Tuesday, November 18, 2014

theatre review ANYTHING GOES Desert Foothills Theater Nov. 16

To read my complete review at TalkinBroadway.com (excerpts below) click here.

Matthew Harris and Kat Bailes

Anything Goes has to be just about the most fun one can have at a musical. Not only does the show have a score by Cole Porter with many well-known gems and a well written comical book, but the current production at Desert Foothills Theater includes some exuberant dance numbers, an effective set, excellent costumes, and a practically perfect cast in both the leads and the ensemble. You will leave the theatre with a big smile on your face, humming the many Porter hit songs as well as singing the praises of the talented cast.

This is one of those shows that has been revised several times since its first Broadway production back in 1934. Songs have been removed as well as other songs added in from other Porter scores.  The 1987 version seems to be the one most produced, so it's a treat for Phoenix theatregoers that Desert Foothills Theater is producing the 1962 version, as it's the only one to include "Take Me Back to Manhattan" and "Let's Misbehave", both of which receive terrific versions in this production.

When you have an actress like the knock out Kat Bailes who can not only sing but dance in the lead part of nightclub singer and cruise headliner Reno Sweeney, it is easy to create dance numbers around her talents instead of having to hide your star's lack of dancing skills...choreographer Mary Lee Baker has created some excellent dances for the entire company, including Bailes' Reno. Bailes is like a firecracker in this show, not just with her dancing and singing but with her well-timed comic delivery of her dialogue as well.

Glenn Parker is Moonface Martin, the comical public enemy who is disguised as a minister in order to not get caught. Parker has some great comic bits in the show, gets to do a little singing, which he pulls off well, and is simply fun and lovable to watch. Matthew Harris is Evelyn, the slightly crazy Englishmen that Hope is engaged to marry. He evokes a hilarious British accent, has a winning stage presence, and knows his way around a comic moment. His "Let's Misbehave" in act two with Reno is both funny and sweet. While the show is mainly an ensemble piece, with all of the leads getting almost equal time, it is Bailes and Harris that steal the show with their perfectly delivered performances.

Director Sarah Bernstein keeps the show moving along at a fast clip, with the comedy fresh, the songs sublime, and an effective use of the large multi-generational ensemble. Dan Kurek's musical direction is great, as is his conducting of the seven-piece band, making it appear to sound much larger.

All in all, DFT has produced a solid production of this classic show. If you're looking for a humorous, joyful musical, don't miss Desert Foothill's Theater's Anything Goes.

Photo: Tiffany Bolock / Desert Foothills Theater

theatre review WAIT UNTIL DARK Arizona Theatre Company Nov. 15

To read my complete review at TalkinBroadway.com (excerpts below) click here.

Brooke Parks, Ted Koch and Craig Bockhorn
Playwright Frederick Knott wrote two of the most famous stage thrillers, Dial M For Murder and Wait Until Dark. While both plays also received equally impressive film adaptations, the shows are now somewhat dated with a few plot holes and overly complicated and long set-ups, so it's understandable that they aren't produced that often. However, a revised adaptation of Knott's 1966 Wait Until Dark premiered at the Geffen Playhouse last year and the Arizona Theatre Company is presenting this new version in a well-cast, nicely staged production that manages to elicit plenty of chills.

Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation changes the time period of the play, moving it back twenty years to 1944, and makes a few other slight changes in the plot, including an excellent updated act one ending that packs a punch. Hatcher's adaptation has eliminated a few holes in Knott's original plot, and by setting it in the 1940s has added the elements of film noir and the impact of World War II into the mix, both added bonuses.

Brooke Parks is impressive as Susan. With a forward and direct delivery of her lines and an excellent stage presence, she portrays this very strong woman who is also incredibly smart though a bit too trustworthy at first. As she slowly realizes what is going on around her, Parks effectively shows how the independent Susan uses her blindness as an advantage and ratchets up her defenses so as not to become a victim herself.

Ted Koch is good as the deranged con artist Roat. He gets to play several different characters as part of Roat's plan to deceive Susan and, in a testament to Koch's abilities, each one looks and acts completely different. While Koch does project an appropriate sense of menace and rage as the out of control Roat, I just wish there were more of a sense of danger in his performance so I could truly believe he would actually do harm to Susan.

Director David Ira Goldstein is successful with his staging, effectively using just about every inch of Vicki Smith's superb basement apartment set to let the action unfold. He also gets nuanced performances from most of his cast, especially Parks and Rini. Even though the updated adaptation fixes a few of the shortfalls in the original script, the first act still takes a very long time to set up all of the plot elements and is overly talky, and unfortunately, Goldstein can't really do anything to remedy those issues.

Smith's set features many excellent period specific props and furnishings and includes the underside of the stairs to the floor above in the set's ceiling design. Don Darnutzer's lighting design provides plenty of "noir"-ish dark and moody moments, with shadows from outside streaming into the apartment through the venetian blinds, plus the appropriate thrill-inducing scenes, including a few in near total darkness. The design choices are impressive.

Experiencing the play live, with the thrilling climactic sequence playing out in front of you in near total darkness, is something you just can't get from the film version. The Arizona Theatre Company production has a more than competent cast, lush design elements and good direction, and, even with just a few shortfalls, still manages to be chilling and full of suspense.

Photo: Ken Huth

theatre review OLIVER! Mesa Encore Theatre, Nov. 15

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

David Chorley, Asher Angel and Alex Tuchi (standing center) and Cast
Classic musicals with familiar songs and big casts are the perfect fodder for community theatre, and Oliver! is a classic example. Mesa Encore Theatre is presenting a fairly good production of the Tony winning show with winning leads, lush costumes and fine direction—an overall effective telling of the familiar tale of an orphan boy named Oliver Twist.

Based on Charles Dickens' classic novel, Lionel Bart wrote the music, lyrics and book for the musical, and the show had a hugely successful run in London and a fairly decent one on Broadway in the early 1960s. In 1968 the film version won six Oscars including one for Best Picture. With a string of classic showtunes, the plot of the musical and novel follows young orphan Oliver Twist's journey from his miserable workhouse life to being pulled unwillingly by a young teen boy called The Artful Dodger into a life of crime. Oliver lives and works with a group of juvenile delinquent pickpockets who are led by an older thief, Fagin. But Oliver yearns to find love, and a life in crime doesn't seem to be his lot in life.

The musical is an abbreviated version of the Dickens novel and has several positive aspects as well as some negative ones. On the positive side, Bart's score is a smash, including a neverending stream of superb, rousing songs as well as two excellent ballads. However, the book does a disservice to the character of Oliver, who is off stage for about 1/3 of the show. Even the ending focuses more on Fagin than Oliver. Of course, MET's production can't do anything to remedy those shortcomings, and, fortunately, director Rusty Ferracane has found three gifted actors with clear, strong voices to take on the leads of Oliver, Fagan, and Nancy, the older female member of the gang who serves as a surrogate mother figure for Oliver.

Asher Angel is a complete joy as Oliver. He displays effective sour, sad looks early on when Oliver is at the workhouse, yet, with bright eyes and a big smile, shows the happiness Oliver finds in the new people and the experiences he encounters, even finding something positive within the manipulative Fagin. When Oliver believes he has found a happier living situation in the second act, the look of joy and love on Angel's face is priceless. Angel does well with Oliver's act one ballad "Where is Love?" and contributes nice additions to the many large ensemble songs Oliver takes part in. It's a sweet, winning performance.

As Fagin,David Chorley achieves a nice balance between drama and comedy, which allows the character to not be too menacing or too much of a buffoon. It works well, especially with the many scenes he has with the young boys in his employ. Chorley has a good delivery of Fagin's songs, giving "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" a fun, upbeat, rousing delivery as well as a comical, direct take on Fagin's second act solo "Reviewing the Situation." Sammie Lideen is quite good as Nancy, her full, rich voice getting the nuance beneath the lyrics of Nancy's moving ballad "As Long as He Needs Me," while also achieving a lively comical delivery of the two ensemble songs she leads, "I'd Do Anything," and "It's A Fine Life." And the act two opener "Oom-Pah-Pah" she sings with the ensemble is a knock-out.

