going to do, fly up there?”

 

More crucially, the shelves were very awkward moving in and out, which made the transitions limp by, and made the other scenes – a bench outside a local pub, Mike’s cabin, and a hospital room – seem lame and ill-designed. 

 

So, will you like this play better than I did?  I suspect so.  It was an enthusiastic audience, and the folks I met that night seemed to take great joy in it.  And there’s another thing that robs me of joy – being the only one in the house “not in” on the joke or not enjoying the story.

 

And, since I’ve been praising to the skies almost everything I’ve seen in the last few months, I have to confess a little joy in finally seeing something that pulls out all those dormant critical brickbats.

 

Start the music –

 

Freude, schoener Goetterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium,

Wir betreten feuertrunken,

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #ATBEHERENOW   #OdeToJoy)

10/11/2018        NICK’S FLAMINGO GRILL                         Alliance Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
MAKING IT PERSONAL

 

For playwright, composer, author, and musician Philp DePoy, it’s personal.  His father, a musician himself, would always point out a decaying block of old Atlanta near the Armor Meat Packing Plant, and tell him, “that’s where the club is,” and, eventually, “that’s where the club used to be.”  “The Club” was a jazz venue, a place where musicians of all races could meet and jam, where jazz lovers could “hang out” and be “one” with the music.  

 

But it was Atlanta and it was the late forties/early fifties, when anything integrated became a lightning rod for violence and intolerance.

 

If you google “Nick’s Flamingo Grill,” you get nothing other than references to this play.  If you google “Integrated Atlanta Jazz Clubs 1950’s,” all you get is a reference to Paschal’s La Carousel, which didn’t open until 1960 and stayed open until 1998.

 

In other words, if “Nick’s Flamingo Grill” was a real place, (and I have no reason to think it wasn’t – the program cites several testimonials to its appeal), it has been forgotten even by the internet.

 

Which is why I’m doubly thankful for Mr. DePoy’s terrific new one-Act “Play with Music,” which not only brings the Grill to life, but also creates vivid characters who simply beg for a sequel – I want to know what happens next!!!  That he fills it with a handful of period-evocative new songs simply doubles the joy to be had.” 

 

It starts off like a bad joke – A Jew, An African-American, a Cuban chanteuse, a French resistance fighter, and a gay investor walk into a bar.  They want to start a club to showcase their considerable musical talents.  Freshly home from WWII, they don’t give a rat’s bottom for Atlanta’s segregation laws – they just want to make music.  They buy a run-down wreck of a space, and before too long, their hard work produces one of the hottest hangouts in the “bad” part of town.  It soon attracts John Hammond, a (real) New York record producer (who, IRL, was responsible for launching the careers of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others).  It also attracts ugly hate and violence.

 

But that’s only the plot.  What truly drives this play is the trio at its heart, Ben Davis (Jimmy Kieffer), Bechet Thompson (Antwayn Hopper), and Chi-Chi Lopez (the always exquisite Diany Rodriguez).  The three make terrific music, and the musical interludes are the heart of this production.

 

It doesn’t hurt that Kristen Robinson has turned the Hertz Stage into a seedy factory warehouse that magically transforms into the club, thanks to Ben Rawson’s terrific lighting) . (It also doubles as a ruined post-war French club run by Claudine (Shakirah Desmesier), where the titular Nick (Cordell Cole) has a close encounter with a booby trap left by the Germans).  We enter past a trash cluttered facade and become part of the club itself., filling both sides while the play is performed in an “alley” between us.

 

And, as soon as Tyrone Jackson and the band begin to play, we are transferred back in time to … well, to a time that never really existed, but should have.  A time when the only “rule” for performing together was the ability to make good music.

 

There are many dramatic flourishes to this story – a fire-bombing, a pot of gumbo, a shooting, an offer that threatens to “break up the band.”  There are also constant reminders of the segregated world outside the doors of this oasis, particularly Ben and Chi-Chi’s attempts to find a school for their mixed-race daughter, a quest that leads to a heart-rending song about falling “between the boxes” of the registration form (“You’re either white or black – there is no in-between.”)

 

So, Phillip DePoy’s Nick’s Flamingo Grill is an excellent play with excellent music.  It could easily be expanded into two acts – it ends rather abruptly for my tastes – and could easily follow these characters through the sixties and even the seventies.

 

As it stands now, it is a vivid reminder of an ethos that threatens an unwelcome return, and a resurrection of a place that time (and Google) have apparently forgotten.   And for that, it needs to be celebrated.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #NicksFlamingoGrill   #AllianceHertzStage)

 

See a Preview Trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=in8nEHA4k80

 

 

11/6/2018        WEST SIDE STORY                                          Atlanta Opera

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
SOMETHING GOOD

 

Normally I won’t review productions from Atlanta Opera, because I am singularly unqualified in that field, and also because my old-man eyes prevent me from reading the supertitles and following the plot.  Besides, as a Cobb Energy Center usher, I have a built-in conflict of interest as well as a “Book of Rules” that frowns upon public disparagement of any offerings there.

 

But, to be honest, this particular production was so good, I can’t curb my urge to write about it.  If the Ushering “Book of Rules” frowns on public disparagement, it positively encourages public praise.

 

Truth to tell, I was not expecting this to be this good.  Yes, “operatic” versions of West Side Story have been done in concert settings – I’m thinking specifically of the 1984 PBS documentary conducted by Bernstein and starring Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras – but I always thought they were best enjoyed with “concert-tinted” glasses rather than with “theatre-tinted” glasses.  Te Kanawa and Carreras were, after all, about thrice the age of their characters.

 

But the Atlanta Opera has cast a stage-full of dancers and actors who happen to sing with voices filled with power and precision.  The voices blend surprisingly well, and the full chorus and orchestra give the score a depth and weight I haven’t enjoyed since the movie version.  That a few Atlanta actors have been cast in “adult” roles makes this a full theatrical event.

 

I won’t beef up my word count with a pointless plot summary – if you don’t know the story and call yourself a theatre person, it’s time to rethink your self-image.  Besides, the program, as with all opera productions, gives you a multi-page complete plot breakdown, complete with spoilers.  Suffice it to say, the company hits all of Laurents’ (and Shakespeare’s) plot beats, and brings them to life.

 

I have to start my praise with set designer Peter Davison who has created a breathtakingly massive city-scape that shifts, rotates, glows, grows, and convinces us we’re in the “wrong part of town.”  Okay, the graffiti is more 1970’s than 1950’s, but under Mark McCullogh’s near-perfect lighting, it’s barely seen.

 

The production is centered by Andrew Bidlack’s Tony and Venessa Becerra’s Maria.  Yes, their voices are suited for grand opera, but they sell these characters perfectly, and when their voices blend in “Tonight,” it’s positively rapturous.  Unlike Te Kanawa and Carreras, who sound like mature – even middle-aged singers – Mr. Bidlack and Ms. Becerra sound like teenagers.  Amanda Castro (Anita) and D.J. Petrosino (Bernardo) also have beautiful voices, but they are more stylistically in the Broadway Character-Actor tradition, which, for the most part, works beautifully.

 

It’s the ensemble that truly sells this production—young and athletic, they recreate much of Jerome Roberts’ original choreography, and they truly “nail” it.  They don’t come across as opera singers trying to dance, but as New York street kids baring their souls through dance.  “America,” “The Rumble”, and the extended opening sequence are the highlights of the first act and rightly so..

 

West Side Story is a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  There are three more performances here in Cobb County this weekend, and I strongly urge you to pay a visit.  This is an exquisite and elegant production of a powerful and, ultimately moving work of Musical Theatre.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #WestSideStory   #AtlantaOpera)

 

 

 

 

11/7/2018        JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK                    Georgia Ensemble Family Stages

 

***½  ( B ) 

A.D.H.D.

                                 

So, here’s the thing.

Junie B. Jones (“The B is for Beatrice, but I hate Beatrice and I like B”) has a brand new pair of the fluffiest mittens ever bought (for no reason at all which is the best reason EVER) by her Grandfather Frank Miller, but her best friend Lucille is being chased by Handsome Warren, who may be the handsomest boy EVER so Junie immediately wants to love him even if it means stealing him from Lucille but you KNOW the rule is “Finders Keepers Losers Weepers” which is actually a LAW until Junie loses her new mittens and NO ONE has turned them into the Lost and Found behind Grouchy Typing Lady so does this mean Junie can KEEP the four-color pen she found instead of putting it in the Lost and Found Box, but would that mean she REALLY IS A CROOK?????????

