Wednesday, July 23, 2014

theatre review SHE KILLS MONSTERS, Brebly Theatre Company, July 17

Click here to read my Talkin' Broadway of She Kills Monsters.

Mia Passarella, Kristiana Faddoul, Melody Knudson, Shelby Maticic and David Magadan
The old fashioned image of a group of young kids getting together and saying "let's put on a show" immediately comes to mind when attending a performance at the Brelby Theatre Company in Glendale. Husband and wife co-founders Brian and Shelby Maticic, both in their 20s, do just about everything from act, direct, write, design costumes and sets and, if required, even coordinate the fight choreography for their shows. They formed the company in 2009 and opened their current Glendale theatre space, located in a storefront on 58th Avenue, in the spring of 2013. They've been producing a season of about six shows a year of original works, classic comedies and even Shakespeare. With a group of gifted, young actors, they are currently presenting a well-directed production of Qui Nguyen's touching comedy She Kills Monsters. Receiving its Arizona premiere, Nguyen's play is a sweet and very funny story of discovery, set inside an action-packed game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Fifteen-year-old Tilly Evans and her parents have recently been killed in a car accident. Tilly's 25-year-old school teacher sister Agnes discovers a notebook that Tilly left behind that lays out a Dungeons & Dragons game she created. Realizing the notebook is a way to discover the sister she never really knew, Agnes seeks out Tilly's teenage friend Chuck to help her navigate her way through the fantasy game that Tilly created. Alternating between the real and D&D worlds, Agnes meets many of Tilly's friends, both real and imaginary, and finds out a lot more about her sister and herself then she ever thought she would.

The play premiered in 2011 and has been performed by many theatre companies across the country. It's well written, has easily identifiable characters, and presents a nice journey of discovery at its core with an abundance of laugh out loud moments. While he uses stereotypical "geek" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" type heroine characters for Tilly's game in the play, Nguyen twists the stereotypes a bit and also shows how Tilly based them on people she knew, which adds a nice layer of realism and emotion. The play is set in the early 1990s and includes many pop culture references of that era that elicit additional laughs.

Brelby's production is performed by an agile and energetic group of young actors led by Shelby Maticic as Agnes and Kristiana Faddoul as Tilly, who are very good at portraying two very different sisters. Maticic easily gets across the serious older sibling, who, at first, is as clueless about role-playing games as she is about her sister, but quickly learns to relish wielding a sword with glee. Faddoul is equally good as the strong character that Tilly becomes within the game and touching in the moments she has with Maticic when the truths about Tilly and her friends come to light.

Mia Passarella and Melody Knudson are powerful as Tilly's warrior friends in the game, Lilith and Kaliope, and each has a scene or two as Tilly's real life friends Lily and Kelly that are equally strong and moving. Passarella is quite effective as the fierce, leather clad dominatrix Lilith and a knock-out as the gentle, unsure of herself Lily. Knudson recently scored in the Hale Centre Theatre production of The Miracle Worker where she portrayed Helen Keller's mother and she is as moving here as the sleek Elfin Kaliope and wheelchair-bound Kelly as she was at Hale. David Magadan gets just about everything right in bringing teenager Chuck to life. He's got the appropriate demeanor and mannerisms of a typical "geek" who at first gets flustered when meeting the older woman Agnes. However, while he has nice comic timing and is impressive with his line delivery, his facial expressions go a little too over the top during his encounter with Agnes and her boyfriend. Still, it is a very funny and worthwhile performance.

Fernando Perez is appropriately immature yet sincere as Agnes' boyfriend Miles, who isn't quite ready to commit after dating Agnes for five years. As Agnes' no nonsense, high-school guidance counselor friend Vera, Colleen Carnahan has a perfect droll delivery. Jose Martinez and Simon Faddoul bring plenty of humor to the couch potato and "Quantum Leap"-obsessed Orcus and the gamer Steve, respectively. Faddoul is very amusing in how he continually gets killed in numerous, comical ways. Willa Eigo and April Rideout are hilarious as the "valley girl" speaking, gum chewing, evil cheerleaders. Jaren Navenma has the perfect dry delivery as the Narrator of the piece, though his voice is sometimes drowned out by the music underscoring. Navenma and DJ Hall also are quite effective as the "movers" during the fight sequences; completely dressed in black and with perfect timing, they pick up the various characters during the action sequences to make them appear as though they are flying through space. It is both humorous and dramatic to watch them work.

Brian Maticic doesn't make any missteps in his direction of the production and his fight choreography is imaginative, abundant, not repetitive and impressive in how it combines fast-paced action with comical and dramatic moments, just like Nguyen's play. He also designed the multi-layered, dungeon inspired set which uses projections and nicely back-lit screens to swiftly change from one scene to the next. He also created the numerous witty puppet creatures our heroines and heroes fight in the game. Carolyn McBurney and Shelby Maticic designed some fantastic costumes that are creative and imaginative and fit perfectly with the characters personas. Jessie Tully's hair and makeup design work wonders in transforming the actors from imaginary characters to real life ones and back again. Nicely used music and sound effects by Luke Gomez help underscore the scenes. Mollie Flanagan's lighting is moody and seductive for the game sequences, but appropriately bright for the real life moments. While Brelby's productions might at first appear to be theatre on a shoestring budget, the Maticics are quite effective in how they manage to do a lot with a little and definitely know how to be successful on a limited budget.

