Friday, May 6, 2016

theatre review - PICNIC - Mesa Community College - April 29

Cedar Eileen Cody, Dolores Mendoza, Brandon Caraco, Samantha Hanna, and Andrew Blahak
Photo by Tom J. McCoy / Mesa Community College

"William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning play Picnic centers on several life-changing events over a 24 hour period in 1950s Kansas. Clear casting and specific direction of this classic drama are crucial to ensure that the somewhat nostalgic situations in the play are handled expertly and that the turn of events don't come across as too melodramatic for a 21st century audience. The good news for Mesa Community College's recent production, which just ended this past weekend, is that the casting, especially of the three main females who are all strong-willed women determined to make it on their own, couldn't have been better and the solid direction kept things centered and specific to the period.
...While it may seem like not much really happens during the majority of the play, except for the arrival of Hal and the growing attraction between him and Madge and how that plays out, there is actually a lot that happens in this 24 hour period. Almost all of the characters go through major changes over the course of this one single day, which is a major compliment both to Inge and his ability to not only write complex characters and to Kevin Dressler's casting and succinct direction, as all of the actors delivered rich portrayals with their characters growing and naturally ending up in a different place then when they began. Flo, Rosemary, and Helen are all strong and dominant women, forced it seems into taking on these typical male characteristics of the 1950s since all three of them don't have husbands to shoulder the burdens of raising children or dealing with the daily chores that were generally set aside for the man of the house to handle. As those three women, Cedar Eileen Cody, Samantha Hanna, and Dolores Mendoza were nothing short of spectacular. ..Sean Peteet's muscular physique and stamina worked well for the part of Hal and, even though this was his first stage role, Peteet exhibited the right amount of confidence within the desperation of Hal's predicament. Kaidi Phillips and Gina Hoyt were winning as Flo's daughters Madge and Millie. ..
Technical credits were sublime for the production, with a lovely set design by Kara E. Thompson full of realistic touches...While Picnic is set in the time period that it first appeared on Broadway, seeing it today brings an added nostalgic element by viewing the way people lived sixty years ago but also having a clearer understanding of what obstacles they faced. It also centers on normal, simple characters in a more simple time. These are the kinds of people who go about their normal daily activities and get excited about a new dress or the Labor Day picnic. Since Inge's characters are much like the average theatregoer, the characters and events of the play are still relatable even though sixty years have passed. With such a wonderful cast and lovely technical designs, MCC's production of Picnic was a rewarding journey to the past."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

theatre review - PETE, OR THE RETURN OF PETER PAN - Childsplay - April 30, 2016

Alan Khoutakoun, Gavin Austin Brown, and Rebecca Duckworth
photo: Tim Tumble
Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 22nd.

""Peter Pan," J. M. Barrie's story of the boy who wouldn't grow up, seems to never go out of fashion. ...Childsplay presents the world premiere of Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan, a modern day sequel to Barrie's tale written by Dwayne Hartford, in a production full of heart, humor, and high flying adventure. With cell phones, words like "cool" and "awesome," karate, and, most importantly, female characters that are just as strong as the male roles in the show, Hartford's adventure brings a fresh, modern sensibility to Barrie's story. Wendy and Henry are the great, great grandchildren of the original Wendy from "Peter Pan."...When she opens up a box sends up a beacon to the sky that brings Peter Pan from Neverland to Wendy's side. ...Wendy butts heads with the somewhat conceited Peter but still finds the adventure that she desires. But is Neverland the solution that Wendy seeks to escape from her controlling mother, or just a temporary stop on the journey to learn some valuable life lessons? Hartford creates identifiable characters and situations that will resonate with any parent or child. His continual use of humor keeps the show light. But there are also plenty of well-choreographed fight sequences (by David Barker) that incorporate the entire cast and bring athletic and comic-infused adventure to the show. While Hartford wisely keeps any hint of schmaltz out of the show, don't be surprised if you find yourself a little misty eyed like I was during the play's moving and heartfelt final scenes. The only downsides to the production are small, but a cast of only eight does make Neverland seem a little desolate and, while the end result is a fun and even moving adventure, there could be a little tightening of the script to speed up some of the action in the two hour running time....Director David Saar elicits wonderful performances from the cast and effectively uses Carey Wong's inventive, scaffolding-style, two-tiered scenic design to create plenty of inventive playing areas. ...Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan is a fun-filled adventure that wisely updates Barrie's famous story to modern times while also giving an equal balance to the female characters. The days of Wendy playing "mother" and tending to the lost boys' house while Peter and the boys are off on an adventure are long gone. While it could be tightened up a bit, with a gifted cast, clear direction, and fun creative elements, children of all ages will most likely jump at the chance to join Peter and Wendy on their fun filled adventure."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

