Monday, October 27, 2014

theatre review RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, Palms Theatre, October 11th

My review at Talkin' Broadway of the Palms Theatre's production of Run For Your Wife can be found by clicking this link.
Front row: Caitlin Newman, Victor Legarreta, Erik Hogan and Shannon Connolly;
back row: Jesse Staubach, Joel Duke and Mark Kleinman
When done right, a British farce can be a hysterical, comic frenzy. The Palms Theatre production of Ray Cooney's Run For Your Wife, a successful farce that ran for nine years in London, becomes just that, with extremely effective and well-timed comic performances and direction.

John Smith is an easygoing, happily married London taxi driver. Well, happily married to two women with two separate homes, keeping everything in order thanks to a well scheduled timetable that allows him equal time with both women and no chance of them ever finding out about the other. His only problem? After getting hit on the head while trying to save an old woman from a couple of muggers, he mistakenly gives one address to the hospital and another to the police. When two different policemen come to investigate at the two separate homes, his double life starts to spiral out of control, with John telling lies that pile up as he attempts to cover his tracks as he races back and forth between his two wives with all out lunacy prevailing.

Director Victor Legarreta has plenty of experience with Cooney's plays, having performed or directed in seventeen different productions of the playwright's comedies. That experience is put to good use in this production, not only in his skilled direction of the fast-paced, quick precision timing of the cast but also in that Legarreta does double duty and is also playing John. He brings an appropriate sense of the "normal" man who is experiencing a very un-normal day, with a nice touch of both redeeming and likable qualities. Rushing back and forth between two homes and two wives, while he tries to untangle the mess he has made, gives Legarreta plenty of moments to show not only his perfect comic line delivery but also his physical comic abilities as well. One scene that involves a newspaper that Smith is trying to hide from his wife is especially hilarious.

The rest of the cast is just as hard working, with every one of them willing to throw themselves with glee into the ridiculous situations that Cooley has crafted. As John's two wives, Caitlin Newman and Shannon Connolly have flawless timing in the opening sequence that sets things up, with both of them seamlessly delivering the rapid back and forth lines with ease. Both also successfully display the confused expressions and frustration encountered as the two women start hearing things about their husband that don't quite make sense.

As John's unemployed neighbor Stanley Gardner, whom John confides his secret with, Erik Hogan has keen physical comic abilities, at times even throwing himself over a couch with profound agility, as he attempts to help in the deception, but just ends up making things worse. Jesse Staubach and Mark Kleinman play the two detectives and, since they both are observers to the hysterics, it's effective that each stays even keeled throughout. It's also a nice effect of the casting that they look and sound very different from each other, with the younger Staubach more a "by the book" officer with a crisp English accent and the older Kleinman providing an amusing touch as the older cop who not only stutters his "p's" every time he says his last name "Porterhouse" but also finds himself slightly pulled into the hilarity, even donning an apron at one point and serving tea. Joel Duke rounds out the ensemble as the gay upstairs neighbor, delivering his lines fittingly with the stereotypical swish and swagger.

The play is full of British stereotypes, from the dutiful wife and sexist husband to the upper-crust policemen and the flippant gay neighbor. Fortunately, the cast portrays the characters more as part of a period piece, with any political incorrectness of the time period adding to the jokes.

Run for Your Wife is a perfect fit for the intimate Marquee Theatre at the Palms, with set and props designer Thomas R. Prather constructing simple yet nicely detailed, side-by-side living rooms that allow the play to unfold in both locations simultaneously. Tia Hawkes' costumes are period appropriate and the sound design and direction also include well-timed sound effects of doorbells and phones ringing that add to the comical moments, though at the performance I attended there was an ongoing issue with the amplification of the effects, which hopefully has been resolved. Also, the English accents of the cast are spot on and consistent.

With a neverending series of misunderstandings, mix-ups, and highly improbable events with plenty of fast paced, well timed entrances and exits and a series of slamming doors, this is a high energy production that is not only entertaining but has a sweet charm as well. While the play does bog down a bit in the second act, the Palms cast has impeccable timing and performances that, while appropriately over-the-top, never go too far and easily make you forget about the play's few shortcomings. With the cast delivering the requisite speed and energy, it is perfectly ridiculous, just as farce should be.

Next week, the Palms opens up Cooney's sequel to this play, Caught in the Net, and performs both plays in repertory through November 15th.

The Palms Theatre production of Run For Your Wife runs through November 15th, 2014, at 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. Tickets and information for their upcoming productions can be found atthepalmstheatre.com or by calling 480 924-6260.

Photo: Shari Corbett / Palms Theatre

theatre review THE PRODUCERS, Arizona Broadway Theatre, Oct. 10th

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

Michael McAssey and Jared Mancuso
The Mel Brooks musical juggernautThe Producers, the show that broke Broadway box office records and won the most Tony Awards in history, is receiving a smashing production at Arizona Broadway Theatre to open their 10th season. Based on Brooks' 1968 film of the same name, The Producers is an uproarious musical with a "take no prisoners" attitude, offends almost everyone possible, but also has a well-crafted book, a very witty score, and has so much charm and heart that it's easy to see why it was such a hit on Broadway. The ABT production has an exceptional cast, lush creative elements, and direction so confident that it manages to whip the affair into a comic delicacy.

It's 1959 and Max Bialystock is a down on his luck theatrical producer who once was "The King of Broadway." His latest show Funny Boy—a musical version of Hamlet—has just flopped and he has to continually romance a series of little old ladies to get them to invest in his productions, something that is too taxing even for Max. When Leo Bloom, an accountant who has been sent to audit Max's books, makes the comment that Max actually raised $2,000 more than Funny Boy cost, so he actually made money on the flop, Leo states that "a producer could actually make more money with a flop than a hit." Upon hearing that, the wheels in Max's head start to turn and he determines the ultimate scheme to make it rich on Broadway. They need to find the worst play ever written, hire the worst director, cast the worst actors, raise $2 million dollars, twice as much money than they actually need, and when the show flops they will both be rich. Of course, in typical Brooks comedic fashion, things don't go at all as planned.

The story basically follows the plot of film, which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Max and Leo. But Brooks and fellow book-writer Thomas Meehan added even more comical bits to beef up the characters and flesh out the plot points as well as nicely show the growing friendship between Bialystock and Bloom. The Tony-winning book has some of the best comic set-ups and pay-offs, including several bits that recur or get big laughs many scenes after the initial set up. For Broadway, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were a winning pair as Max and Leo, with Lane winning a Tony; and Brooks' Tony winning musical score is a gem, featuring the couple of numbers that were also in the film, along with hilarious and romantic duets, big production numbers, and some effective soul searching solos for the main characters.

Michael McAssey and Jared Mancuso are a perfect pair to take on the roles of producers Bialystock and Bloom, respectively. With the characters caught up in numerous funny situations, both have perfect comic timing to make the lunacy resonate, delivering their many jokes in grand style. McAssey has a rich voice that he uses to great effect on his many songs and delivers a convincing portrayal of the exhausted, money-driven womanizing producer just trying to make a buck. His second act solo, "Betrayed," gets a tour de force delivery. It is a winning performance.

