Monday, October 28, 2013

theatre review THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Arizona Theatre Company, October 12

Matt Leisy and Loren Dunn
Click here for my review at Talkin' of the Arizona Theatre Company's revival of The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is receiving a stellar production from the Arizona Theatre Company. Wilde's satirical play pokes fun at English social customs in the late 1890s and does so with a combination of elegance, style, and an abundance of comical bon mots. The witty nature of the play is perfectly matched with Arizona Theatre Company's witty cast and design.

Wilde uses an inscribed name in a cigarette case to get his plot rolling. When Algernon confronts his friend Ernest over the name "Jack" inscribed in the cigarette case Ernest left behind at Algernon's home, we discover that, while both of these men have fairly respectable home lives, they have created alternate identities as well. Ernest has created a younger brother "John," nicknamed "Jack," and Algernon has created a constantly sick friend named "Bunbury." The creation of these alternate identities allows the two men to avoid any unwanted social obligations by easily saying they have to go deal with their friend/brother. And it also allows them to get into a bit of debauchery as well when they are away from home under these other identities.

Now Jack/Ernest is in love with Algernon's cousin Gwendolen and he is prepared to kill off his imaginary brother and settle down with her. However, the forceful Lady Bracknell, Algernon's aunt, is the one person who can decide who her daughter Gwendolen will marry, and Ernest's lack of a proper background, due to his being left as an infant in a handbag at Victoria Station, forces Lady Bracknell to disavow the engagement unless Ernest can find out who his real parents are. As Lady Bracknell puts it, "You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter, a girl brought up with the utmost care, to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?"

Lady Bracknell holds respectability, adherence to the correct form, and proper upbringing in the highest regard and she clearly believes that one must only do what is socially acceptable. Of course, if you have the right combination of a large sum of money and the proper upbringing, then that trumps everything. And, while Jack is prepared to reveal who he truly is to Gwendolen, she makes it clear to him that she could only love someone named Ernest, as the name Jack just is too plain. When Jack let's Algernon know that the cigarette case was a gift from his young ward Cecily, Algernon's interest is piqued and he makes it his mission to meet her. But he can't meet her as himself, so why not pretend to be "Ernest" himself?

Assumed and mistaken identities, English social rules, and the witty language of Wilde all come together to show us what truly is the importance of being "earnest" in Wilde's most popular play. The playwright's ability to drive the plot with the use of confusion and tension framed around assumed identities and whether or not someone will allow another person to get married only adds to the satirical nature of the plot. Adding to this is the silly yet romantic notion that a woman could be in love with a man only if he has a specific name.

The cast for this production, with just one slight caveat, is superb. Matt Leisy as Algernon and Loren Dunn as Jack both embody their roles to such extremes that they seem to easily become these parts effortlessly. Dunn is the perfect image of respectability, but when Algernon or Lady Bracknell threaten to undo his plans he becomes frustrated, and Dunn's ability to easily play both the level-headed and hot-headed sides of Jack are well in tune with the character. Likewise, Leisy perfectly plays all facets of Algernon—he is witty, charming and clever yet extremely self-centered. His whimsical mannerisms and body language align with the character and add an entire additional layer as well to an already rich character portrayal. Leisy is simply perfect.

Allyce Beasley is Lady Bracknell and, while I admire her straightforward take on the delivery of the more humorous lines, she is much too stern in the first act, which detracts somewhat from the humor the character brings to the play. Bracknell is supposed to be overbearing and somewhat of a buffoon, where her almost unrealistic actions and behavior are comical, but she is taking a more serious route. Beasley's actions in fact don't always make us laugh at Bracknell's behavior, which I believe was Wilde's goal, but instead make us only slightly amused. Fortunately she seems to be playing it a little lighter in the second act which doesn't make her stick out so much from the rest of the cast and allows the laughs to more easily flow.

Anneliese van der Pol and Heather Marie Cox as Gwendolen and Cecily match their romantic counterparts with equal amounts of frenzy and emotion. In almost every other production of this play I've seen, both Gwendolen and Cecily take a back seat to the other three lead characters but van der Pool and Cox are equals in all aspects. Van der Pol is giving an incredible performance as Gwendolen, and does an excellent job in showing both her idealistic and pretentious character traits. In fact I don't think I've ever seen a better Gwendolen in the four productions I've seen of this play. Cox does a very nice job in showing Cecily's immature and artistic sides but also has no problem in relishing in the fantasy elements of her life that she has created. Cox is just lovely as Cecily.
Director Stephen Wrentmore has found the perfect balance and pace for the play, allowing the comical moments to really shine through but also leaving plenty of room for a nice bit of romance. With the exception of Beasley in act one, he has also directed his cast to superb heights of frenzy throughout. I especially like how he doesn't have Jack and Algernon be too similar in style, almost as if they were twins, as some of the productions of the play I've seen have attempted to do. Jack and Algernon may be similar but they are far from being identical.

