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, 2014


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

theatre review SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE FINAL ADVENTURE, Grand Canyon University, September 7

To read my review of Grand Canyon University's Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, just click on this link.

Sherlock Holmes is once again a hot commodity. With the recent Emmy winning BBC series "Sherlock," the hit US TV series "Elementary," and the two recent big screen movies that featured Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, the characters that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced in 1887 are still going strong today. Grand Canyon University just finished their run of Steven Dietz's entertaining play Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure in a production that was top notch, with superb direction, impressive creative elements, and a terrific cast led by Aaron Potter and Dylan Kim, who were both excellent as Holmes and his partner in crime, Dr. Watson.

The plot features two of Holmes' arch rivals, the evil Professor Moriarty and the seductive Irene Adler. Toward the end of his career, Holmes is approached by the King of Bohemia about a case that it too tempting for Holmes to pass up. It seems the King is being blackmailed by Adler, so Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson pursue the case that leads them straight into the lair of Moriarty. With plenty of twists and turns, "The game is afoot" indeed.

Dietz's 2006 play is based on the 1899 play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was the winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play. More comical and upbeat and less dark and brooding than some other Holmes adaptations, it serves the characters and familiar plots of Conan Doyle's tales well and results in an overall fun, suspenseful and entertaining theatrical endeavor.

Director Claude Pensis assembled an absolutely winning cast, able to provide plenty of comedy along with a nice sense of drama in the more suspenseful moments. With perfect diction, rapid-fire delivery of Holmes' intricate dialogue, and a completely appropriate air of self-confidence, Aaron Potter was superb as the famous sleuth. He also mastered with ease several accents for the various characters Holmes impersonates in the play. His humorous delivery combined with Holmes' assured intensity created a performance that was on par with performances of many professional actors in the Phoenix area. As Watson, Dylan Kim's comical facial expressions provided a perfect sense of humor for the many moments when he is continually befuddled by Holmes. Kim also spoke with a perfectly crisp, clear British accent and, in serving as the narrator of the story, exhibited a confident connection with the audience. Potter and Kim also achieved the keen sense of Holmes and Watson's years long friendship, not to mention the intense amount of trust the two men have, which is a difficult feat, considering how young both Potter and Kim are.

Moriarty's subtle intensity was expertly managed by Joshua Vanderpoel, and Megan Sprink-VanCamp provided plenty of layers for Irena, from the scheming and cunning vixen to the confused, concerned and used woman. She also exhibited an appropriate amount of charm for the three suitors she encountered throughout the play—her moments with Potter, which approached the edge of romance, especially effective. Javier Gonzalez made a winning King of Bohemia, with a humorous thick accent, and Kit Boyett and Claire Flatz were appropriately low-life and thuggish as a scheming brother and sister, with Flatz's dramatic facial expressions a nice touch. Klay Wanderlear added some fine humorous moments as a comical safecracker.

Pensis' direction allowed the humor to shine amid the intrigue and kept the plot humming along at breakneck speed, something not easily done with the vast amount of intricate dialogue. The director's ability to get such excellent, rich and layered performances from all of his young actors is worth mentioning. The entire cast not only kept their foreign accents consistent throughout (dialect coach Michael Kary should be commended), but all were assured in their delivery and able to effectively navigate the comedy and drama in the play.

Creative elements were quite effective. Scenic designer William Symington's two-tiered set, comprised of rich dark colors, included a rotating set piece for Holmes' study and the various rooms for the other scenes, and a painted London skyline. I just wish the second level walkway that appeared to have a detailed iron railing was used more often. Costume designer Nola Yergen provided impeccable suits and coats for the men as well as a sumptuous, layered dress for Irena in act two. Kay Gray's hair and make-up designs were period perfect and Pensis' lighting designs used shadows to instill the appropriate sense of mystery and intrigue.

With gifted direction, impressive production elements, and a cast that never made a single misstep, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure was yet another winning production for GCU.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure played at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre from August 29th to September 7th, 2014. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information for upcoming shows can be found at www.gcu.edu/Upcoming-Events/The-Arts.php or by calling (602) 639-8880.

Friday, September 12, 2014

theatre review I GET A KICK OUT OF COLE, Theater Works, Sept. 6

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of I Get a Kick Out of Cole.