 

Barbara Park’s energetic creation, Junie B. Jones has graced our TYA stages for many many years, and this is merely the latest.  Junie is a lively little girl who attacks life with a verve and spirit that we can hope she never outgrows.  Every day is an adventure, every lesson is a revelation, every friend is the best person ever, and even her baby brother, Ollie, is the best, even if he is loud and stinky.  Most of the JBJ plays are amalgams of several Park books, and this is no exception, being based on Junie B Jones is Not a Crook and Junie B Jones Loves Handsome Warren.  They are wonderful “first plays” for young audiences – and Wednesday’s audience was mostly first and second graders who remained spellbound throughout.

 

The magic here is done by GET’s TYA repertory company --- Chris E. Ciulla, Christopher Holton, Alex Renee Hubbard, Jacob Jones, Amy L. Levin, and Dayañari Umana.  Most play several roles, regardless of age or gender, and sell this story with energy and aplomb.

 

Adults may find this Junie B more snarky adult than blithely oblivious 6-year-old, but that’s a subtlety that will be lost on young audiences.  It does, however account for my less-than-ecstatic rating.

 

Still, clocking in at less than an hour, this is another chapter in the GET Family Stages saga, a saga that (thankfully) shows no sign of slowing.  There is one more public performance tomorrow – bring the kids – and three more next April.

 

Oh, the good news?  Junie B Jones really is NOT a crook.  And she may even become one of the bestest friends Handsome Warren will ever have.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETFamilyStageSeries   #JunieBJones  #NOTaCrook)

 

 

 

 

11/8/2018        REYKJAVIK                                                          Actor’s Express

 

****  ( B+ ) 
        
MAGICAL REALISM

 

Steve Yockey’s plays are a genre unto themselves.  Filled with magical realism, they start as allegories and usually become insanely theatrical explosions of ideas and images.  His latest, Reykjavik is no exception.

 

With this one, though, there are no “heroes,” no characters experiencing the traditional arc of set-up, conflict, crisis, resolution.  Instead, we have a city.  Reykjavik.  Capital of Iceland.  Or at least, a dark downside-up image of the icy metropolis.  We are in hotel rooms watched by snarky ravens.  In basements cells, watched by bibliophilic “ambience sisters.”  In techno-pop bars in which conversation needs super-titles to be heard.  On mean streets that rain blood.  On rocky crags that would give full vantage to the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, if it were only the right time of the year.

 

As in other Yockey plays, you know that casual hook-ups will turn quickly quickly deadly and older men who want to “rescue” the boys they need, will need rescuing themselves.  As in other Yockey plays, the animal kingdom comes to life in both metaphoric and literal ways.  You now, when two men who have experienced a night of passion are judged by the ravens outside their window, that eventually, a character will be exposed as a used-to-be-a-raven.  You know that a blood-bath in one scene will bleed over into a barfight in the next.  You know that NONE of the characters are what they seem to be and are not as much as they think they are,

 

Even if these vignettes are seemingly disconnected, they still echo in each other, and, even if the actors play different characters in each, they will essentially be the same character throughout.  Joe Sykes is essentially, the jaded man negotiating (in vain) the mean streets of the city’s underbelly.  Michael Vine is the older, crueler guy who thinks he’s really good.  Gil Eplan-Frankel is the young innocent corrupted (or destroyed) by the city.   Stephanie Friedman is the sassy woman who can turn deadly when required. Eliana Marianes is the kind (or not) older sister, who may or may not be really there.

 

Yes, this is more a series of self-contained vignettes than a cohesive play, even if a story point (and character) from the first scene comes back at the end.  Even if a basement liaison has two non-consecutive parts.  Even if those damn judgmental ravens come back more than once.

 

If this piece does not have the impact of Wolves or The Thrush and the Woodpecker, it nevertheless has a power, an appeal of its own.  Yes, most of the scenes have some sort of gay activity going on, and some have extremely violent resolutions.  But, when all is said and done, when the dead have their day, when the Aurora lights the stage, I, at least, was left with a satisfying glow of emotional closure, a realization that even if I didn’t “get” the point of some of the scenes, I “got” the overarching arc, the intent of the playwright.  As with other Yockey plays, I am probably wrong.

 

Steve Yockey writes like nobody else in the theatre.  He creates situations, often on the fringes of gay non-commitment, that resonate and throb with power and theatricality,  I may not love every play – and this is one I certainly liked rather than loved – buy I ALWAYS look forward to them, and they are certainly never dull. 

 

Actor’s Express has put together a “repertory” of Yockey artists – Joe Sykes has been in almost all of them, Stephanie Friedman has been in more than one, and this isn’t Melissa Foulger’s first Yockey-directed piece – and, as usual, they all show a penchant for the script, and for the magical realism it seems to embody.

 

So, all I can say is, come to Reykjavík for the Northern Lights.  Stay because {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AEReykjavik)

 

 

 

11/10/2018        I LOVED, I LOST, I MADE SPAGHETTI                   Georgia Ensemble Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
À LA CARTE

 

 

Antipasti  (The Play)

 

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti is a feast of a play.  Based on the memoir by Giulia Melucci, it is a love letter to Italian cuisine, to cooking, and to the joys of the kitchen, “the heart of the home.”  Constructed as a monologue with dinner, it features Atlanta’s “Souper Jenny,” Jennifer Levison, regaling us with tales of her bittersweet failures at love even as she shows us her much sweeter successes in the kitchen.  Cleverly constructed and timed to allow her to prepare a full meal for eight on-stage audience members, it fills the room with the sweet smells of her kitchen even as it entertains with her rueful reminiscences of romance.

 

Primi  (The Food)

 

Throughout the monologue, Ms. Levison, as writer Giulia Melucci, prepares a full meal.  We see her cut the vegetables for the salad, chop the ingredients for the sauce, knead the dough for the pasta, and hand-make the pasta in real time.  She serves each course to the eight on-stage audience members, each timed to coincide with a relevant part of her story.  It is a unique and clever construction, bristling with logistical brio, and stunning with its array of aromas and displays.  This play will whet your appetite, and may even instill a desire for a pasta-maker of your own.

 

Secondi  (The Men)

 

Of, course the real reason we’re here is to hear her dating horror stories.  And this is true a Satan’s Lot of bad dating choices – a college man dating her when she was 15, only to leave her for someone more willing to “touch him down there.”  An old acquaintance who turns out to be a raging alcoholic.  A fellow writer who happens to be revolted by food and the process of eating.  An ideal man so full of neuroses, Woody Allen would say “dial it back a bit.”  A cartoonist old enough to be her father, who eventually leaves for someone even younger.  A priest who isn’t really a date, but is still another course.

 

Contorni  (The Expectations)

 

Ms. Meluicci writes that she actually likes “difficult” men, yet she seems to choose men whose “difficulties” are a bit more than she actually wants.  She confesses she’s not really in love with some of them, but isn’t sure she actually wants love as much as she wants “someone to cook for.”  She seems (and I’m sure this is intentional) just as difficult as any of her men, and the break-ups seem to be the best result for all concerned.  And yet, here she is in her forties, prepping for another date even as she preps her meal.

 

Dolci  (The Character)

 

What makes this very familiar story so sweetly delectable is the character of Giulia Melucci and the performance of Jennifer Levison.  She is a proud Brooklyn Italian-American (who actually grew up in a mostly Irish-American neighborhood) who makes a large auditorium of strangers feel like friends sitting around her kitchen.  She is a self-deprecating energy-ball, simmering with joie de vivre, and bubbling over with narrative, with attitude, and with sass.  She makes our visit the highlight of our week, and imbues all her stories with a whimsical air that never approaches self-pity.

 

Digestivi (How it All Goes Down)

 

Admittedly, I was ready to dismiss this.  This is the third play I’ve seen in recent memory constructed as a monologue by a woman complaining about the dating pool they’ve sampled (if you’ve seen Bad Dates and The Twelve Dates of Christmas, you may also have an initial Been-There Seen-That response).      Have you noticed there are few (if any) corresponding male monologues about the horrors of their love life?  It’s not that there aren’t horrid options out there (I myself have a “I was only dating you until someone better came along” and a “I only miss parts of you” in my dating history, and for reasons of (see above) I’d dated far fewer than the norm before meeting the perfect spouse).  Maybe female writers are more open to seeing the humor in their bad choices than men.  Let’s give them that benefit of the doubt.