Slightly echoing the voice and mannerisms of Broderick, Mancuso perfectly instills Leo with the anxious mannerisms of the nervous lowly accountant with low self-esteem yet one who has big dreams of being a successful Broadway producer. Mancuso gives Bloom a huge likability factor that makes the audience quickly sympathize with him, yet his hilarious hysteric outbursts and close attachment to his little blue blanket also brings out some big laughs. He is also a skilled dancer.
Nicole Benoit portrays Ulla the sexpot Swedish actress/secretary impeccably. With a consistent and funny Swedish accent she brings out the humorous parts of this voluptuous character. With legs that go on for miles, Benoit dances exceptionally, at times kicking her legs up so high they practically hit her head. Ulla's show-stopping song, "When You Got It, Flaunt It" includes a moment when she says "Ulla now belt" and Benoit does just that, blowing the roof off the theatre.

The rest of the main cast includes Michael Moeller as Roger De Bris, the "worst director" they hire, Morgan Reynolds as De Bris' "common law assistant" Carmen Ghia, and Greg Kalafatas as Franz Liebkind, the author who has written the worst play Max and Leo find: Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. They are all impressive, with Moeller hilarious as the prancing but forceful director and Reynolds a scream as the lover/assistant of De Bris; they are a comical couple of mismatched sizes, which adds to the gaiety, so to speak, but you also feel the deep love they have for each other. Also, Reynolds' way of walking is one of the funniest things you'll see in a long time. Kalafatas is an absolute riot as the Hitler-loving playwright, instilling every movement, line delivery and song with hilarity. He also has a few brief moments when he plays Leo's boss to great effect. All three practically eat, chew and spit out the scenery—and the audience relishes every moment.

Director Clayton Phillips succeeds in every possible way, making the humorous moments pop and the actors shine; he has added many original comical bits, including a funny ABT reference in the song "Betrayed" that gets a big laugh. Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby has come up with some inventive steps, including adding to some of the best ones that original director/choreographer Susan Stroman won a Tony for. And, I'm assuming that both Phillips and Overby partnered on the well-choreographed scene changes that incorporate the ensemble cast to swiftly move the action along in creative ways.

As is typical at ABT, the production elements are knock-outs, with Nick Mozak's very impressive 1950s style set design that includes multiple large set pieces and a beautiful Manhattan silhouette skyline backdrop. The costumes are copies of William Ivey Long's Tony winning originals, so ABT audiences will see exactly what New York audiences saw; William C. Kirkham's lighting design adds plenty of bright comical pop to the proceedings; the sound design from Jason Lynn is crisp and clear; and Adam Berger's music direction is quite effective in achieving lush harmonies from the ensemble numbers.

While a musical spoof about a musical of Hitler might seem offensive in mocking one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, The Producers is complete satire, with jokes and characters that are both amusing and at times even charming, and in the end the show isn't really offensive toward anyone, except perhaps Hitler himself. Bursting with uproarious jokes and virtually nonstop laughter, The Producers is probably the funniest show to play Broadway in the past twenty years, worthy of all the awards and accolades it won. With an astonishingly talented cast, impressive choreography and creative elements and impeccable direction, ABT is starting off their 10th season in grand fashion with another can't miss production.

The Producers runs through November 9th, 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.

Photo: Mike Benedetto / Arizona Broadway Theatre

theatre review THE ADDAMS FAMILY, Copperstar Repertory, October 9th

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of The Addams Family at Copperstar Repertory

Geoffrey Goorin, Sammy Siaki, Janna Hanson, Harmon Swartz, Shanti Okawa, Kevin Rogers and Maureen McElaney 
There have been numerous musicals based on characters from cartoons, television shows and movies, but I think The Addams Family is one of the first to draw on all three. The kooky characters that Charles Addams created for his series of cartoons for The New Yorker magazine were brought to life in the iconic 1960s TV show as well as a series of films in the 1990s. Addams' characters have a strange yet appealing combination of charm, love, eccentricity, and the macabre that immediately sets them apart, so it seemed only natural that someone would hit upon the idea of bringing them to life on stage. Copperstar Repertory Theatre opens their 2014 season with an impressive production of the musical with sure-footed direction and a cast more than game to take on these eccentric, gothic and ghoulish characters.


The plot is fairly basic and one we've seen before, but with some hilarious updates. Teenager Wednesday Addams is in love, but with a boy from a "normal" and respectable family, something the Addamses are the furthest from. She tells her father Gomez of the boy, and that they are engaged, and pleads with him not to tell her mother Morticia, afraid of how she'll react. Gomez agrees even though he is now forced to do something he's never done before—keep something from his wife. The secret causes a rift between the parents that creates confusion and trust issues. Add in the rest of the wild Addams clan—Uncle Fester, silent butler Lurch, crazy Grandma and young brother Pugsley—as well as many funny encounters between the Addamses and the straight-laced family of Wednesday's boyfriend Lucas and you have an evening of wacky fun centered around a dinner party the Addamses host for the young couple.

The Addams Family is a musical with an interesting history, both before and after it opened on Broadway. Many changes were made to the score and book after the show's lackluster pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. After poor reviews and a run of less than two years on Broadway, the creators made even more changes for the subsequent national tour. That final version is the one that is being licensed for regional productions. The changes are mostly for the better, resulting in a quick moving production, but it still is a musical with a very simple plot, little conflict, and many musical numbers by Andrew Lippa that are basically forgettable. Fortunately, the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice has a never-ending string of jokes, due to an abundance of one-liners, comical sight gags, and character specific dialogue that establishes the various eccentric Addams Family members; and a few of Lippa's songs do succeed with some very clever lyrics and varied musical styles.

While the show is mainly a full ensemble effort, Gomez and Morticia are front and center throughout, and Harmon Swartz and Janna Hanson are excellent in instilling the characters with moments of both insanity and poignancy. Swartz is especially successful in not only making Gomez the witty, fun and loving husband and father but also one with deep, thoughtful feelings toward his wife and daughter. Swartz' crazy European accent is effective and impressive in how he never drops it, even when singing his songs. Hanson gives her Morticia a unique combination of sensuality, mysteriousness and melancholy that works. Both Swartz and Hanson excel in their songs, with Hanson's "Just Around the Corner" getting a funny vaudeville style delivery and Swartz' "Happy Sad" a touching moment about a father's reaction to a child growing older.

As the young couple in love, Shanti Okawa and Nick Gunnell bring an appropriate level of excitement to their parts and make a realistic romantic pair. Okawa is impressive with her comic line readings, instilling all of her lines with a perfect comic punch. Gunnel is equally good in making the straight-laced Lucas come even more alive once challenged by Okawa's Wednesday. Their duet "Crazier Than You" is fun and upbeat with both in good voice.

Lucas' parents Mal and Alice are mostly bland characters and Steve Morgan and Tina Reynolds naturally put across their simplicities. Reynolds has an effective soprano that she shows off in her funny solo bit "Waiting." Geoffrey Goorin makes the most of his humorous moments as Uncle Fester, bringing a sense of pure joy and fun to the part, including his stand-out song "The Moon and Me." The rest of the zany Addams clan is comprised of Sammy Siaki as Pugsley, Maureen McElaney as Grandma, and Kevin Rogers as Lurch. Siaki has a nice stage presence, bringing a sweet and charming though seductive disposition to the mischievous Pugsley. McElaney's Grandma is a bit of an underwritten part, but McElaney still manages to put a bit of zing in her few humorous lines, and Rogers is appropriately droll as the lurking and mostly silent Lurch. While the cast are all quite good in their line readings, some struggle just a bit on their sustained high notes in a few of the songs.

