Saturday, April 19, 2014

theatre review THE SECRET GARDEN, Arizona Broadway Theatre, April 11

Kaitlynn Kleinman, Madeline Alfano,
Matthew Charles Thompson and Christian Bader
Click here to read my complete review (highlights below) of The Secret Garden, running at Arizona Broadway Theatre through May 11th.

"The Arizona Broadway Theatre is currently presenting a fantastic production of the musical The Secret Garden. Based on the classic 1911 children's novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden has an outstanding score by Lucy Simon and a well-honed book and superb lyrics by Marsha Norman. ABT's production has phenomenal leads, lush creative elements, and impressive direction that effectively combine to tell the story of a young girl and the impact she has on a houseful of adults in early 1900s England.

The musical follows young Mary Lennox as she finds herself an orphan in India due to a cholera epidemic. She is quickly whisked away to her Uncle Archibald Craven's huge estate in the moors of England, but her Uncle Archie, whom she has never met, gives her little attention as he is still in mourning his wife Lily's passing ten years previous. Archibald keeps himself isolated and often makes trips to London and Paris to get away from the house and the memories of Lily that still haunt him. His son Colin, a cousin Mary didn't even know she had, is bedridden and under the care of Archibald's brother Dr. Neville, who also is in charge of the mansion and might just have other ulterior motives. Mary develops friendships with her maid Martha and Mary's teenage brother Dickon. Through Dickon and the groundskeeper Ben, Mary also hears about a secret hidden garden that belonged to her Aunt Lily. Mary makes it her mission to find the garden and bring it, her uncle and her cousin back to life.

Arizona Broadway Theatre has assembled a stellar cast, all with exceptional voices that allow Simon's score and Norman's lyrics to soar. Madeline Alfano brings a superb level of understanding to her portrayal of Mary. She is able to effortlessly capture the personal journey that her character makes from the sour faced, self-centered young girl to someone who feels joy in seeing the impact she has on others. Alfano isn't overly expressive, which is exactly the way Mary should be portrayed, but she does instill Mary with a keen sense of wonder and curiosity that allows us to better understand Mary's delight in discovering the hidden secrets of this large English mansion. She also has a lovely singing voice and a crisp and consistent English accent.

Matthew Charles Thompson is appropriately sullen and haunted as Archibald Craven. He brings a deep sense of anguish to the part along with a perfect sensitive connection and clear understanding of his songs. His rendition of "A Bit of Earth" is stirring with an emotional resonance. Kaitlynn Kleinman is exquisite as Lily, giving her a nice amount of charm and a loving nature which she instills in her connections with Archibald, Colin and Mary. Her singing is sublime with a voice that soars throughout her songs. The duet she has with Thompson, "How Could I Ever Know?," is sung in a simple way in front of the proscenium scrim with no added theatrical touches, yet is pure and direct with an impactful and passionate payoff.

Director Andy Meyers brings a sensitive touch to the show. He makes sure that the few comical moments land but never get in the way of the emotional story at the core of the musical. This is a show with a large ensemble cast, mostly made up of "ghosts" that haunt the central characters, and he continually and effectively uses them in creative ways. He also provides some nicely done choreographed stage movement in the numerous large ensemble songs. Creative aspects are impressive with a multi-level set design by Charles J. Trieloff II that easily serves as various rooms in the mansion as well as several flashback scenes in India. Kelsey Ettman's costume designs are impeccable and include some exquisitely beaded dresses—Lily and Rose's are both knock-outs—as well as period perfect outfits for the staff at the mansion and some nicely designed dresses for Mary. William C. Kirkham's lighting design is awash in a multitude of colors, from rich, dark tones of purples and reds for the interior mansion scenes, to warm browns for the outside scenes. He also uses shadows to create a moody atmosphere.

When done right, The Secret Garden blossoms into a superb musical, full of realistic characters and an excellent score with many stand out songs. The Arizona Broadway Theatre's production is a rich and effective emotional experience. With the perfect combination of a superb cast, impeccable direction and impressive creative elements, it is a must see. "

The Secret Garden runs through May 11, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at azbroadway.org or by calling (623) 776 – 8400.