Roger K. Nelson, Steve Hilderbrand, Kathleen Berger, Dominik R. Rebilas, Marie Gouba, Van Katz, Alanna Kalbfleisch, Tony Blosser, Alberto Allende, Brenda Goodenberger, Ixy Utpadel and Ken Goodenberger 
Known for his lush music and lyrics that are both romantic and witty, American composer Cole Porter wrote a string of hit songs in the first half of the 20th century and found great success on Broadway as well as in Hollywood, writing dozens of scores for the stage and screen. While he is best known today for writing the music for Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate, he also composed a non-stop stream of songs that are part of the American Songbook, including many from his lesser known musicals such as "Night and Day," "Love for Sale," "True Love" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." With such a vast catalog of memorable songs, there have been numerous Cole Porter revues over the years and Theater Works in Peoria is presenting the premiere production of a fantastic new cabaret show entitled I Get a Kick Out of Cole.

Conceived by Steve Hilderbrand and Gary Gallner, with Hilderbrand also providing some excellent musical arrangements as well as the staging of the show, I Get a Kick Out of Cole is biographical in nature. Using about fifty of Porter's songs to comment upon his life, both the highs and the lows, the show is a virtual greatest hits collection of Cole's music with nine talented singers providing nicely varied voices to sing the songs and tell Porter's story.

Born in Indiana, then schooled at both Yale and Harvard, Porter moved to Paris after his first show flopped on Broadway. There he met older American socialite Linda Lee Thomas, whom he eventually married, even though he was gay. I Get a Kick Out of Cole touches upon all of these points as well as Porter's return to Broadway in the late 1920s with his first successful show, Paris, which featured "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love." This was followed by more shows, writing scores for Hollywood, and his first huge Broadway hit Anything Goes in 1934. While a serious horseback riding accident in 1937 that crushed both of his legs kept Porter wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life, he still kept writing, with more scores for Broadway and Hollywood and in 1948, the Broadway smash Kiss Me, Kate before his death in 1964.

With a simple yet elegant set comprised of two descending staircases that surround an impressive jazz trio led by Hilderbrand on piano, the cast of nine, dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, sing the Porter songs and tell his story as if we are all guests at an elegant cocktail party in a large New York penthouse apartment. The sophisticated setting and finely detailed costumes by Tamara Treat work perfectly together, yet don't pull the focus away from Porter's life, lyrics and music.

All nine cast members are skilled vocalists and have no problem in navigating Porter's more tricky lyrics. A true ensemble piece, all nine have numerous moments to shine, both in solos, duets and full ensemble pieces, and, while there are many highlights in the show, here are some of my favorites: Marie Gouba delivers both "Down in the Depths" and "Make it Another Old Fashioned Please" with perfect diction, becoming the women in the songs and drawing out the meaning from the lyrics. Likewise, Kathleen Berger's "Love For Sale" is perfectly sung, with intense emotions. Her "I Love Paris" and "So in Love" include some lovely moments as well, with Berger's singing in her higher register quite effective.

Brenda Goodenberger delivers a smashing, comical take on Nymph Errant's "The Physician" as well as a funny snippet of Kiss Me, Kate's "I Hate Men." Alanna Kalbfleisch is a comic gem, with her humorous facial expressions perfectly complementing the humorous lyrics for both "Lost Liberty Blues" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." She also provides some sexy choreographed movement, perfectly in sync with the drummer, for "I've Got You Under My Skin." Ixy Utpadel delivers a hilarious take on "Laziest Gal in Town," lazily leaning back against the piano at one point, but also sings a touching "True Love" from Porter's film score for High Society. Utpadel, Kalbfleisch and Goodenberger also provide lush harmonies on "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love."

Dominik R. Rebilas delivers winning versions of "Take Me Back to Manhattan;" "I'm a Gigolo," which receives a lovely jazzy arrangement; "Dream Dancing," with a nicely choreographed soft shoe moment; and a romantic "I Love You" that segues into a lovely moment with Gouba where they "Begin the Beguine." "I Worship You" gets a soulful rendition from Roger Nelson, and Tony Blosser sings a touching "At Long Last Love." Ken Goodenberger (Brenda's husband) delivers a forceful "I Happen to Like New York" and with his wife sings a spirited version of "It's De-Lovely" that includes some lyrics from the song that aren't often heard.