Sets and costumes by Yoon Bae are as superb as the casting with a lovely emphasis on the style of the peacock incorporated into both. Bae's monochromatic act one sets and costumes explode into color in the second act and I thoroughly enjoyed how she has Algernon's suit not only match the act one set of his house but his act two suit is a perfect colorful complement to his previous black and white suit. Likewise, the dresses for the ladies are not only lovely but Bracknell's act two costume has one of the funniest capes you'll ever see. Bae has also concocted a simple, yet extremely creative, set transformation between the acts.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a sublime, infectious and simply lovely comical gem.

The Importance of Being Earnest at Arizona Theatre Company runs through October 27th at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 256 - 6995

Photo: Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

theatre review HAIRSPRAY- Arizona Broadway Theatre, October 11

Victoria Lynn Socci
Click here for my review of the Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of Hairspray at Talkin'  -

Hairspray may just be the best musical comedy to have opened on Broadway in the last fifteen years. With an infectious score, a very accessible and hilarious book, characters you can easily identify with, and a social message at the center that is still relevant today, it pretty much hits all the right marks. Sure, there have been much bigger musical comedy hits in the past decade like The Producers and Book of Mormon, but unlikeMormon and to a lesser extent The Producers,Hairspray is a show that you can easily take your grandparents to without them being offended. The original Broadway production of Hairspray won eight Tony awards including Best Musical as well as one for Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's toe tapping, rhythm & blues and pop inspired score. The production that just opened the 2013-2014 season at Arizona Broadway Theatre has a great cast, good direction and is a perfect kick off to ABT's 9th season.

Based on the 1988 John Waters movie of the same name, Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore at a time when racial integration was at a crossroads, afternoon TV dance shows were a must see for any cool kid, and music was changing from soft pop to rock and rhythm & blues. Tracy Turnblad is a teenager who dreams of dancing on the local teenage dance show "The Corny Collins Show" and falling in love with the show's heartthrob Link Larkin. The fact that Tracy is on the hefty side and everyone else on the show resembles Ken and Barbie doesn't detract Tracy from going after her dreams when a spot on the show opens up. And even though her even heftier mother Edna tries to make Tracy realize that she might get laughed at and ridiculed for her weight, Tracy finds her way onto the program, becomes an overnight celebrity and spokesperson, and, more importantly, makes it her mission to integrate the program. This is something at odds with Velma, the racist producer of the show, and her daughter Amber who just happens to be Link's girlfriend. Hairspray is not only a great musical but a touching social commentary on race, anti-bullying, and how, as the musical states a couple of times, you've got to "think big to be big."

The production at Arizona Broadway Theatre is colorful, well cast and joyous from start to finish. ABT Resident Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby directs this production and has assembled a terrific cast that includes Victoria Lynn Socci as Tracy and Richard Koons-Wagoner as Edna. The idea of a man playing the part of Tracy's mother Edna goes back to the original 1988 film in which John Waters staple Divine played the part. Both Socci and Koons-Wagoner are more than up to the challenge to not only completely embody these roles but also to, in very short time, make you forget both Ricki Lake and Divine who played the mother/daughter duo in the film and Tony winners Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein who originated the parts in the 2002 Broadway production.

While Socci is slimmer than any of the actresses I've seen play this role before, she still manages to make Tracy the outsider, one that any of us who has ever felt like an outsider can easily identify with. Her singing, dancing and especially her acting are top notch. She throws herself into the part, and her dance moves alone made me chuckle several times. Koons-Wagoner is hilarious as Edna. His acting and singing chops are perfect for the part; he's probably the best sung Edna of the five I've seen, and he and Socci are quite touching as this mother/daughter duo with a mission.

Deidra Grace, Emmeline Wood, Richard Koons-Wagoner and Vanessa Dunleavy

The ensemble cast hits all the right marks as well with every one of the actors not only good musically but excellent actors as well. Sal Pavia is perfect as Link, his singing and dancing all in line with the heartthrob nature of the character. Wade Moran is touching, quirky and loving as Tracy's nerdy father Wilbur. Moran and Koons-Wagoner also make a great yet extremely mismatched husband and wife with the beanpole Moran a mere shadow of his onstage wife.