theatre review - URINETOWN - Tuscany Theatre Company - April 21, 2016

Lauren Scoville and Adam Bei
Photo by Lisa Webb / Southwest Shots Photography

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 30th.

 "... Urinetown is a musical that is a crowd pleaser...nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three, including awards for the very funny book by Greg Kotis and the witty score with music by Mark Hollmann and lyrics by Hollmann and Kotis. Tuscany Theatre Company's production of this satirical comedy is well directed with simple yet vibrant creative elements and a cast who know how to correctly wink at the audience as they dive headfirst into the material to ensure that the satire lands effectively, while also instilling their characters with plenty of warmth. The musical is set in the not too distant future. Water has become so scarce that private bathrooms have been banned, doing your business in the street or even behind a tree faces severe consequences,; and a corporation has been put in charge of a series of pay toilets scattered across the land ...Kotis also instills a playful parody of famous musicals and musical conventions into the proceedings while also shedding light on such serious topics as greed, capitalism, and even ecological disaster. Hollmann's music is ever changing, with brisk, upbeat numbers, charming romantic ballads, and a rousing gospel tune; and the lyrics are continually witty and colorful. ...Director Andrea McFeely knows exactly how to guide her cast to deliver the satire, romance, and self-mocking tones of the piece, and they do so, for the most part, perfectly. As Bobby and Hope, Adam Bei and Lauren Scoville are simply adorable. Scoville's sweet nature and Bei's determination make them a realistic couple with a shared purpose. /.. Harold LeBoyer is OK as Hope's father. I just wish he were a little more strong and forceful to project a sense of menace and darkness in the role....While most of the ensemble work well there are a couple of actors who cross the line from satire into overacting and McFeely would be wise to pull them in line in order to not draw attention away from the intended focus of a few scenes. Karli Giles Kemper's assured music direction delivers lovely vocals throughout, including some tight harmonies from the ensemble during the rousing "Run, Freedom, Run!." Shannon Perkins's choreography is excellent...Urinetown is an extremely clever musical with an ever-changing plot, interesting characters, and some very catchy musical numbers. While it may not appeal to everyone, since it is dark and satirical, it is very creative and ultimately an extremely appealing show. Tuscany Theatre's production has very good leads and a strong supporting cast that, when combined with spot on direction and choreography, make for a very solid production."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - BRING IT ON - Spotlight Youth Theatre - April 23, 2016

Phoebe Koyabe, Katie Czajkowski, Carly Grossman, Maggie Waller, Sam Primack,
Trey DeGroodt, Clay Rollon, and Brandon Reyes
Photo by Alayne Vogel

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 8th.