She Kills Monsters is a fast moving, funny and touching homage to the geek and imaginary warrior within us all. With an impressive cast, keen direction and perfectly imaginative creative elements, Brelby's production of the play is a winner. And, as someone who never played Dungeons & Dragons or any other role playing games, I can say that you don't need to know anything about them to understand the journey that Agnes is taking and to be moved by what she discovers along the way.

The Brelby Theatre Company production of She Kills Monsters runs through July 26th, 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: Shelby Maticic

theatre review CABARET, Desert Stages Theatre, July 13

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Cabaret just click on this link.

Terry Gadaire and Marna McLendon

Phoenix theatregoers got a rare special treat this summer, within just a two week period they could see two different versions of the classic 1966 musical Cabaret. First up was a fine productionby the Scottsdale Musical Theater Company of the slightly updated 1987 version of the show and now comes a "perfectly marvelous" production from Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale of the 1998 revised script, that runs to August 10th. This more recent version adds some songs written for the 1972 film version but more importantly incorporates elements to ratchet up the shock factor of the story of citizens of Berlin in the early 1930s facing the rise of Hitler. The Desert Stages production is gritty and raw, and is successful in using the intimate playing space to drive home the relevance and immediacy of the horrors of Nazism.

In 1966, book writer Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb created the Broadway musical Cabaret. They based the show on both Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin" that told stories of his time living in Berlin around 1930 and John Van Druten's 1951 theatrical adaptation of the novel, I Am a CameraCabaret, set in 1931, plays out against scenes set inside the gritty, decadent Berlin nightclub the Kit Kat Klub, with a mischievous Emcee overseeing the proceedings of its carefree customers while Hitler's rise to power is happening just outside its doors. American novelist Clifford Bradshaw has arrived in Berlin to begin work on his novel. The desperate and recently homeless English Kit Kat Klub headliner Sally Bowles convinces Cliff to let her move in with him, even though they have just met, and they set about forming an interesting living relationship. Cliff's sweet natured landlady, the German Fräulein Schneider, forms a relationship of her own with the adorably charming Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz. And, even though Sally believes that they have nothing to worry about, and lives her life like it is a never ending cabaret, the rising Nazi regime is about to change everyone's life in Berlin and the world is about to come crashing down in ways no one could possibly imagine.

The updated version of Cabaret more fully incorporates the Emcee into the action of the play to help comment and better focus the atrocities that await the characters. It also stunningly shows how the horrors that are about to come and the desperation of the era culminate in people unable to comprehend the consequence of just what Hitler's power will have on Germany and ultimately the whole world. The extremely intimate theatre in the round stage at Desert Stages is a perfect venue for Cabaret. Not only does it serve well in bringing the scenes set in the smoky dark nightclub setting of the Kit Kat Klub vibrantly to life, but the intimacy of the space works wonders in getting across the emotional aspects of the story. With scenes involving Nazism, characters sporting swastikas and shouts of "Heil!" happening just a few feet in front of you are shocking events that will resonate with you and that you won't quickly forget.
Director Jean-Paoul C. Clemente uses every possible entrance and exit of the space to effectively make us feel as if we are audience members in the club as well as quickly and seamlessly move us from the Kit Kat Klub scenes to the scenes set inside Schneider's boarding house. Clemente also draws refined performances from his cast that quickly establish each character. Jennifer Lee White easily gets across the carefree attitude that Sally has, as well as her self-obsessed nature. While she is somewhat distracting to Cliff's writing of his novel, we also see how she is a unique creature and how she also inspires him. Sally isn't supposed to be a very good singer; she is singing in a run-down nightclub after all, but White bring a nice power and presence to her songs.

Having made a great impression as Henry Higgins in the recent Phoenix Symphony Orchestra/Phoenix Theatre concert production of My Fair Lady, Terry Gadaire is absolutely fearless as the Emcee. He commands the stage, draws attention and has a booming voice that he uses to great effect for his many songs. His take on the Emcee's upbeat songs are flawless, while his interpretation of the ballad "I Don't Care Much" is emotional and stunning, as is his final scene in the show. Clay Sanderson gives Cliff a feeling of hesitancy about the new characters he encounters but also instills a sense of sincerity and recklessness in his dealings with Sally. He has a strength and charm that makes it easy to see why Sally and one of the male dancers at the club are romantically interested in him. His solo song "Don't Go" is delivered with a deep sense of pleading that helps us see how important Sally is to Cliff.