Photo: MikeBPhoto / Arizona Broadway Theatre

Thursday, April 17, 2014

theatre review BIG RIVER, Mesa Encore Theatre, April 10

Devon Nickel and Marcus Terrell Smith
To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of Big River, just click on this link.

"Based on Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the musical Big River features Twain's iconic characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in their rowdy and heartfelt adventures. With a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by country music singer and songwriter Roger Miller, the musical swept the 1985 Tony Awards winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical. The Mesa Encore Theatre is presenting the show in a lovely, sweeping and intimate production that has excellent leads and adept direction.

Set in the 1840s, Big River follows the adventure-loving Huckleberry Finn as he is forced to fake his own death to escape from his drunken and violent father. Huck joins up with the runaway slave Jim, who is searching for his freedom and hopes to buy back his wife and children up North. They head down the Mississippi river on a make-shift raft, encountering colorful characters along the way. The river is the source of escape and freedom for both Huck and Jim, and the musical features many lovable characters and the emotionally uplifting and humorous situations from Twain's novel.

The cast includes Devon Nickel as Huck, and he is just about perfect. He evokes Huck's adventurous side with an effortlessly established sense of awe, bewilderment and wonder that also captures the wanderlust mood of the period. His gawky physique and sly sense of humor combine to add a layer of boyish charm and his singing is sweet with a nice country twang. Marcus Terrell Smith plays Jim with perfect conviction. He flawlessly evokes the highs and lows of this character, from the high of believing there is the possibility that he will be reunited with his wife and children, to the low of finding himself once again in chains. Smith's singing voice is clear and can be both quiet and lush or forceful and loud. It is a stirring performance. The connection these two actors have is very realistic, and the several duets they share, which are all highlights, are full of exuberance and a pure depth of feeling.

Big River is a musical with lessons about learning from one another. Huck learns much from Jim about forgiveness, acceptance and the ability to overcome your obstacles. The Mesa Encore Theatre gets that message across in a rollicking and charming production with polished performances (including near perfect ones from Nickel and Smith and fun and multi-dimensional actors in the supporting parts) and flowing, clear direction.

Big River runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through April 19, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.

Photo: Sarah Rodgers/Mesa Encore Theatre

Friday, April 11, 2014

theatre review, 9 to 5, Hale Centre Theatre, April 9

Chelsea Janzen, Brandi Bigley and
Emily Giauque Evans
Click on this link to read my complete Talkin' Broadway review of 9 to 5 (highlights below) currently running at the Hale Centre Theatre through May 17th.

"The hilarious 1980 movie 9 to 5 was released at a time when many women had entered the workplace and were feeling oppressed, underpaid and unappreciated for their contributions to the business world. Seeing the film's three leads, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, portray three working women who get revenge on their sexist boss hit a nerve across the U.S. and the film became a huge hit. Parton's infectious title song from the film was so successful that it not only went to number one on the Billboard charts but was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. The screenplay was co-written by Patricia Resnick and the film's director Colin Higgins, and Resnick and Parton reunited almost thirty years later to turn the film into a musical comedy for the stage. While the musical had a relatively short (six month) Broadway run, its themes still resonate today, and the fun in seeing how these women get revenge on their boss along with some peppy tunes by Parton make it an endearing show. The production currently being presented by the Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert has a perfect cast, inspired direction, and manages to wring just about every comic nuance and uplifting moment from Resnick's script and Parton's score.

As the three leads, Brandi Bigley, Emily Giauque Evans and Chelsea Janzen as Violet, Judy and Doralee, respectively, excel in their parts, with never once trying to mimic Tomlin, Fonda and Parton's mannerisms or accents. Bigley makes Violet a professional with a hint of briskness and frustration that ties nicely into the dialogue about how she is constantly passed over for promotions. She has good comic timing, but also effectively and warmly shows Violet's serious side. When Violet believes she has accidentally poisoned Hart, Bigley brings a heightened level of zaniness to the character, but never makes her unrealistic. She has a lovely singing voice and has a large dose of fun with her solo "One of the Boys." Judy is the character in the show with the most growth, and Evans' portrayal of her starts out as a mousy woman prone to crying and frantic and nervous looks, which works well for this "fish out of water," since Judy has gone back to work after years of being a non-working housewife. But she blossoms with her new-found confidence and Evans gives a powerful, moving and soaring performance of her solo "Get Out and Stay Out." Janzen gives Doralee a nice country twang, but never once tries to mimic Parton's famous accent. While she has the least to do of the three leads, she gets one of the best scenes when she confronts Hart with a gun, and Janzen delivers that moment effortlessly with sheer comic abilities and conviction. She also has the touching solo "Backwoods Barbie" that she delivers with a lovely sense of resilience.