As The Artful Dodger, Alex Tuchi is quite good, providing a big dose of charm to the role, fun facial expressions, and a nice voice for his several songs. The cast also includes Rick Williams as Nancy's evil boyfriend Bill, Jeffrey J. Davey as Bumble, Aimee Blau as Nancy's friend Bet, and Barbara McBain as the Widow Corey, and all do good work. Davey and McBain are a gem as the comical couple from the workhouse, with Davey's deep, rich voice simply lovely, especially during "Boy for Sale."

Ferracane has a tough task in directing a show with a large ensemble that includes about a dozen young boys, and, even due to a few shortcomings, he still manages to deliver a serviceable production. On the plus side, Ferracane derives good and even winning performances from many of the leads. He also doesn't overplay the comic or dramatic moments in the plot, letting the moments play out effectively. Mickey and Rhea Courtney's costume designs are superb, with some excellent pieces for the women in the cast. On the negative side, there is a slightly under rehearsed or unprepared ensemble, Noel Irick's choreography is fairly basic, with lots of repetitive motions, and Michelle Thompson and Rachel Smallwood's multi-tiered scenic design is unimaginative. Also, while the use of prerecorded tracks on one hand is good, as they provide lush orchestrations you couldn't get from a small band, at the performance I attended there were two glitches in the tracks, forcing at one point the entire cast to stand motionless on stage for almost ten seconds waiting for the tracks to catch up to the right point. Fortunately, when you have a Tony winning score that has so many well-known and well-loved songs, even these few flaws don't detract too much from the overall result.

Most community theatre productions aren't fortunate enough to have fully fleshed out production values, well rehearsed casts, and huge ensembles. Even with a few of those limitations, the Mesa Encore Theatre's production of the classic musical Oliver! delivers some really nice performances and is, ultimately, a fine production of the well-known and well-loved musical.

Oliver! runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through November 23, 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 atmesaencoretheatre.com.

Photo: Sarah Rodgers

Monday, November 17, 2014

theatre review A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, Grand Canyon University Nov. 14

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Ryan Usher
Nostalgic, childhood remembrances of a simpler time are at the core of Dylan Thomas'A Child's Christmas in Wales. Thomas' magical story from 1952 of one perfect Christmas was adapted for the stage over thirty years ago and Grand Canyon University has produced a beautiful early holiday present for us all with their superb production of the play.

Thomas' original story, adapted by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, covers one Christmas in young Dylan Thomas' life and his encounters with the rich, vibrant characters in his South Wales hometown. Full of innocence and imagination, Thomas narrates the events of that Christmas, and the events come to life, including the creative games he plays with his friends out in the snow, and the songs, tales and ghost stories his extended family sing and tell around the Christmas tree. Not much happens during the play, and that's the point. It is a simple story, with lively characters, fun situations, and a look back at how pure and joyful the holiday of Christmas was. It is also a remembrance of how simple the time was before the advent of modern technology took the shared experience of family get-togethers away. With no television, computers, video games or electronic devices to distract us, spending holidays with family were full of imagination and personal connections between people.

With wide eyes and an inquisitive nature, Ryan Usher exudes youthful innocence as Dylan. Usher achieves the right sense of childlike exuberance but balances it with an appropriate fond remembrance as the older Dylan for the narration segments. It is an exquisite performance.

There isn't a weak link in the cast. With each actor bringing fine details to their roles, it is easy to tell the characters apart, which is extremely helpful with such a large cast. As Dylan's parents, Devyn Garrett and Jeremiah Byrne display a lovely connection to each other as well as a parental understanding of the mischievous Dylan. Joy Flatz embodies Dylan's favorite aunt Elieri with a purity and strength. When Elieri brings Dylan one of his most wished for gifts, a magic set complete with magic wand, you sense the bond they have to one another from the expressions they both share at the moment when he opens up the gift.

Joy Flatz and Ryan Usher
Zane Wiles and Amanda Tonkin portray another aunt and uncle of Dylan's. They both create rich characters, with Wiles' take on the grumpy Uncle Tudyr a nice reminder that not everyone loves family get-togethers. Kristina Capra plays their feisty, sour daughter Glenda with a bright, reckless abandonment, and William Wyss portrays Dylan's somewhat feisty, politically focused uncle Glyn with a sweet underlying nature. The rest of the cast playing Dylan's extended family members are all just as good, realistically creating the feeling that they've known each other for years.

As Dylan's three closest friends, Taylor Kortman, Hayden Domenico and Trevor Penzone are rambunctious and full of life. Their hymn to the candy they love is a pure delight. Yet they also speak of more serious topics, like the war, in the exact way you'd think a child would speak of them, with a combination of wonder, confusion and concern.

Director Scott Campbell has Usher and the rest of the cast delivering impeccable Welsh accents seemingly with virtual ease, although at some times the thick realistic accents get in the way of clearly understanding what they are saying. Campbell also effectively uses a trio of carolers to cover two large scene change moments, which helps to speed the moments along.

William H. Symington's set design features a series of two-sided brick walled columns that rotate for the scenes inside and outside of the house and a childlike painted three-dimensional backdrop of the village. It's simple yet rich and effective, just like the play. With an abundance of rich patterns and fabrics, Nola Yergen's costumes are exquisite and plentiful. Her dresses for Dylan's mom and aunts are beautiful. Claude Pensis' lighting is rich and effective, nicely portraying the bright outdoor scenes and the dark nighttime indoor ones.

Full of prose, rhymes, songs and carols, GCU's A Child's Christmas in Wales is a magical Christmas family dinner of love and charm. With a perfect cast, rich creative designs, and sure-footed direction it is a family get together that you won't want to miss and won't want to end.

A Child's Christmas in Wales performs at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre through November 23rd, 2014. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at www.gcu.edu/Upcoming-Events/The-Arts.php or by calling (602) 639-8880.

Photo: Darryl Webb / Grand Canyon University

Sunday, November 16, 2014

theatre review HAIRSPRAY Mesa Community College, November 13

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Laynee Overall and Jere Van Patten
Mesa Community College just opened their beautiful new Performing Arts Center's Main Stage with the fun, infectious musical Hairspray. The Tony winning Best Musical is receiving an upbeat production from the College's Act One Musical Productions group, with several hilarious performances, fun and colorful creative elements, and skilled direction.

Based on the 1988 John Waters movie of the same name, Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore at a time when racial integration was at a crossroads, TV dance shows were a must see for any cool kid, and music was changing from soft pop to rock and rhythm and blues. Tracy Turnblad is a teenager who dreams of dancing on the local afternoon TV teenage dance show "The Corny Collins Show" and to fall in love with the show's heartthrob Link Larkin. The fact that Tracy is on the hefty side and everyone else on the show resembles Ken and Barbie doesn't detract Tracy from going after her dreams when a spot on the show opens up. And even though her even heftier mother Edna tries to make Tracy realize that she might get laughed at and ridiculed for her weight, Tracy decides to audition for the show with a plan to integrate the program. This is something at odds with Velma, the racist producer of the show, and her daughter Amber, who just happens to be Link's girlfriend.

Hairspray is not only a great musical but a touching social commentary on race, anti-bullying and how, as the musical states a couple of times, you've got to "think big to be big."

The original Broadway production won eight Tony awards including Best Musical as well as one for Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's toe tapping, rhythm and blues and pop inspired score. Due to the show's age appropriate characters it seems Hairspray is one of the most produced plays in high schools and colleges, and the gifted MCC students bring the story and characters to humorous life with relative ease. Director Jere Van Patten has not only cast a serious triple threat as Tracy but also is playing Edna in one of the best portrayals of the character I've seen.

