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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

theatre review CHARLOTTE'S WEB, Childsplay, Sept. 13

Click here to read my review of Childsplay's production of Charlotte's Web at Talkin Broadway.

Debra K. Stevens and Kyle Sorrell
Childsplay presents some of the most heartfelt and moving theatrical experiences for families in the Phoenix area. Their current production of Joseph Robinette's adaptation of E. B. White's classic 1952 children's novel,Charlotte's Web, doesn't disappoint. It has an exceptional cast and beautiful creative elements that combine to expertly tell this well-known story of a pig named Wilbur and the spider who helps save his life.

White's beautiful story of how Charlotte's ability to spin words of praise about Wilbur into her web that gain him media attention and help save him from being turned into bacon is heartwarming yet also full of complex characters and life and death situations. Robinette's adaptation doesn't skirt the adult topics brought up in White's book, but presents them in a realistic manner. It is a popular tale and this is actually a return engagement, with Childsplay last presenting this play seven years ago.
The cast of adult actors, many of them having been in numerous past Childsplay productions, are terrific in their ability to play the various humans and farm animals in the story, with many of them playing multiple roles. Kyle Sorrell's portrayal of Wilbur is charming with a soft voice that projects the sweet disposition of a very young pig. As the newborn runt with wide eyes, Sorrell shows Wilbur's eagerness to make new friends and his desire to learn, but also his fear of certain things. Debra K. Stevens is grand, majestic and wise as Charlotte, crafting a spider that anyone would want for their friend. Her voice is both forceful and charming, exactly as you would imagine a spider's would be to charm its prey into the web; fortunately for Wilbur, Charlotte's web is used to help him. Jon Gentry gives Templeton a self-centered, comical playfulness as the rat who is more concerned about eating than anything else.

Katie McFadzen, who was excellent as the lead in Actors Theatre's Good People last spring, is funny and touching as several characters, including the Goose with a tendency to repeat words. Kate Haas is quite believable as the young, sweet faced Fern who goes out of her way to ensure Wilbur survives. As Fern's aunt and uncle, Yolanda London and Danny Karapetian are charming, with London also comical as the wise old Sheep. Drew Swaine nicely rounds out the cast as Fern's brother Avery. They are a well-directed ensemble, more than capable of making the quick change from one character to the next, from human to animal and back again, with ease.

Director Anthony Runfola manages the skilled company effectively. While there is plenty of humor in Robinette's adaptation, Runfola doesn't rush the serious topics of the play, ensuring that they are presented in a matter of fact way to not shock the young members of the audience that also allows them to possibly learn about something they may not have known.

From the cute baby pig puppet that Kate Haas manipulates to the simple yet extremely effective way of showing how Charlotte weaves the words into her web, Childsplay's production is simple in its design, yet also has a few touches of theatrical imagination. Adriana Diaz's costumes are perfect in how they nicely depict the numerous animals, farm workers and fair-goers in E. B. White's novel. The cast wears various quilted pieces of clothing for the animals, including a cute hat with pig ears for Wilbur, a wool sweater and reading glasses for the old Sheep, and an outfit of patches and a very long tail for Templeton. For the human characters, a nice collection of simple gingham and plaid country folk outfits sets them apart from the animal characters and for Charlotte, a sparkling and shimmering ballerina dress, lined with tulle, makes her appear elegant. Katie Peck's wig and make-up design help the cast quickly become the numerous characters they portray.

Debra K. Stevens
The two-story barn set by William Symington is large and realistic with a painted farmland backdrop and a giant web for Charlotte to move around on and spin her words. The use of long shag carpet to represent the bales of hay and the straw floor of Wilbur's pen is inventive. Tim Monson's lighting design perfectly shows the hot days and cool evenings on the farm and magically makes the fireworks at a fair appear to explode over our heads. Christopher Neumeyer effectively uses sound effects of barn noises and inclement weather as well as folksy transitional music in his sound design.
While Charlotte's Web touches upon some serious life lessons that teach children about life and death it more importantly shows how friendship, bravery, simple acts of kindness, and helping out others are some of the most important things in life to practice. The play is a sweet telling of the classic children's novel, and the Childsplay production of this classic story has an exceptional cast of gifted actors, colorful sets and costumes, and solid direction that bring the story wondrously to life.
Note: Charlotte's Web deals with some grown up topics, including the slaughtering of a pig and the death of one of the main characters. So, while the show is geared toward families, Childsplay recommends it for children five and older—and I'd expect some of them to ask questions on the ride home about the themes that have been brought up.