 

Caffè   (I Hate Coffee, so Let’s Skip This Course)    

 

Bevande   (The W(h)ine List)    

 

What is the best palate cleanser for a memorable monologue like this?  Seemingly seamless direction by Rachel May, which hits all the logistical points perfectly and keeps the (perhaps over-) long production bubbling along.  The set by Stephanie Polhemus which creates a kitchen to envy – I want to cook in this place – and which perfectly reflects Ms. Melucci’s world.  Lights and Sound which never intrude (notwithstanding a few glow-from-above sequences whenever her convent-based-school is mentioned).  A pair of character-perfect outfits by Emmie Tutle.  And a nice bottle of Chianti waiting for me when I got home.

 

That’s about it.  Yesterday was the final performance, so, too bad if you missed it.  Needless to say, I left with that well-satisfied feeling you get after a terrific meal, and would love to meet the real Giulia Melucci.  If only to sample her sauce bolognaise and her saucy repartee.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETSpaghetti)

11/23/2018        A CHRISTMAS CAROL                                           Aurora Theatre

 

****  ( B ) 


MIXED AMBIANCE

 

After taking a few years “off” from seeing this recurring holiday favorite, I made the long trek Lawrenceville-ward to see my friend (Bias Alert!) Anthony Rodriguez’s one-man Christmas Carol, playing in Aurora’s intimate black-box theatre. For the most part, my reaction is on par from previous trips, so I’ll be able to copy-and-paste a good chunk of this review from ghosts of comments past.  There were some modern tweaks though, which tempered a bit of my former enthusiasm for the show.

If you feel a sense of déjà vu after seeing this, you won’t be surprised to see it is the same adaptation by Tony Brown that is used by the Shakespeare Tavern. This adaptation is, at heart, a “storyteller’s” version, and, fortunately, the Aurora has Mr. Rodriguez, on stage alone for the entire (BRISK!) 75-minute running time, engaging us completely with his spinning of this oft-told tale (though perhaps not “oft” enough for my Dickensophile tastes).

The small black box space is set like a stripped-down Victorian parlour. Mr. Rodriguez comes out early, playing himself, greeting patrons he knows by name. He quickly segues into his story, pouring a childlike delight in his retelling of the tale. Occasionally interrupting himself with ad-libbed commentary (“Dickens apparently had some food issues”), often directing whole segments to specific audience members (especially any children present), tossing character voices hither and yon as if they were tinsel thrown on a tree, he makes the entire presentation a spell-binding delight. A sound technician occasionally throws in live effects or off-stage voices, but, when all is said and done, this is Mr. Rodriguez’s show.

I’ve always had a fondness for Patrick Stewart’s one-man “Carol,” (I listen to the recording every year), and this has set the bar high for any other version. Mr. Stewart gave a bravura actor’s turn, bringing all his training and experience into a seemingly endless parade of character and voice. Who could match that achievement? Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Brown made the smart attempt to not even try. Rather than focusing their efforts on a singular achievement of acting, they created a singular achievement of story-telling. They are, in effect, showing us the English parlour readings that Dickens himself gave of the story, recreating the very real pleasure of sitting down and hearing a master storyteller spin his webs of imagination and delight. Mr. Rodriguez makes no bones about being himself throughout, and makes for a more compelling (and welcoming) story-teller. It’s a very different focus, and to my mind, provides very different (and perhaps greater) pleasures than the strictly Thespian approach.

 

What has changed this year is the addition of a number of “windows” on the set that show us snow lazily drifting through a night sky.  All well-and-good to set up the ambiance.  As the story progresses, though, they are used for projections designed to enhance the story; but to my mind, they succeed more in distracting from it.  An eerie effect from my last visit – a ghostly projection as Jacob Marley – is now a cheesy computer-driven image in the windows.  A technical faux pas on the night I was there underscored the “wrongness” of this “enhancement.”  Yes, the concept does allow Mr. Rodriguez to amusingly comment on, actually “play with” the technical difficulties, but it still greatly distracts from the story.  The Marley scene is really the only scene in which “technical magic” does any story-telling “heavy lifting,” and, to my mind, it is one scene too many.

 

On the other hand, this is the ONLY scene hurt by 21st-century stagecraft.  From that point forward, it’s a veritable family party between Mr. Rodriguez and the imaginations of the audience.  Once our attention is off the projections, it’s easy to sit back, relax, and imagine we’re in Victorian England, happily sipping our mulled wine and enjoying the consummate skill of a master story-teller, a perfect party host.

 

As usual, there are many on-stage Dickens adaptations from which you may choose this year, and, to my story-philic eyes, this adaptation is one of the best. If you love this tale as much as I do, you can’t do much better than taking the trip to Lawrenceville and watching Mr. Rodriguez weave his spell.

I know how much theatres like computer whiz-razzle-dazzle, but this particular piece would be better served by a return to the simplicity of the era it represents – a story, a story-teller, and perhaps a few live and unrecorded sound effects.  To any additional efforts to ramp up the tech, all I can say is, “Bah!  Humbug!”

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #ChristmasAtAurora  #SeizeTheDay)

11/24/2018        MISS BENNET:  CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLY        Theatrical Outfit

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

           
TRUTHS UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that theatre audiences at Christmastime, must be in want of an adaptation from a 19th-century favorite.

It is in this spirit that I plan to go on at length about the Theatrical Outfit’s second Austentatious year of presenting the Pride and Prejudice “sequel,” Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, a splendidly rapturous return to the characters and regency manners we have treasured ever since our days as a young college lady … um … that is to say, “gentleman.”  (My single greatest regret of 2017 was that my overly-committed schedule would not permit me to see last year’s production.)  This marvelous play -- penned by ex-Atlantan Lauren Gunderson, in league with Margot Melcon, a San Franciscan (though we dare not judge her harshly for being that) -- is an Austenian exercise in Austenesque wit, shallow when viewed idly, yet still possessing a deceptively perceptive (dare I say “Austentive?”) insight into the trivialities that make us human, an insight not at all diminished by nearly two hundred years of history, cynicism, and senses skewed by the thoughtlessly concise nature of fiction and the even more thoughtless banalities of popular culture, a culture Ms. Austen’s very human characters would find as alien as we find hers recognizable.

 

To orient you, let me begin by stating that a number of years have passed since the Darcy’s happy ending.  The “Middle Daughter” of the Bennet tribe, Mary, she of the stern visage, precise mind, scientific worldview and bibliophilic tendencies, is leaving her home for Christmastime with the Darcys in Pemberly, Mr. Darcy’s ancestral estate and now Mrs. Darcy’s pride and joy, not to mention her domain.  Also attending will be the Bingleys (older sister Jane with simple husband in tow) and the Wickhams (younger sister Lydia, with execrable husband left behind in Bath).  Youngest sister Kitty is off on an art tour of London, and will not be joining this particular story.  Did I mention that Mrs. Bingley is heavy with child, or, as was phrased at the time, “in circumstance?”

 

Unknown to Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy has fallen prey to that odd European custom of putting a fir tree in the drawing room as a token of Christmas-time; or, as Mary would say, “Not a Fir!  A Spruce!  And when did we become German?”  This is just one of the more amusing period details flavoring this glorious wassail of a story.

 

Unknown to the Bennets, Mr. Darcy has also invited an old Oxford chum, Arthur De Bourgh, nephew of the recently deceased Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and, fans of the original novel will be pleased to learn that even death cannot ease that formidable Lady’s plots and machinations.  For Arthur De Bourgh, already reluctant Lord of his Father’s estate, has inherited Rosings Park, Lady Catherine’s world and home, which, of course, she had hoped to pass on to her daughter, Anne.  But apparently, even the iron will of an Austenian matron, is no match for the ineluctable formidability of British patrilineal inheritance laws.

 

Did I mention that the new Lord De Bourgh is of stern visage, precise mind, scientific worldview and bibliophilic tendencies?  It is decidedly inevitable that Miss Bennet and Lord De Burgh will meet in the Darcy library, that they will strike up an instant friendship, and that their lack of social skills will be more of an impediment to a happy ending than the will of the late Lady De Bourgh.

 

And from such elegant plot points will grow an engrossing, exciting, romantically satisfying spruce of a play, rapturously festooned with all the ornamental language Miss Austen and Ms. Gunderson can muster, glowing in the snowless-twilight of a Georgia winter like a beacon-star leading us wiser theatre-goers to another Christmas theatrical miracle.