" is refreshing that the recent musical Bring It On takes little more than the name and theme of the 2000 cheerleading movie it comes from. With a completely new plot and characters, the musical is an exuberant evening of comedy, music, dance, and energetic cheerleading acrobatics. Spotlight Youth Theatre presents the Phoenix regional premiere of the show in a high energy production with superb direction and featuring an excellent cast of teenagers. The plot follows high school senior Campbell, the perky, driven cheerleading team captain of the Truman High School squad. When she is redistricted to Jackson High, which is over in the "hood," she goes from being the top of the pack to the outcast who has lost her main goal. Not only does she not quite fit in but Jackson doesn't have a cheerleading team. ...Jeff Whitty's witty script does coast a little in the beginning until Campbell gets to Jackson High, where it really takes off, but it also doesn't always go where you think it will go, which is refreshing. ...With a score by three different composers you might think that the music wouldn't quite gel, but it does, with many effective numbers including rousing ensemble numbers and soaring ballads with music styles that range from traditional musical theatre to R&B, hip hop, and even a little rap....Carly Grossman plays Campbell with the appropriate amount of high energy as well as fear for her new surroundings...Grossman also has realistic acting skills to pull off the loneliness and confusion of suddenly being an outsider along with superb vocal skills to also effectively sing about that experience. As Danielle, the leader of the "crew" at the new school whom Campbell attempts to befriend, Phoebe Koyabe has the perfect blend of sass and "you think you're better than me but you aren't" attitude but also displays a compassionate side as well. ...At just 15, Koyabe's soaring vocal abilities are exceptional. Grossman and Koyabe also instill their parts with a clear sense of vulnerability beneath self-assured exteriors. Maggie Waller is Bridget, who also gets redistricted along with Campbell. ..Waller is a comic gem in the part...Trey DeGroodt is exceptional as La Cienega, one of Danielle's crew. I absolutely love how this character, who is clearly either transgendered or simply a gay man who prefers to wear drag, requires no explanation, back story, or heartbreaking revelation and is completely accepted by the Jackson students, no excuses required. DeGroodt's portrayal is clichĂ©-free and full of substance and style, from his line delivery to the way he walks, sings, and dances....Director Kenny Grossman draws superb, honest performances from his cast with everyone delivering realistic, caricature free portrayals....Choreographer Lynzee Foreman seamlessly weaves together the cheerleading sequences into the story...The only downside in the dancing is due to the low Spotlight ceiling which doesn't allow for any high flips and pyramids (which were a huge highlight when I saw the show on Broadway) to be incorporated into the cheer sequences....With an exceptional cast, sure-footed direction, and vibrant choreography, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production is a fun filled, high energy, high flying time that does full justice to this story about self-esteem, true friendship, and acceptance."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

theatre review - THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART - National Theatre of Scotland - Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts - April 22, 2016

Jessica Hardwick
Photo by Peter Dibdin
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 24th.

The National Theatre of Scotland's ...original play The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has come to Scottsdale for a week long run, and what an exciting and immersive theatrical experience it is. ..the plot follows young academia Prudencia Hart who has come to the small town of Kelso, on the Scottish Borders, to attend a conference. It is a snowy, cold, wintry night and when she finds her car snowed in she sets off to find a place to stay for the night. Little does she know what is waiting for her at the very hellish bed and breakfast that she's booked for the evening. ...Delivered almost completely in rhyming couplets...the play is fun and energetic, though it does have some downright spooky moments...the audience sits at large tables, with the actors bringing the storytelling and live music throughout the crowd as the tale unfolds. The cast of five are exceptional. Jessica Hardwick is Prudencia and she is luminous as the smart, social outcast who finds herself in a very strange situation. ..Wils Wilson has not only directed a gifted cast, but with minimal props and virtually no set, manages to create the settings of the piece exceptionally. ..David Greig's script is impressive, especially in his ability to use rhyming couplets to tell Pru's story. However, there are a few moments when it gets bogged down just a bit or where the shift in tone, from outright comedy to intense drama, is a little jarring. But sit back and simply let the story of Prudencia's dance with the devil unfold all around you and you will most likely find yourself very happy you took the journey.  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

theatre review - THE DROWSY CHAPERONE - ASU Lyric Opera Company - April 17, 2016

Alex Kunz and Brittany Howk
photo: Tim Trumble
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 24th.