Shari Watts, who was superb as the out of control, pill popping matriarch in Mesa Encore Theatre's August: Osage County earlier this year, is just as effective as Fräulein Schneider. She is warm and realistic in her portrayal of this woman who knows how to survive, whatever the circumstances. When she makes a decision in the second act, which is laid out in her solo "What Would You Do?," it is especially riveting in the emotion and amount of suffering, pain and regret Watts manages to instill in that one moment. Harold LeBoyer is charming as the Jewish Shultz, yet also brings a deep sense of sadness to this man, who, much like Sally, thinks he'll be fine with everything that is going on, just because he is German. Timothy Pittman is charming at first as Cliff's new friend in Berlin, Ernst Ludwig, yet deeply chilling once we see the true feelings of this Nazi sympathizer.

Clemente makes several nice directorial choices including having Ernst start to sing, then speak and finally end up shouting the lyrics of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," making it eerily reminiscent of Hitler giving one of his speeches. The musical doesn't have an overture, so Clemente has added a short musical segment that has the entire ensemble singing a slowed down version of the title song that beckons all of us to "come to the cabaret." Clemente also choreographed the show with Katy Callie and there are some satisfying touches throughout, such as a bit of a waltz for Cliff and Schneider during the act one song "So What" and having the Kit Kat girls kick line number include Nazi storm trooper inspired movements with one arm raised in a "Heil!" stance. Some of the ensemble members aren't exactly in sync with the various dance steps, but I'm not sure if that was intentional or simply due to lack of rehearsal. However, it actually works splendidly for the show and makes the dancers at the Kit Kat Klub seem as run down and out of sorts as the club itself.

Creative elements are extremely effective. Paul Filan's set design, with painted buildings and bended mirrors on the surrounding walls, smoke continually filling the air, and the combination of Lindsey Ihrig's superb, evocative lighting and Tamara Treat's expressive costumes give the Kit Kat Klub scenes a resemblance of a sultry, seedy, run down leather bar or S&M club. But the design just as quickly becomes the bright, sunny rooms of Schneider's boarding room house. Filan uses small rolling tables that are easily reconfigured to represent just about every required piece of furniture in the show. However, the lack of any physical doors in the design does make a few plot points, such as Schultz being caught coming out of Schneider's room, confusing or nonexistent. Treat's costumes that combine leather boots, corsets and fishnet stockings do make the Emcee look like he could just as easily play "Frank 'N' Furter" in a production of The Rocky Horror Show, but the combination of colors and fabrics work, as do the creative hair and make-up designs. The ones for Sally make her resemble a beaten down Ava Gardner.
Cabaret at Desert Stages Theatre is dark, raunchy and shocking, yet has an immediacy through the raw emotions of the story and how identifiable the situations and circumstances of the characters are and the horrors that await them. While it may not be every theatregoer's cup of tea, especially those who prefer more traditional G rated shows like The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady, with excellent creative elements and an inspired performance by Terry Gadaire as the Emcee, this production is highly recommended.

For this show, DST has added special VIP table seating on the two raised balconies that gives an interesting view of the proceedings and also comes with chocolates and a bottle of sparkling cider or water.

The Desert Stages Theatre production of Cabaret runs through August 10th, 2014, 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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

theatre review PETER PAN, Arizona Broadway Theatre, July 11

Click here to read my review below at Talkin' Broadway of Peter Pan at the Arizona Broadway Theatre.
David Errigo, Jr., T.J. Rossi, Tristan Klaphake and Sarah Powell
About to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the classic family musical comedy Peter Pan has landed at Arizona Broadway Theatre in a spirited, colorful and, yes, "high flying" production that goes slightly against the tradition of previous Pan productions by casting a young man as Peter. Mary Martin famously brought J. M. Barrie's classic literary character to life in the 1954 Broadway musical, and then played him in three well received TV productions of the show. Other memorable mountings over the years featured Sandy Duncan and then Cathy Rigby as Peter, but having a young man in the part brings a new natural dimension to the character that serves the story well. The ABT production is appropriately light and comical but with a huge heart at the core.

Living far away from London on the island of Neverland with a group of other Lost Boys, the magical Peter Pan is a boy who refuses to grow up. After Peter and his mischievous fairy Tinkerbell visit the Darling family nursery in London one evening, a sprinkling of fairy dust and happy thoughts whisks the Darling children, Wendy, Michael and John, away to Neverland. Their non-stop adventures include encounters with pirates, Indians, mermaids, a crocodile who swallowed a clock, and the deliciously evil Captain Hook. The score, with music by Moose Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics from Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, features such classic songs as "Neverland," "I'm Flying" and "I Gotta Crow."

David Errigo, Jr. affects a prepubescent voice to give Peter a youthful exuberance. His athletic physique adds a nice element of strength to Peter's dancing and flying movements and he instills a rousing, boyish charm in every line delivery, gesture and facial expression that culminates in a winning performance. However, since the score was originally written for a female to play the part, the changed keys for a male voice don't quite sit as well or allow Peter's songs to soar quite as much as they do when a woman plays Peter.