There are some excellent full ensemble numbers as well as an act one "swanky" New York party sequence that incorporates a parade of Porter songs, an upbeat sung entr'acte, and a winning sequence of Kiss Me, Kate songs. Berger also has a poignant solo take on "Every Time We Say Goodbye" that ends the evening with the entire company joining in a capella to deliver a beautiful moment of lush harmonies.

Hilderbrand's staging is quite effective, with efficient, varied use of the entire stage, the multiple entrances, and those long staircases. There are some nice touches throughout, including a simple yet effective one in "Too Darn Hot" where the women remove the men's red handkerchiefs to wipe their foreheads. Treat's gowns for the women include colorful ones in the first act, and sets of black and white ones in act two, as well as black tuxedos for the men in the first part and white ones toward the end. Tim Monson's lighting design is colorful and lush and fits perfectly with the moods of each song and sequence.

The three-piece band is superb, with Alberto Allende on string bass and Van Katz on drums both providing skilled playing and perfectly supporting Hilderbrand on the piano. Hilderbrand's arrangements fit perfectly with the period of the songs yet add modern touches to make the songs even more universal.

Just a couple of small quibbles—while the show's narration of Porter's life is presented chronologically, there is a slight glitch in the forward thrust of the show at one point. Porter's decision to go to work in Hollywood is talked about after we are told about his accident, but the accident happened two years later. Even though it is stated that the year he went to Hollywood was 1935, a little clarification would help in letting us know that he actually went West before he was wheelchair bound. Also, one song during that sequence, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," while sung by Mary Martin in a 1940 film, was actually originated by her in Porter's 1938 Broadway musical Leave It to Me. Clarifying the details of the narration would improve the accuracy of the show. Also, an earlier piece of narration that states that Porter was unlike his contemporaries Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, who were Jewish immigrants "exploiting their talents to escape the poverty of the lower East Side," seems a bit forceful, and somewhat inaccurate, in the use of the word "exploiting."

But those are just a few small details that can easily be fixed, as Hilderbrand and Gallner have conceived a thoroughly enjoyable, touching and effective way to honor the legacy of music of Porter and with a few small tweaks I could see this revue having a very long life. With fantastic arrangements and musical direction, a smoking trio of musicians, and a winning cast, to quote a famous Porter lyric, "what a swell party" I Get a Kick Out of Cole is.

I Get a Kick Out of Cole 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

Photo: Skye Fallon / Theater Works

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

theatre review THE ANGRY HOUSEWIVES, Arizona Broadway Theatre, Sept. 5

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway of The Angry Housewives at Arizona Broadway Theatre, just click on this link.

Molly Lajoie, Brian Sweis, Greg Kalafatas, Kathi Osborne, Rori Nogee, Conner Morley, Monica Ban and Sam Ramirez 

 I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the musical The Angry Housewives, the final show in Arizona Broadway Theatre's 2013-2014 season. Billed as a "punk rock" musical about angry women, and a fairly unknown show, I thought it might be a big letdown after ABT's season of successful, big Broadway-style musicals. Fortunately, it has a witty book, the punk rock music is humorously and only minimally used throughout, and it actually fits into the standard musical comedy mold, albeit one with plenty of satirical nods to the 1980s and the plight of the desperate housewife. With a talented cast and a book with plenty of comical moments, it is a show that will grow on you and make you laugh—a fun, successful end to ABT's ninth season.

Molly Lajoie rocking out with her fellow Housewives.
Four women, in an act of desperation, form a punk rock band to earn some much needed cash by entering a contest at the local punk rock club. Their newly formed band ends up creating rifts amongst the four, as well as with the men in their lives. A.M. Collins and Chad Henry created the show thirty years ago for a small Seattle theatre company, where it ran for several years. The musical also had a short Off-Broadway run in the mid-1980s and has received productions at various regional theatres across the country.

After a somewhat slow start, the premise is quickly introduced and the energy builds, leading up to the hilarious act one closer, "Cornflakes," with the women in their punk rock band outfits, a scene that will have you laughing silly. Act two presents additional dramatic conflicts, but also provides some sweet moments for the men to reflect upon the women in their lives. Even though none of the show's songs will stick with you for long, the raucous finale that includes another hysterical number from the band and the guys dressed up in comical costumes is so silly and fun that it sends the audience out on a high.