 "The Drowsy Chaperone, which is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary of opening on Broadway, is one of the most joyful musicals of the past several decades. The show is narrated by a man who doesn't just love musicals he LOVES them. There is one musical he is especially enamored with, and the joy that particular show brings him washes over the orchestra pit and into the audience in Lyric Opera Theatre's exceptional production of this Tony winning show. This show is set in the apartment of a single man who is feeling a bit blue so he decides to play the cast recording of his favorite show, The Drowsy Chaperone to cheer himself up. This fictitious 1928 musical is one that he says perfectly achieves the escape from reality that musicals can provide. As he plays the record for himself, and for us as the fourth wall is fairly nonexistent in this show, the musical comes to life in his apartment....Tony winning bookwriters Bob Martin and Don McKellar are to be their decision to include such an interesting character, Man in Chair as he is called, someone that anyone who loves musicals can immediately identify with. His obsession with musicals, and this musical in particular, and how we get to know him as a person is what makes him not only three dimensional but a person we truly care about. The ASU / Lyric Opera Theatre cast is exceptional in delivering superb vocals as well as plenty of laughs. As Man in Chair, Alex Kunz is exceedingly endearing. The few times when he speaks about himself, his past, and his personal feelings make us also care deeply for him. The superb voices and refined comic abilities of Frances Tenney and Brittany Howk add plenty of lift and zing to their roles as the Drowsy Chaperone and Janet Van De Graaff, respectively. Their individual solos of "As We Stumble Along" and "Show Off" are excellently delivered with big, belting voices. As Janet's fiancĂ© Robert, Drake Sherman's clear vocals and winning stage presence are especially appealing....Director Robert Kolby Harper adds numerous original touches to make the production shine. His decision to bring Man in Chair out into the audience at several points in the show (completely unobtrusively, so if you're concerned that you may be pulled into the action on stage you have no worries) makes perfect sense, especially since he does continually talk to the audience throughout the show, so this is a logical next step. He keeps the pace fast but makes sure the charming moments shine through, too.... Choreographer Molly Lajoie has crafted plenty of upbeat dance steps into the show and together she and Harper incorporate the ensemble members seamlessly into the action. Music director Brent C. Mauldin achieves beautiful, lush sounds from both the cast and the impressive twelve-piece band. ...While The Drowsy Chaperone is ultimately zany and full of fluff, it is an exceptionally well-crafted musical with a big heart. If you happen to be feeling blue like Man in Chair is at the start of the show, with an impressive cast, flawless direction, and excellent creative elements, this production will definitely make you laugh a lot and leave with a smile."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS - Arizona Broadway Theatre - April 19, 2016

Cassandra Norville Klaphake and Mark DiConzo
Photo by Scott Samplin

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 8th.

"Based on a true story, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas may not be the best musical ever written but it does feature some catchy tunes and lovable characters. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production features an impressive cast and lush creative elements that combine to overcome many of the flaws of this underdeveloped and anticlimactic musical. Set in the fictitious small town of Gilbert, Texas, in the 1970s, Miss Mona is the proprietress of the Chicken Ranch, the local brothel. Mona is fierce but compassionate and extremely loyal and protective of her girls. She is also loyal to the local Sheriff Ed Earl and we soon discover that they also share a romantic past. When the big city investigative TV reporter Melvin P. Thorpe threatens to expose the Chicken Ranch in an effort to protect the morals of the citizens, it threatens Mona's livelihood as well as her relationship with Ed Earle. The lively score by Carol Hall features memorable, folksy country western tunes and upbeat ballads. But the book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, which is based on King's investigative story about the actual Chicken Ranch, is sorely lacking in character and plot development...Fortunately, the ABT production plays up the romance between Mona and Ed Earle, which helps give some shading to their characters, and features an exceptional cast and superb choreography by Kurtis W. Overby, which help bring plenty of showbiz razzle dazzle to the proceedings. Director Andy Meyers, who also is a hoot as Thorpe, does his best to try to make some sense of the minimal plot. He draws fun portrayals from his cast, with the female ensemble making each of Mona's girls a distinctive character. ...Cassandra Norville Klaphake isn't just all business as Mona, but also projects a motherly love for these young women. Her earthy voice interjects feeling into her songs. Mark DiConzo is a comic joy as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, adding "good old boy" ticks and mannerisms to his stage movement and a deep Texas cadence to his vocal delivery. It all adds up to a very funny portrayal. ....Meyers and Overby create several showstopping moments ...By playing up the romance between the leads, which adds heart and heat to the production, and clarifying a few things with wise directorial choices, ABT's production does what it can to sidestep the flaws in the original book. With a very good cast and some impressive choreography, the end result is a high energy, extremely professional production that provides a fun, nostalgic look back. Just try not to pay too much attention to the lack of plot developments."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

theatre review - 9 TO 5 - Desert Stages Theatre - April 15, 2016

Skylar Ryan, Brandi Bigley, and Harley Barton
Photo by Heather Butcher
Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 8th.