Director Mary-Jo Okawa has not only found a cast capable to bring these memorable characters to vibrant life but she also designed the creative costumes and fun props and co-designed the fairly elaborate sets with her husband David. Okawa's talents are impressive. Laura Christian's choreography is fun and, for the most part, makes good use of the ensemble cast in several numbers. I'm not sure if it was Christian or Okawa who came up with the sword choreography for Gomez in "Trapped," but whoever did should be commended for finding an interesting way to add even more to that vibrant moment. Misty West's lighting is quite lush and effective, with an appropriate use of shadows for the Addamses' family rooms. Pre-recorded musical tracks from Right on Cue Services are rich, full bodied arrangements that add a perfect level or professionalism to the evening.

There is a fairly large ensemble for the show, though they aren't used very effectively throughout, except in a few of the larger dance numbers. While most of the blame for the inclusion of such a large ensemble can be faulted to the creators, it seems Okawa also didn't know quite what to do with them in several scenes. A few of the ensemble are just sitting on the steps in one scene; in another with Gomez and Mal, another pair adds an inappropriate amount of interaction that distracts from the moment; and in "Just Around the Corner," two members dressed up as "Death" are so lackluster in their movements they almost sidetrack our attention from Morticia and the song. These bits are the only downside to Okawa's otherwise very impressive direction.

The Addams Family is far from a perfect musical. It doesn't all work, with a by-the-numbers simplistic plot that requires the audience to already have some familiarity with the kooky characters and a score with only a few memorable tunes. However, it still results in a fun, upbeat show with plenty of chuckles and memorable moments due to the witty book and unusual characters. With an impressive cast, fun choreography, encouraging direction, and impressive creative elements, Copperstar Repertory Company's production of The Addams Family is quite successful in bringing these crazy, fun-loving characters to life.

The Copperstar Repertory Company production of The Addams Family runs through October 11th, 2014, at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa. For more information, visit copperstarrep.org.

Photo: Tim Trumble Photography

Monday, October 6, 2014

theatre review RADIO GOLF, Black Theatre Troupe, September 26

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Radio Golf

(clockwise from top) Calion Maston, T.A. Burrows, Lillie Richardson, Kwane Vedrene and Roosevelt Watts
Playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle consists of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 1900’s. While Wilson’s characters in the plays represent the African American experience in America throughout the 20th Century, the ten dramas are significant to anyone regardless of their race as they focus on common experiences we either have an awareness of or have experienced. The final play in the cycle, Radio Golf, which touches upon the effect that assimilation by African-Americans into the white community has on the possibility to forget their ties to their past, is receiving an impressive production from the Black Theatre Troupe in downtown Phoenix with an excellent cast and confident direction.

Wilson won multiple awards for the plays, including two Pulitzers and a Tony. All but one of the plays are set in the Hill district of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born and raised, yet the themes the plays cover and trials and tribulations the characters encounter are relevant to any economically depressed area in cities worldwide. While Fences is probably the most well-known play from the series, Radio Golf proves itself to be just as effective in bringing to life the struggles of individuals trying to survive but realizing that in order to move forward they have to learn from their past.
It’s 1997 and the Ivy League educated lawyer Harmond Wilks is preparing to run to be the first black mayor of Pittsburgh while also setting in motion plans to redevelop the poverty stricken Bedford Hills district with a multi-million dollar shopping and housing complex. With his ambitious wife Mame and former college roommate Roosevelt by his side it seems all is on track for success. But then an old man called “Old Joe” Barlow shows up claiming that he owns a house that Wilks bought for the project. With plans already in place to demolish the house for the development, Barlow’s continual claim that he owns the house could prevent the project from moving forward. The play follows Wilks' actions as he slowly learns that the house and the man may just have more significance than he originally thought.

The beauty of Wilson’s writing is in his ability to not only represent different views and voices within the African American urban environment but also in how he shows two sides to a situation where, while the values of right and wrong are obvious, the correct answer isn’t always that clear. Is it better to honor one’s past to fight to keep things the way they once were or allow a community to move forward to a better and hopeful, yet possibly uncertain, future? Is it wrong to have dreams of becoming rich and successful or does money and power just cloud your past connections and the people you had to step over to get to where you are? Is a black person selling out, or just a smart businessman, if they align themselves with a white man to help propel them both along the road to success? Does having money truly make you a better person? Radio Golf brings up all of those questions and more with Wilson’s eloquent dialogue richly painting the struggle that they raise.

Director David Hemphill expertly guides his exceptional cast to allow all of those questions to rise up to the surface, some percolating fast to the top, with others a slow boil, and lets the conflict the questions raise to continue to build until a successful conclusion. Hemphill does a good job with the flow of the piece, letting the humorous moments get big laughs yet ensuring the dramatic moments have resonance. He also directs his cast to instill a combination of vocal inflection, body language and comedy into the many interactions the characters have – all to great effect that heightens the encounters.

As Harmond, Kwane Vedrene has the difficult role of being on stage for almost every scene yet having to be the calm person while more colorful personalities revolve around him. He has the appropriate mayoral demeanor to listen to the people who wander into his office, even when he knows they are wasting his time. Yet Vedrene also lets us know through his body language that Harmond is frustrated and agitated by Old Joe and the street wise handyman Sterling who continue to show up in Harmond’s office. Vedrene also skillfully shows us this well-educated man who wants to do the right thing even if it means he has to go against the people around him.

T.A Burrows shows a considerable range as Old Joe. He has the ability to make us believe Joe is both crazy and sane, the victim as well as the wise instigator. Burrows is also a gifted comic, ensuring Old Joe's well-crafted humorous lines pop. But he also imparts wisdom into some of Wilson's best lines with a confident delivery. Joe is an old timer who stands his ground and Burrows is exceptional in the part.

Lillie Richardson is quite effective as the supportive wife Mame. She perfectly shows Mame's great strength for her husband, as well as her independence from him with her steely posture and matter of fact way of speaking. Richardson also imparts Mame with realistic, concerned looks as things start to spiral out of control.

Roosevelt Hicks idolizes Tiger Woods and is obsessed with the status that playing golf and having business cards and an impressive title brings with it and Calion Maston is exceptional in bringing this success obsessed man to life. The former ex-con, handyman Sterling says he’s been “going in the back door all of my life” and Roosevelt Watts is perfect as this man who Wilson presents as the voice of the working class community. Like Burrows, Watts is exceptional with his delivery of Sterling's humorous lines but also the verbal sparring that he and Maston have in the second act crackles like fireworks.

With building plans on the wall and a selection of mismatched furniture, Thom Gilseth's set design realistically shows a new office just set up for the development project in a run-down part of the Hill district. Mario Garcia has created an impressive number of “power suits” for Harmond and Roosevelt and some colorful ensembles for Mame to successfully show their upper middle class status. Just as effective are the working class clothes for Old Joe and Sterling. While there is just one set for the production, the scene changes at the opening night performance did suffer some delays. I’m not certain if that was due to the actors having to change costumes between the scenes or something else, but hopefully those delays will be quickly ironed out with more performances under their belts.

You don’t need to have seen any of the other plays in the cycle, or know that some of the characters spoken about or featured in Radio Golf appear in other plays in the series in order to enjoy the play. Though, knowing that the house that Old Joe claims he owns is the same house featured in the earliest set play in the series Gem of the Ocean shows how the use of the house is a nice way for Wilson to bookend the cycle with the house still standing 100 years later.

With dialogue that is both humorous and elegant and a clear statement that it’s fairly easy to know what is “right and wrong” and, to quote a line from Harmond’s mayoral speech, that “no one is above the law,” Wilson paints a fairly effective picture of the modern struggles between the working class and the middle class in urban African American towns in Radio Golf. The Black Theatre Troupe production of the play has an exceptional cast and refined direction that successfully shows how sometimes the best way to move forward is to not forget the past.