Now, the title is a bit misleading as, while all four are angry, technically only one (Jetta) is an actual housewife. The other frustrated women are Bev, a widowed single mother; Carol, a divorced high school teacher; and the unmarried Wendi. ABT's Casting and Artistic Producer Cassandra Klaphake has done her usual excellent job in not only finding four talented actresses to bring these ladies to life, but four skilled actors to play the men in their lives as well. All eight exhibit good comic skills as well as rich voices.

Kathi Osborne is feisty as Wendi, the toll bridge operator who has been dating a man named Wallace for many years, and comfortably portrays the leader of the group, although one who usually ends up chickening out of anything she convinces the group to do. While Collins' book is a bit lax in explaining exactly why Wendi has a problem following through on things, Osborne has no problem in bringing the self-confident Wendi vibrantly to life. Monica Ban is a riot as the gutsy, fun-loving Carol, who claims she's gained 40 pounds since her divorce two months previous. She and Osborne get the majority of the funny lines in the show, and both deliver in spades, with Ban's facial expressions and quick adlibs instilling even more humorous bits throughout.

Rori Nogee successfully shows that Bev is at her wit's end. Bev has bills to pay, not enough money, and a teenage son playing loud rock music on his guitar, and Nogee never lets the sense of desperation diminish, even when delivering Bev's self-assuring solo "Think Positive." Jetta has a controlling husband and is shy and timid with virtually no self-confidence. Molly Lajoie manages to not only show the prim and proper side of Jetta, but also the slightly out of control side once she lets loose. Lajoie's touching solo "Not at Home" is thoughtfully delivered.

As the men in the women's lives, Greg Kalfatas is sweet and funny as Wendi's boyfriend Wallace, who might just be more in love with fishing and his sailboat than with Wendi, and Sam Ramirez is just as humorous and touching as the punk club owner with a giant, spikey blue mohawk, Lewd Fingers, who falls for Carol. Their act one duet "Betsy Moberly" shows off their skilled vocals and dancing abilities. Brian Sweis puts across Jetta's anal-retentive husband Larry as a disapproving yet comical man who believes Jetta's place is in their home doing what he says, and his solo "Nobody Loves Me Anymore" nicely shows off Larry's understanding of the situation he's put himself in. Conner Morley does a fine job as Bev's teenage son Tim, providing nice comic touches, especially when he threatens to run away from home with his giant teddy bear under his arm. The four men, in those aforementioned act two closer costumes, also have a blast in their song "Stalling for Time."

From the group's first hilarious practice session, when they can't even play "Kumbaya" in sync, to the sweet natured scenes between Bev and Tim, as well as those with Wendi and Wallace, director Mace Archer manages a nice tone and pace throughout the show. He also has his actors instill the appropriate comic sensibilities in their characters without ever getting too broad or stereotypical. Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby provides a small amount of effective dance steps and movement throughout the show, complementing the varied music styles and characters.

Creative elements, as usual at ABT, are excellent. Brad Cozby's two-tiered set and Seattle skyline backdrop are simple yet detailed and don't overshadow the small cast. The vibrant costume designs by Elizabeth Kay Aaron are comical and include 1980s-appropriate styles, from blouses with shoulder pads to leg warmers, mohawks, spiked dyed hair, facial piercings, and neon-colored wigs. Daniel Davisson's lighting design morphs from '80s sitcom lighting to all out rock concert moving colored lights, and Jason Llyn's sound design is crisp and clear. Music director Mark 4man, who just a few weeks back was leading the band of Jesus Christ Superstar at Desert Stages Theatre, gets rich vocals from the cast, especially in the blended harmonies, and somehow manages to make the five-piece band sound like it is twice that size.

While The Angry Housewives is a good but not great show, it is spirited, mindless fun. ABT's production has an excellent, game cast, impressive direction, choreography and creative elements with an act one closing number and a finale that make it a crowd-pleasing winning production.

The Angry Housewives runs through September 28th, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.

 Photos: Mike Benedetto / Arizona Broadway Theatre



theatre review PHANTOM, Hale Centre Theatre, Sept. 4

Click here to read my Talkin' Broadway review of Phantom at Hale Centre Theatre.

Bryan Stewart and Annalise Webb
With fantastic leads, lush and gothic production elements, and sure-footed direction, Phantom, the Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit musicalized version of the classic novel "The Phantom of the Opera," is receiving an excellent production from the Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert. When talking about this musical you can't help but think about the story of David and Goliath. The Goliath in this case is the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical version of the novel which, having opened in New York in 1988 and still going strong, is the longest running musical in Broadway history. While Yeston and Kopit were first to musicalize the 1910 Gaston Leroux tale, Lloyd Webber got his produced first, so Yeston and Kopit's version has had to take a backseat for over twenty-five years, while Lloyd Webber's has gone on to international acclaim.