To state that I loved this production and give it my highest recommendation is to overstate the obvious. To exemplify my reasons, I need only point to the performances of Miss Amelia Fischer Mr. Jonathan Horne as Miss Bennet and as Lord De Bourgh.  They are triumphs of construction and imagination and skill, tongue-tied in each other’s presence, passionately direct when confronted with foolishness, and charmingly pretense-free when speaking from the heart(*).  Before they are accused of being “too much alike” or a playwright’s contrivance to give Miss Mary Bennet a perfect mate, let me merely state that Lord De Burgh is extraordinarily intimidated by his late aunt, and is thus easy prey to her demands, even if it means sacrificing his own (and Miss Bennet’s) happiness.  Miss Bennet seems cowed by none.  Let me also say that, as easily as they meet and fall in love, there is still enough friction between them to make their journey compelling.  No, there is no gradual easing of misconceptions as there was for the Darcys back when romantic novels were more of a favored pastime than romantic plays.  But that is only one of the numerous factors that sets this sequel apart from its source root.

Color-blind casting in this production may cause those of an OCD- mindset to squirm – what? The Bennets had two African-British daughters and two European-British daughters? (since we never see Kitty, her portrayer’s ethnicity is moot) – it doesn’t take too many seconds during the first scene for those reservations to drop by the wayside, thanks no doubt to the relaxed familiarity and easy rapport of this most excellent ensemble. 

 

Miss Jeanette Illidge and Miss Jasmine Thomas are beautifully older-sisterly as Jane and Elizabeth, and Miss Devon Hales is beautifully flighty as Lydia (Mrs. Wickham), only letting her profound and utter sadness show itself rarely and when she can fully control it.  As the gentlemen, Mr. Justin Walker is an elegant and loving – dare I say prideful? – Darcy, and Mr. Juan Carlos Unzueta provides many comic moments as the (perhaps) nervous new father, Mr. Bingley.  Also on hand is Miss Stephanie Friedman as Anne De Bourgh, no longer the sickly thing of Ms. Austen’s story, but full inheritor of her late mother’s towering ambition and implacable agenda.

 

It is with no small pride that I close by sharing that, despite my own prejudices toward Miss Austen’s work and the countless multitude of adaptations thereof, my final hope is that you, ever sensible to my warmest sentiments towards these artisans of the stage, will also sojourn in Austenshire and unite in my praise of the stay. 


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #TOMissBennet)

 

*   (par exemplar)

Arthur:   Your smile.  Is … entirely … permeative.

Mary:   I have never had it noticed before.

Arthur:   Lucky me.  To have eyes to see it.

 

 

 

 

 

11/25/2018        KNEAD                          Alliance Theatre

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
RAISING MEMORY  (AUMENTAR LA MEMORIA*)

 

It’s a simple recipe that never turns out the same:

 

1   Sleepless Night

1   Stream-of-Consciousness Inner Dialogue

1   Life lived in a mottled array of light and dark, good and bad, high and low, public and private

1   Audience hanging onto your every word

1   Illegible (and incomplete) recipe from Mom

 

Now, imagine artifacts from that life attacking your consciousness like an avenging memory.  Also, fill the theatre with the aroma of baking bread in the hopes that breaking it with that (imaginary?) audience will incline them towards kindness.

 

Mary Lynn Owen is an Atlanta actress of extraordinary talent and range.  She has won Suzi’s for Wit and The Little Foxes, and is nominated pretty much every year.  I have often hinted that she could make a listicle reading a compelling and memorable theatrical event.

 

Now she has combined several of her personal essays about herself and her family into a moving monologue entitled Knead (pun no doubt intended).  In it, she is playing a character with her name and face who is spending a sleepless night baking a loaf of bread from that wrinkled, stained, and incomplete recipe published by her mother in “The Methodist Cookbook.”  She has never been able to get it right.  I suspect she has very little faith in the efficacy of recipes:

 

“It’s not CLEAR.  It doesn’t spell anything out - it’s full of errors - and it doesn’t work!  It doesn’t tell you what you need to know - it doesn’t tell you what to do when things go wrong, it only tells you what to do when things go right - and it doesn’t even do that!”

 

While she goes through the process of baking the bread, her memory manifests things from her past – a tricycle, a lace mantilla, a flurry of business cards, a wreck of a knitting project, a collection plate with exactly $1.47, a panoply of pink possessions, an audience.  Each of these triggers a story, a memory, a pain not buried deeply enough or candy-coated thickly enough.  And each story is a breathtakingly honest and open revelation of this woman and that core of her that creates so much on-stage honesty and beauty.

                                                                                                                            

And the amazing thing is, it’s not the stories of loss and betrayal (and there are many), but the stories of love and connection that seem more to inform Ms. Owen’s character (or at least her on-stage character).  Memories of her Abuela helping her cook for a 4-H competition, of sharing a PBR with her dying father, of sneaking her sister-in-law out of Grady Hospital to visit her AIDS-stricken brother in a cross-town hospital, and, ever and always, of meals shared and created. From what I know of Ms. Owen, and I know far less than I would like, she is a woman filled with joy and kindness and generosity, without a trace of any anger or bitterness at some of the “hard turns” she shares with us.

 

I like how the recipe becomes a metaphor for a life – you may add all the correct ingredients – the memory artifacts if you will, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get the same result every time.  Because memory is strangely mutable – that a recollection of one incident can split off into a half-forgotten (perhaps inaccurately recalled) completely unrelated incident.  The least little thing can affect our memory, especially as children.  Experiments have shown how distressingly easy it is to “corrupt” good memories with half-truths that FEEL emotionally true, “gut instinct” does not care a whit for fact or accuracy!

 

And Ms. Owen, the playwright, has constructed a beautiful piece of theatre, strong backbone, fleshed out digressions, and compellingly intertwined humor and pathos.  A half-remembered song at the beginning pays a huge emotional dividend 30 minutes later (and it WOULD be Cat Stevens, wouldn’t it?  “Morning has Broken” is, for whatever reason, in my head now, which inexorably leads to thoughts of my aborted move to Los Angeles and my tail-between my legs return to Harrisburg PA just in time for Three-Mile Island and my first attempts a character make-up and …   but I digress).  The stories SEEM to follow a chronological progression from childhood to adulthood, but they overlap and reprise and digress and stop suddenly enough to tell us that the writer is more interested in making an emotional arc than a narrative arc.

 

Suffice it to say, Knead is a stunningly intelligent and “mature” play.  I would have never guessed if I hadn’t already known, that is a “first” play.  It was obviously written by someone quite comfortable with structure of theatrical writing, but with a literary flair that is uniquely her own.  Mary Lynn Owen has long proven herself an extraordinary actor, and, with Knead, she has proven herself to be an extraordinary writer.  I can’t imagine the psychic scars she had to examine to create this piece, the memories she has to access to convincingly portray herself.  I just count myself lucky to have witnessed it, and fortunate to have cherished it.

 

Hola!  

Y Bienvenido.  

 

Lights down.  Music plays a fantastic salsa tune.

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AllianceKnead)

 

 

One final digression.  The title of this piece brings into my aging a brain an Abbott and Costello routine on loafing in a bakery.  – you have to really knead dough to successfully loaf.  I would be heartless indeed if I failed to share it with you all.

 

http://abbott-and-costello-whos-on-first.info/abbott-and-costello-loafing-script/

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRs37ugCxyM

 

 

 

11/27/2018      CHRISTMAS CANTEEN 2018                                               Aurora Theatre

****½ ( A ) 

 

REVIEWING THE REVUE  (AGAIN)


It’s been three years since the last time I was able to get to Aurora’s holiday cabaret, and, as in past years, it is a pure delight and a joy to experience.  Let’s see how much of my previous reviews I can self-plagiarize before the differences hit the snow blower…

 

For the 23rd year, Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre has put together a holiday revue it likes to call its “Christmas Canteen.” At times structured like a 60’s era variety show (think “Carol Burnett” or “Smothers Brothers”) and at others like a 40’s era USO canteen, it combines pop hits (*) from different eras in semi-thematic blocks, seasons with plenty of seasonal favorites, sticks it together with some plotless banter and delivers it tied in a bow for the holidays. This is the who-can-remember?-nth (non-consecutive) year I’ve seen it, and, it was just as much fun as ever.  This is a delightful show that bristles with talent and energy, and even offers a nostalgic wallow in the sort of entertainments that filled the TV-scapes of my youth.