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Radio Golf runs through October 12th, 2014 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at www.blacktheatretroupe.org or by calling 602 258-8129

Photo: Laura Durant 

theatre review EDGES, Mesa Community College, Sept. 25

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

Angelica McGrew, Jordan Woollen, Jesse Thomas Foster, Rachel Heitkamp, Kinsey Peotter, and Brian Robertson
 I don’t know what you were doing when you were 19 but I definitely wasn’t writing a collection of songs that within ten years would go on to receive over 200 productions around the world and launch a career that would include a Tony nomination for Best Original Score for the hit Broadway musical A Christmas Story. But that’s just what composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul did when they were students who were bored after being cast in small supporting parts in their college’s production of City of Angels. With a lot of free time on their hands they decided to start writing songs. The story songs they wrote became the song cycle Edges which just received its Arizona premiere this weekend from the Mesa Community College. While this song collection isn’t completely successful it does show two gifted song writers at the beginning of their career and the MCC production featured some talented singers and was another successful directing venture from Jere Van Patten.

Edges is a contemporary musical about a group of young people who are pursuing their dreams and 
navigating through relationships while realizing they are afraid to be not only who they currently are but also who they want to become. Through almost twenty songs about two dozen characters sing about their emotions, feelings and situations. A wide range of topics are covered, most centered around relationship issues, including being afraid to love or unable to commit and experiencing the pain of both breakups and absent fathers. The songs represent various obstacles young adults encounter and cover themes that everyone has had some experience with so the songs do resonate. Surrounding the heavier numbers are a collection of comedic ones that provide humorous takes on various life situations. Pasek and Paul have crafted some interesting songs, though the majority of the tunes are heavy handed ballads with lyrics that, while good, could be better. The opening number “Become” is quite effective and is reprised a few times throughout so there is some continual flow, but some of the songs are disjointed and completely standalone, so there is still a bit of an issue of not having a clear through line of the show. Also, most of the songs the women sing deal with romantic issues while the men in the show get ones about their dreams, families and impending parenthood. It seems a bit one sided and obvious to only have the women singing about their relationship problems but when you remember that these guys were just 19 when they wrote the songs, you have to cut them some slack. Fortunately the music for the songs is very good, with varied musical styles and shifting chords in some of the songs and the duo, trio and ensemble numbers feature some rich harmonies.

Van Patten has assembled six fairly talented singers to portray the various characters in the show. All were given many moments to shine and most pulled off their duties admirably. It’s a fairly intricate and demanding score and while all six vocalists provided an abundance of energy and assured acting abilities to bring both the dramatic and comical lyrics to life, several members of the cast strained a bit to navigate some of the higher notes and a few times stumbled a little on some of the faster, more intricate lyrics.

Kinsey Peotter was the best of the group. In both her take on a questioning girlfriend in “Lying There” and a woman with commitment issues in “I’ve Gotta Run,” her splendid voice always managed to ensure the meaning of the lyrics was stressed through her vocal and acting abilities. Jordan Woollen’s voice has rich, deep tones and he and Angelica McGrew delivered a charming, sweet and humorous “I Hmmm You” about a couple afraid to say “I love you” to each other in case the other doesn’t feel the same way. McGrew also soloed on the very funny “Man of My Dreams” with her hilarious facial expressions echoing the funny lyrics about a boyfriend who might be perfect but for all the wrong reasons.

Jesse Thomas Foster brought an appropriate intensity to his songs, especially during "I Once Knew" but also added a nice element of humor in his duet with Brian Robertson, “Pretty Sweet Day.” Robertson excelled in his solo “One Reason,” about a man literally on the edge and thinking of jumping off, as well as the duet “Dispensable” he sings with Rachel Heitkamp about a couple not sure if they want their relationship to end which is appropriately mirrored by the longing looks they give each other. Heitkamp also was effective in the touching “Perfect” as well as the bitingly funny “In Short” about the feelings one has for their ex after a horrible breakup.

There were also some nicely delivered trios including the men singing the inspiring “Boy with Dreams” and the women delivering the uplifting “Ready to be Loved.” All delivered the comical “Be My Friend,” a song about the addiction of Facebook, with glee as well as both the moving act one and closing numbers “Coasting” and “Like Breathing” that finds the six no longer afraid to be who they are and the people they want to become.

With Dori Brown’s perfectly simple yet detailed set comprised of six small, separate areas each with its own color theme, director Van Patten had plenty of areas to stage the songs, which he did quite effectively. Always ensuring to add various props and new costumes to indicate the change of characters for each song, Van Patten’s direction of his cast was quite successful. He also added some nice touches, from Foster delivering a pizza to Robertson as a way to connect their characters in “Boy with Dreams” and some simple but fun choreography in “Man of My Dreams” and “Be My Friend,” he added plenty of varied touches to each song to make then succinct and not all blend together. Cathy Hauan’s music direction was exceptional, ensuring the six vocalists all harmonized effectively and also providing some excellent keyboard playing. Troy Buckey’s lighting design worked well to highlight the specific individual singing and Aurelie Flores’ costumes were a never ending parade of designs that tied in perfectly to the various characters. My only issue with the production elements was that while the three piece band was mic’d none of the actors were which meant there were many times during some of the quieter songs that the singers were overpowered by the band.

In the nine years since writing Edges, Pasek and Paul have gone on to write the scores for the Broadway adaptation of A Christmas Story, the off Broadway musical Dogfight, contributed a few songs to the tv show Smash and in 2005 won the Jonathan Larson Award for aspiring composers. They clearly are talented composers who have a long future ahead of them and Edges, while not a perfect show, does have a few effective numbers and is an interesting way to see where they started out. MCC’s production of the show had excellent direction and gifted musical direction and was a great venue to see some gifted singers who will also most likely have long futures ahead of them.

The Mesa Community College production of Edges ran September 25 – 27th, 2014 at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa. Information for their upcoming production of Hairspray can be found at http://www.mesacc.edu/departments/music/music-theatre.

Photo: Jere Van Patten 

broadway birthday MACK AND MABEL opened on Broadway 40 years ago tonight

Forty years ago tonight Mack & Mabel opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on October 6th, 1971.

Monday, September 29, 2014

theatre review THE BROTHERS SIZE, Stray Cat Theatre, Sept. 20

To read my Talkin' Broadway review of The Brothers Size click here.

Damon J. Bolling and Michael Thompson
The old adage that “you can pick your friends but not your family” is immediately inherent in The Brothers Size. In this intense play, Oshoosi, a young man recently released from prison, is torn between loyalties to his fairly strict, work focused brother and his more lax and charming former prison cell mate who offers him a means to escape. With the on-going struggle between responsibility and freedom, you aren’t quite sure until late in the play which is the better choice for Oshoosi to make. Stray Cat Theatre is presenting the Arizona premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 90 minute drama with three superb actors and direction so effective that they combine to overcome the few shortfalls of the play.

Playwright McCraney created quite a stir with his two part The Brothers/Sisters Plays, of which The Brothers Size is one half of the second part of the series. When the plays first premiered McCraney was proclaimed a new “voice” in the theatre, which was quite a statement since he was still in his 20’s. While the plays in the series aren’t always completely coherent, they do present vivid characters and situations. I saw the series of Brothers/Sisters plays shortly after they premiered and wasn’t as taken or moved by them as others were. To me the first part was a pretentious bore. But I always thought the fairly standalone The Brothers Size was the best of the pieces and though there are some parts that don’t work or are slightly unclear, it is still quite effective and results in a drama that is ultimately moving even if some questions aren’t answered and some confusion still exists. You also don’t need to have seen or even know anything about the two other Brothers/Sisters plays, or know that McCraney has used the Nigerian Yoruban mythology as an inspiration for his characters, to enjoy The Brothers Size.