With a pure, rich, powerful voice, Laynee Overall sends Tracy's numerous songs soaring out over the new auditorium. She manages to make Tracy the outsider that everyone can identify with but also a fun, upbeat girl anyone would want as their friend. Overall also gets just about all of Tracy's many comic lines and moments right, including having a fun time showing Tracy's wild dance moves. Van Patten is a gem as Edna. The fact that a man is playing the part of Tracy's mother goes back to the original 1988 film where John Waters staple Divine played the part. Harvey Fierstein won a Tony playing Edna on Broadway. Yet Van Patten manages to bring his own grace and style to the part, including delivering perfect comical moments and even some gorgeous vocals. The only downside to his portrayal? He's probably the best looking Edna I've ever seen. Van Patten and Overall also work well at making their mother/daughter relationship seem both loving and feisty, creating a realistic portrayal.

The rest of the cast works well to bring the somewhat stereotypical characters to life. Jesse Thomas Foster is a delight as Tracy's oddball, quirky and loving father Wilbur. Foster and Van Patten are hilarious together, and their duet "Timeless to Me" is full of sweet sincerity with just a few risqué moments to show the characters are in love and still desire each other. The number is a complete knock out.

While Foster is a student, two of the other main adult parts in the show are played by adult actors with polished vocals and acting abilities. As Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the one "Negro Day" a month that the Corny Collins show airs, Tierra Jones is a joy. Her rousing, showstopper act two song "I Know Where I've Been" brings the house down. Alaina Beauloye throws herself into the villainous part of Velma with glee. However, not all of the younger supporting cast are as clear in their line delivery or vocals as Jones and Beauloye, with a few stepped on lines, rushed jokes and missed comical nuances in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's expertly written book. This was their first performance of the show with an audience, so I expect they have gotten more comfortable with more performances, plus they all sing well and are having fun playing these fun characters.
Director Van Patten and choreographer Cambrian James work together seamlessly to provide a never-ending amount of movement and dance to the production, with James' choreography infectious. Van Patten does have a very large ensemble cast, and at times the stage does get a bit crowded, but he also stages a few moments out in the audience where the large cast can be more effective and vibrant without being too cramped.

Set designer Dori Brown and costume designer Aurelie P. Flores have both contributed superb design elements to the production. Brown's interlocking city street set is perfect as are her other scenic elements that combine large drops and set pieces to form more lush settings than just a single drop or solo set piece that some companies would use. Flores' costumes are colorful and elaborate, with some spectacular designs for Edna. Troy Buckey's lighting is just about perfect, with the added touch of some nice designs on the backdrop, though the use of spot lights for some of the musical moments was delayed or simply unnecessary. Cathy Hauan's superb music direction brings the lush ensemble melodies and harmonies to life, and her direction of the orchestra provides a rich, lush sound.

With an infectious score, a very accessible and hilarious book, characters you can easily identify with, and a social message at the center that is still relevant today, Hairspray pretty much hits all the right marks for a crowd pleasing show. The MCC production of this joyous musical is just as fun and infectious, with beautiful creative touches, assured direction, and several excellent performances including Van Patten and Overall as a winning mother/daughter team.

Hairspray runs through November 22nd, 2014, at the Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be ordered at 480-461-7172 or at www.mesacc.edu/pac.

Photo: Allyson Van Patten

Monday, November 10, 2014

theatre review VALHALLA Nearly Naked Theatre November 8

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Vinny Chavez and Susan St. John
 Playwright Paul Rudnick is best known for his humorous film scripts and plays, including In and OutJeffrey and I Hate Hamlet. His somewhat lesser known 2004 comedy Valhalla has smart, hilarious components and situations, just like his other works, and is one of the smartest and cleverest plays of the past decade. It is an intricately woven comedy that explores the true nature of beauty and love and the cost that comes to those who aspire to find the two. Nearly Naked Theatre presented the play almost ten years ago and has brought it back in a production with a winning cast and creative elements and direction just as smart as Rudnick's script.

Rudnick intricately intertwines the story of the real King Ludwig II, the gay, crazy King of Bavaria in the 1880s, and fictional young Texas bisexual troublemaker James Avery in the 1940s. The play follows both men, from when they are boys of around ten to adulthood, and the people and objects of beauty they are enamored by and the price they pay in return for experiencing, sometimes even briefly, the beauty they desire. Rudnick finds many similarities in their lives as outcasts, across the continents and across time, which adds to the cleverness of the play. But there are even smarter touches. The script calls for the same actors to portray similar characters in Ludwig and Avery's lives. This includes having one actress portray the two very different mothers of the boys and another to portray the two women who are major influences on their adult lives. While this casting requirement is not exactly ingenious, it is a perfect way to have the juxtaposed stories come together very early in the play. There is also a creative use of several intertwined words that are repeated by the boys and an almost staccato-like delivery of dialogue in numerous scenes that play out across the time dimensions of the two stories. In the second act Rudnick manages to one up his cleverness in how the play moves beyond the comical moments that came before, as the two stories come together in a beautiful and moving way. Now, it doesn't all completely work. There are major shifts in tone from the almost slapstick Bavaria scenes to the more realistic Texan ones; there are multiple endings, though they all work and build on the ones that came before; and there really is no realistic way to show on stage the beauty that Ludwig aspires to achieve. But Rudnick still manages, even with the few shortcomings, to paint in a smart and clever way a comical, charming, touching and ultimately moving story of true beauty and how that beauty effects two very different men.

For a play that requires six actors to portray over a dozen roles, director Damon Dering has found a talented, hardworking and versatile cast to deliver expert yet varied, comical portrayals. Vinny Chavez has almost perfect comic timing as Ludwig, with his affected voice and overly expressive movements and gestures bringing the crazy, opera-loving Ludwig to vibrant life. As James Avery, Cole Brackney exhibits the perfect amount of cockiness and swagger used to enchant those he is enamored with in order to get them to do what he desires. With his slow, realistic Texas twang and bad boy behavior traits, Brackney makes Avery appear at first to be a somewhat self-obsessed individual. But he also achieves a deep sense of longing for the things Avery desires, through looks and vocal inflections that bring moments of melancholy and heartbreak, and transcend the role beyond caricature and stereotype. Chavez enlists similar attention, but since the beauty Ludwig loves is not exactly human, it doesn't end in the same emotional result. But I believe this is what Rudnick's intentions were—to show true beauty in both objects and individuals. Like Chavez, Brackney also appears to work seamlessly in getting laughs from Rudnick's many humorous lines.

Cole Brackney and Jacob Gentile
Jacob Gentile is sweet and touching as Avery's main focus of infatuation, Henry Lee. The scenes he shares with Brackney are quite effective in how both men realistically show how a very complicated relationship goes through highs and lows. Portia Beacham is a gem as the two main women in Ludwig and James' lives. She is comically sincere as Sally, the young Texan woman who finds herself stuck between James and Henry Lee, and comically hilarious as hunchback Princess Sophie, "the loneliest hunchback in Europe." Her deadpan delivery of Rudnick's dialogue has great results, both in the witty way she utters Sophie's self-mocking comments and her touching comical turn with Sally's monologue in the first act. Susan St. John is a hoot as Ludwig's mom, the Queen, but ratchets up the humor level as the modern day tour guide Natalie Kippelbaum. St. John is so completely different as the three women she plays, with vastly different accents, that you really can't believe it's the same actress playing all three roles. Pat Russel plays multiple roles with ease, from Ludwig's younger brother to a potential princess bride for Ludwig, yet his largest role is as Ludwig's confidant Pfeiffer, a part that ends up having a much larger impact than you originally think.