I have to confess I enjoy this plotless approach far more than the sort of forced narrative that ruined my enjoyment of revues like Five Guys Named Moe and 1940’s Radio Hour. The performers (mostly) play themselves and blithely disregard the period tropes that would ground the production in a single era. It’s as if the history of popular music is the sandbox, and the songs are the toys we all get to play with. That the show changes from year to year will make this one to look forward to in the future. 


An expanded cast consisting of Galen Crawley, Jimi Kocina, Christian Magby, Chani Maisonet, Kristin Markiton, Kenny Tran, Cecil Washington Jr, and Briana Young (with an occasional assist by very-talented interns Sarah Grace Valleroy and Peyton McDaniel) are all in fine voice and fit-as-a-fiddle physicality, combining simple dance steps with right-as-rain posture and gesture to convey a motley crew of characters and situations.  Ricardo Aponte’s choreography fits like a Christmas Stocking and nary a step seemed to be misplaced. 


I was also glad to once more see Music Director Ann-Carol Pence add a solo of her own, with Mr. Magby taking her place at the keyboard.  Once more, she proves she can walk-the-tune as well as talk-the-melody.  In general, for a musical revue such as this, you expect the highest standard from behind the piano/baton, and, as usual, Ms. Pence delivers.

 

As in prior years, the evening was “co-hosted,” this time by the glib and scene-stealing Mr. Kocina, and the golden-voiced Mr. Washington, and a few gags from prior years still work, particularly the 60-second Dickens, and the sit-in-the-audience-and-heckle-the talented singer bit.

 

This year’s set (by Julie Ray) was simply spectacular.  Looking like an upscale ski resort lobby, it sports dizzyingly high walkways and cathedral-tall windows, which you know will eventually reveal a winter wonderland of falling snow.  The first segment allows the cast to decorate the set, bringing an already gorgeous set to gloriously holiday-centric light and color. 

 

As before, the evening is divided into segments, beginning with the aforementioned “Decorate the Set” sequence, then segueing smoothly into a block of cast “Christmas favorites.”  Act Two begins with a surprisingly entertaining audience-participation “Twelve Days of Christmas,” then soon dives into the traditional Armed Forces block, complete with the traditional "Salute to Veterans" call-out to the audience.  It all concludes with more Christmas favorites, finishing off with the tried-and-true high-energy "Winter Wonderland."

 

I had many favorite moments this year, including the exquisitely rapturous “Gesu Bambino” from Ms. Markiton and Ms.Masonet (who, truth to tell, was my standout favorite performer, always with an “I’m-loving-this” happy energy and goofy grin for every number), Mr. Washington’s exquisite “O Holy Night,” the Hamilton parody “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” “Sparklejollytwinklyjingley” (from “Elf”), Ms. Crawley’s “Hanukkah Blessing,”  and, as in previous years, the ecstatically joyful concluding  “Winter Wonderland.”


This has always been a joy for me, and, I dare presume, for anyone who loves music, who loves spectacle, and who loves wallowing in the tuneful joys of the season.  Christmas Canteen remains one of my holiday favorites, and, I suspect, will continue to be so for many years to come.
 
   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #ATCanteen2018)

 

(*)  To be honest, this year, “pop hits” have been relegated to the 1940’s USO segment, and the rest of the show is (almost) pure Christmas delight.  Which suggest I should re-write this entire paragraph.  And yet, there it remains …

 

 

11/29/2015      A 1940’S RADIO CHRISTMAS CAROL         Act 3 Productions
 
****½ ( A ) 

 

HUMBUGGING THE AIRWAVES

 

(Preview Alert:  This performance was a preview, not an “official” performance.  And yet, to my eyes, it was very much “ready-for-prime-time.”)

 

(Bias Alert:  I have friends … well, acquaintances … in this cast, and am inclined to view their work though approval-tinted glasses. I blame Russ Ivey for this Bias)

 

Welcome to the studios of WOV radio in the basement of the Hotel Aberdeen in Newark NJ.  Apparently. financial pressure has forced a move from Manhattan and no one is happy, particularly the hotel’s concierge, who has the unenviable task of keeping a convention of Shriners from ruining the broadcast.  It’s 1943, and the war is taking its toll on the Radio Troupe, and a “Special Performance” of Dickens’ Classic Tale of Scrooge and Company is on the docket, to be transcribed and delivered to our brave men overseas.  Veteran Stage actor William St. Claire has been hired to play the lead, so what could possibly go wrong?

 

This is a semi-sorta sequel to The 1940’s Radio Hour, that holiday favorite that combines a bucketful full of period songs with the “behind the mike” shenanigans of a group of squabbling singers.  I was never that fond of that show, finding the “story” elements distracting from the very real joy of the songs and the period.

 

Here, though, the songs are fewer, most are new and original, and the characters and story take center-mike. Station Manager Clifton Feddington --- the only character carried over from the earlier play – is hanging from his nails to keep the station afloat.  Moving to Newark helped, getting the venerable Mr. St. Claire not so much – he has never worked “on radio,” so thinks he must sloooooowly change costumes at the appropriate time.  Things go wrong almost from the start.

 

So, who are these “new” characters?  Well, there’s Judith Davenport, the velvet-voiced diva and Margie O’Brien the ingenue with a thousand character voices.  There’s sound man Buzz Crenshaw, about to become Private Crenshaw of the US Army, and his assistant Sally Simpson, a spunky can-doer who, well, can do pretty much anything.  There’s Fritz Canigliaro, the “leading man” whom most of the women would like to see “led away.”  There’s Cholly Gansel, the pie-loving “older gentleman,” who can’t help but “name drop” his favorite pie company and there’s Jackie Sparks, the boy from the neighborhood who fills in all the boy pars.  And there’s Esther Pirnie, the no-nonsense stage manager and radio technician, trying to hold everything together.

 

There is so much to praise about this production, but let’s just focus on how durn funny it is. There’s a “BVD” commercial that will leave you in stitches, more double-entendres than you can shake a (throbbing) stick at, and there are so many “when things go wrong” bits that anyone who makes a life in Live Theatre will surely recognize and appreciate.  And, when a moment of pathos leads to the desertion of Mr. St. Clair, Improv Hell breaks loose and we find the station’s “Private Eye” (“Listen Fridays at Eight!”) in a Pittsburgh Nazi hideaway trying to rescue a kidnapped “Little Tim.”

 

The show doesn’t necessarily segue smoothly from the moments of farce to the moments of wartime bathos, but, in this case, I’m more inclined to “go with the bumpy flow,” simply because of the energy and commitment of the cast.  This is a “well-oiled machine” of an ensemble, and everyone gets their “moment at Center Mike.”  The songs are few enough (and pleasant enough) to be an enhancement rather than a distraction (especially Ms. Davenport’s -- the radiant and talented Olivia Ivey -- final “Good Night” to the troops).  Russ Ivey makes a delightfully dyspeptic Clifton Feddington, and Sophia Decker continues her streak of deliciously dotty performances as Margie O’Brien.  Jake Pearce and Avery Milner are all youthful yearning and energy As Buzz and Sally (and I really enjoyed their sweet connection in the coda that ends the play).  Paul Spadafora is thrillingly “Thespian” as Willian St. Claire, with a breathtaking moment of heartbreak when he realizes {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  And, Zach Elton, Chris Gansel, Paul Danner, Kelly Moore, and Austin Basham fill out the ensemble with some truly beautiful and memorable work.

 

Set Designer Chris Davis has created a distinctively elegant “Hotel Basement,” and Ben Sterling has put together a nicely complementary light and sound design.  Special props need to be given to props master Dawn Zachariah for finding all the right tools for Buzz the sound guy and for dressing the set with so many period (seeming) details.

 

Y’know, sometimes I see something in a period play that makes me go “that’s not right,” only to learn, well, it was close enough.  The kazoos used in one number was such a moment, so I Wikipedia’d “kazoos” only to learn that they began manufacture in 1916.  Who knew?  Also, I thought the “LS-MFT” slogan was a product of the 1950’s, but, sure enough, it was coined in 1946.  (Okay, 1943 is before that, so technically, its inclusion is an anachronism – and there was a nice “Lucky Strike Goes to War” slogan that could have been used, but, hey, it was close enough.)  At one point, Margie does a very contemporary “crowd noise” sound, but, this is radio.  It probably existed in some form.