 "The musical 9 to 5, which is based on the 1980 film comedy, is a quirky comic gem that follows three underpaid and underappreciated working women who get revenge on their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss. Scottsdale Desert Stages production, while a bit bare bones, features talented leads and spirited direction that instill plenty of heart within the humorous show....
Director/choreographer Cambrian James provides a fast pace and fun movement, and has found a cast that deliver with ease just about every comic bit as well as the several uplifting moments in Resnick's book. ..While the set design is minimal, Aurelie Flores' costumes and James' wig designs bring back the horrifying looks of the '80s with big hair and loud prints adding to the humor of the show. The three leads all create believable three-dimensional characters. Brandi Bigley, Harley Barton, and Skylar Ryan as Violet, Judy, and Doralee are all excellent...Bigley....interjects a realistic sense of frustration under Violet's professional demeanor that comes with the territory of being passed over for promotions, because she is a woman, when she knows she can do a better job than the man who got promoted. Bigley also adds plenty of zaniness and a big dose of fun to the part, with good comic timing, especially when Violet believes she's poisoned her boss. Her two co-stars are equally impressive. Barton blossoms as Judy, the recently divorced woman who has gone back to work and often finds herself crying but then finds her footing, and eventually herself, over the course of the show. Barton has a big, booming voice that does justice to the soaring ballads Judy sings. ...Ryan is extremely likable and feisty as Doralee but also has plenty of charm and really makes you care for her....Ryan also has a strong voice and her solo, "Backwoods Barbie," is touching. The fact that Barton is just 17 and Ryan is in her early 20s and are both delivering such well-rounded performances is exceptional....9 to 5 is a fun, funny, fast-paced musical with characters you can root for. With talented leads, and James' always professional directorial and choreographic touches, DST's production is energetic and wacky but also full of charm."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - THE OUTGOING TIDE - Theatre Artists Studio - April 16, 2016

Judy Lebeau, Steven Fajardo, and Michael Fleck
photo: Mark Gluckman

"There have been numerous books, films, TV shows, and articles that focus on the impact of dementia and Alzheimer's disease on both the individual suffering from it as well as their family members. Bruce Graham's play The Outgoing Tide is a realistic account of the toll the disease takes on a family of three but with plenty of humor to not become completely depressing. Theatre Artists Studio's production features a gifted cast who brings an emotional resonance, and a large dose of compassion, to this illness that effects so many people while effectively depicting the difficult choices people make in dealing with it. Set in a small cottage on Chesapeake Bay, Gunner and his wife of over 50 years, Peg, are visited by their son Jack. ...Gunner knows he's starting to lose it and Peg is trying to convince him, with Jack's help, to move into an assisted living facility. But after seeing a close friend deteriorate in a similar situation Gunner has no desire to end up there. So he's come up with a solution that will forego any relocation to a nursing home and provide for his family, but he just has to tie up some loose ends first....Graham's script slowly gives us information about the fractured dynamics and emotional baggage of this family. ...The result will most likely be felt differently depending on how close one has been to dealing with a family member suffering through one of these diseases. But no matter what, this somber play's final scene packs an emotional punch. The Theatre Artists Studio cast are all giving effective, realistic, and moving performances. Michael Fleck instills the role of the opinionated but lovable Gunner with a sure-footed stubbornness..Yet it is the way he shows Gunner's courage and conviction concerning the decision he makes that will resonate in how pure it is. Judy Lebeau deeply conveys the ongoing pain, frustration, and struggle in dealing not only with Gunner's memory lapses but with her desire to do what she believes is best, ...As their son Jack, who always gets put in the middle of his parents, Steven Fajardo is equally adept at portraying a man who, while going through a difficult period himself, finds himself having to pick sides. Director Judy Rollings sets the right tone throughout, with a good balance between the almost gallows humor of a few moments and the more quiet scenes. ...While a fairly simple play, The Outgoing Tide features believable characters and a situation that many people have unfortunately encountered. It is a quiet play, with many tender moments as well as some very funny ones, and with a gifted cast and clear direction the Theatre Artists Studio presents a beautiful production that gives voice to an issue that few people wish to talk about."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - MEET THE DRYERS - Brelby Theatre Company - April 16, 2016

Mia Passarella and Devon Mahon
Photo by Anjali Patel

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 30th.