Dering's direction is just as smart, intricate and fluid as Rudnick's script. From the complex delivery of overlapping dialogue in several scenes across the two storylines to the intricate staging of the intertwined stories, Dering establishes a clarity in the play. As a testament to Dering's abilities, just look at how all six actors show perfect precision in the timing of the fast-paced, layered dialogue that requires, at times, all six to be on stage reciting sometimes just a succession of words to show the connection between the parallel stories of Ludwig and Avery.

Creative elements are lush and impressive. Eric Beeck's multi-layered set has two well defined playing areas for the two different time periods, as well as a nice surprise in the second act when the set opens up to reveal one of Ludwig's beautiful creations. Dering's costumes are plush and colorful and align perfectly with the periods and traits of the characters. Clare Burnett's lighting design is quite simple in the beginning, nicely portraying the two different storylines, yet explodes in color in the second act. Will Snider's sound design and Mark Bennett's original music add plenty of effective moments to the music focused plot. The combination of production elements perfectly parallels the comical notes and themes of beauty in the play.

Valhalla is a play that transcends stereotypes and attempts to explore what we believe true beauty is and how the impact of finding it can result in love, loss and madness. It is a creative, intelligent comedy and one of Rudnick's best. With smart, inspired direction and a virtually perfect cast, Nearly Naked's production is one of pure comic beauty.

Valhalla runs through November 29th, 2014, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org.

Photos: Laura Durant

concert review SEASONS OF BROADWAY, Nov. 7

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Four powerhouse Broadway vocalists, led by original Rent star Adam Pascal, came together recently for Seasons of Broadway, a concert of mostly Broadway hits which celebrated the "diversity of Broadway." The foursome toured three West Coast arts centers last weekend, including the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

Pascal was joined by two-time Tony nominee Robin De Jesus, Mandy Gonzalez, and Marcus Paul James to perform many songs they originated on Broadway and others they personally identify with. While Pascal is the biggest "name" amongst the four, it was nice to see that it was a balanced ensemble concert, with Pascal getting equal time alongside his lesser known co-stars. All four performers have had professional relationships with each other. Pascal, De Jesus and James have all been in productions of Rent together, while Pascal and Gonzalez were in Aida, and Gonzalez and De Jesus were in the original cast of In the Heights. The bonds formed by those experiences came across in the concert.

There were many highlights in the evening. Gonzalez has been in her share of hits and flops on Broadway and she sang songs from every Broadway show she's been in. She has one of the clearest voices I've heard, able to provide both perfect diction and pitch and a soaring belt, and she put her excellent voice to exceptional use. First, recreating her role as Nina in the smash hit In the Heights, she delivered an emotional version of "Breathe" and, with De Jesus's vocal accompaniment, sang "Total Eclipse of the Heart" from her first starring show on Broadway, the mega-flop Dance of the Vampires. Gonzalez was one of the replacement Elphabas in the Broadway cast of Wicked and she sang a rousing and raw "Defying Gravity" as well as a beautiful, heartfelt version of "Imagine" from the flop showLennon.

A trio of Rent songs early in the evening proved very meaningful, with Pascal singing an introspective "One Song Glory" that had a different arrangement from the original Broadway version but was just as effective; De Jesus and James were a charming couple on the show's "I'll Cover You"; and James and Pascal sang a fun and upbeat "What You Own."

A few funny behind the scenes stories accompanied the songs, including one Pascal told about how he is often confused with his original costar Anthony Rapp and how being chosen to narrate a documentary on hippopotamuses had a connection to his being confused for Rapp.

James, who is currently in Motown the Musical on Broadway, displayed his sleek dance moves and winning vocals on that show's "My Girl" followed by his upbeat, and quite good, original song "Meant to Be" that was reminiscent of the songs of Stevie Wonder. James also spoke of his inspirations and, after saying he has always been influenced by John Legend, he sang Legend's hit "All of Me." James' voice gave the song's lyrics an earthy, gritty feeling that resonated.

Gonzalez also spoke about her inspirations and mentioned that when she was seven she sang Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" at a talent show. She then delivered a rip-roaring version of Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" complete with high pitched "rocker" wales. Gonzalez then joined Pascal onAida's "Elaborate Lives" which showed Pascal is still able to hit that song's soaring high notes. He also performed a moving and touching "Memphis Lives in Me" from Memphis.

While De Jesus only had two solos, they were both expertly delivered. A direct and pure "Proud of Your Boy" from Aladdin was a winner and "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles received a measured, driving delivery that exploded toward the end and got one of the biggest ovations of the evening. The concert ended on another high note with the four singing Rent's "Seasons of Love" in perfect harmony.

Jesse Vargas' musical direction was excellent, achieving rich harmonies from the foursome as well as a full, striking sound from the small band. While the show ran just shy of 90 minutes, it featured plenty of chances for the four performers to show their skills and covered many genres of songs. I only wish De Jesus had gotten another solo to sing and that both Pascal and De Jesus had a chance to, like Gonzalez and James, pay homage to someone who inspired them. But the excellent arrangements, the full, soaring vocals from the four singers, and Vargas' superb musical direction were huge assets. Another asset is that the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts features perfect sound and clear site lines, so it doesn't seem like there is a bad seat in the house.

I'm not sure if there are any plans to present this concert in other cities across the country, but if they do tour again, Seasons of Broadway should be a must-see for anyone who loves Broadway.

Seasons of Broadway played the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Friday November 7th 2014. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found atwww.scottsdaleperformingarts.org

Friday, November 7, 2014

theatre review CARNIVAL OF ILLUSION, November 1

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Susan Eyed and Roland Sarlot

Roland Sarlot and Susan Eyed are an intriguing pair. Dressed in turn of the century costumes, the two conjure up an evening of theatrical illusions from days gone by, woven around an interesting tale of world travels. The husband and wife illusionists and theirCarnival of Illusion show have come to the Mesa Arts Center for a series of weekend engagements that stretch well into next year. Part magic show, part travelogue with plenty of theatrical effects thrown in, the evening turns into a sophisticated parlor show like one that you imagine used to exist at the turn of the century with entertainers traveling from city to city.

Sarlot and Eyed have a natural sophistication and intrigue about them that creates a sense of awe and mystery in their performance. The magic tricks presented are classic examples of "Old World" magic but with an added air of modern sophistication: a mix of traditional magic, memorization abilities, close up illusions, dance, humor and music that keeps the audience guessing how the magic effect is achieved. There are also plenty of laughs and smiles from the audience as a result of the charm that Sarlot and Eyed display. They not only have fun with the audience, but with each other as well. There is also an abundance of warmth in the stories the two tell about their travels around the world—stories that tie perfectly into the history of the various illusions they present and how the cultures of the numerous countries they visited touched their lives.

While Sarlot has more to do as the main illusionist, the show is a true duo act as Eyed isn't just the magician's assistant but a talented illusionist, actress, dancer and storyteller herself. Both involve the audience in a fun, rarely embarrassing way that draws the audience into the theatrics of the illusions. They also exhibit great showmanship with several captivating sleight of hand illusions and a hint of vaudeville charm that culminate in a beautiful, almost stunning, magical ending.

With a lush, velvet "parlour" backdrop, a large Oriental rug on the stage floor, and draped chairs, there is the feeling of an intimate club-like setting. The suitcases covered in travel stamps from around the world perfectly tie into the "Around the World in 80 Minutes" subtitle of the show.
I could hear people whispering to each other "how did they do that?" throughout the show, and even though the illusions were presented just a few feet in front of us, I don't think anyone could determine just how the magic happened—that is how good Sarlot and Eyed are with their craft. They even take the time to personally thank each audience member on the way out of the show—a sign of a true entertainer, passionate about their art and their audiences.