Fortunately, composer Yeston and book writer Kopit's Phantomhas a lush score, a romantic center story, an in-depth backstory for the "Phantom" and theatre companies can easily license this version of the story. The Lloyd Webber version isn't available yet to be licensed except for school productions and pretty much lacks any backstory for the title character. And, while they won't ever be able to topple the Lloyd Weber behemoth, and will probably never make it to Broadway, Yeston and Kopit's version is continually produced across the country and is actually more interesting, with much more of a plot, than the Lloyd Webber musical.

Phantom follows the Leroux novel fairly closely, though there are some additions and eliminations, as in the Lloyd Webber version. Young, beautiful-voiced ingénue Christine Daaé, found singing on the streets of Paris, is sent to the Opera House for singing lessons by one of their biggest supporters. A strange man named Erik hears Christine sing and offers to teach her in order to provide him, and the world, with "beautiful music." Unbeknownst to Christine, Erik, who was disfigured at birth and wears a mask to cover his face, has been living in the catacombs underneath the Paris Opera House. Many people believe the Opera House is haunted by a "ghost" due to the antics Erik gets up to and the sounds they hear coming from beneath. The Opera's manager Gérard Carrière has just been ousted by new owner Alain Cholet who plans to have his wife Carlotta be the new star. Erik isn't too keen on that idea, especially since Carlotta has a horrible voice, and he wreaks havoc on the new owners and anyone who gets in his way of making Christine the Opera's star.

Hale Center favorite Cambrian James is proving to be a "David" of his own in finding a way to tackle directing and choreographing this fairly elaborate "Goliath" of a show for Hale's "in the round" stage. He has also found a perfect cast to bring the show to life. Bryan Stewart and Annalise Webb give thoughtful, assured performances as the Phantom and Christine. While Webb's performance might have more layers, mainly due to the part of Christine having more of a character arc, Stewart easily manages to show us the anguish and frustration of the masked man who is trying to do good, which can't be easy to do, considering his facial expressions are always hidden under a mask. Stewart's ability to show the love that Erik has for Christine is also quite effective. Their voices soar at every opportunity with richness and focus, and their chemistry and scenes together are emotional and moving. Their duets of "Home" and "You Are Music" are especially poignant. Webb holds an ASU Master's Degree in Opera Performance/Musical Theatre and her voice easily moves between the two musical styles in this show with so much elegance and strength that I can imagine a huge future for her.

Matt Harris and Mary Jane McCloskey
 Hector Coris provides a rich depth to his portrayal of the former Opera manager Carrière and, like Stewart, adds a realistic amount of suffering and sorrow to the man we learn has been protecting the Phantom. The duet they share in the second act is moving and touching, with an emotional resonance, and when Coris narrates the flashback sequence showing how Erik came to be disfigured, his line delivery is superb and full of passion. Matt Harris and Mary Jane McCloskey easily make Cholet and his wife Carlotta the villains of the piece, but with humorous tones, which adds a nice change from the more serious nature of the Phantom and Christine scenes. Harris has played many varied parts across the Valley this season and this is yet another fine performance from him. McCloskey has also been in several other shows this season, yet this role really allows her voice and comic abilities to shine, with her solo "This Place is Mine" perfectly delivered. In the flashback sequence, Genesis M. Cuen is quite moving as Erik's mother.

Bryan Stewart and Hector Coris
With swiftly moving scene changes, director James keeps the show moving briskly, using every possible entrance and exit into the theatre to create multiple playing areas. Hale's shows always have top-notch creative elements and their Phantom doesn't disappoint in those areas. Lincoln Wright's music direction provides perfectly blended voices that sound excellent with the superb, lush orchestral arrangements. Mary Atkinson's vibrant and detailed costumes are abundant and varied. Adam DeVaney and Brian Daily have crafted a set design that is quite effective in creating the many locations of the musical, especially considering that there aren't really any major set pieces. The boat for the Phantom to take Christine to his underground lair is especially impressive. Jeff A. Davis' lighting uses shadows and darkness that, when combined with the fog effects, create some spectacular images.