Jeremy Crawford and Kiel Klaphake
Kiel Klaphake seems to relish playing Peter's enemy, the dastardly Captain Hook, wringing the comical lines for all they're worth, but stopping short of chewing the scenery. And while his Hook is devilishly delightful, his portrayal of Mr. Darling is equally touching and sincere. The two performances are so distinct and different that it's hard to believe they are both played by the same actor. Klaphake also has a rich voice that he uses to great effect on Hook's songs.

Sarah Powell makes Wendy the rightly prim and proper English girl in her stern maternal dealings with Peter and the other boys but also adds a nice touch of sweet romanticism in portraying her school girl crush on Peter. Sure, we know Powell and Errigo aren't really youngsters, but they both do a remarkable job of making us believe that they are. Alissa Tucker gives Tiger Lily, the leader of the Indian tribe, a fierce strength, and Jeremy Crawford as the bumbling pirate Smee steals just about every scene he is in.

Director Mace Archer nicely balances the comical moments with the serious ones and choreographer Kurtis W. Overby provides plenty of energy, including a rousing "Ugg-a-Wugg" that has the entire ensemble banging on drums in well-choreographed, synchronized movements. Creative elements, as usual at ABT, are top notch, with colorful and creative sets by William Boles that include some nice comical scenery additions to the flying sequence over London. Creative costumes by Christianne Myers and vibrant lighting by Will Kirkham that paints the stage in rich, deep purples, reds and blues effectively combine with the scenery to perfectly delineate the more serious scenes in the Darling nursery from the comical and adventurous ones in Neverland. The flying effects by ZFX, who also provided the effects for the Rigby productions, are magical and include an abundance of flying throughout the show. The flying includes more than just having the actors swing back and forth and up and down across the stage as is done in many productions. ABT audiences get an additional bonus as, according to a ZFX spokesperson, an added flying rig that sends Peter out over the first few rows of the audience is something that only about 20% of the theatres that stage the show are able to accommodate.

With many well-known classic show tunes, plenty of adventure and many humorous situations, Peter Pan is an enchanting journey. The ABT production soars with its flying effects, fine cast and beautiful creative elements, but also is perfectly earth bound in honoring the rich emotional messages at the core of the story. As a true sign that the magic of theatre is alive and well, at the opening night performance, at the crucial moment in the show when Peter asks the audience if they believe in fairies, one young audience member in the front section, rapt in attention, immediately commented "I believe in fairies." The genuine, soft spoken yet completely serious statement quickly brought gasps and, I can imagine, more than a few choked up tears for those in the audience, and even caught Errigo off guard with the magic that only live theatre can create.

Peter Pan runs through August 17th, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.

Photos: Mike Benedetto / Arizona Broadway Theatre

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

theatre review FOOTLOOSE, Hale Centre Theatre, July 10

Click here to read my complete review (highlights below) at Talkin' Broadway of Footloose at the Hale Centre Theatre.

It's hard to believe that it has been thirty years since the movie Footloose was such a huge hit at the box office. The soundtrack, with such songs as "I Need a Hero," "Let's Hear It for the Boy," "I'm Free" and the title song, was also a smash, holding the #1 spot on the US Billboard 200 chart for over two months. While the film wasn't an actual musical, since none of the characters sang any of the songs, in 1998 the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical featuring many of the songs from the film along with additional ones written by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford, both of whom had written songs for the movie soundtrack. A fun, upbeat coming of age story with a big message about the need to fit in and the desire to change people's lives for the better, Footloosewas the perfect feel good summer movie, and the musical is equally as fun, filled with lots of dancing and buoyant, infectious songs. With a cast of young gifted actors and singers, the Hale Centre production that just opened is a skillfully sung and danced show that offers a fun and joyous night out.

High school student Ren McCormack and his mother have just moved to the small town of Bomont from Chicago after Ren's father deserts them. They've moved to Bomont to live with Ren's aunt and uncle, and Ren quickly realizes that his Chicago style and way of doing things clashes with the small town's rules, specifically one enforced by the local minister Reverend Moore that bans dancing and rock music due to their negative influences on the children in town. Of course, when Ren falls for the minister's daughter Ariel it only makes matters worse, especially since Ren's outgoing personality is seen as a negative influence. Ren sets out to discover the reasons behind the ban on dancing as well as a way to bridge the gap between himself and the ultra-conservative Moore.

Footloose is a show that requires a lot of dancing and director/choreographer Cambrian James has assembled a terrific cast that more than manages their way around the varied and exuberant steps he has created for the show. Connor Wince easily makes Ren the likeable outcast who is just trying to fit in, and his exuberance is displayed through exceptional and impressive dance moves, including an abundance of acrobatic flips. He has a pleasant signing voice as well as an assured delivery of his dialogue which contribute to a nice interpretation of the role.

As Ariel, the minister's daughter who falls for Ren, Jacqueline Brecker gets across that Ariel is smart and funny and knows exactly what to do in order to get what she wants. She brings a nice energy to her performance as well as a voice that solidly negotiates the pop/rock score. While she and Wince come across more as good friends who might be interested in each other, instead of a couple in a relationship with sultry, burning desire at its core, they do have one passionate kiss that adds a bit of heat to their G-rated romance.