 "Brelby Theatre Company's original play Meet the Dryers is a laugh filled journey set on a horrible Thanksgiving Day that focuses not only on this very funny family but on our obsession with social media....a loving family that oozes warmth and love. Brelby's production, while slightly uneven, is very fun, with as much charm and humor as the sweet and comical Dryer family. Teenager James, the youngest Dryer, has an active imagination and has been feeling left out, so he has taken creative liberties to post exaggerated, fictionalized stories about his family online. When the truth about James' online fiction comes out over Thanksgiving it creates even more strife than usual in the extended Dryer family. ...Writers Shelby Maticic, Megan O'Connor, and Luke Gomez have created interesting characters and a plot that is intriguing and keeps us wondering how it will end. ...The trio of writers have created individuals we can all identify with, along with an obsession that we almost all have. While the play is full of warmth and plenty of laughs, there are a couple of small issues. When we first meet each of the Dryer family members we see them instead as the fictionalized version that James has created. This is a bit jarring and confusing at first and, with ten characters to introduce this way and some of these fantasy sequences overstaying their welcome, it takes a while to set the main plot in motion. Also, in the second act, when things get more serious and heartfelt, there are several similar lines that are spoken in overlapping unison by different characters. While this is an interesting and different creative touch, it comes across as slightly pretentious, especially since it is completely different in tone and style from the rest of the play. The cast is composed entirely of Brelby company members which helps in achieving natural and realistic relationships among the characters. They are all gifted in creating believable people and in portraying them realistically with both humor and charm....Director Shelby Maticic has done an exceptional job of staging the action so that all spaces of Chrispen's excellent set are used effectively ...Pretty much everyone today is obsessed with social media...It is that fascination that is expertly portrayed in Meet the Dryers along with a family anyone would love to call their own. While the main plot is slight, and I have a few small issues with the script, it is the combination of fun, identifiable characters with clean and smart direction and creative production design that turns this play into a charming, funny, heartwarming, and zany treat."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

theatre review - VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE - Theater Works - April 13, 2016

Bruce Laks, Debra Rich, and Cathy Dresbach
Photo by John Groseclose

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 24th.

 "Christopher Durang's latest play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, won the Tony Award for Best Play and is centered around a trio of middle-aged siblings dealing with the shortcomings of their lives. The comedy is receiving a fine production from Theater Works with a cast of excellent Valley based actors and adept direction by Daniel Schay. While it is a comedy, there is an unexpected underlying sadness to this production as Schay passed away suddenly last week on the day before the show opened. The cast and crew have banded together to pay tribute to Schay with their very funny and moving portrayals....Cathy Dresbach is excellent as Sonia, who is full of self-pity and feels that she hasn't lived...Dresbach excels in creating a nuanced portrayal. She expertly plays the dramatic and humorous sides of the role, and her heartbreaking but hopeful delivery of a phone call Sonia receives in the second act is a master class in acting. Debra Rich is Masha, a commanding woman who is always used to having her way but also now feels old and vulnerable...Since Masha is the antagonist of the piece it is rewarding that Rich makes the part slightly comical and likable. This is especially commendable since Durang has written the part to be somewhat unrealistically negative, nasty, and mean to Sonia. Both Rich and Dresbach also add plenty of realism to their parts, especially in how they make us believe their characters are soul searching for the answers to their future and the decisions they make. Vanya is a less showy role since he is the quiet and mostly subdued observer, and Bruce Laks is fine in the part, especially in how Vanya attempts to mediate at times the insanity that is swirling around him. Vanya has a comical rant in the second act, where he rages on how he misses the past and worries about the future, and while I believe it goes on a bit too long (something I felt even when I saw the original pre-Broadway production of this play), Laks keeps his outburst realistic and heartfelt....Director Dan Schay did a fine job with his direction, with the right balance between the serious and humorous moments, not letting the funny bits get too broad or too out of control. ...While Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has a couple of flaws in the script and occasional unrealistic characters, it is a modern tale with likable, though slightly odd, characters and a huge heart at its center. It is that heart, along with Durang's smart dialogue that makes this play a warm, comical gem. Theater Works' production features some great performances and is full of warmth and laughs. Schay was the executive director of Theater Works and former managing director at Phoenix Theatre and beloved across the Valley. His work on this production is a fitting tribute to a life dedicated to the arts."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - BLACK PEARL SINGS - Black Theatre Troupe - April 14, 2016