Set in an imaginary city of the Louisiana bayou, the play follows Oshooshi Size, recently paroled and now living with and working for his brother Ogun in his car repair shop. Oshooshi’s friend and former cellmate Elegba, who also calls Oshooshi his “brother,” is always close by, making Oshooshi remember positive things that happened when they were in prison together and finding ways to entice him out of the house and away from his concerned brother. Full of conflict and emotion but also filled with plenty of humor, which make the more dramatic scenes pop even more, the play shows how Oshooshi is never quite free and actually somewhat trapped by both men. It also shows the sacrifices one makes for the people they love. While that is something that has been dramatized many times before, McCraney uses a combination of short scenes, poetry and music to find new engaging ways to bring this familiar struggle to life.

Director Ron May has found three skilled actors to portray these three very different men. Michael Thompson instills Oshoosi Size with a nervous uncertainty. Torn between his two “brothers” and still somewhat immature and irresponsible, Thompson effectively inhabits this confused man. Damon J. Bolling is equally as good as Oshooshi’s older brother Ogun. Ogun worries about his brother and Bolling masterfully shows the concern and anguish in his facial expressions and body movements. Both men experience dreams that haunt them as well as encounter difficult situations where they need to make some tough choices and Thompson and Bolling, under May’s sharp direction, are realistic and moving in bringing those moments to life. With a tilt of his head and a harsh look, Bolling also expertly shows the agitation he feels for Elegba. DeJean Brown is extremely good as Elegba. It must be a tough part to play since with Elegba you never quite know if he is being sincere or manipulative, which shows how well Brown is in the role. Brown also brings to life a confrontation that Elegba has with a police officer so effectively, easily portraying Elegba’s nervousness and the policeman’s cockiness with just the change of his voice and body posture.

Damon J. Bolling, DeJean Brown and Michael Thompson
With the use of rhythmic elements in both the stage movement and the musical segments, the tug of war between the three men is staged almost as a dance or ritual movement by May. There are also numerous moments in the play, from the scene of Oshooshi walking to work in the hot sun, the dreams the brothers are haunted by and an intense moment in a car, where May’s staging creates vivid, moving scene images. He also allows the tension in the play to reverberate with the vocal cadence of his actors’ speech and the pounding on various objects. Also, the final scene between the two Size brothers features the two men singing a bit of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" that is sweet, touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. It is another winning directorial effort from May.

When you enter the Tempe Performing Arts Center and hear the nighttime sounds of crickets in the air and see the mossy branches cascading down from trees above, you immediately feel that you have been transported back to the Bayou. That’s how effective Eric Beeck’s set design and May’s sound design are. A simple raised wooden platform that functions as almost all of the locations in the play and the use of basic items like milk crates to serve as set pieces also show how creative the design is. And while there is an actual broken down car on the side of the stage that gets a lot of attention when you first enter, it is the fence that surrounds the set that once the play begins quickly hints at how all of the characters are somewhat trapped by their own difficulties. Ellen Bone’s lighting design is also quite stirring, especially in how she even uses the headlights of the car in one scene.

Some of those pretentious moments from the first part of the series are unfortunately part of The Brothers Size. This includes having the actors stating to the audience some stage direction or comments about where the characters are in a scene such as “Ogun goes back under the car” and “from outside.” Some of them are creative or funny which work in the plays favor but others like “Elegba enters, drifting like the moon,” and the fact that not all stage directions are spoken, make it seem like McCraney is saying “look at how clever and inventive I can be!” Fortunately the majority of these statements are in the beginning of the piece and become less intrusive once the emotional moments of the play come to light. And while McCraney’s use of the Nigerian mythology is also somewhat pretentious, it isn’t something that is ever brought up in the play and since the piece has a mystical feel to it, when you hear he based his characters on those mythical figures it makes some sense.

The Brothers Size is a haunting, powerful piece of drama but also a play with an element of pretention that could easily sideline the piece with a less talented cast or director. While it doesn’t all work and there are a few moments of confusion and clarity, those are faults of the play and not this production.The Brothers Size ultimately serves as a reminder of the struggles people go through and the obstacles they encounter along the way to become free and May and his actors keep the play churning along with heroic performances and riveting direction to its dramatic conclusion.

The Brothers Size at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through October 5th, 2014 with performances at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th Street in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at http://straycattheatre.org/

Photo: John Groseclose / Stray Cat Theatre 

theatre review MEMPHIS, Phoenix Theatre, Sept. 19

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Memphis at Phoenix Theatre.

Tia DeShazor and CJ Pawlikowski
The musical Memphis was a bit of an underdog when it started performances on Broadway in the Fall of 2009. There were no big “name” actors in the cast; the score came from “Bon Jovi” drummer David Bryan, making his Broadway debut, not from Jon Bon Jovi himself; and the book was from Joe DiPietro who had yet to have a Broadway hit. It had also spent several years being worked and re-worked in various regional theatres across the country, so not much was expected from it. But it exploded on Broadway with audiences moved by the emotional story and Bryan’s energetic music and went on to win several Tonys, including the one for Best Musical. The first time I saw it was at a Broadway preview and I was as moved and enthralled as the people around me and the production that Phoenix Theatre just opened their season with is as effective, crowd pleasing and powerful as it was on Broadway.

Memphis is set in the early 1950's and focuses on two underdogs - Huey, a young white DJ, who makes it his mission to get "race" music played on the local, very “white” radio stations and Felicia, a talented young black woman with dreams of making it as a singer that Huey falls in love with while battling racial prejudice and bigotry. A mostly original story, though based somewhat on disc jockey Dewey Phillips who was the first DJ in Memphis to play music by African American artists, Memphis is a non-stop parade of the music and emotions that were prevalent in the 1950’s. DiPietro’s book, while slightly by the numbers, is still intelligent with colorful, realistic characters and Bryan’s score (with DiPietro also contributing some lyrics) features many impressive numbers that pay homage to the sounds of the 50’s while also fitting nicely into the style of musical theatre.

Phoenix Theatre’s production features two actors, CJ Pawlikowski and Tia DeShazor, in the lead roles who both create memorable characters. Pawlikowski is excellent as Huey. He is charismatic and makes this underdog character someone that everyone roots for. Pawlikowski has an amazing amount of energy and a great singing voice while also dancing perfectly in character, instilling his steps with the klutzy demeanor Pawlikowski gives Huey. While Huey isn’t exactly supposed to be your typical romantic leading man role, especially with his hokey accent and his insistence of using bizzare words like “Hockadoo,” Pawlikowoski’s good looks, even when dressed in mismatched clothes and wearing big, thick glasses, comes through in spades with charm oozing out of him. It’s easy to see how Felicia falls for him. His Huey has warmth, not only with the people closest to him, like Felicia and his mother, but also with just about every other actor on the stage. It is a winning and engaging performance.

CJ Pawlikowski
Tia DeShazor is more reserved in her portrayal, which works well since Felicia has had to deal with a lot of obstacles in her life so is a bit more reluctant to believe anyone who makes promises to her. DeShazor has a realistic delivery of her dialogue, including a witty comic ability and her soulful voice fits perfectly into the songs written for Felicia, though it doesn’t quite soar as high as Montego Glover’s, who originated the part on Broadway. Like Pawlikowski, she has charm to spare and the two of them also create plenty of passion together.