Brandon Zale is appropriately righteous and stern as Reverend Moore, but instills the part with an element of compassion and understanding that I've not seen in previous productions. He makes Moore sympathetic and not an out and out villain, which works well. He also has a rich and powerful singing voice that he uses very effectively for Moore's songs. Brandi Bigley and Jennifer Whiting deliver touching and heartfelt performances as the moms of Ariel and Ren, respectively. They don't have a lot to do in the show, but Pitchford and Bobbie have given them both rich, clear and succinct dialogue that, when combined with Bigley and Whiting's genuine performances, manages to do a lot with a little.

Kate E. Cook and Danny Karapetian are fantastic as Rusty and Willard, Ariel and Ren's friends who have a budding romance of their own. Cook has one of the strongest, clearest voices in the non-professional Phoenix Theatre scene, managing to make an excellent impression in every role she performs, and she more than succeeds as the fast talking Rusty. Her delivery of "Somebody's Eyes" is superb. Karapetian is just as good as the slow-witted but endearing and charming Willard. He provides a skilled delivery of Willard's humorous lines and excels in his solo comical song "Mama Says."

James' staging is fantastic and his dance steps are continually changing from song to song. He proficiently fills the entire stage, the staircases, platforms and entry ways with his cast during "Somebody's Eyes," which ties in perfectly with the song's lyrics about how, no matter where you go, "somebody's eyes are watching." For the dream sequence delivery of "I Need a Hero," he expertly has his ensemble maneuver four large tables into a rotating platform for Brecker, Cook and their friends to perform upon, and then just as quickly move them back as if the dream never happened. I also like his honky tonk staging of the country inspired "Let's Hear It For the Boy" that Cook knocks out of the park while the ensemble delivers some nice line dancing steps. James' only misstep is a slightly muddy and cluttered opening sequence for the title song that has his cast performing some awkward movements. Fortunately, that and the slightly non-passionate relationship between Wince and Brecker are the only very small negatives in the whole production.

Creative elements, as usual with a Hale show, are excellent. Set designers Adam DeVaney and Brian Daily use an abundance of small moveable set pieces to whisk us from one location to the next, Mary Atkinson's costumes are colorful, character appropriate and abundant, and Jeff A. Davis' lighting design provides appropriately bright sequences for the daytime scenes and plenty of shadows and darkness for the evening ones. He also uses a lot of effective "rock star" style lighting for the upbeat songs. While there were a few small sound glitches, I have to believe they were just opening night kinks still needing to be worked out.

Footloose is a fun-filled show perfect for the hot summer months. It's fun, fast and brimming with singing and dancing. The Hale Centre Theatre production has excellent choreography and a hard-working cast that manages to instill this simple story with a shot of charm and sincerity on top of a wealth of nonstop dancing.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of Footloose runs through August 23rd, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

Photo: Nick Woodward/Hale Centre Theatre

theatre review THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, Actors Theatre, July 9

To read my Talkin' Broadway review of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Actors Theatre just click on this link.

Ron May
American playwright, monologist and performer Mike Daisey created quite a stir in 2010 with his one man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The ninety minute monologue delves into the history of technology giant Apple, its co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs, and the specifics of how many of the world's electronics, including products from Apple, are made in China under harsh work environments. Daisey and his play won accolades for the powerful storytelling and the ability to make us think about just what goes into making our electronic devices. While it was later revealed that Daisey exaggerated or dramatized a few of the items, facts and encounters in his monologue, it is still a stirring analysis of the world's fascination with technology and the cost that allure entails. Actors Theatre presented the play back in the Fall of 2012 and they've brought the show back for a return engagement for a few performances this month as part of their Summer Series. Ron May, the Founding Artistic Director of Stray Cat Theatre, who starred in the previous production, returns for this encore presentation.

According to Daisey, about half of the electronics made in the world are manufactured in one single factory complex in Shenzhen, China by a company called Foxconn. While most of us think everything today is made by machines, that is actually not the case, as the low cost of wages in China means thousands of hands are working, essentially around the clock, to make the latest "must have" electronic gadget. The stories of the inhumane working conditions of these workers in China, and the details of Daisey's visit to Shenzhen make up the "agony" in the title of the play. Daisey's passionate words tell of over 400,000 workers in China, some working 12-16 hours a day, at low wages, doing repetitive motions with their hands that make them virtually useless within ten years. A series of suicides, with workers jumping off the top of the large Foxconn buildings in Shenzhen, can only be assumed to be attributed to the conditions of working at Foxconn.