Dzifa Kwawu and Shari Watts
Photo: Laura Durant

 " Frank Higgins' 2006 play Black Pearl Sings, about a convict and a song collector in the 1930s, is receiving a strong production by the Black Theatre Troupe. It is a play about how powerful music is and the importance of documenting it in order to preserve history. With superb performances from Dzifa Kwawu and Shari Watts it is a rich and rewarding journey....Susannah, a white woman working for the Library of Congress to collect songs, and Pearl, an African-American female convict in the Texas prison where Susannah has currently set up shop. Pearl grew up amongst the Gullah people on Hilton Head Island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, and Susannah is interested in obtaining from her the rare folk songs she learned from people on the island and hopes that it will help her secure an academic job. Pearl is more interested in finding her daughter, and the two women realize they can use each other to find the freedom they both so eagerly seek.... focuses on racial issues but also touches upon the struggles of women in the male-dominated world of the 1930s. ..David J. Hemphill has done a lovely job directing Kwawu and Watts. They both deeply embody these very strong-willed women, warts and all, and in doing so create realistic individuals. ...Kwawu and Watts are giving two of the strongest and fully fleshed out portrayals I've seen on stage this season. ...Higgins' story of these two women—one black, the other white, one educated, the other not—in the turbulent racial and sexual times of the 1930s, makes for an intriguing but also exceedingly entertaining play. With superb portrayals by Kwawu and Watts, Higgins' tale of the importance of saving and preserving the past makes for a very powerful and emotional experience."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - Hale Centre Theatre - April 14, 2016

Sarah Pansing and Rob Stuart
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw / Hale Centre Theatre
highlights from local critics reviews - (click link at bottom of each review to read complete review)

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 14th.

 " While pretty much everyone knows the story of Anne Frank and that her life didn't end happily, the play The Diary of Anne Frank is still a deeply engaging and moving yet ultimately heart wrenching story of lost hope and the unspeakable consequences of Hitler's rise to power. Hale Centre Theatre's production of this classic factual story is exceptional, with a superb cast and concise and well thought out direction that are a tribute to Anne, her family, and the millions of others who lost their lives in the Nazi death camps....Director M. Seth Reines has done an exceptional job. His staging heightens the tension by creating realistic movement that allows the bickering and quarreling to grow naturally from the situations yet also instills the proceedings with the hope that the war will end and their lives will go back to normal....Sarah Pansing is simply sensational as Anne. The excitement she portrays when they first move into the attic, as if it's like being on an adventurous vacation, and the shifting thoughts and feelings Anne experiences as her body changes, are portrayed superbly...The only issue I can find is that Pansing is slightly older than Anne was at the time the family was in hiding. Other than that very small quibble, there isn't one false move, gesture, or expression in her performance.
Otto Frank is the realist, matter of fact, quiet, and loving disciplinarian, and Rob Stuart's performance is as even measured as the man he is portraying. ..It is an appropriately restrained portrayal but Stuart's final monologue delivery is an emotional mind numbing experience that packs a wallop.
The rest of the cast make a well-honed ensemble of distinguished and rich performances that require constant interactions with and reactions to the other characters, since every actor is on stage almost throughout the entire play. ..Brian Daily's set design perfectly instills the sense of claustrophobia that having so many people living in such a small space creates. ..With Reines' excellent direction, Pansing's rich performance as Anne, and an entire cast that embody their roles with a deep clarity, Hale's The Diary of Anne Frank is a deeply moving and emotional experience. Even if you know how Anne's story ends, this production should warrant a visit to be reminded of Anne and how her diary represents so many other people who lived in fear but always had the hope that freedom would eventually come, even if it never did."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

theatre review - SEUSSICAL, THE MUSICAL - Grand Canyon University - April 8, 2016