More light and comical than the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, and with a more traditional musical theatre score, Phantom has many positive things going for it, including an in-depth story as to how the Phantom came to be living under the Opera House. And while it may not have songs reminiscent of Lloyd Webber's memorable, soaring melodies, it still has many likeable tunes, strong, memorable characters and an emotional richness to the story. With an excellent cast, wonderful creative touches and superb direction, the Hale Centre Theatre production of Phantom is very impressive.
The Hale Centre Theatre production of Phantom runs through October 11th, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181.

Photos: Nick Woodward- Shaw /Hale Centre Theatre
Bryan Stewart and Annalise Webb



Wednesday, September 3, 2014

theatre review LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Brelby Theatre Company, August 22

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway of the Brelby Theatre Company production of Little Shop of Horrors, just click on this link.

Michael Moramarco and Ashleigh Fall
With a capable cast and smart direction, the audience-pleasing musical Little Shop of Horrors is receiving a scaled down but still rousing and fun-filled production from the Brelby Theatre Company in Glendale. The musical spoof of 1960s sci-fi films has an infectious score comprised of doo-wop, Motown and girl-group style ditties that help bring the story of a talking, man-eating plant to hilarious life.

When klutzy, poor, orphaned floral shop assistant Seymour stumbles upon a new breed of plant, he doesn't realize that the fame and fortune the plant promises will require him to continually feed it blood. The plant, dubbed "Audrey II" by Seymour in reference to his co-worker and secret love Audrey, gets bigger and bigger from the feedings and seems to have plans of its own that go far beyond bringing Seymour love and happiness.

While Little Shop composer Alan Menken and lyricist/book writer Howard Ashman found worldwide fame and won multiple Academy Awards for their scores for the films The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beastand Aladdin, their first success came when they decided to make a musical spoof of the Roger Corman 1960 sci-fi/horror filled, B-movie Little Shop of Horrors. In 1982 the show premiered Off Broadway and became a smash hit, running for five years. A semi-successful 1986 film version followed, featuring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, and the musical is a continual favorite of regional theatres due to Menken's upbeat tunes, the fun characters, Ashman's charming and humorous book, and the overall quirky nature of the show. It's a black comedy musical with a big heart, big laughs, big toe-tapping songs and an even bigger plant as the star.

Director Shelby Maticic has assembled a cast who skillfully manage their way around the intricacies of Menken's score and Ashman's sometimes tricky lyrics. But the cast doesn't just sing well, they also skillfully deliver Ashman's well-written dialogue, getting the most out of the comical lines and the sweet, emotional ones as well.

Sure, Seymour's nerdy demeanor and Audrey's ditzy blonde look may make them stereotypical characters at first glance, but Michael Moramarco and Ashleigh Fall embody them with ease and make both characters much more than what they first appear to be. Moramarco's wide, expressive, puppy dog eyes show his excitement at life and quickly display how much Seymour pines for the seemingly unattainable Audrey. But it is his sweet and charming disposition that makes his take on Seymour so winning, endearing and likeable. He also has an excellent singing voice. Fall is just as good as Audrey, making her less of a dumb young woman and more of a naïve and uneducated one. Her cotton candy hair-do (courtesy of hair and make-up designer Melody Chrispen) and skin tight outfits may make Audrey come across as a sexpot, but Fall's innocent take turns Audrey into a sweet and touching heroine. We laugh with her, not at her. Like Moramarco, Fall also has an excellent voice.

As Seymour's harried boss, Mr. Mushnik, Deryl Wayne has the appropriate frenzied take on a man at wit's end. While Wayne's line delivery and singing abilities are top notch, wringing laughs from the borsht belt style jokes with ease and singing his songs in a rich voice, his movement during his couple of dance numbers seems less assured. Hopefully, this has become more natural with a couple more performances under his belt.

April Rideout, Melissa Kamel and Emily Heald
Menken's score relies on the sounds of the '60s, with plenty of required back-up vocals. A trio of female street urchins—April Rideout, Melissa Kamel and Emily Heald—are on hand to provide not only the vocal assist, but plenty of witty lines. All do a nice job, with pleasant singing voices, and add many humorous contributions to the show via their comic line readings.