But Daisey effectively balances the horror stories of the workers with the fascinating story of Apple and the rise, fall and rise again of Steve Jobs and the world's fascination with the sleekly designed products from Apple. The humorous tales of the mystical, God-like Jobs, and of our intense focus on having latest and greatest electronic gadgets form the "ecstasy" in the play's title. These humorous and absorbing stories counter the dramatic tales of the workers in Shenzhen to form an illuminating piece that really makes you think about everything that goes into making that electronic device in your hand, pocket or purse. Daisey obviously wants to raise awareness of the inhumane working conditions in China, and alternating the story of his trip to Shenzhen with the story of Apple's success culminates in a play that resonates with tech heads, geeks and just about anyone who has ever wondered what went into making their phone and other devices. Though, for those less tech savvy, or those less familiar with Apple and Jobs, it might be just a bit boring. This production, like the one two years back, is the edited version of the play that eliminates the fabricated items that Daisey admitted to making up. And, while the majority of Daisey's verbiage is focused on Apple, he does mention several times that Apple isn't the only company involved in the manufacturing of products in China in grim working conditions.

Ron May is splendid as Daisey, with an intense, natural delivery of the words that makes you believe May himself actually visited Foxconn and had intimate details of the creation of Apple. I have no idea if May is actually a self-proclaimed geek, techie or Apple product aficionado who takes his MacBook apart to clean every piece in detail, as Daisey admits to doing in the monologue, but based on May's intense, realistic performance, I'm prepared to have him help me with all of my computer needs. May also relishes the humor in the script, with a spirited delivery of the comic lines as well as a nice ability to use different voices to portray the various characters in the piece, such as Apple's co-founder Steve Wozniak. It is an impressive performance.

Matthew Wiener's direction allows the clear storytelling and May's performance to flow naturally, with appropriate movement around the stage when necessary. Tim Monson's lighting design is simple and clean, providing a nice balance of light that complements Daisey's stories and May's performance.

Daisey's play is a funny, sharp and pointed monologue, and the combination of Daisey's words and May's delivery form an immersive exploration of Apple, Jobs and our focus on technology. It might make you feel a bit uncomfortable and make you think a little differently the next time you go to look at your phone, laptop or any fancy electronic item, which is exactly what Daisey was attempting to do. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and Ron May's outstanding performance tell a tale that will slowly gnaw away at you and really make you think.

The Actors Theatre production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs plays again on July 12th and July 23rd, 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 http://actorstheatrephx.org/ or by calling (602) 888-0368

Photo: John Groseclose

Saturday, July 12, 2014

theatre review THE COTTAGE, Actors Theatre, June 28

To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway of The Cottage click on this link.

Tyler Englen, Angelica Howard, Joe Kremer and Maren MacLean
One of the most impressive things about the new play The Cottage, receiving its Arizona premiere in a superb production from Actors Theatre, is that it was written by a modern American playwright yet exudes all of the wonderful elements of classic Noël Coward English drawing room comedies. This wickedly delicious comedy of manners is delivered by a superbly skilled ensemble of actors, with swift direction and terrific creative production aspects. What is even more impressive is that this cast is also appearing in the equally funny modern comedy The Book Club Play, in repertory through August in Actors Theatre's first Summer Season of Theatre program.

Playwright Sandy Rustin has crafted a play that is extremely entertaining but also has crisp, clear realistic dialogue of the period, razor sharp humor and hilarious situations. Inspired by the works of Coward, the play is dripping with comical circumstances and English upper crust sensibilities, it is humorous yet also full of heart. Actors Theatre has chosen wisely in how this 1920's English set play serves as a nice counterpart to their modern day, American set The Book Club Play, with each play running on alternating weekends.

It is 1923 and Sylvia and her lover Beau, who also happens to be her brother in law, are spending their annual romantic rendezvous at Beau's family's cottage. Tired of only having these once a year get-togethers for the past seven years, and unbeknownst to Beau, Sylvia has already sent telegrams to their spouses alerting them of their on-going tryst and letting them know they intend to leave their spouses and be together. Over the next ninety minutes Beau's brother Clarke and Beau's wife Marjorie will descend upon the cottage to confront the lovers as will Beau's other lover Dierdre and her jealous ex-husband Richard. To say any more of the plot will spoil the fun, but there are twists and turns galore with secrets revealed and plenty of laugh out loud moments sprinkled throughout the fast moving two act play.

As they demonstrated in The Book Club Play, the cast is a talented group of individuals who skillfully form a superb comic ensemble. Everything in The Cottage revolves around Sylvia and Maren Maclean couldn't be any better in the role. With comically expressive facial gestures and a sly, witty delivery of words, she wrings every comic moment and nuance from every line of dialogue and situation. Joseph Kremer's Beau, is equally impressive. Unlike his Book Club Play character, who is less educated and knowledgeable than the rest of the group, here he plays the intellectual lawyer, and has the appropriate demeanor and speech for the character. Kremer also has no problem portraying a classic and dashing ladies' man, full of pomp and swagger and wryly delivered statements.