Carnival of Illusion plays various Saturday evenings though May 2, 2014, at the Mesa Arts Center, as well as at various other venues in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas. Complete show times, locations and ticket information can be found at www.carnivalofillusion.com.

Photo: courtesy of Carnival of Illusion

Monday, November 3, 2014

theatre review SHEAR MADNESS, Phoenix Theatre, Oct. 31

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Pasha Yamotahari, Elizabeth Brownlee and Patti Davis Suarez (seated)
Shear Madness, one of the longest running shows in theatre history, has made its way to Phoenix in a wacky, fun and infectious Phoenix Theatre production. The show has been running continuously in Boston and D.C. for over 25 years, with the Boston production celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary earlier this year. While it isn't the best comedy ever written, the combination of farce, drama and audience participation turn the show into a fun, joyous affair that is heightened by topical references and audience participation, making every performance unlike any other.

Set in a hair salon in Phoenix (one of the many localized references specific to this production) the play follows the actions of four key suspects in the murder of the upstairs concert pianist and landlady. We see the action unfold before, during and after the murder, and then the audience gets involved in the plot by being allowed to question the suspects and vote on whom they believe the murderer is. The four stereotypical suspects are the somewhat flaming hairdresser and owner of the shop Tony Whitcomb; his ditsy, sexy assistant Barbara DeMarco; wealthy, elderly customer Mrs. Schubert; and antique dealer Eddie Lawrence, who doesn't seem to be at all who he says he is. With undercover police lieutenant Nick Rosetti and his overeager assistant Mikey Thomas hosting the interrogation, the whodunit unfolds in hilarious fashion.

Director Robert Kolby Harper has assembled a cast of performers who are skilled not only in the comic requirements of the partially ad-libbed script but also in the improvisation that comes with the unknown element of the audience joining in on the questioning. Harper also directs the cast to not over-do or force the jokes and has them working together with ease as a well-functioning ensemble.

Full of quick wit and wide eye expressions, Pasha Yamotahari is an absolute joy as the flamboyant Tony. While he steals the show with his flirty, funny, charming, but never too far over the top performance, the rest of the cast is just as effective. With a thick New Jersey accent, Elizabeth Brownlee brings the sexy gum-chewing Barbara to vibrant life. Patti Davis Suarez is a hoot as the upper crust, wealthy Mrs. Schubert; I especially love the added bit about her living on the east side of town and looking down on anyone who lives off an Avenue on the west side. Mathew Zimmerer gives Eddie the appropriate thuggish air of a man who uses the title "art dealer" as a way to force people out of their expensive antiques. Gene Ganssle has probably the hardest job, since he guides most of the play, interacts with the audience the most, and has to determine the direction the play goes once the votes for the murderer are cast, and he handles the duties with ease. As the ambitious rookie cop Mikey, Mark Jacobson is perfectly rambunctious and full of energy and determination with an added dose of klutziness.

Harper and the cast's ability to add local Phoenix and modern day references seamlessly into the play is a huge asset. Places like Ahwatukee, people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Brewer, and recent events including the ebola outbreak and gay marriage now being legal in Arizona only add to the fun and get big laughs.

Now, the play does turn on a dime from high comedy to high drama with little time for the audience to take a breath, and the action before the murder does drag in a few points, but those are very small quibbles for the hijinks and hilarity that follows once the house lights come up and the audience becomes part of the show.

The beautiful and colorful set design by Richard Farlow looks accurately like a working salon. From Barbara's very high heels and even higher hair to the undercover garb for Rosetti, the vibrant costumes by Gail Wolfenden-Steib and Terre Steed's hair and makeup design bring the colorful characters to stereotypical life.

With multiple possible endings and jokes that change every performance based on the current events of the day, a well-oiled cast gifted in ad lib and direction that effectively navigates the fine line between high comedy and heightened melodrama, Phoenix Theatre's production of Shear Madness is a hilarious interactive comedy whodunit gem.

A few words of advice: arrive early as there is a pre-show that runs about ten minutes before the production begins that adds some additional hijinks to the evening; be observant, as the many events that unfold before and during the murder will be reviewed later, so your attention to what the characters do is very important; and don't be afraid to become part of the play—even if you aren't a fan of shows that involve audience participation this production won't pull you up onto the stage or embarrass you too much.

Shear Madness runs through November 23rd, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151

Photo: Erin Evangeline Photography / Phoenix Theatre

theatre review REVENGE OF THE SPACE PANDAS, Brelby Theatre Company, Oct. 30

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Emily Heald, Brian Maticic and David Magadan
Brelby Theatre Company, the husband and wife run theatre troupe in Glendale, seems to always manage to do a lot on a shoestring budget. Their latest offering, one of David Mamet's earliest plays, the comedy Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock, is receiving a charming, inspired production with a more than capable cast and clear, sure-footed direction. Those who are more familiar with Mamet's gritty, masculine focused, profanity laden endeavors like Glengarry Glen Ross are in for a shocking surprise, as Space Pandas is a family friendly comic romp with not a curse word within earshot. Even more shocking: Mamet has stated it is his favorite of his plays.

Twelve-year-old Binky is attempting to build a two-speed clock with his friends Vivian and Bob, who just happens to be a talking sheep. Binky believes there are two speeds in the universe, the fast moving earth speed and a much slower one. If he can get his clock to work correctly and move them into the slower time, it will allow them to spin off earth and easily travel out of their Chicago suburb, leaving Earth standing still behind them until they return. But he unwittingly sends the trio across the galaxy to a planet called Crestview, run by a tyrant named George, and patrolled by a bunch of pandas (hence the title). Can our heroes escape the evil clutches of George, who likes to drop giant pumpkins on people's heads and make it home in time for lunch? Full of wit, style and substance, the play has enough irreverent dialogue for adults but plenty of silly situations and humans dressed as animals so kids will enjoy it too.

Director Carolyn McBurney and her talented cast set just the right goofy tone to allow for plenty of scenery chewing, especially from Mia Passarella's hilarious George, but also manage to provide a huge dose of charm that gives the production a sweet sincerity. While David Magadan and Emily Heald have appropriate childlike expressions, over-reactive movements, and sweet voices to portray the youthful Binky and Vivian, and they are both successful, it is Brian Maticic as Bob the Sheep and Passarella as the tyrant George whom you won't soon forget. Maticic is like a classic Warner Brothers cartoon character come to life. He is absolutely charming, animated and completely lovable as the wise cracking Bob—just don't try to tell him that you're serving a casserole for lunch. Passarella's wide-eyed expressions, over the top behavior, and temper tantrums as the wool-obsessed George are priceless.

The set design is fairly plain but it does include some fun projections from media designer Fernando Perez, including a couple of moving projections that add a bit of wit to the moments when our heroes are on the run. Silly, creative costumes from Melissa Kamel add to the hilarity with some simple, yet inspired, animal designs.

The feeling you always seem to get at a Brelby production is one of dedication: a dedicated group of young artists and actors who want to put on a show to stretch their limits and expand their boundaries—and take the audience along on the journey with them. Brelby's Revenge of the Space Pandas does just that—it is a fun, silly romp across the galaxy and back with a talented director at the helm and some hilarious performances led by Maticic as a talking sheep you won't soon forget.

The Brelby Theatre Company production of Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock runs through November 8th, 2014, with performances at 6835 N 58th Avenue in Glendale. Tickets are available at www.brelby.com or by phone at (623) 282-2781

Photo: Fernando Perez

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

theatre review SEMINAR, Actors Theatre, Oct. 27

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Andy Cahoon, Kim Richard, David Barker, Kerry McCue and Will Hightower

For anyone who has ever written anything, getting honest feedback from a respected peer, editor or mentor can be a painful experience. And while a play centered around writers who talk to other writers and critique what they've written sounds like a potentially pretentious bore, Theresa Rebeck has written a play with realistic characters and crackerjack dialogue. The witty drama Seminar is receiving a well-cast and smartly directed production from Actors Theater that manages to be instantly relatable to anyone who has ever shied away from hearing the truth about themselves or something they've created.