Hector Coris is appropriately lecherous and domineering as Hart, though he manages to not make Hart a caricature but instead a realistic portrayal of an old-fashioned tired businessman who just happens to be unhappily married and believes that the women in his office are all just "girls" for his personal use. While Coris is the bad guy in the show, he is having a blast playing "mean" and when he gets tied up and hung up in a harness he manages to turn that sequence into a comic gem, flying high above the audience with glee. As Roz, the co-worker who has a hidden love for Hart, Tracy Payne Black is a knock-out, with an appropriate level of sass. Her "Heart to Hart" solo, in which she confides her love for Hart, gets a powerful and hilarious delivery. Corey Gimlin as Violet's co-worker Joe, who is interested in having a relationship with the somewhat older Violet, is touching and endearing with a sweet amount of charm. The duet that he and Bigley share, "Let Love Grow," gives them both a lovely moment to shine.

Nicely done creative elements include Adam DeVaney's set design that uses square earth-tone colored patterns, which are also used in a lighting design projection on the stage floor to give us a flavor of 1980s corporate America. Period touches include the abundance of typewriters, rotary phones, and that aforementioned large Xerox machine that transcend us back in time. The combination of Addy Diaz' costume designs and Cambrian James' wig designs bring back all of the bad style choices of the early '80s with a period perfect combination of big hair, billowy blouses, dresses with padded shoulders, scarves and oversized eye wear. Jeff A. Davis' lighting designs are well done and lush. I also liked the use of a few simple projections that include a rotating clock projection on the stage floor and the heart projections that shine on the side walls. 9 to 5 is a rousing, goofy, period piece musical with just the right amount of poignancy amongst the laughs. Fast moving and full of high energy, with a stellar cast and perfect direction, the Hale production of the show charms and impresses.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of 9 to 5 runs through May 17, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-118

Photo: Nick Woodward/Hale Centre Theatre

theatre review, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, Arizona Theatre Company, April 6

Yolanda London, Bob Sorenson,
Mark Anders, Kyle Sorrell
and Jon Gentry
To read my complete Talkin' Broadway review (highlights below) of Around the World in 80 Days at the Arizona Theatre Company through this Sunday, just click on this link.

"Based on Jules Verne's classic novel, Mark Brown's theatrical adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is a combination of suspense, adventure, comedy and romance. Using only five actors to portray over thirty characters, Brown has crafted a play with many comical moments set amongst the adventure that add laughs from the well-written humorous dialogue as well as the fun in seeing how quickly the actors become the many characters they play. Having been produced around the world since its premiere in 1991 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the play is receiving a serviceable production from the Arizona Theatre Company with a more than capable cast and fairly impressive creative elements.

Verne's novel, while extremely elaborate, actually has a fairly simple plot. In 1872 London and with the expansion of rail lines across Asia, wealthy Phileas Fogg states that it is now possible to travel around the world in just eighty days. He wagers his life savings of £20,000 when he accepts a bet from members of the upper crust Reform Club who don't believe he can succeed in his globe-trotting expedition in such a short time. However, the wager puts his fortune and his life at risk when a police detective, who thinks Fogg is a robber on the run, follows him on his journey, putting as many obstacles in Fogg's way as he can until he has the means to arrest him, which turns the adventure into a completely different one than the determined and relentless Fogg had originally imagined.