Angelica Howland is a comic gem as Beau's very pregnant wife Marjorie. Howland's Marjorie is infused with proper English manners yet delivers charming sarcastic comments, though she never loses her temper with all of the craziness swirling around her. Like Maclean, she also uses her body for humor, including easily balancing her teacup on her pregnant belly and using just her enormous stomach, sans hands, to push open the door to the kitchen with ease. Tyler Eglen gives Clarke the typical qualities of the staunch Englishman who makes absurd and dry comments, but with a sweet, mannered disposition. Beau's other lover, Dierdre, is played by Alexis Green as charming and endearing, yet we easily see how she is also gullible and naïve. Green is completely committed to the part which includes several instances of physical humor where she ends up laid out on the floor or spread out on pieces of furniture. Ian Christiansen instills Richard with a sweet disposition, yet cuts a nice menacing stature when required to portray the jealous lover.

As he equally achieved in The Book Club Play, director Matthew Wiener skillfully guides his cast into a well formed ensemble, ensuring they don't step on each other's lines, but deliver every comic line efficiently and imbue their characters with the charisma required for this appealing and hilarious farce. All six of the actors have also created realistic and rich English accents that are consistent throughout.

Creative elements are as fun and charming as the play with a set design by Jeff Thomson of a rustic yet colorful and sunny British cottage that exudes as much warmth as the characters. Lively costumes, by Lois K. Myers, are authentic to the 1920s period of the show and as flattering and impressive as the striking hair and make-up designs by Terre Steed. Combined with the bright, cheerful lighting by Tim Monson and Christopher Neumeyer's sound design that includes several well timed sound effects, including one moment of particular hilarity, there isn't one misstep in the creative aspects of this production.

Sandy Rustin has written a fun, fast paced comedy with razor sharp humor that shows people who are "stuck in the wrong marriages" and escalates into a rollicking farce when everything goes dreadfully wrong. But underneath, the play has a sweet sensibility that also comments on the subjects of marriage, sex, fate and, most importantly, love. I believe The Cottage will become a staple comedy all over the country; the Actors Theatre production has the perfect cast, direction and creative aspects to make it vibrant, hilarious and full of heart.

The Actors Theatre production of The Book Club Play runs through August 10th, 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 http://actorstheatrephx.org or by calling (602) 888-0368

Photo: John Groseclose

theatre review CABARET, Scottsdale Musical Theater Company, June 27

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of the Scottsdale Musical Theater Company's production of Cabaret.

Petey Swartz, Michele Kahn and Matt Earnest
The Scottsdale Musical Theater Company prides itself on presenting the original versions of classic Broadway musicals, with big casts, real sets, lavish costumes and a live twenty-piece orchestra. Their recent production ofCabaret, which ran for three performances this past weekend, while not the actual original 1966 Broadway version of the musical, but instead the slightly revised 1987 version, proved a worthy production, though with a few reservations. While not quite as successful as their recent production last fall of The Music Man, SMTC's latest show did benefit from their move to the Tempe Center for the Arts, which provided better artistic options including a larger stage, sunken orchestra pit, and ample fly space above, all set against the beautiful surroundings of the lavish Center for the Arts and the Tempe Town Lake.

Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin" told stories of his time living in Berlin around 1930. John Van Druten adapted the novel into the 1951 play I Am a Camera and, drawing upon both sources, book writer Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb created Cabaret. Most of the musical is set inside the Kit Kat Klub, a decadent Berlin nightclub in 1931 with a mischievous Emcee overseeing the proceedings of its carefree customers, while Hitler's rise to power is happening just outside its doors. But it is also the story of two very different couples, at different stages in their lives, facing very different obstacles. Penniless American bisexual novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Matt Earnest) has just arrived in Berlin to work on his novel. Sally Bowles (Michele Kahn), the English Kit Kat headliner, after a chance meeting at the club with Cliff, shows up on his doorstep looking for a place to live and they set about forming an interesting living relationship. Meanwhile, Cliff's middle-aged landlady the German Fraulein Schneider (Petey Swartz) and the sweet, charming Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (Ron Jennings) have a blossoming romance of their own. With the Nazi regime on the rise, everyone's life in Berlin is about to change. As Sally continues to proclaim that "life is a cabaret," the world outside is set to come crashing down all around her as well as everyone else in Germany.

While the show seems almost tame now in its attempt to be shocking, one can only imagine what the experience was like to see it when it first premiered almost fifty years ago. I'm sure the combination of anti-Semitism, swastika-wearing cast members, talk of abortion and sexual proclivities was enough to raise the ire of many audience members. The addition of an Emcee that sheepishly draws the audience into the era, and comments mockingly on the atrocities around us, was also a nifty way to frame the proceedings and deceptively reflect and make audiences in 1966 realize that the show was eerily also about the modern day horrors always lurking right outside their door. The recent 1998 Broadway revival that starred Alan Cumming as the Emcee, which received a revival itself on Broadway this season, added many elements to ratchet up the shock factor but also wisely honed in on and clarified the relevance of the horrors of Nazism.

Director David Hock's decision to stick with an older version of the show is worthy, in that it provided audiences the chance to see what the show was like before director Sam Mendes heightened the sexuality in his 1998 production. While this older version is more of a museum piece today, with very little in the way of shock value, it also delivers slightly watered down elements that Mendes also heightened, specifically about the upcoming results of the Nazi regime. However, the SMTC production provided a glimpse into what made the original production so successful. It is an interesting look back at the desperation of the era, the horrors lurking in the shadows, and the inability for anyone to completely comprehend what the consequences of Hitler's power would have to Germany, and ultimately the entire world. With so many people today willing to turn a blind eye to situations such as political unrest in third world countries, poverty and other worldly topics such as climate change, the thematic elements of the musical are actually still relevant today.