Set in New York City, Leonard, a former writer of some merit, now works as an editor and conducts private 10-week writing seminars for aspiring writers at $5,000 a person. He states that he tells the truth, so if you don't want to hear it, or can't deal with it, then this class isn't for you. However, it's debatable if he is really just telling the truth or simply belittling the students as a way to get back at what has transpired in his life. The four of the students Leonard is "instructing" in his seminar have some writing talent, or at least they think they do, and over the course of the 100 minutes of the play all five, including Leonard, will learn something about themselves and each other as well as the truth about their writing abilities.

Told mostly in a series of short scenes, Seminar is a well-written play that shows the effects, good and bad, of being brutally honest. Rebeck has written some great monologues for her characters, but it is a drama with a number of very funny lines and some touching moments too. Rebeck has constructed the play in a way that doesn't allow you to exactly know the relationships the characters have to each other until about halfway through, and you also don't quite know how the seminar came to be and exactly who the character of Leonard is until well into the evening. It is nice to not be hit over the head with all the relevant data in the first five minutes as some plays do; instead, the dialogue flows naturally, with the facts coming out how they would in normal conversation. And while this might seem like another example of the often told story of "teacher with issues who inspires his students while also learning from them," it doesn't exactly follow that plot and Rebeck is very wise to keep the mushy or inspirational moments to a minimum. It is simply a good play, with good characters and smart, funny dialogue and one like recent Broadway hits ProofDoubtGod of Carnage and Red that have gone on to have healthy lives in regional theaters since their Broadway debuts.

Director Ron May has not only cast the roles perfectly but has also directed the cast to give excellent, engaging, and realistic performances. "Some people can't stand the truth" is Leonard's main line of defending his critiques, yet as delivered by a pretentious, egotistical man, you never quite know how to take it. David Barker effortlessly manages to portray Leonard as the man who finds a way to manipulate the most vulnerable parts of each of his student's character. Barker's line readings instigate pain and hate but he also inspires with just a few moving words and the simplest of phrases. While Leonard is often very dark and mean spirited, there are also moments of pain, jealousy and fear that Barker expertly conveys. It is a well-rounded performance and, even though you don't like the character due to his venomous treatment of the students, you do realize in the end that he is doing what he thinks is best for them.

The rest of the cast are just as good. As Kate, the woman who hosts the weekly seminar sessions, Kerry McCue is multi-dimensional in her portrayal of the rich neo-feminist who finds herself defensive and hurt, not only in defending her Jane Austen themed story that she's been working on for six years but also in how she is guarded and slightly uptight in talking about her low cost, rent-controlled and very large Upper West Side apartment. McCue hits the right beats in her nuanced portrayal of Kate. Conflicted, resentful, jealous and self-doubting are just a few of the many adjectives to describe Martin, Kate's school friend, who we learn is just about the only one of the group with any integrity left. Will Hightower is delivering an appropriately rich performance in this role, and his ability to show agitation, frustration and disapproval are well played.

While Andy Cahoon and Kim Richard have less to do as the pretentiously preppy Douglas and the overly flirty Izzy, they are complete naturals in their portrayals of these two somewhat stereotypical roles, with both instilling a sense of honesty and vulnerability in the parts. Cahoon's portrayal of the entitled young writer is especially effective in the scene where Leonard reviews his work, with Cahoon's changing facial expressions of joy, pain, confusion and acceptance simply perfect. Richards is a delight as the fun, sensual woman who, while she appears to be the type of person who isn't afraid to do what is necessary to get what she wants, also seems she is a lot smarter than she's letting on.
Director May moves the evening along briskly, but also allows the piece to breath at the appropriate moments, especially when Leonard is reading something one of the students has written and the silence in the audience is almost crackling with anticipation of exactly what comments he will make. Jeff Thomson's set design effectively shows the apartments of two of the characters, which are as vastly different as their inhabitants. Costumes by Lois K. Myers' are character appropriate, from the colorful ties, bow ties, sweater vests and other preppy attire for Douglas to the sloppy, inexpensive shirts and jeans for Martin. Since the play is set over many weeks it's nice to see that each character has several different outfits to wear, so we don't see them in the same one over and over again like some productions might do.

While there are a few moments where the verbal tennis games or Leonard's diatribes go on a bit too long, and the ending, for some, might tie things up a little too neatly, Seminar ends up being a witty, dialogue heavy play that is rich and even moving. With extremely nuanced, polished, and well directed performances of Rebeck's well-crafted characters, Seminar is receiving an exceptional production from the Actors Theatre.

One word of caution—there is plenty of profanity and some sexual references in the play.

The Actors Theatre production of Seminar runs through November 9th, 2014, at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at actorstheatrephx.org or by calling (602) 888-0368.

Photo: John Groseclose


To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Joshua Vern, Aya Nameth, and Alanna Kalbfleisch
The 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Tryingis a comedy that tells a fairly simple story of a young man and his rise up the corporate ladder—with all of the business politics and office romances that come along with that climb. It has a fun, infectious score by Frank Loesser but is also steeped in the time period of the 1960s and filled with the sexism and sexist characters that the period personifies. While book writers Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert take a satirical look at corporate life during those years, the audience must check political correctness at the door in order to get past some of the now very un-pc elements of the plot. The Theater Works production has two positive aspects going for it that help make those unappetizing moments and characters easier to digest. First, recent corporate dramas like the hit TV show "Mad Men" and the film The Wolf of Wall Street satirize the corporate game, along with all of the sexism and sexual hi-jinks, but take a far less comical tone than How to Succeed..., making the musical more of a charming period piece than a garish, shocking one. Second, director Toby Yatso doesn't try to hide or downplay any of the sexual shenanigans—in fact, he relishes them and makes them even more funny and satirical, which results in a heightened comedy sense and a more upbeat and fun show.

J. Pierrepont Finch is a former window washer who, upon reading a book called "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," finds himself quickly on the way up the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket company by following the steps in the book. Finch befriends J.B. Biggley, the president of the company and, in a very determined way, he figures out how to be in the right place at the right time to overhear important information that helps him as he ascends the ladder.

In order for a production of this show to succeed, it must balance the satire with the sincerity of the characters and situations so we can root for the characters while we are laughing at the situations they've gotten themselves into. Yatso doesn't make the portrayals of the characters too cartoonish or too broad, factors that would go against the well written book and make the overall effect too satirical. He plays up the period elements of the piece, making the sexist moments into comical ones, and has the female characters be more equals to the men in their intelligence. This is especially apparent in the part of Rosemary, the secretary who is in love with Finch, who is now more a co-conspirator in Finch's plan instead of just a dimwitted secretary whose goal in life is to marry a businessman.

The Theater Works cast are all fine actors, comics, and singers. Joshua Vern is perfectly likable and charismatic as the career-focused Finch. He has a strong voice, a pleasing stage presence, good comedic timing, and he's even a decent dancer. It's a smart performance. Jeffrey Middleton is funny and charming as the warm, animated Biggley. Aya Nameth has a witty comic delivery and a powerful voice which she uses to great effect on Rosemary's songs. She instills Rosemary with a knowing wink similar to Finch's.

As Biggley's nephew Bud Frump, the annoying office worker who uses his relationship to the boss to get ahead, Michael Schwenke is giving a goofy and winning turn that fortunately doesn't cross over into chewing on the scenery. Alanna Kalbfleisch, who was a comic gem in Theater Works' last main stage show I Get a Kick out of Cole, is Smitty, the nosey secretary and Rosemary's friend, and she is just as good here. Osiris Cuen, who last Spring starred as an innocent young girl in Childsplay's Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle, has done a complete 180-degree turn as the sexpot Hedy LaRue, which she plays perfectly. And Kathleen Berger, in a featured part as Biggley's secretary, has the perfect air and demeanor of the no-nonsense secretary, showing off her great voice in the showstopping "Brotherhood of Men."