Charlotte's Web at Childsplay runs through October 12th, 2014, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0)

Photos: Tim Trumbule

theatre review ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, Desert Stages Theatre, Sept. 12

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Desert Stages Theatre's production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest click on this link.

Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale has produced a string of classic dramas and comedies in their intimate Actors Café space to fairly great acclaim. Their latest endeavor is the classic Dale Wasserman play, which is based on the novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The intimacy of the company's smaller cabaret-style theatre provides an immediacy with the play's personal moments of pain and suffering.

Set in the 1960s, Randle McMurphy is the newest patient at a mental facility. We quickly learn McMurphy isn't actually crazy but a charming, funny and rebellious prison inmate who pretends to be insane in order to serve out his prison sentence in the mental ward instead of subjecting himself to hard labor at a work farm. When he meets the cold and controlling Nurse Ratched, whom he immediately clashes with, he quickly learns his plan was a mistake. McMurphy finds a connection with many of his fellow residents of the asylum and helps them get better, until he faces the ultimate showdown with Ratched and a heartbreaking ending that is both sad and uplifting.

Trevor Starkey as McMurphy and Shari Watts as Nurse Ratched both give rich performances, though ones with plenty of subtlety. Starkey comfortably portrays the rebellious man who changes everyone's lives in the asylum, for better and worse. His McMurphy exudes the requisite charm used to manipulate his fellow inmates to get what he wants, but also has some heartfelt moments with two of the inmates who require special care. He is appropriately loud and obnoxious but when his fellow inmates inform him that Ratched could keep him there forever, Starkey turns McMurphy's charm to agitation, confusion and fear. Watts is sublime as Ratched, using her sly smile and steady, manipulative voice for intimidation, and in doing so is a force to be reckoned with. Her steely, steadfast, assured walk and chilling smile help her rule with her iron fist. "You must follow the rules" is something she says with that smile and that quiet, subtle voice, and Watts shows us how Ratched controls everyone around her in her desire to keep everything in order.

The ensemble cast includes actors who are using distinct, refined characteristics to make them each individuals. While all are doing good work, especially effective are Scott Hyder as Harding, a man who is voluntarily in the hospital and could leave if he wanted to, but chooses to stay. Hyder appropriately shows Harding's fears of society's perceived rejections of him. Austin Kiehle is giving a harshly realistic portrayal of young patient Billy, an unfortunate young man dominated by his mother, who stutters. His expressions when Ratched talks to him about his mother are perfect. Reginald Graham is quite moving as the paranoid Chief Bromden, the mostly silent man who ends up helping McMurphy, and Omar Zamora is excellent in how he instills the hallucinating Martini with appropriate nervous ticks and expressions.

Director Louis Farber, Stray Cat Theatre's Associate Artistic Director making his DST debut, uses 1960s music to immediately set the time of the play and, even with a large cast of 15, manages to make the very small stage never seem overly packed. He succeeds in getting distinct portrayals from each of his actors but lets subtlety work in his favor in the clashes between McMurphy and Ratched. He also appropriately directs the entire cast, even in scenes where they are just in the background, from the nurses doing busy work at their station toward the back of the stage to the ongoing card games between the patients, to depict normal day to day events at the asylum. Farber also doesn't let the humor of the play get out of hand, thereby not allowing us to laugh at the patients' medical predicaments, but instead laugh with them.

Creative elements are effective, especially Virginia Olivieri's crisp 1960s nurses' outfits and her women's dresses with vibrant, wild patterns.

Unfortunately, while the small space does bring an intimacy to the proceedings, it also means the nurse's station is placed precariously close to the action, instead of being set far back or off to the side. So, the staging of the scenes where Ratched isn't supposed to be aware of or hear certain details of McMurphy's plans is now a bit farfetched, since she is literally just a few feet away.

With the mention of the threat of serious forms of therapy such as shock treatment and frontal lobotomies, Wasserman's play includes some serious stuff, though he adds plenty of humor and comic moments to help balance out the action. In today's world, when so many people are self-medicated and taking many of the same prescription drugs we hear the patients in the play discuss, it is interesting and painful to see how things were in the past. Desert Stages Theatre's production, with Farber's confident direction, is funny and sad, but ultimately moving. And there are two perfectly played performances by Starkey and Watts—just watching the two of them play their sometimes subtle, sometimes full of force, chess game of power is worth the ticket price.

The Desert Stages Theatre production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest runs through October 26th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664.