 

So, Act 3’s 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol (by Walton Jones, David Wohl, and Faye Greenburg, if I hadn’t mentioned) is a true delight, and is a welcome addition to the “Radio Production” genre, a sequel I enjoyed more than its predecessor (and I enjoyed that more than my snide comments here would indicate).  Familiar stories that go “off the rails,” brilliantly clever “live sound effects,” and 1940’s costumes and characters will always be a joy for me.

 

Now if someone will do a stage version of the old AMC series, Remember WENN, I’ll be a happy play-goer indeed!

 

   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #Act3Productions   #1040sXmasXarol)

 

11/30/2018        WAFFLE PALACE CHRISTMAS                                      Horizon Theatre

 

***½  ( B ) 
           
CATCHING THE SPIRIT

 

Way back in 2014, I really wasn’t in the mood for Waffle Palace, Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee’s light-as-a-biscuit tribute to Southern Hospitality and the denizens of a small family-run Atlanta eatery (strangely similar to a certain mega-outlet national franchise, which shall here remain nameless but still a good-humored sponsor)  I really took the script to task in one of my last “D” reviews, and have avoided its frequent recurrence like a case of salmonella.   But now, the duo has put their stamp on a new holiday offering, Waffle Palace Christmas, and it is much more digestible than its predecessor, and, more to the point, it caught me in the right mood to enjoy.

 

While remaining true to the spirit of their original – an overarching lack of serious intent coupled with a true affection for their characters – Larson and Lee have this time constructed a more compelling through-line plot structure, giving us a tongue-in-cheek story of the near-forgotten (apologies to my Netherspawn friend Charlie Close) Christmas demon Krampus and his efforts to ruin the Christmas season for the Waffle Palace-ians.  But, grumpy John notwithstanding, their cheerful outlook on life is more than a match for the demon – apparently his lackluster “demon skills” are reason # 1 for him falling off the Top Demons List. 

 

Along the way, we meet the requisite returnees from before – John and his (now) partner Connie, Nicaraguan-Jewish waitress Esmeralda, now happily married and drop-any-second pregnant, and a few of the old familiar faces (some played by new actors).  We have new folks – Connie’s nephew Deandre, an aspiring Tech geek trying to master the grill (“This is the grill?”).  Alex, a “permanent” fixture with her open laptop and quizzical nature.  Dave, a guy living on the roof.  And, for good measure, a few “upscale” guests from the quickly gentrifying neighborhood. They all have stories that interrelate far better than the original scattershot approach, and they are all appealing (and NOT-so-stereotyped) in their own way,

 

Okay the show begins and ends with a song that is quickly forgettable, but that is more than compensated by a mid-show “Twelve Days of Christmas” that is cut off too soon by that dastardly Krampus.  And, Grumpy John remains a bit under-developed – his overriding characteristic being an understandable fear of technological modernization.  But he and Connie make nice sparring partners, and their spats and squabbles are more enjoyable than they have any right to be.

 

Much of my enjoyment this time around comes courtesy of Rob Cleveland, who tears into the role of Krampus with a joy and skill that is delightful to behold.  He chews the scenery with relish, wallowing in the joy of being bad, a Richard III for the “Shakespeare who?” crowd.  Frequently addressing us directly, he far too often makes us willing co-conspirators in his nefarious plans, and makes us occasionally cheer for his small successes.

 

But good spirits will win all he time, especially at Christmastime and especially in Atlanta.  Every time Krampus sets the characters back a step, he inadvertently gives them cause to advance two steps.  The “happy ending” is inevitable, and the path getting there is lined with good will and good cheer and good food. Returning from the original production are Marguerite Hannah and Maria Rodriguez-Sager as Connie and Esmeralda, and, as before, they are terrific.  Allan Edwards and Lala Cochran return in familiar and new roles, segueing from role to role as easily as picking from a plastic-covered menu.   They are joined by “newcomers” Jennifer Alice Acker (Alex and Blair) and Markell Williams (Deandre and Dave), adding layers to an already-rich concoction.  Taking over in the central role of John is Barry Stolze, and he brings to the character a wealth of old-and-bitter without losing that essential core of fresh-and-decent.

 

So, yes, this time I was much more “in the spirit” of the Waffle Palace.  Maybe I’ve gotten older and kinder, maybe I’ve been in the south long enough to appreciate a Valentine to its “regulars,” maybe Larson and Lee just wrote a script more to my liking.

 

I’m STILL not longing to re-watch the original.  But I have been going to Waffle House (and enjoying ir) much more than in 2014.  Small victories keeping the Krampus at bay!

 

   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #htcWAFFLECHRISTMAS)

 

12/1/2018        THIS WONDERFUL LIFE                              Aurora Theatre

 

*****  ( A+ ) 
           
GOING IT ALONE

 

It seems counter-intuitive, Take a favorite holiday story with a multitude of characters (including children), sure to sell out every night, and have it performed by – one guy?  It’s not as if the story is about how people are indelibly interconnected, and “no man is alone if he has friends.”

 

And yet, it works, works well, and provides 80 minutes or so of indescribably compelling joy.  It certainly helps that Jeremy Aggers is an incredibly gifted actor who throws himself into every role, as if he were jumping into a summer lake instead of an icy river.

 

Welcome back to Bedford Falls!  It’s that old familiar holiday staple, It’s a Wonderful Life, retold (by adapter Steve Murray) as a monologue for “Storyteller with a Gift for Character.”  Once again, this show rang my metaphorical bells (giving some metaphorical angel a fine set of wings).

 

So, the incomparable Jeremy Aggers comes out and zips through the whole story in less than a minute, taking a premature bow.  Oh, we want to see it slower?  Okay, here we go ….

 

On a set backed by an askew “Aerial View Postcard” of Bedford Falls below four model buildings that turn on their internal lights to set particular scenes, Mr. Aggers spins a tale that would capture our attention even if we hadn’t seen it a million times before.  Purposefully mimicking the stars of the movie (his James Stewart is dead-on rock solid) he allows some contemporary commentary spice up his tale (“Yes, Freddie DOES look like Alfalfa!”)   Lighting Designer Mike Morin expertly sets mood and place with precisely timed cues and evocative colors and Sound Designer Anna Lee artfully interacts with Mr. Aggers with voices and effects.  To both Mr. Morin and Ms. Lee – Thank you for the talking stars!

 

As to the story itself, well, it is It’s a Wonderful Life, and is there anyone left who doesn’t know it?  After playing Potter a few years ago, I tend to look at it through Potter-tinted glasses, and usually see the characters’ more unattractive aspects, as well as the sometimes-hard-to-swallow effect George’s character has on the whole town (can one person really keep an entire town from descending into trailer-trash rabblehood, a bunch who find beating up the local drunk a source of fun?). But, that little bit of personal pretence was more difficult to sustain throughout this production, though a one-man Potter-centric play may be an intriguing idea.

 

Justin Anderson directs, and this isn’t his first time in Bedford Falls.  He also helmed Stage Door’s marvellous 2012 “Radio Version” of the story, and here he keeps Mr. Aggers on his toes and in the audience.  I really liked this production, which, for an oft-told tale, goes down smoothly and gracefully and softly as a falling petal.

 

This Wonderful Life is a fresh and new approach to a holiday classic.  It’s getting harder to imagine a world in which it was never written.  I wonder what that world would be like?

   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #atWONDERFULLIFE)

 

12/15/2018        ROSE AND WALSH                                      CenterStage North

 

***½  ( B ) 
           
THESE TWO

 

The late Neil Simon was a theatrical contradiction.  He was a very funny man haunted by the death of his first wife, a writer of popular comedies who couldn’t keep his ghosts out of his stories.  His style of snarky one-liners is readily identifiable, even as cynics accuse him of letting his daughter (can any of those cynics actually say which daughter?) write his later plays.  A winner of the Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes, and even a Pulitzer Prize (among other honors), he was nevertheless never fully accepted by critics as a “great,” with even his finest works (IMHO, Lost in Yonkers, Chapter Two, the “BB*” trilogy, and Rumors) receiving their (un)fair share of pans.