Ashley Nebeker and Matt Newhard
The SMTC production excelled in its casting, but fared slightly less well in its production elements. Michele Kahn easily made us believe that Sally was the self-proclaimed "mysterious and fascinating" lady she claims to be. Her carefree demeanor echoed the self-obsessed person who isn't even aware of the ramifications of the rising political situation as well as someone who never seems to make the right decisions. Kahn made Sally appropriately forceful yet charming, easily showing us a woman who gets what she wants, and delivered some of Sally's most famous lines assuredly, including, "Politics? What's that got to do with us?" Kahn also showed us Sally's vulnerability and her singing voice was powerful, including a grounded delivery of the title song.

As the Emcee, Matt Newhard veered away from the overtly sexual nature that Cumming brought to the recent Broadway revival, but also wasn't the somewhat creepy, asexual version that Joel Grey created in the original production and subsequent 1972 film. Instead, Newhard made him an entertainer, here to take his audiences away from the harsh realities that are just outside the doors of the Kit Kat Klub. This simple decision was best achieved in one effective scene where Hock had the Emcee remove his white pancake face make-up and rouged cheeks and we saw the ordinary man underneath the facade. Sure, he prances about the stage, sings like a bird and ogles the ladies in the audience, but Newhard made us see that he is a human, just like the rest of the characters in the play, and dealing with the same obstacles every other person in Germany at the time was facing.

Matt Earnest's take on Cliff was a bit hesitant. Earnest showed a pleasant singing voice and nice line delivery but we didn't quite see from his actions what made him so attractive to the other men mentioned in the show, let alone to Sally, since he wasn't quite sure of himself. A bit more emotion and less of the extra unnecessary busy work, including pacing and hand gestures, that made him seem a bit antsy, would greatly help. Still, overall it was a more than serviceable performance.

Petey Swartz and Ron Jennings were superb as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. We got a sense of warmth and sentiment from them that made their attraction to each other and the richness of their characters realistic. They both also easily made us understand that these two characters had both been alone for so long, it made them a bit hesitant about their budding relationship. Swartz' delivery of her solo "What Would You Do?" was simple, emotional and extremely effective. Schneider is a survivor, yet one easily felt the regret and pain from Swartz' portrayal of Schneider's suffering in her delivery of that song. Hector Coris had a perfect German accent and demeanor as the Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig, instilling just the right amount of charm, with menace beneath the surface.

Overall, Hock's direction was good, with nicely staged dialogue scenes and good use of the expansive Kit Kat Klub space, though some of the larger group scenes, including the "Telephone" number and especially the act one closer, were muddy and not directed, or lit, in a way to easily show who we should be focusing on. Choreographer Bill Hotaling delivered some impressive Kit Kat Klub routines that featured varied dance steps, including a nicely done "Don't Tell Mama" with fine-tuned chair choreography. Rachel Gordon Smallwood's scenic design encompassed a fairly expansive Kit Kat Klub set with a series of stairs and entrance ways, though the wall of the set was placed so far in the back that it was hard to appreciate the details of the design. The small set for Cliff's apartment room and the hallway of the house were appropriately dingy with pealing wallpaper on the walls. However, the numerous set pieces and props used for Cliff's apartment required much more time to move on and off stage, making the scene changes far longer, and noisier, than necessary. Bret G. Reese's lighting was adequate with the book scenes brightly lit, but the night club scenes were a bit too dark. Ken Olash's sound design suffered from some crosstalk and mic issues, problems understandable since this is the first time in the venue. Hopefully, most of the shortcomings in the creative aspects were remedied once the technical team had more performances under their belts to address the issues.

Not quite as dark, or anywhere near as sexual, as the most recent Broadway revival, the Scottsdale Musical Theatre's production of this landmark musical was a nice look back at what shocked audiences almost fifty years ago. Most of the shortcomings of this production were limited to the somewhat watered down aspects of the original play that are still vague in the updated book for the 1987 revival. While it still served as a reminder of how we all can be complacent or in denial about certain issues we feel don't affect us, there was still some hesitation in the direction and acting, and some missteps in the creative elements. However, as being the only theater company in the Phoenix area that relies on the enormous sound that a live twenty-piece orchestra creates, and with their large casts and the added creative benefits of the move to the Tempe Center for the Arts, SMTC seems to have everything lined up for success.

The Scottsdale Musical Theatre Company's production of Cabaret ran from June 27th to the 29th, 2014, with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. You can get information on their upcoming production of The Producers, which plays from December 31, 2014, to January 3, 2015, atwww.scottsdalemusicaltheater.com. Tickets can be ordered by calling 602-909-4215

Photos: Jessica Cole