CR Lewis makes a good impression as Felicia's brother Del Ray, a man who is just as concerned and questioning of Felicia and Huey's relationship as Huey's mother is. The part is a bit underwritten, but Lewis still manages to instill the role with a sense of responsibility and understanding. While Lisa Fogel brings an appropriate air of prejudice and bigotry in her feisty portrayal of Huey’s mom Gladys, she also perfectly projects the role as a woman who is simply concerned for her son. Chris Eriksen gives Simmons, the station owner who gives Huey his first DJ’ing job, a light, humorous touch that works and David Robbins as Bobby, the custodian at the radio station, is sweet and funny with some impressive vocals and dance moves. Miguel Jackson instills a sweet sensibility in the almost always silent “Gator”, though I wish his big revelatory moment was better staged and focused to allow it to be even more effective and have more emotional resonance.

The ensemble for this show is hard working with them all contributing plenty of dancing and vocals, with most of them playing multiple characters as well. Terry Gadaire, who excelled as the “Emcee” in Desert Stage’s Cabaret two months back, perfectly and humorously creates several very different characters with just a change of wig and costume, the addition of facial hair and invoking a new accent. Chanel Bragg, Britney Mack and Trisha Hart Ditsworth create various characters with ease and dance up a storm and at only 17 years old, Carly Grossman has skilled dance moves and, with just a few lines of dialogue, makes quite an impression.

Barnard's staging is quite effective, making good use of the entire space including the second level walkway and staircase. He keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace and also elicits a nice emotional depth from his actors along with plenty of humor yet doesn't tread too lightly on the elements of prejudice and violence in the show, ensuring they resonate. Michael Jenkinson’s choreography is explosive with 50's era moves and steps that are engaging. The only misstep, though it ends in a crowd pleasing way, is the staging of the act two duet for Gladys and Del Ray, "Change Don't Come Easy," that involves fairly elaborate choreography that doesn't organically grow out of the situation or the characters. Though, while it doesn't fit the moment, it still gets big applause.

Like the cast, the creative elements for the production are outstanding. With just a few small set pieces including two moving columns that open up to reveal small interior sets, a moving staircase, and period projections on the brick façade flats, Robert Kovach's design works perfectly to portray the many locations in the show. From Huey's mismatched clothes of varying patterns that appear to be thrown together, a parade of beautiful dresses for Felicia and the ladies and appropriate suits for the men, Adriana Diaz’s costumes are knock-outs. With an electric combination of lush, dark reds, greens and purples, Michael J. Eddy’s lighting design is excellent. Dave Temby’s sound design is clear and crisp though during some of the solo performance numbers, when the ensemble comes in to back up Felicia, the balance seems a bit off as they almost drown her out. The orchestra led by Alan Ruch is superb and his music direction provides vocals from the cast that are lush and full.

DiPietro’s book does paint the characters and motivations a bit simplistically as the majority of the white characters are all prejudiced hicks only motivated to change their views due to personal gain, and Bryan’s score does suffer from an abundance of soaring rock anthems more in line with Whitney Houston than the female singers of the 50’s. But the simplicity works in that it easily shows the struggles of a few people caught up in the turbulent civil rights issues of the 50’s and the score is still entertaining even if it isn’t exactly all period specific.

With continuing racial concerns, including the recent incident in Ferguson, MO as well as the on-going battle for gay marriage rights, the themes and situations from sixty years ago that are at the core of the show, including racial harmony and acceptance of interracial marriages, are still relevant today. With a vastly talented cast, impressive direction and creative elements as well as vocals that make the most of the rocking score, Phoenix Theatre’s Memphis is an explosive and engaging production, just as impressive as it was on Broadway, that brings the important message of the story to life in an engaging way.

Memphis runs through October 12th, 2014 at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at http://phoenixtheatre.com/ or by calling (602) 254-2151

Photos: Erin Evangeline /Phoenix Theatre

theatre review THE TALES FROM THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, Theater Works, Sept. 18

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway of The Tales from the Arabian Nights, just click on this link.

Taylor Lawritson and Skyler Washburn
The origin of theatre began with people telling stories to a captivated audience and one of the greatest pieces of literary storytelling is the classic collection of engrossing tales The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights. Including such well known “tales” as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” Michael Bigelow Dixon’s theatrical adaptation of these stories is a perfect combination of theatre and literature. Theater Works’ Youth Works production has an energetic cast and rich creative elements that pull us into the stories and bring these famous tales magically to life.

Bigelow Dixon’s adaptation focuses on just a few of the 1,001 tales but uses the same framing device from the book quite effectively. That framing element, which is another “tale” as well, focuses on the Persian King Shahriar who no longer trusts women after being bewitched by a magic sword. He marries a new woman each day and then, feeling that she might betray him, has her murdered by the enchanted sword the next morning. His latest bride, the smart and clever Scheherazade, realizes the only way to keep her head attached is to tell her new husband intriguing never ending stories in order to continually delay her execution.

With stories exploring everything from love to death, as well as lessons in morality, the tales are wide ranging and since some of them are stories-within-stories, it forms a complex and engrossing affair with plenty of layers. The classic tales Scheherazade tells are not only intriguing but also great fodder for the talented cast of (mostly) teenage actors to bring to life these stories in comical and theatrical fashion.

Director Chris Hamby has found a gifted cast of kids to portray the numerous characters in the play with everyone getting a moment or two to show off their comical skills, dancing abilities or talent to simply entertain. Claudia Pollack and Ellis Temlak form an interesting couple as Scheherazade and Shahriar with Pollack’s rich, soothing delivery of her stories entrancing. Temlak perfectly gets across Shahryar’s conflicted view of uncertainty concerning if Scheherazade is attempting to trick him or entertain him with her never ending tales. Temlak also shows off his fanciful sword fighting skills toward the end of the show.

Ellis Temlak
Skylar Washburn and Taylor Lawritson are hilarious as Ali Baba and the Captain of the Thieves with Washburn’s expert, professional line delivery perfectly in character and Lawritson’s humorous delivery and movements culminating in a very funny death scene. In that tale Max Mendoza plays all 39 of the other thieves with theatrical relish. 

In another story that involves a Princess and a man turned into a tiger, Kelly Sampson evokes an Asian accent and the perfect stature and demeanor of a Chinese doll to bring her character to life, even her way of walking is hilariously in character. As the man turned tiger, Dylan Kurtz uses a thick combination of a New York and European accent for his character to great comical effect. Nine year old Corinne Seaver holds her own with kids almost twice her age and is funny as Speedy, the messenger in this story as well as has a fun time manning the snake puppet in another tale.

In that story, Hahnna Christianson and Drake Ethan Current are amusing as the inquisitive wife and her stoner snake charmer husband. Madison Butler has expert delivery of her lines and gets an impressive dance solo that works seamlessly into the story of Ali Baba. Quincy Anntinette Janisse is humorous as the fisherman who finds a bottle with a genie in it, Safiya Valenzuela puts a fun spin on the part of Scheherazade’s clueless sister and Emilio Cress, Hannah Grossenbacher and Autumn Froitland each play several ensemble parts with glee.