 

So it was with his final play, Rose and Walsh (aka Rose’s Dilemma), a 2003 heart-warmer that was his final meditation on love and death (probably his two favorite themes).  Described as “clunky” and “strained” (I found the script neither), it had a short off-Broadway run, mostly noted for Mary Tyler Moore quitting after Mr. Simon dared ask her to “please learn your lines” while it was still in previews.   Yes, this is territory he’s covered before (Jake’s Women is ALL about talking to the ghosts of the past, Chapter Two is ALL about recovering from loss), but he still makes it seem fresh and original, creating characters who seem new, but who are quintessential Simon-folk – quick-witted writers, lovers, parents, and children, all with chronic emotional blockage and relation issues.  Did I say “issues?”  I meant “subscriptions!”

 

Very loosely based on Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Rose and Walsh were lovers and writers who shared an idyllic beach house and many years of squabbles and passions.  Walsh has been dead for five years, but still hangs around giving Rose solace and not a little pleasure.  Rose’s only (real) companion is her live-in assistant, Arlene, who eavesdrops on Rose’s one-sided conversations and arguments.  When an unfinished Walsh manuscript is discovered, a ghost writer, Clancy, comes in to stir the plot.  Revelations, heartbreaks, and resolutions follow, and ends up with a bittersweet coda that carries the ghost motifs to a logical (and very moving) conclusion.

 

CenterStage North has collected a wonderful cast, with real-life couple Diane Dicker and Steve Pryor stepping into the shoes of Rose and Walsh.  I could carp that the first scene pacing could have been tighter, but their on-stage chemistry quickly won me over and I enjoyed all the small character touches they brought to the roles.  Hayley Haas and John Coombs Jr were also enjoyable as Arlene and Clancy, and I found myself rooting for them as a couple.

 

I was a little less un-disappointed with the technical aspects of the show, particularly the lighting.  The Art Place has taken on a host of young techs and designers, and is a great place for learning the craft.  Here, the designer showed an inability to effectively light a background cyc (which, truth to tell, looked like a wrinkled sheet and NOT a sky – there are many easy – and inexpensive -- ways to stretch those out), and a real unwillingness to light for time of day – Every scene looked more or less the same, whether occurring at 2:00 AM, early evening, or mid-afternoon.  Limiting the LED color palette to one (an admittedly pleasant violet), was another “newbie” choice.  The front wash was also a bit uneven, but, truth to tell, I’ve been guilty of that same “shortcut” in this venue myself.

 

 On the Other Hand, Brenda Orchard’s sound design was clever and convincing, and Cheryl Baer’s overall direction was impressively “invisible.”

 

So, is this a “career high” for Neil Simon?  Well, not really.  I prefer The Dinner Party (2000) and 45 Seconds From Broadway (2001)  as mature Simon a his best.  Still, it is an elegant (even elegiac) coda to a career that spanned half a century and over 30 plays.  And Rose and Walsh is a respectable addition to that record.  CenterStage North should be proud of giving it to us in a production this compelling.


   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #CSNRose&Walsh)

*   Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound

 

Am I alone in thinking a movie version of this with Redford and Fonda would make a nice bookend to Barefoot in the Park in the list of Simon movie adaptations?  After all, Fonda did play Lillian Hellman once (1977’s Julia), so it seems a natural.

 

BTW, being the trivia geek I am, I couldn’t reason making my title here an Easter Egg.  Anyone?

 

 

 

12/16/2018        A NICE FAMILY CHRISTMAS                            Stage Door Players

 

****½  ( A ) 

           
IN MY DAY WE DIDN’T NEED NO STINKING REVIEWS

 

Oh, no, not another Holiday play wallowing in family ties-that-bind-and-gag-humor?!!!

 

But, of course!  And what’s wrong with that? 

 

The holidays can be described as all-about-the-family, and families are traditionally the folks you have to let into your house even if you consider them a waste of perfectly respectable (at least in your case) DNA. 

 

So, everyone is coming home for Christmas.  Carl is a struggling journalist living in the shadow of his older brother, Michael, a doctor who was the pride of their late father.  Sister Stacy is about to be married, if only her intended wife would ever “come out.”  Grandma is here, but no one asked her.  Uncle Bob is here, but no one asked him.  And Michael’s wife, Jill, is here, even though she was expected to darken her own family’s doorstep.

 

This is a decidedly sit-com set-up, in a play by a writer whose professional output seems to be a series of “Don’t Hug Me” plays allegedly beloved by community theatres everywhere.  (Okay, his A Nice Family Gathering does crop up during Thanksgiving a lot).  The characters and conflicts (alcoholism, homosexuality, infertility, cancer) are all “by-the-book,” if not down-right cliched.  Everyone makes “dumb plot” choices, and one wonders how this disparate menagerie all emerged from the same gene pool.  The schmaltz is poured on as generously as rum into eggnog, and the ending is so predictable there’s no need for a second act.

 

And, yet, I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

 

I blame director Ryan Oliveti and his remarkable cast for elevating what could have been a dreary holiday experience onto the stratosphere of comic delight. 

 

Let’s begin with Grandma, played with scene-stealing verve by the remarkable Susan Shalhoub-Larkin.  Every story from her past may or may not be an exaggeration (I have my suspicions about the Titanic and Butch and Sundance stories – she isn’t that old).  Every comment cuts to the quick!  (“Grow a pair” is her favorite rejoinder any time one of her grandsons has a waffling moment).  And (almost) every comment comes with an “In my day…” qualification, each one funnier than the last.

 

Let’s go on with Jill, the exquisitely talented Alexandra Ficken, who’s high squeaky voice, coupled with hormonal overdrive SHOULD be more irritating than a family dinner, but who is charmingly vacant and surprisingly insightful.  Often at the same time.

 

And what about Uncle Bob?  Fresh out of rehab, drink in hand, libido sparked afresh for Mom (“my brother STOLE you from me”).  And in Larry Davis’ expert hands, a charming not-as-creepy-as-he-should-be creation who is less bull-in-the-china-shop than sad-little-boy-looking-in-the-window.

 

Siblings Carl, Michael, and Stacy don’t look like siblings, but they sure ‘nuff act like them, with old grudges lovingly tended and easy hurt-and-acceptance flowing as quickly as Uncle Bob’s whatever-it-is-he’s-drinking.    Played by Eric Poger Abrahamsen (Carl), Jeff K. Lester (Michael), and Madison Welch (Stacy), they wince and shudder at every embarrassing revelation, but coalesce in solidarity at every threat-to-them-all.

 

And, finally (but certainly not least), Dina Shadwell is a force of calm, the rock that lets the craziness explode impotently and diffuse elegantly.  She is the emotional core of this family, and Ms. Shadwell makes all the critically-bashable stuff almost joyful.

 

The usual Stage Door tech team (J.D. Williams on Lights, Rial Ellsworth on Sound, Chuck Welcome on set, Jim Alford on Costumes, and Kathy Ellsworth on props) have all contributed their usual professional work.  Is there an award for “Best Tech Ensemble?”  These five are the reason there should be,

 

So, yes, A Nice Family Christmas has run its course and is still lingering as a very pleasant memory.  In the final analysis, it underscores why some writers appeal to Community Theatres, and gives us a production that reveals the very real virtues in what can casually be written off as a mediocre script.

 

Did I mention I haven’t laughed this much in a long time?

 

   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #StageDoorPlayers   #NiceFamilyChristmas)

 

 

 

12/17/2018        THE ETHEL MERMAN DISCO CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR      Out Front Theatre Co

 

****  ( B+ ) 

CHUTZPAH!  THE MUSICAL

 

So, these are the facts.

 

1979.  Disco Fever is still sweeping the country.  Studio 54 is making it “cool” to be a cokehead idiot.  Broadway Icon Ethel Merman is, to put it kindly, past her prime, and has almost become a caricature of herself.  “The Ethel Merman Disco Album” is a reality.  I’m 26, and I’m hating every minute of it, (the year, not the album).  I mean other than that losing my {Deleted by the TMI Police} minute.  But, this is also the year Ms. Merman is shooting that delightful cameo for 1980’s “Airplane.” 

 

Out Front Theatre Company’s Artistic Director (and rabid Merman-maniac), Paul Conroy, has written and  directed a marvelously campy “what if” Holiday show, The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular, that says, “What if La Merman had taped a Christmas Show at Studio 54?”  She would have filled it with attractive boys in skimpy shorts and 70’s “Gay Icons” (Donna Summer, Truman Capote, and Andy Warhol) and welcomed drop-ins from the likes of Liza Minelli and a Just-Starting-His-Solo-Career Michael Jackson.

 

The results are (almost) simply fabulous!