As Audrey's abusive boyfriend Orin, Rob Dominguez gives his all, making his performance as the leather jacketed, pain inflicting, bad-boy dentist just approach the line of going too far, without stepping over it. For the voice of Audrey II, Maticic has gone against the norm and cast two females to sing for the plant. While it makes sense having a female voice come out of a plant named "Audrey" it doesn't quite have the same effect, or resonance, that a deep male voice has, and the deep, maniacal laugh is sorely missed. While Melody Chrispen and Rachel Cartwright are fine in the part, at the performance I attended there was an ongoing issue with the mic levels for both of them being so low that many of their lines and lyrics were completely lost under the sound of the orchestral amplification.

Maticics's staging and choreography make nice use of the small space, using just about every entrance and exit way possible to get a sense of the bustling Skid Row location of the flower shop. She adds some nice creative dance steps for many of the songs, including a sweet and touching moment where a "dream" Seymour participates in Audrey's song about her hopeful future, "Somewhere That's Green." Maticic also makes sure the comic moments are sharp and delivered so the humor lands, though in the "Downtown" sequence she should have the ensemble be a little less prevalent and over the top, as some of them are trying too hard to get laughs, and pull the focus away from Seymour and Audrey's solo lyrics during the number. Maticic and Kamel designed the costumes as well, and they nicely tie into the caricatures and traits of the characters.

Brelby's stage is a small one yet set designer Brian Maticic has crafted an inventive double rotating platform that nicely moves us from the exterior to the interior of the flower shop and back again, as well as, with the simple addition of an old fashioned dentist chair, into Oran's office. Worn down brick walls give a nice sense of the Skid Row location. The Audrey II puppets are also quite effective.

At the opening night performance there were a few hiccups, with some of the scene changes taking a bit too long and some of the scenes in the flower shop lit fairly darkly. Fortunately, these glitches didn't detract from the overall joy of the show and should be easily remedied to tighten up the scene changes and provide a better focused lighting plot.

Little Shop of Horrors is an extremely enjoyable show with plenty of laughs and some really great songs. The intimacy of the Brelby space not only lets the humor and charm of the show be more resonant, but also makes the ever growing Audrey II be prominent and literally "in your face" which is very effective. Sure, it might be a small, low-cost production, but with a fine cast and assured direction it proves you don't need elaborate budgets or even a large theatre when you have a director and cast that know what they are doing.

The Brelby Theatre Company production of Little Shop of Horrors runs through September 6th, 2014, with performances at 6835 N 58th Avenue in Glendale. Tickets are available at www.brelby.com or by phone at (623) 282-2781

Photo: Shelby Maticic

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

theatre review JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Desert Stages Theatre, August 15

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Jesus Christ Superstar at Desert Stages Theatre.

 The Desert Stages Theatre limited run production of the rock operaJesus Christ Superstar does justice to this classic show, with a rocking cast and a smoking band. Loosely based on the final days of Jesus of Nazareth, this production features Sean Mullaney giving a soulful take in the title role. Originally announced to play in DST's smaller Actors Café theatre space, the production, fortunately, was moved to the larger Cullity Hall which serves the large cast and large band well. And even though this is a limited run, with just six performances over two weekends, it is a fairly fully staged production, with vibrant costumes, make-up and lighting plus enough choreography to warrant a full-fledged extended run. This production is recommended for anyone who is a fan of the show or rock music in general.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar started out as a 1970 concept recording before ending up on Broadway in 1971. A movie, numerous tours, and three Broadway revivals followed. With minimal dialogue, the sung-through show follows the Gospels' accounts of the last week in Jesus' life. The musical swiftly covers many events, including Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene's devotion to him, the last supper, his betrayal by Judas, his trial by Pontius Pilate, and the crucifixion.

Chelsey Louise and Sean Mullaney

The combination of Lloyd Webber's impressive and inspired rock music and Rice's lyrics that touch upon the personal conflicts and struggles that Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene encounter, catapulted the two songwriters to fame and a Tony nomination for Best Original Score. The show's best known tune is the chart topping hit "I Don't Know How to Love Him" but other songs, including "Superstar," "Everything's Alright" and "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" are just as memorable.

While the majority of the conflict-ridden numbers revolve around Judas' change from devotion to his ultimate betrayal of Jesus, and Jesus' internal struggles, it's nice to see that Desert Stages is treating the show more as the rock opera that it was originally written as, instead of a traditional musical theatre piece like many other theatre companies try to turn it into. With a cast made up of singers with rock music voices, and a band conducted by the always noteworthy Mark 4man, the combination of blaring horns, funky guitar licks, and wailing rock falsettos give this production a full out sound that comes at you like no other show I've ever seen at DST.