Tarnim Bybee (top), Ryan Usher (bottom), and Cast
Photo by Daryl Webb/Grand Canyon University
 "The cleverly rhyming, imaginary, and fantastical world of the Dr. Seuss children's books was turned into a big Broadway musical back in 2000. While it didn't run long on Broadway, the musical has gone on to find much success across the country, with productions continually presented in schools and regional theatres. Grand Canyon University just closed their production of the musical in a fine production that was colorful and energetic....Seussical uses the well-known characters of several of Theodore Geisel's books. The trio interweave The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant and even the Grinch into a fun show with enough plot to keep older audience members interested, but easy enough for younger theatergoers to still have an enjoyable time. The show features a fun and varied score, with music by Flaherty and humorous lyrics by Ahrens that play off Seuss' famous rhymes....
The GCU cast was good in bringing the many beloved literary characters to life. Ryan Usher had a perfect sense of playfulness and mischief as The Cat in the Hat while Preston MacDonald projected a huge level of compassion as Horton. As Jojo, Bri Ha­Nguyen brought a light-hearted spirit. The duet of "Alone in the Universe" that MacDonald and Ha-Nguyen shared was beautiful and moving.
Devaune Bohall was simply lovely as Gertrude McFuzz and Tarnim Bybee brought a superb singing voice and fun sensibility to Mayzie, a bird who tricks Horton into sitting on her egg to keep it warm while she goes on vacation. ...Director Michael Kary instilled the production with the playfulness and sense of imagination that are a major component of the Seuss books. ...While not everyone in the cast had a stellar singing voice they all sounded good thanks to music director Mark Feary....William H. Symington's set was stellar, full of the crazy angles, strange shapes, and wild colors just like the drawings in the Seuss books. Nola Yergen's beautiful costume designs were on par creatively with the set design and played off the imagination aspect of the books....Full of wit, imagination, and a big heart, Seussical at GCU was a crowd pleasing hit."   -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

theatre review - PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM - Fountain Hills Theater - April 10, 2016

Wade Moran and Timothy Pittman
Photo by Carol Carroll
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 17th.

 "Play It Again, Sam is a sweet romantic comedy that follows the humorous aftermath of a divorce and its impact on a neurotic writer who is attempting to date again. Fountain Hills Theater's production of Woody Allen's 1979 play is a charmer with a cast that delivers Allen's comical script with ease....Director Bob Feugate.. not only found a cast that ensures Allen's humorous dialogue gets big laughs, but they also make the characters believable and not just caricatures delivering a series of punch lines. He also achieves a superb 1970s look and feel for the entire production and keeps the pace swift. ...As Allan, Wade Moran delivers a nuanced performance that has echoes of Woody Allen's well-known obsessive traits without becoming a complete impersonation. ...It is a winning performance. Van Rockwell and Ashley Miller are good as Dick and Linda, with Rockwell's portrayal of the ambitious businessman a nice counterpoint to Moran's nebbish Allan. Miller is believable as the woman who makes Allan realize that he is best when he is just being himself and not trying to impress someone. The scenes Miller and Moran have together are genuine and heartfelt. Timothy Pittman gives a solid portrayal of Humphrey Bogart and an expert and measured delivery of the advice Bogart gives. ...Peter J. Hill's evocative and attractive set and the wonderful costumes from Gail Oliphant bring the 1970s back to life in full force, complemented by Bob and Alisa Feugate's property designs and the hair and makeup creations by Patsy Johnson and Marybeth Ingram. ...Charming, short, and sweet, and also a little silly, Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam is a swift moving comedy with characters you care about. With a good cast, solid direction and lovely creative elements, Fountain Hills Theater's production is a winner."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)