,

Of course, copyright laws being what they are, none of these stars (including Merman) offer any of their hits, but instead give us marvelously “spot-on” Public Domain holiday songs and sketches and readings that go from the mis-guided to the positively disastrous.  A deliciously mean producer, played to scene-chewing perfection by Rial Ellsworth, keeps bursting in to shower disrespect on Our Lady of Perpetual Volume, and to homo-harass the supremely competent and charmingly respectful Stage Manager, Jimmy (a mah-velous Russell Scott). 

 

Along the way, Andy Warhol (Davin Grindstaff in a star-making performance) offers some deliciously wrong-headed suggestions for making Christmas Decorations with empty soup cans (“mm-MM Good!”), a fall-down drunk Truman Capote narrates “A Visit from St. Nicholas,”  Donna Summer leaves a panting Merman “in the dust” with a too-energetic dance, and Michael Jackson demonstrates his skills as a present-wrapper (all those brothers, you know).   And, in the final analysis, though the show is un-broadcast-able, the Merman has made a stage-full of new friends (acolytes) and Christmas 1979 promises to be a merry collective delight.

 

Oh, maybe the Capote scene goes on for a bit too long, and, maybe Brandon Deen does a convincing impression of Capote’s voice and mannerisms.  Still, I have difficulty imagining the fastidious Capote, even falling-down drunk, looking this slovenly.

 

So, where does the Chutzpah come into this mix?  I mean Lynn Grace beautifully embodies Ethel Merman’s idiosyncrasies, talents, and demons, giving a well-rounded character who appeals, pleases, and struts-her-stuff as well as any Disco Queen.  But she doesn’t have the belt, the power, the volume.  Even microphoned in a small (ish) venue, she is still occasionally overpowered by the pre-recorded tracks, and even by the ensemble.  Simply put, it takes Chutzpah to play Merman with a head mike.

 

And yet.  And yet.   And yet…  She still captures Merman’s “essence,” that inimitable style that is recognizable to the blind and the deaf, that way with a lyric and a phrase that is Merman at her purest.  Sure, I wish Ms. Grace had the Merman lung-power.  I wish ANYBODY could do what Merman could do. And, truth to tell, maybe at this stage of her life, maybe even MERMAN didn’t have the “wind” to reach the back of the balcony.  Still, it is a forgivable shortcoming in what is essentially a lark, a blithely nostalgic look at an era I tend to remember with a shudder and a “please stop!”

 

That this production did not evoke all those negative feelings in me is truly a credit to Mr. Conroy’s skill as a writer and as a director.

 

Contributions from Music Director (and Arranger) Nick Silvestri, Choreographer Jordan Kenyon Smith, Set and Property Designer Austin Kunis, Lighting Designer Charles I. Swift, and especially Costume Designer Jay Reynolds, make this a truly joyous occasion you can enjoy even without that generic Studio 54 Nose Candy.

 

So, if your tastes run to the fabulously glitzy, if you think Broadway has gone downhill since the passing of La Merman, if you think you can’t have too many disco balls in one place, this is definitely the show for you.  And, if none of these are to your taste at all, I somehow suspect you will still enjoy the pants off The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular,  It is swell!  It is great!  It’s a basket of fun for a date!

 

   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #OutFrontTheatreCo   #MermanNeverDies)

 

 

 

12/20/2018        THE CHRISTMAS CAROL EXPERIENCE       Wren’s Nest

****½  ( A ) 

           
MARLEY IS STILL DEAD

Marley is dead.  That much cannot be denied.  His casket reposes in the parlour of the Wren’s House in Atlanta.  The mourners are there.   Old Mrs. Fezziwig under whom he once apprenticed.  Belle, his wife and (now) widow.  Mrs. Cratchit, the frazzled wife of his partner’s clerk.  And Ebenezer Scrooge, his one-time friend and full-time partner.   Mr. Scrooge gives the eulogy, and it is not pleasant.  In fact, it is so unkind, Marley’s coffin emits fog and groans and … Jacob Marley!

 

Such is the set-up for Brian Clowdus Presents The Christmas Carol Experience, an interactive piece of theatre that asks us to look at an oft-told tale with new eyes – those of actual participants.  For, you see, we too are members of that solemn funeral, standing alongside the other mourners to say farewell to  … whom?  One we are glad to see shuffling off his mortal coil?  One who may be no longer in a position to collect our debts?  One who may, by some miraculous maybe, have left us a few farthings in his will?  Only we decide.

 

For the chained spirit of Marley has infused the three mourners with a different spirit, one for the Past, one for the Present, one for the Times Yet to Come, and dispersed them to three different rooms.  We are asked to either follow Scrooge and Marley as they recreate scenes vaguely reminiscent of some of Dickens’ original scenario.  Or we may enter a room with only the spirit, as we learn their stories and perhaps play a Victorian Christmas game, or sing a festively mournful carol.  And after our six visits, we return to the parlour to see Everyone’s redemption.

 

Brian Clowdus has built a well-deserved reputation for using different environments to enhance familiar stories, making the setting part of the cast.  Here, the tiny rooms may limit the audience size, but they give Dickens’ (too) oft-told tale new resonance.  Placing the Cratchit scene in a run-down room with grey peeling walls and water-stained ceiling, putting the Fezziwig scene in a warm and festive sitting room with a brightly decorated tree, putting the Belle scene in a cluttered madwoman’s bed-chamber like something out of Miss Haversham’s nightmares won’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about these particular characters,  But they put us in their shoes more effectively than any stage (or film) set could ever hope to achieve.  Even when Scrooge and Marley are not present, the scenes positively ooze Dickens, dripping Victoriana like so much mulled wassail.

 

And this cast is the stuff of spirit-dreams.  Daniel Burns is far younger than any Scrooge you may have seen, but, in this context, it’s the best choice.  He has all the usual misanthropy and stinginess, but, even at this close range, his (lost) heart is apparent and his ultimate redemption is satisfying.  Jordan Patrick is a true delight as Marley, taking on his unexpected roles of “redeemer” and guide with a desperation that is enthralling and compelling.  As the “mourners,” Lilliangina Quinones (Fezziwig), Julie Trammel Key (Cratchit), and Rosie Gyselinck (Belle) are the best of hostesses and the best of spirits.  They interact beautifully with the audience, combining scripted lines, improv, and song to make this a truly interactive “experience.”

 

Behind the scenes, I have to give credit to Cullen Gray for writing a script that brings many fresh ideas into the story (Marley stealing Belle from Scrooge?  Who knew?) and to Brian Clowdus for staging interlocking stories that work no matter what order they are experienced.  Lighting Designer Maranda Debusk keeps everything spooky or cheerful or sinister and even manages to create many split-second-timing cues with nary a tech operator in sight -- her work is a yuletide joy to behold.  Emmie Phelps Thompson has devised Victorian costumes that enhance both story and mood, and the scene and make-up décor by Brian Jordan holds up in these intimate confines.

 

This is a truly magical experience and well-worth the short hour to experience.  I may have preferred more clarity in letting us know there are “two stories” in each room – my instinct was to follow Scrooge and Marley, so I watched the Fezziwig-and-Scrooge scene twice and missed the Fezziwig-alone scene – but that hardly impaired my following the “story.”  And, I can now honestly say, the scenes hold up on a second viewing, with different interactions giving the iterations (slightly) different flavors.

 

This is a truly special, highly theatrical addition to the plethora of Dickens on Atlanta’s stages, and I am very grateful for Mr. Clowdus creative imagination, to his way with a cast (and an environment), and, for giving me a new reason to watch – no, to EXPERIENCE, this story again.

 

It is a Blessing to Every One of Us!

 

   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #ClowdusXmasCarol   #WrensHouse)

 

 

 

12/22/2018        MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET                      Georgia Ensemble Theatre     

****½  ( A ) 


WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN'

 

(SLOTH ALERT:  This is a restaging of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre / Georgia Ensemble Theatre co-production from 2017.  I enjoyed it just as much as before, so, in honor of the holidays, this review is a re-wording of what I wrote last year.  Happy New Year!)

 

On December 4, 1956, apparently by chance, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis showed up at the Sun Records Recording studio in Memphis TN.  What followed was an impromptu jam session, four pop artists at various points in their careers, having fun with music and with each other.  The whole thing was taped and released decades later.

 

The 2010 musical, Million Dollar Quartet, uses that session to create what is essentially a "Juke Box Musical" of the hits of these four icons.  The show is essentially a concert, with a narration by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips recounting the events of the day.