Hamby’s direction is effective in not only pulling us into the stories but in the way he creatively uses his cast throughout the show and how he incorporates the set, props and bits of theatrical magic to evoke the enchantment of the stories. The set design by Michael Armstrong includes a painted stage that looks as if it is expensive marble tile that also includes a separate space for Scheherazade and Shahriar to sit during the tales without them being in the way of the action. Creative cut outs in the stage floor allow for other set pieces to pop up in order to quickly move the stories along. The rich, inventive set design combined with Jason Washburn’s prop designs and Julaine Stark’s media design produce some creative theatrical effects including the use of smoke and projection to represent a genie out of its bottle. Cari Smith has created an array of bright, colorful satin costumes and imaginative masks for some of the characters in her designs. Hamby’s and Stephen Christensen’s sound design includes an abundance of sound effects to add elements to the stories as well as the use of an echo effect to mysteriously represent the voice of the magic sword. Daniel Davisson’s lighting is rich and evocative.

While the few musical numbers in the play don’t add much to the overall effect, the combination of rich storytelling and the Eastern themed set, costume and sound designs along with the touches of modern humor that Bigelow Dixon (and I’m assuming Hamby) have added, provide an updated contemporary spin on the tales. Well-acted and with fun, confident direction, The Tales from Arabian Nights is an imaginative and upbeat theatrical adventure that will entrance children of all ages.

The Tales from Arabian Nights runs through September 28th, 2014 at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at http://theaterworks.org/ or by calling 623 815-7930

Photos: Moran Imaging (top) Lea Curtis (bottom) / Theater Works 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

theatre review ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, Hale Centre Theatre, September 17

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Hale Centre Theatre.

Barbara McGrath, Laura Soldan and Drew Leatham
Serial killers and a maniac on the loose are characters you’d find in many tv thrillers and horror films. But when the murderers are two sweet, adoring spinster sisters and you add in their wacky family members and a series of bumbling cops you get the classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, which is currently receiving a charming production at Hale Centre Theatre. The 1941 play, a delightful period piece filled with plenty of laughs and a dose or two of intrigue, does creak a bit around the edges due to the silly situations and simplistic and daft characters. However, it still results in a fun, appealing romp due to playwright Joseph Kesselring's inventive plot that uses the eccentric characters and comical situations to an advantage with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Set in 1941 Brooklyn in the home of eccentric sisters Abby and Martha Brewster who have taken it upon themselves to help out their lonely, old gentlemen boarders by murdering them with a lethal concoction of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide. Their gentle but crazy nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Roosevelt, lives with them. Their other nephew Mortimer, who is a drama critic, has just asked his girlfriend Elaine to marry him when he discovers his aunts’ latest victim stuffed in the window box. Mortimer’s discovery sets the plot in motion as he attempts to figure a way out of his predicament. But it only gets worse. First Mortimer finds out his aunts have previously killed several other boarders and then his other brother, the not so sweet, homicidal killer Jonathan, shows up at the house with his accomplice Dr. Einstein with another dead body of their own to hide.

Director Kent Burnham has assembled a fairly terrific ensemble cast that manages to portray these broad, eccentric characters with ease. Laura Soldan and Barbara McGrath make Abby and Martha the type of sweet, doting aunt anyone would welcome into their family. When they tell Mortimer about their mercy killings they present it in such a matter of fact way that it elicits laughs. McGrath’s steadier Martha is a nice balance to Soldan’s flighty, and almost constantly moving Abby. As Mortimer, Drew Leatham’s facial expressions and body language when he hears the truth from his aunts are appropriately comical. While he thinks he’s the only sane one in the family he is concerned he will eventually become crazy as well and his realization of that possibility as well as his frantic actions when things start to spin out of control are delightful.

James Olsen
With scars on his face, a deep booming voice and a sense of danger in his slow, measured line delivery, James Olsen brings the “disagreeable” Johnny delightfully to life in a menacing way and James Melita is just about perfect as the confused Teddy. Jeff Brown uses a thick German accent in his portrayal of Dr. Einstein to give him a sense of mystery but also adds a sweet disposition that is an effective counterpoint to his evil scientist persona. In the supporting cast, Emily Batterson has a nice touch of feistiness in her performance of Mortimer’s fiancé; Ammon Opie as Officer O’Hare, the cop who wants to be a playwright has a sunny disposition and sweetness in his portrayal and Darryl W. Poenisch brings a nice sense of doubting authority as the Police Lieutenant.

With the exception of a strange tango dance that Dr. Einstein performs with the dead body he and Jonathan bring into the house, which is a bit of a misfire since it doesn’t quite fit with the character or the moment, Burnham elicits a fast yet loving pace and assured performances from his cast. He also stages the action throughout the theatre in the round space most effectively. I’m sure that black comedies must be difficult to direct, ensuring that the performances never get too broad or too serious, and Burnham shows his capable skills with this production.

Creative elements are period perfect from David Dietlein and Brian Daily’s set design, strewn with plenty of 1940’s and antique furniture and accessories to Mary Atkinson’s character appropriate costumes. Her even older style dresses for the aunties, including their lace strewn black funeral attire, are a perfect, comical touch and show how the aunts haven't quite caught up to modern times. Jeff A. Davis’ lighting design is excellent, with a lovely effect of light streaming through the long front door windows as well as the many scenes set at night in the dark lit perfectly so none of the action is missed.

For a play that is over seventy years old Arsenic and Old Lace still elicits plenty of laughs and charm if done right, and the Hale Centre Theatre’s production has a capable cast and sure footed direction that incite enough chuckles and warmth amongst the silliness to show why this play has been a favorite for so many years.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 18th, 2014 with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at https://www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

Photos: Nick Woodward - Shaw /Hale Centre Theatre 

Monday, September 22, 2014

broadway birthday FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

The Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof opened 50 years ago today on September 22nd, 1964.


Friday, September 19, 2014

theatre review KINKY BOOTS, National Tour, ASU/Gammage, September 16

Click on this link to read my Kinky Boots review at Talkin' Broadway.

Steven Booth and Kyle Taylor Parker (center) and cast
The Tony Award winning Broadway musical Kinky Boots is an infectious, fun and upbeat crowd pleaser. The national tour of the show that kicked off just two weeks ago is now in Tempe and it is as effective and buoyant as it was on Broadway. While it is yet another musical based on a movie, Kinky Boots is based on a small independent film, not a well-known Hollywood blockbuster, and was inspired by a true story.

Kinky Boots tells the story of two very different men in England, Charlie and Simon (aka drag queen Lola), who are from similar yet diverse backgrounds and who come together for a common cause in order to save Charlie's family-owned shoemaking business. They decide to stop production of the sales-challenged traditional men's shoe line which is forcing the business into bankruptcy and, hoping to tap into an underserved niche market, start production of a line of "kinky boots," the type of outrageous shoe a drag queen extraordinaire like Lola knows intimately. Can Charlie and Lola put aside their differences to work together and create the right style of fetish footwear in time to make it to the big shoe show in Milan and save the business? While you think you might know the answer to that question, the fun and even sometimes dramatic way the show gets to the upbeat and energetic ending is a simple joy to watch and be a part of.

The musical does have a somewhat simple plot and a fairly contrived chance meeting between the two lead characters. What sets them off on their journey is their realization that they aren't so different, that they need each other to succeed and that they are both trying to prove themselves by standing up to their fathers. There is plenty of humor and drama along the way to keep the relationship between these new friends fresh and real as they work together to become better men, overcome their obstacles and hopefully save the factory.