Artwork provided by Wade Moran/Desert Stages Theatre

Sunday, September 14, 2014

theatre review GODSPELL, Mesa Encore Theatre, September 11

To read my Talkin' Broadway review of Godspell at Mesa Encore Theatre just click on this link.

Rudy Ramirez and Kyle Bennett

Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak's hit 1971 musical Godspell has some of the most instantly recognizable songs from a musical. If you say the name of the show to anyone they will most likely start singing "Day by Day" to you. Several of Schwartz' songs became pop hits and, based on the biblical characters and religious themes in the show, made their way into church services across the country. Mesa Encore Theatre's current production is energetic, with a young, talented cast led by the animated and personable Rudy Ramirez.


Godspell is loosely based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, so it follows the life and teachings of Jesus, but in an abstract and playful way. It is part Sunday school class, part religious celebration with a group of performers acting out various parables that teach moral lessons. While it may be grounded in Christianity, it has a universal appeal that attempts to transcend one religion, form a strong sense of a community, and teach us all lessons about how to better treat our fellow man. And if the lessons are a bit redundant, there is that awesome score by Schwartz to break up and assist the teachings and help in taking us along on the journey.

Updated somewhat from the original version, and including the song "Beautiful City" written for the 1973 film adaptation, MET's production also incorporates a few contemporary references, which add a modern touch to the proceedings and gives the whole show a sense of timelessness. It is still a very heavy-handed "religious" experience, and the continual slew of parables gets a bit tiring, especially by the second act, which is a bit abrupt in how it rather quickly goes from the fun and games of act one to Judas' betrayal, the crucifixion, and then the finale. But it is heartfelt, engaging and hopeful, though to the non-religious minded it could prove a trying evening in the theatre.

Director Brian Foley has assembled a gifted multicultural cast, including many in their teens and early twenties. Rudy Ramirez is giving an exceptional take on Jesus. He is playful and charismatic with an effective use of accents and impressions to portray the various characters in the parables. He also has an excellent connection with the cast, rich vocal skills; the end result is an especially appealing performance. Likewise, Kyle Bennett is just as winning as Judas. His strong, clear voice and excellent diction, especially during the fast moving lyrics of "All for the Best," make the most of his songs and he embodies the part with a seriousness that is especially moving during "On the Willows," which is nicely sung from the second level balcony over the audience. He also plays the guitar on a few songs where he isn't the main singer, which makes Judas instantly connected with the other performers.

Kyle Bennett and the cast
The remainder of the cast is made up of younger performers and, though a couple of them were a bit vocally challenged on some of the score's more sustained high notes at the performance I attended, they all give upbeat, appealing performances. I especially liked the sweet faced and sweet voiced Jessica Webb who sings a rousing "O Bless the Lord My Soul," Marjani Hing-Glover's earthy, grounded version of "By My Side," and Destiny Walsh's rich and touching "Day by Day." Also, Vinny Chavez has a great presence with assured singing and dancing.

Starting the show with modern street noises of police sirens and traffic sounds and placing the cast in the audience during the opening sequence, director Foley grounds the show in modern times and instantly pulls us into the show. His staging makes good use of the entire stage and the auditorium and his choreography is varied and upbeat. Foley also provides the prop design and with Chris Peterson the simple scenic design; all are original in how they use various sizes of white paper for sets and props—even having the character of Abraham wearing a white paper beard. The white element also works well in Mickey and Rhea Courtney's costume designs. While the company first appears in dark clothing, they change into simple but varied white outfits once Jesus enters, then slowly change into bright outfits of varying colors as the cast learns their lessons. Collin Mulligan's lighting design is impressive, especially with the use of shadows for the more dramatic scenes, and Canyon Stewart's sound design provides clear vocals throughout.

The teaching of simple lessons, change and the idea of hope is the driving message of Godspell. Even with the shortcomings of the show, with a winning cast, particularly two great performances from Ramirez and Bennett, and Schwartz' great infectious score, MET's take on Godspell is quite enjoyable. While the non-religious might find it quite boring and even somewhat manipulative, fans of the musical and/or the teachings of the gospels, are definitely in for a treat.