While Yatso's direction works for the most part, the cast does miss some of the finer comical nuances of the script and his scene changes drag on far too long—and there are a lot of scene changes in this show. Kat Bailes' choreography is adequate, though Yatso and Bailes do a nice job with the "Grand Old Ivey" number where Finch is trying to impress Biggley by joining him in his college fight song. Since Finch doesn't know the movements, Yatso and Bailes have Vern a split second behind as he tries to do what Middleton is doing, which works perfectly to make it seem like Finch really doesn't know the movements.

Creative elements are colorful though not elaborate, with Brett Aiken's set design featuring pastel colors of the period. I especially liked the multi-colored desks. Tamara Treat's costumes include an abundance of suits for the men, '60s work dresses for the ladies and a distinctly one-of-a-kind dress for the "Paris Original" sequence. Tim Monson's lighting works well and the sound design from Alex Cozza features a lovely echo effect on a few key words in the act one closer "Rosemary."
Theater Works' production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a fun filled production with several winning performances.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through November 9th, 2014, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623 815-7930

Photo: Wade Moran / Theater Works

theatre review THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE, Childsplay, Oct. 25

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Kyle Sorrell, "Edward Tulane," and David Dickinson

"What it means to love and be loved" is the important life lesson at the center of the moving, touching and beautiful Childsplay production of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Childsplay premiered the show last season to critical acclaim, including recently winning seven ariZoni Theatre Awards, taking the honors for Best Overall Production of a Play and Best Original Script. The show is currently receiving four productions across the country this season and Childsplay has also brought the show back for a return engagement through November 16th.

Based on Kate DiCamillo's 2006 young adult novel and adapted by Dwayne Hartford,Edward Tulane follows the adventures of a china rabbit doll that is first given to a young girl named Abilene in the 1930s. With a painted-on mouth, Edward is unable to talk, though he speaks his thoughts to himself. At first, the self-absorbed rabbit doesn't care much for Abilene, concerned more about what outfit he is wearing and if he is placed in a position so he can see the world outside. But once he is separated from the young girl he begins a journey during which he encounters a series of people who take him into their homes and hearts and, through the course of his adventures, Edward discovers the feelings of loss, hope and just what love means. Hartford's adaptation brings the story magically to life.

The production features a cast of four actors, including Childsplay Associate Artists Katie McFadzen and Debra K. Stevens. Director David Saar, his exceptional cast and his highly creative design team don't make a false move in bringing this magical Depression-set journey to life. Kyle Sorrell, who also wrote the original folk based score (and won an ariZoni for his efforts), portrays Edward's thoughts with a soft, sweet, matter of fact voice that works beautifully to bring the selfish china rabbit doll to life. Stevens plays numerous parts and is a complete wonder as the two young girls who fall in love with Edward; her childlike expressions, movements and gentle voice combine effortlessly to make you believe she is the sweet natured Abilene as well as another young child suffering from pneumonia. Stevens also makes a lovable and realistic dog. McFadzen portrays various characters, male and female, young and old, using her wide, animated eyes and vocal inflections to transform with ease. She also provides most of the narration for the piece with perfect, measured delivery. David Dickinson's fiddle playing combines beautifully with Sorrell's folksy guitar based score and he magically changes with various accents from a fisherman to a heartfelt hobo. The transformations the three make, from character to character, are nothing short of revelatory as they become each new role. But it is Sorrell's moving performance that will stick with you for a long time, as he takes us along Edward's emotional journey from self-absorption to heartbreak, hope and the understanding of loving and being loved.

Saar's direction is inspired and includes some fairly elaborate sequences, including Edward being flung over the side of a ship and off a train, as well as many quiet emotional moments that are touching in their simplicity. The highly theatrical production includes set designer Jeff Thomson's creative wooden multi-level turntable that revolves to move us along on Edward's journey and the use of wooden chairs and crates that the cast reconfigures to portray various settings. The props and Adriana Diaz's touching Depression-era earth-tone costumes are always visible around the stage and allow us to witness the actors as they change clothing and move props and set pieces around to become new characters and creatively change the locations. Rick Paulsen's sumptuous lighting design is highly elaborate. Utilizing a curved screen that surrounds the stage, Paulsen embellishes numerous sequences in portraying a storm at sea, life under the water, sunny days, and starry nights. The creative elements also allow theatregoers' imaginations to assist in the transformation of the simple set, props and costumes into the many settings and characters of the play.

Combining the power of theatre with the journey of self-discovery isn't something new, yet this tale of a china rabbit doll who learns to love will touch your heart, stay with you, and most likely make you shed a few tears. The combination of the beautiful story, the inventive design elements, and the extremely talented cast are a perfect example for theatregoers young and old to see how theatre can transport us to different places and how it can inspire us and make us think. Childsplay's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a celebration of the magic of theatre and the wonder of life.

With many adult predicaments, including death and loss, the show is recommended for children ages seven and up.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at Childsplay runs through November 16th, 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 are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0)

Photo: Tim Trumbule


To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

The music that is made when you pair a perfect vocalist and a perfect orchestra can be stunning. That's exactly what audience members experienced this past weekend when Cheyenne Jackson performed two concerts with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. Jackson, while not exactly a household name, has starred in three Broadway musicals, had featured recurring roles on such hit TV shows as "Glee," and "30 Rock" and has also appeared in several, mostly independent, films. But his voice and stage presence are sublime, with pure, clear vocals and plenty of charisma that echoes such famous "entertainers" as Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and even Frank Sinatra. Those men also knew their way around large orchestral jazz arrangements, and that feeling and tone were also present with the masterful playing of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

Besides a spectacular voice, Jackson also has an abundance of charm which, when combined with his personal stories, added an added individual touch to each song. Jackson mentioned how he grew up poor in a small town in Idaho where they had no running water for five years but had two goats named "Harmony" and "Melody." Jackson said that seeing his first touring Broadway show of Les Misérableswas a life changer and made him realize what he wanted to do with his life, though it would take him many more years before finally deciding to move to New York and try to make a living as an actor and singer.

Along with his growing up tales, he also focused, with just the appropriate amount of balance to not go overboard, on his realization a couple of years ago that he was an alcoholic, and how his sobriety helped him not only become a better man, but achieve a clarity in his life.

That clarity came across in his vocals, which were highlighted with exceptional deliveries of three songs from Broadway shows, including an impeccable "Something's Coming" from West Side Storywith pure, rich vocals and his eyes searching the auditorium perfectly in tune with the lyrics, and a jazzed up take on "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow. Saying it was a role he hoped to play one day, he delivered a lush Frank Sinatra inspired take on Guys and Dolls' "Luck Be a Lady." He also performed some upbeat Latin influenced arrangements of "Americano" and "Besame Mucho," which showed the deep tones his voice is able to achieve, along with the recent Michael Bublé inspired take on "Feeling Good" and a rousing "I (Who Have Nothing)" that showed Jackson's perfect control of his voice. His playful rendition of the Mac Davis penned Elvis Presley hit "A Little Less Conversation" included a touch of Elvis' trademark snarl and some skilled pelvic thrusts.

But it wasn't just standards or American Songbook selections that he wrapped his pipes around; he also showed his skill on some recent tunes, including an excellent take on Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" with a fun, winking, playful deliver of lyrics such as "I told you I was trouble, you know that I'm no good." Talking about his sobriety and how he lost himself before he realized he was an alcoholic, and how he had to fall back into the man he knew he could be, he delivered a heartfelt, emotional version of Once's "Falling Slowly" that turned the lyrics "Take this sinking boat and point it home, we've still got time, raise your hopeful voice you have a choice, you'll make it now" into a personal journey of discovery. A piano accompaniment only arrangement, played by musical director Ben Toth, of Joni Mitchell's classic "A Case of You" received a beautiful meditative rendition.