The creative team behind the show is very impressive with direction and choreography by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell; a book by multiple Tony winner Harvey Fierstein; and a score by pop diva icon Cyndi Lauper. While Mitchell's assured direction, inventive and swift staging and sure footed choreography and Fierstein's warm but touching book are all about what you'd expect from these two award winners, Lauper has written some infectious showtunes, including several stand out ballads, comical songs and toe-tapping anthems. It is hard to believe this is her first attempt at a Broadway score. Her act one duet for the two men, "Not My Father's Son," is an emotional tear jerker on par with some of the best Broadway ballads. And her "Sex Is in the Heel" and "The History of Wrong Guys" are in line with some of the more famous comical Broadway songs, with Lauper providing some truly clever lyrics. Lauper deservedly won the Tony Award last year for her score.

Steven Booth and Kyle Taylor Parker and cast
Like the creative team, the national tour cast of Kinky Boots is top notch. Kyle Taylor Parker understudied the role of Lola in the Broadway production and is a firecracker in this star-making performance. He successfully makes Lola the larger than life person with a soaring voice, evoking a touch of Eartha Kitt in his delivery, and he balances this with a shyness when the character is out of drag and becomes the nervous, soft-spoken Simon. While Steven Booth as Charlie is given the straight man part to play, in more ways than one, he manages to instill a sense of seriousness, urgency and realness to the part of the confused man at wit's end. Similar to Stark Sands and Billy Porter who originated these parts in the Broadway production, Booth and Parker have formed a realistic and unique relationship, but one with warts and issues, just like you'd imagine would exist when a somewhat conservative straight man and a drag queen become friends.

Lindsay Nicole Chambers gives a charming, upbeat performance as the factory worker who finds herself falling in love with Charlie. Her solo turn with "The History of Wrong Guys" affords her the opportunity to not only win over the audience and establish her character but also deliver a humorous number that gets big applause. The majority of the rest of the cast is a well-oiled ensemble, with Joe Coots funny and touching as Don the rugged factory worker who has a problem with Lola, drag queens and gay men in general. While Don might come across as the stereotypical bigot, Fierstein's book gives him a few effective dramatic as well as comic moments that allow Coots to provide his character with some nice layers. The rest of the ensemble is extremely hard working with special attention necessary for the hilarious and beautiful six men who play Lola's "Angels" who perform at the club with her.

Creative aspects are superb and basically identical to the Broadway production, with an impressive and imaginative set design by David Rockwell that includes a beautiful factory setting, a revolving center set piece that functions as several locations, an abundance of factory equipment, and the use of conveyor belts as a choreographic element. Costumes by Gregg Barnes are stunning with some of the most outlandish dresses for Lola and her Angels as well as some of the most impressive boots you've ever seen. Kenneth Posner's lighting design is lush and colorful, though a bit dark in some parts. All three received Tony nominations for their work. John Shivers, who won the Tony for his work on the show, provides a crisp and clear sound design, which is sometimes hard to achieve in the vast Gammage space.

Kinky Boots is a well-crafted "feel good" show with several break out songs and makes for a very enjoyable night out. Cyndi Lauper's confident and rousing Broadway song writing debut is matched by the brilliant performance of Parker, who is as effective as Billy Porter, who won the Tony for playing Lola on Broadway. With a great cast and creative elements that are on par with the Broadway version, the national tour is just as fun and heartwarming as it was on the Broadway.

Kinky Boots runs through September 21st, 2014 at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information about the tour, visit kinkybootsthemusical.com/tour.php

Photos: Matthew Murray

theatre review LEND ME A TENOR, Desert Foothills Theatre, Sept. 14

To read my Talkin' Broadway review of Lend Me a Tenor at Desert Foothills Theatre just click on this link,

Janis Webb, Harold LeBoyer, Matt Newhard and Roy Hunt
Ken Ludwig's hilarious farce Lend Me a Tenor took Broadway by storm in 1989, receiving nine Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Play. The show was revived on Broadway in 2010, and received another three Tony noms, and is a favorite of regional theatres due to the tightly constructed plot, larger than life characters, and the belly laughs the door-slamming incidents deliver. Desert Foothills Theatre opened their 2014-2015 season with a rousing production of the play with a tightly directed ensemble of actors who were more than capable of delivering on the comic bits in Ludwig's comedy.

It's 1934 and Tito Morelli, the world famous tenor, has been booked to perform Otello at the Cleveland Opera Company. After accidentally receiving a double dose of tranquilizers and drinking too much wine, Tito passes out and is believed to be dead by Max, the nervous assistant to the opera's company manager Saunders. Fearing all is lost, and dreading having to return the ticket sales money if they are forced to cancel, Saunders comes up with a plan and enlists Max to help him out of his bind. A series of incidents involving mistaken identities, misunderstandings and multiple slamming doors sets a chain reaction in motion and hilarity ensues.

Exact precision and exaggerated characters are two of the most important elements of a successful farce and director Mark Clemente and his cast, led by Matt Newhard as Max, achieved both at the (final) performance I attended. With the combination of a squeaky voice and a continual nervousness manifested in his constantly pulling on his sweater vest as if it were a safety blanket, Newhard expertly portrayed the tense and meek Max. This is the fifth show I've seen Newhard in over the past year and he is a chameleon in his ability to look and sound different in every role he plays. As Tito, Roy Hunt managed to skillfully show the sweet natured man under the larger than life opera star, and when things start to get crazy and Tito is confused about the situations at hand, Hunt's comical facial expressions and body language were used to great success.

The rest of the cast were quite effective. As the high strung Saunders, Harold LeBoyer continually shouted orders at anyone who'd listen, and even those who wouldn't; Melissa Powers as Max's girlfriend/Saunders' daughter Maggie, was sweet, charming and downright giddy at the opportunity of meeting Tito; and as Tito's long suffering wife Maria, Janis Webb projected an appropriate feistiness underneath the fits of jealousy and rage that she was driven to by Tito's perceived philandering. Lindsay Newhard (Matt's wife) was fun and sexy as the voluptuous soprano Diana, and the duet she sang with her real-life husband was charming. Cynthia Elek projected a lovely air of elegance to Julia, the pushy chairman of the Opera Guild, and Jonathan Perry Brown had a couple of funny moments as the assertive Bellhop who would do just about anything to meet Tito.

Clemente's direction of his cast was excellent—not only keeping the action moving, at very quick speeds at some points, but allowing for the sweet emotions of the play to come through in spades. This was matched by the effective creative elements that included set designer Martin Treinen's sunny hotel suite in bright colors with period perfect furniture and that all-important row of doors for the characters to slam. From Max's patterned sweater vest and crisp tuxedo to the exquisitely lush dresses for the women, including a sparkling silver one for Julia as well as the hilarious Otello costumes, Aurelie Wisdom's designs were just as effective and amusing as the play. Daniel Kersh's lighting design gave a lovely sunny look and feel to the hotel suite. Vocal couch Daniel Kurek generated some confident operatic moments from both of the Newhards and Hunt.

With a great plot, fun characters, and zany situations it is easy to see why Lend Me a Tenor is a popular show, so popular that another theatre company in town is presenting the show in December. 
With superb direction and a comically gifted cast, this production of the comedy gem provided plenty of joy and amusement. When Lend Me a Tenor is done right, it creates waves of giddy laughter from the audience, and Desert Foothills Theatre definitely achieved that.

Lend Me a Tenor at Desert Foothills Theater ran September 5th through the 14th at the Cactus Shadows Fine Art Center, 33606 N. 60th Street in Scottsdale. Information on upcoming shows and tickets can be purchased at www.desertfoothillstheater.org or by calling 480 488-1981

Photo: Tiffany Marie Bolock / Desert Foothills Theater