Godspell runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through September 21st, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or atmesaencoretheatre.com.


theatre review THE ALBUM PROJECT: JAGGED LITTLE PILL, Nearly Naked Theatre, September 7

Click here to read my review of Nearly Naked Theatre's production of The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill at Talkin' Broadway

Caitlin Ary and Nathan Parrett
The lyrics of hit songs often conjure up images in our minds of the characters and situations that the words create. However, it's a pretty ballsy move to attempt to actually dramatize on stage, with a fairly large cast, an entire award-winning, multi-million copy selling recording, in the exact track order, and have it make any sense. But that's just what Kate Sullivan Gibbens has done. Along with co-conceiver Jonah Platt, Gibbens also directs and co-stars in this 65-minute theatrical version of Alanis Morissette's groundbreaking album "Jagged Little Pill," and the resulting piece, entitled The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill, is one of the most unusual, inventive and fascinating theatrical events I've seen in a very long time. The show originated in Los Angeles this summer and Nearly Naked Theatre is presenting for two weekends the "Arizona Extension" of the production with most of the same cast from the LA run.

Released in 1995, "Jagged Little Pill" represented the emotions and music of a generation of young adults, but resonated with just about everyone. The combination of angst, anger, emotional heartbreak, depression and rage that was rampant in the mid 1990s came through strong and clear with the combination of the intensity of Morisette's vocals and the beauty and honesty in her clear, descriptive lyrics. With numerous top ten hits and selling over 33 millions of copies, it catapulted Morissette to superstar status and earned four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year.

Now The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill isn't a traditional "musical" in any sense of the word, and the production could best be described as a song cycle or a theatrical interpretation of the album. The story of the piece, as far as I can make out, tells the tale of Mary Jane, a woman who has just suffered a big breakup. Unable to cope with her sadness and anger, she ends up in a rehab center (or is it the psych ward?), discovers others like her, and deals with the emotional repercussions of losing the man she loved, ultimately rediscovering herself in the process.

Some of the "Jagged Little Pill" songs are more easily dramatized than others. From the intense emotions of a woman breaking up with her boyfriend in "You Oughta Know" to the sweet love song "Head Over Feet" (here expertly turned into a duet) to "Your House," which tells the somber, personal story of a woman, alone in her boyfriend's house, finding a love letter to him that she didn't write. The ones that lend themselves less to dramatization still receive spirted musical orchestrations from Jonah Platt that feature a guitar-heavy, driving sound, pulsating drum beats, and layered harmonies.

The cast all have rock style voices, so the songs fit perfectly within their vocal abilities, though none of them, fortunately, attempts to mimic Morissette's famous vocal style. Caitlin Ary is practically perfect as Mary Jane, with a raw and intense yet pure voice that easily wraps itself around Morissette's heartbreaking lyrics. With her stark blonde hair she is also someone who your eyes are immediately drawn to, and she manages to make you instantly connect with Mary Jane and want her to succeed on her road to recovery. As the two men in Mary Jane's life, Nathan Parrett and Casey Hayden provide skilled vocals, with Parrett's earthy voice giving a rich poignancy on a slightly slowed down version of "Head Over Feet" that is one of the evenings highlights. Hayden's raw tones on "Wake Up," delivered in a duet with Ary singing the song "Not the Doctor," with his soaring delivery of the lyric "and what goes around never comes around to you," is especially moving. Gibbens has a nice level of intensity that she brings to her parts in both "Perfect" and "Right Through You," and Tyler Olshansky gives an appropriate sense of personal connection and rawness to "Forgiven" and a clear connection with the main character in "Mary Jane." The rest of the ensemble, Michael Noah Levine, Michelle Raitzin and Rebecca Dowdy, are featured heavily throughout and provide plenty of foot-stomping anger and heartwrenching angst.

Comparisons to another theatrical version of a rock album, Green Day's American Idiot, are sure to come up, but Gibbens proves you don't need a multi-million dollar budget or a Tony Award winning director to turn a hit pop album into a piece of theatre that has a poignancy and resonance to it. She's also found a way to add an upbeat ending to the evening (as the album's final track "Your House" is a very somber number). Using one of Morissette's post-"Jagged Little Pill" follow up hits as an encore allows a final connection with the audience that is both positive and uplifting, and in a strangely effective way actually wraps up the story of Mary Jane as well. Hearing these songs again, almost twenty years later, with that many more years of personal experience, will also give you a more in-depth understanding of the emotions of these songs.

Does it all work? Absolutely not. Will some people see this and hate it or think "what the hell was that?" Most definitely, especially anyone who isn't familiar with the songs. But for those who are familiar with the material or for fans of rock music or theatrical events, just sit back, let the music, lyrics and emotions wash over you and experience something that is unlike any other piece of theatre out there.

The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill runs through September 16th, 2014, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org.

Photo: Laura Durant