Saar's direction is effective, though he can't seem to do much with the unfortunate pacing lags in Brown's act one script. Still, he manages to draw effective characters from all of his actors and provides a few comical moments, some stirring action sequences, and a large amount of charm in act two. Creative elements are nicely done with Carey Wong's two-tiered set including a revolving staircase and a large world map that appears above several times throughout the show. While creative, the set is actually vastly underused, with only one main scene playing out on the upper playing area. The design also includes a large set piece upstage center that, while it moves back and forth a few times, is also really only used for one scene and its presence throughout the show blocks a large part of the images projected on the back scrim. Fortunately Wong also provides a moving set piece that is extremely effective in portraying the typhoon sequence and the train track traveling sailing device. David Lee Cuthbert's lighting design is mostly clean and bright, with many of the scenes taking place during the day, though the night time rescue of Aouda is nicely lit in moody and exotic hues. He also provides a nice lighting effect to theatrically resemble a moving train. The projections, by Gregory W. Towle, are effective in how they display the various exotic locations of the journey and resemble sepia toned postcards along with a superb giant clock projection that fills the entire back. Karen Ledger's costumes are abundant, elaborate and colorful, and considerably help the actors to quickly assume the many characters they play. Aouda's lush and colorful dresses are especially well done.

So while Brown's adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is a little lacking on the "adventure" aspect due to the small cast and the inability to clearly portray the many action packed sequences from Verne's novel, there is a large amount of charm and several effective and touching moments toward the end. The Arizona Theatre Company production is good, but not great, with a talented cast, serviceable direction and, with the exception of an elaborate set design that is somewhat underused, nicely done creative elements. If audiences can make it through the somewhat plodding first act they will be treated to a second act that is vastly superior and an ending that is touching and charming, delivered by a cast that is having a grand time in bringing Verne's classic story to stage.

Around the World in 80 Days at Arizona Theatre Company runs through April 13th at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 – 6995.

Photo: Tim Fuller / Arizona Theatre Company

theatre review INTO THE WOODS, Grand Canyon University, April 6

Rachel Callahan and Joy Flatz
Click here to read my complete Talkin' Broadway review (highlights below) of Into the Woods playing at Grand Canyon University through this coming Sunday.

"Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is one of the cleverest musicals ever written. They seamlessly weaved together familiar fairy tales that we all grew up with into a musical where the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel all interconnect with each other. Sondheim's score and Lapine's book come together effortlessly in a show that has just as many comical moments as it does reflective ones. The production that is running at Grand Canyon University through April 13 is just as creative and effortless, with impressive costumes, sets and make-up, assured direction, and an almost perfect cast.

Into the Woods includes some of Sondheim's most intricate and humorous rhyme schemes and some of Lapine's funniest and most touching dialogue. It isn't a far stretch to assume that these well-known tales all happened in the same place, and since most of them have scenes that take place in the woods, it also seems fitting that the setting of the woods would be the way to connect them all. But what Sondheim and Lapine also did was to create an entirely original fairy tale, the story of the Baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child, as the way to bring these famous stories together. The Baker and the Baker's Wife live right next door to a Witch. She tells the couple that she placed a curse on their family and that is why they are unable to have a child. However, if they wish to have the curse reversed there is a potion that is made up of four items that they can bring to her and the curse will be lifted. The ingredients of the potion aren't clearly spelled out and when the Baker and his wife are sent off to the woods by the Witch to get the items, they meet up with the other fairy tale characters who are also in the woods: Jack on his way to market to sell his cow, Little Red on her way to her grandmother's house, Rapunzel who lives in a tower in the woods, and Cinderella who is on her way back from the ball. They, and the audience, quickly realize that the four required items are related to these other characters and are yet another creative way that Sondheim and Lapine combine the stories into one adventure.

While the direction, cast and creative elements are extremely well done, my only quibbles are that some of the humorous lines are too rushed, or delivered too seriously, thus losing a few punch lines in Lapine's well-crafted book, and two songs have some slight directive flaws. "Your Fault," where the characters are trying to determine who is to blame for the bad fortune they are now facing, is staged with the characters constantly pushing each other, which adds an unnecessary and continually repetitive movement to the song that detracts from the lyrics. The Witch's solo, "Last Midnight," ends with her being overpowered by a smoke effect before the song is finished, completely making her hidden by the smoke for the last 30 seconds of the song. Perhaps having her move forward to be in front of the smoke and then stepping back as the song finishes, as if it is sucking her away, would be a more accurate way to depict the ending of this song. And, though the band is nicely directed, the score loses some of its lushness when played by only five instruments.  But those negative moments are small when compared to the good work that GCU is performing. This is a delightful, witty and enchanting production of one of the most creative and ingenious musicals. With some of Sondheim's brightest gems, including the ballads "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen," Into the Woods is a show that also has important lessons and messages underneath the comical exterior. The GCU production is able to get those messages across, and moves smoothly and swiftly with a well-directed cast that presents this complex tale in a worthwhile and worth watching production. "