With an almost eerie somberness and large doses of passion, humility and strength, Sean Mullaney demonstrates a nice intensity combined with a wide musical range in his portrayal of Jesus, with appropriate rocker squeals as well as nice elements of sadness and agony. The amount of anguish and questioning in his forcefully sung "Gethsemane" perfectly shows how Jesus questions his mission even when he clearly knows he is about to be betrayed and ultimately die. Mullaney's expressions show Jesus' flaws, his conflicted nature, and the uncertainty of his actions. It is an expertly delivered and sung performance.

Josh Kontak
With a brooding presence and an antsiness that shows off his dissatisfaction, Josh Kontak makes Judas a convincing tragic character, at first warning Jesus not to go too far, then questioning the influence of Mary Magdalene, and ultimately deciding that Jesus must be stopped. Kontak's voice easily manages the tricky range of Judas' songs, and his looks and mannerisms echo the heavy, conflicted lyrics. Chelsey Louise gives Mary a soothing and loving touch, and her earthy, gutsy and gritty vocals give a brassiness to her songs. It isn't your usual delivery of Mary's numbers, but it works with the deep tones grounding the lyrics with a realism that sets Mary apart from the others and makes her more of an outsider than I've noticed in the numerous other productions of this show I've seen. Her delivery of "Can We Start Again Please?" is especially moving.

In a crisp suit and dark sunglasses, Matt Newhard makes an imposing Pilate. Yet, even beneath the dark shades we see the man who doesn't quite know what to do with this so-called King, even when the people are screaming for Jesus' execution. His aloofness only adds to his commanding presence, and the steely emotion he displays in the trial scene when Jesus is being whipped is disturbingly stunning. In the ensemble are a couple of hard working Phoenix actors, Devon Nickel and Rick Davis, who have appeared in numerous shows across the Valley this season. For this production they both play numerous characters, from priests to apostles, with ease. Also of note, Daniela Castro, who plays the woman who questions Peter about his relationship to Jesus, has a clear, distinctive voice and a notable stage presence.

The intimacy of the theatre allows the many emotional moments in this show to be especially moving. Stripped away of just about every pretense, with no elaborate sets to get in the way, the production lets the music, lyrics and story firmly take center stage. Directors Justin Heffner and Mullaney don't add any camp elements to the production and also keep the cast seated on one side of the stage throughout most of the show, which adds an effective "Greek Chorus" element to the proceedings. There is a nice combination of both a large amount of looseness and a sense of urgency in the staging that works well with the thrust of the show. No choreographer is mentioned, so I'm assuming Heffner and Mullaney provided the simple yet effective dance movement. Costume, hair and makeup designer Lindsey Brown includes a wide range of styles from flower child to heavy metal rocker and hippie, along with plenty of dark eyeliner, which ties in nicely with the tattoos, mohawks, ear and nose piercings that the cast members sport and gives the whole production a modern rock update. Chris Caracciolo's lighting design uses lush reds combined with evocative shadows to paint some creative scenes.

The band features some impressive playing, with particular note of Jason Davis, Dallas Fisher, Ben Foos, Heffner and Michael Brandt on trumpet, trombone, bass, and guitars, respectively, since those instruments are heavily featured in Lloyd Webber's orchestration. The 12-piece band might be smaller than some other productions of this musical, but under 4man's conducting as well as his and Heffner's musical direction, it is full, distinctive and very loud. Before the performance I attended the ushers even offered ear plugs, though they weren't necessary.

A few quibbles: the staging of a few key scenes, including Judas' death and the shuttling of Jesus from Pilate to Herod and back again aren't staged fully enough to clearly understand what is going on. The issue with these scenes, and a few others, can also be blamed somewhat on the lack of any substantial dialogue in the show. Also, for some reason, they've opted to cut the last few minutes of the show that includes the crucifixion scene, Jesus' last words on the cross, and the final musical moment with Mary and the apostles reflecting on Jesus' impact and importance on their lives, instead having the show end after "Superstar."

Still, even with these few shortcomings, Jesus Christ Superstar at Desert Stage Theatre is a moving production with a remarkable cast and an exceptional band.

The Desert Stages production of Jesus Christ Superstar runs through August 24th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664.

Photos: Wade Moran