The personal moments also included two tunes Jackson penned himself, which were actually quite good: the introspective "Mr. Lonely Boy," which showed the emotional impact of his personal experiences, and a touching tune he wrote about his grandmother, "Red Wine is Good for My Heart." Act one ended with a smashing, inspiring take on the Sam Cooke classic "A Change Is Gonna Come" and an encore pairing of "What a Wonderful World"/"Auld Lang Syne" that was the perfect ending to a perfect evening. The Phoenix Symphony, under Randall Craig Fleischer's accomplished conducting, proved once again that they are able to play any type of music with absolute skill, not only in their expert accompaniment to the varied styles of songs Jackson sang but also with the act two opener of Charlie Parker's "Shaw Nuff" which featured an impeccable sax solo in the brass and woodwind focused arrangement.

Cheyenne Jackson and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra was another perfect example in the Symphony's series of "Pops" concerts.

Cheyenne Jackson with the Phoenix Symphony played two performances on October 24th and 25th, 2014, at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at http://www.phoenixsymphony.org.

Photo: Courtesy Cheyenne Jackson/Phoenix Symphony Orchestra

theatre review THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Hale Centre Theatre, Oct. 23

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Jacqueline Brecker, Kathleen Jensen, Amy Dubin, Sydney Del Fosse, Brandi Bigley, Macy LeCheminant, Dale Mortensen and Austin Porter

The Sound of Music is one of those shows that seem to be staged every season, due to the instant name recognition of the title, the well-known songs, the emotionally rich yet also funny story the show tells, and the fact that it is one of the most beloved musicals of all time. But, so many things can go wrong with a production of this show: two leads without the appropriate chemistry; children of varying ages lacking believability; or an inappropriate balance between the comedy and dramatic moments. So, I'm happy to report that this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is receiving a virtually flawless production at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert.

For those who need a refresher of the plot: Set in 1937, The Sound of Music follows the story of postulant Maria as she serves as a governess for a naval captain's seven children in Austria once it seems a religious life isn't in her future. The Captain and Maria find themselves falling in love just as Hitler's regime is about to invade Austria, and the must find a way for their family to escape before the Captain is forced back into service under the Nazis. It is a classic musical with the right balance of humorous scenes, joyful songs, and inspirational moments. It is definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein's most famous show.

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's book is perfect, with succinct dialogue and no superfluous scenes, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's score is simply one of the best. Hale is presenting the version of the musical that includes the two additional songs written for the Oscar winning 1965 film adaptation but also maintains the two songs from the stage version that were cut for the movie.
The "in-the-round" staging and the small size of the theatre allow for many emotional moments to soar with a profound intimacy that can only be achieved when the audience is so close to the actors. Hale Centre productions seem to almost always have exceptional casts, direction and creative elements, and their The Sound of Music is no exception.

As Maria, Brandi Bigley is perfectly expressive in showing the many layers of Maria, both comedic and dramatic. From Maria being unsure of what her true calling is, to finding the joy in the time she spends with the children, while also being confused by the connection she has with the Captain, Bigley portrays the nuances of the role with ease. And her voice soars through some of the best known songs. Rob Stuart is Captain von Trapp and, like Bigley, he creates a fully fleshed out person, with the appropriate stern and stiff characteristics of a widowed sea captain who spends so much time away from home that he doesn't quite know the right way to raise his children. Stuart's measured line delivery and rigid demeanor perfectly convey the role. We also see how the time the Captain spends with Maria changes him and makes him a better man and father; Stuart and Bigley form a realistic couple with the appropriate elements of love and passion. Stuart's singing voice has a deep emotional resonance that he puts to good use in a very personally delivered "Edelweiss."

Carrie Klofach is a slightly younger Mother Abbess than is often cast, but her youthfulness works, bringing a more immediate connection with the similarly aged Maria. Klofach instills the role with a fun, joyous side that comes to light in the duet she sings with Maria, "My Favorite Things," but her serious nature and authority come out in full force with a soaring version of "Climb Every Mountain." The other nuns at the Abbey, played by Heather Fallon, Lynanne Cottle and Heather Gahagan, deliver a witty version of "Maria" but also provide some stirring, soaring harmonies on the several hymns in the show. Fallon in particular doesn't miss a beat as the disapproving Sister Berthe. As Elsa, the woman the Captain is seeing when Maria first arrives, and the Captain's friend Max, Laura Pyper and Brandon Zale are excellent in the roles. Pyper achieves the right balance between being calculating, charming and warm and Zale is simply lovable as Max.

Jacqueline Brecker is the Captain's oldest daughter Liesl, and Connor Wince is Rolf the young man she is in love with. The two recently starred in Hale's version of Footloose so it's nice to see the couple on stage again. Brecker has an exceptional voice and a lovely stage presence; the duet she shares with Wince, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," includes a fairly elaborate dance routine with Wince executing some amazing high leaps and jumps. The other children are played by Dale Mortensen, Macy LeCheminant, Austin Porter, Sydney Del Fosse, Amy Dubin and Kathleen Jensen. Not only do they look like they could really be siblings, but all are directed to behave as if they are children who've only had a governesses with minimal interaction with the real world. This is especially apparent in the opening moments of "Do Re Mi" when all of the children show the appropriate hesitancy at joining in on the song. While they all excel, Porter is superb in his naturally realistic take on the part, Mortensen shows the appropriate stage of a boy who is on the verge of becoming a man, Del Fosse has plenty of wit in her delivery of some of the shows key revelatory lines, and Jensen is simply adorable as the youngest of the von Trapp children.

Director D. Scott Withers doesn't make one false step. Every scene and moment appears to have been expertly thought out to make full use of the intimate space. The scenes are all staged so effectively that no matter which side of the stage you are seated on you will feel an intimate connection with the characters and story. With plenty of movement by the actors, you will also never feel that a scene is staged with you looking only at the backs of the actors. There are also about a half dozen scenes creatively staged by Withers to be performed on the various staircases throughout the auditorium during the numerous scene changes. Choreographer Laurie Trygg supplies an abundance of dance steps, including the highly creative choreographed musical "performances" in the show when the von Trapp Family is singing as a group. The combination of Withers' direction and Trygg's choreography provides almost constant movement in the many memorable moments, adding to the joy of the show.

While the Hale "in-the-round" setup mean that there is no ability to show the expansive von Trapp home, as so many other productions of this show rely upon, set designers Adam DeVaney and Brian Daily provide expensive looking furniture and lush topiary pieces to portray the scenes in the house and gardens. Their designs for the Abbey are just as effective in bringing these locations to vivid life. Mary Atkinson's costumes are superb, including appropriate and period perfect suits for the Captain, some lavish designs for Elsa, and colorful clothing for the children. Jeff A. Davis's lighting design uses shadows and rich colors to provide some lovely visuals, especially in the atmospheric opening of the show set at the Abbey. His designs are especially impressive in how they direct us where to focus in the many set change scenes that are staged on the staircases. Lincoln Wright's music direction provides rich tones in the numerous songs the nuns sing as well as in the songs where the children's voices must harmonize seamlessly. The wig and make-up designs by Cambrian James are character and period appropriate. Also, stage manager Justin Peterson must be commended for the efficiently timed scene changes.

The Hale production of The Sound of Music is first rate, joyous and emotional, with an excellent cast, superb direction, rich and abundant choreography, and creative touches. It is one of the best 
productions I've seen of one of the best loved musicals of all time.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of The Sound of Music runs through November 29rd, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

Photo: Nick Woodward-Shaw/Hale Centre Theatre