Into the Woods at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre runs through April 13, 2014. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at http://www.gcu.edu/Upcoming-Events/The-Arts.php or by calling (602) 639-8880.

Photo: Daryl Webb/Grand Canyon University

 

Monday, March 31, 2014

theatre review SUPER COWGIRL AND MIGHTY MIRACLE, Childsplay, March 23

Osiris Cuen, Carlos A. Lara and Chanel Bragg
To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway of Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle click on this link.

"José Cruz Gonzalez's play Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle tells the story of six-year-old Cory and the stray dog she befriends much to the disapproval of her grandmother. After touring around a dozen schools in the state over the past few months, the sweet and touching Childsplay production has come to the Mesa Arts Center for two weekends running through March 30th.

Cory's father is out of work and has also lost his home, so they've been living in his truck. When a faraway job opportunity comes up, the decision is made to have Cory live with her estranged grandmother Autumn. We quickly learn that Autumn, who is African-American, didn't approve of her daughter marrying Cory's father, who is Latino, preferring she marry a fellow African American, and that Autumn is struggling financially herself. With a group of vicious and wild dogs roaming the foreclosed homes in the neighborhood and Cory and her grandmother finding it difficult to live together, it seems that a friendly stray dog might be the "miracle" these two strong female characters need to fend off the wild dogs and help them realize how lucky they are to have each other.

Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle's tale of a grandmother and granddaughter who don't agree might be a familiar story, but it is one that touches upon many emotions and situations. With the added urgency of a pending possible foreclosure and the use of a multi-cultural family, it also is a story for modern times. The Childsplay production has three talented actors, effective direction and simple yet effective creative elements. Targeted for kids aged five at up, children of all ages as well as adults will find this story, and this production, to be both realistic and touching and a way to not only talk about what it is that makes a family but also how little "miracles" can help us get through our lives.
Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle at Childsplay runs through March 30, 2014, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets start at $12 and are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0) The show will also continue touring at schools throughout the state into May.

Photo: Tim Trumbule

theatre review THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Desert Stages Theatre, March 22

Jimmy Shoffman and Leigh Treat
Click here to read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway of the production of  The Last Five Years at Desert Stages Theatre.

"The Last Five Years is a small scale, two person, romantic musical that tells the story of a failed marriage. Based on an actual relationship in composer Jason Robert Brown's past, it is a story of both hope and hurt with some terrific songs from Brown. The production running at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale gets many things right in their intimate staging of this modern musical.

Writer Jamie and actress Cathy are your typical young, artsy and aspiring New York couple. Both in their twenties, he's a writer, who finds success fairly quickly; she's a struggling actress. Over the five year period of the show we see them meet, fall in love, fight a little, have some touching moments together, get married, squabble, fall out of love and ultimately separate. The theatrical gimmick of the piece is that, at the beginning of the show, Cathy is shown at the end of the relationship, hurting and heartbroken, and moves backward in time to their first date, while Jamie starts at the very beginning of the relationship, eager and feeling he has finally met the girl of his dreams, and moves forward through all the pressures and struggles of their lives to the end with him ultimately moving out of their apartment.

Since the two characters barely interact, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is a slightly confusing story to tell and a challenging show to sing, but still a rewarding theatrical journey to take. The Desert Stages production has good direction, great musical direction and fine actors playing both parts, with Jimmy Shoffman especially exceptional as Jamie. If you're a fan of contemporary and serious Off-Broadway musicals, or of musicals with intricate songs that tell stories, even with a few small quibbles, there is much to like in The Last Five Years at Desert Stages Theatre. "
The Desert Stages production of The Last Five Years runs through May 18th with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664

Photo: Heather Butcher/Desert Stages Theatre