Tracy's best friend Penny is hilariously played by Trisha Hart Ditsworth, and Tracy's rivals Amber and her mother Velma couldn't be better cast than they are with Emmeline Wood and Vanessa Dunleavy. They both throw themselves into these villainous parts with glee. As Tracy's new friends Seaweed and his mother Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the one "Negro Day" a month that the "Corny Collins Show" airs, it doesn't get much better than Antonio Tillman and Deidra Grace. Tillman's dancing is amazing and Grace's vocal abilities are superb as is her acting. Her rousing, showstopper act two song "I Know Where I've Been" brought the house down. One caveat—Motormouth speaks in rhymes and Grace could work just a bit on the cadence of her delivery to make the rhymes really pop.

Ryan Michael Crimmins makes a perfect Corny Collins, who is serious enough in not being afraid to stand up to Velma but also comical enough to deliver some of the book's "cornier" jokes. A special mention needs to be made of both Lynzee Jaye Paul 4Man and Sam Ramirez who play multiple parts in the show, each one a hilarious gem. Cassandra Klaphake has done a really great job in casting the entire production.

Director Overby and Shelley Jenkins provide a neverending amount of dancing for this production, all wonderfully in tune with the period of the show. I also really like how effectively the ensemble is used not only throughout the various musical, comical and dramatic moments of the show but during the various scene changes as well. Set designer Paul Black and costume designer Morgan Andersen have both contributed A-level design elements with some lovely Technicolor themed drops and sets and a neverending parade of colorful costumes. Tracy, Edna and Penny's act two finale costumes are especially inspired.

While director and co-choreographer Overby is to be commended on what he's been able to accomplish with this production there are a few jokes in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's Tony winning book that fall flat due to them being over-rushed or not delivered correctly. Overby should give a few notes to his cast members about that, as every joke in this book is a winner. A few other minor quibbles—there were some technical glitches at the opening night performance including some microphone, sound and lighting mishaps as well as more than a few times when a some of the ensemble members weren't in synch on the choreography. I attribute this to the vast amount of choreography in the show and, again, it being opening night. I can only imagine with a few performances under their belts the ensemble will be more solidified.

Still, even with just those few small negative points, ABT's production of Hairspray isn't to be missed.

Hairspray runs through November 10th at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (623) 776-8400

Photos: Arizona Broadway Theatre

Saturday, October 12, 2013

theatre review THE 39 STEPS- Phoenix Theatre, October 6

I'm now the Phoenix Theatre Critic for the national website Talkin' Broadway and my first review can be found by clicking on this link.

The 39 Steps is one of those plays that regional theatres have been scrambling to produce. With a minimal set and small cast, it is relatively inexpensive to produce. But when you have a sublime cast like the one currently on display at the Phoenix Theatre, mixed with superb direction, the end result vastly outweighs the simple bare bones nature of the show.

I am a huge fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock and, since Hitchcock was known for his sense of humor, it is only natural that The 39 Steps, one of his earliest films, has been whipped into a comic theatrical soufflĂ©. The 1939 film was based on the novel by John Buchan and was such a successful film that it has been remade several times. While some of those remakes have stayed closer to the Buchan novel than Hitchcock did, the play stays close to his film, with a few references to other Hitchcock films as well. Written by Patrick Barlow, this play premiered in the UK in 2005 (where it still runs today) and a two-year Broadway run commenced in 2008, followed by an Off-Broadway run of almost one year. The UK production won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Toby Yatso and Pasha Yamotahari 
The plot of the film, play and novel centers on a man falsely accused of a murder as he seeks to prove his innocence by fleeing across the English and Scottish countryside. This theme is one that Hitchcock revisited many times over his illustrious career, in such films as North by Northwest and Saboteur. It is also a theme that many other books, plays and movies have focused on, the innocent man accused who must prove his own innocence.

John Hannay is a single man who, during a night out at a music hall, finds himself taking home a frightened woman after shots are fired at the theatre. He later learns that not only is she a spy but she is the one who fired the shots. She claims she is being followed by assassins who know that she has uncovered a plot to smuggle British military secrets out of the country. The man overseeing this plot runs an espionage organization called "The 39 Steps."

The frightened woman spends the night at Hannay's flat, but the next morning he finds her stabbed and dying. Fortunately, she gives him a few details about how he can stop the secrets from getting out of the country. Hannay, on the run from the police who suspect him of the woman's murder, must stop the secrets from getting out as well as attempt to prove his innocence without getting killed by the assassins himself.

Now, while the details of the plot and all of the films based on the novel are as serious as possible, the stage version is played for laughs and one of the ways it achieves this is to have all of the parts played by a cast of only four people. And, since the character of John Hannay is on stage for almost the entire time, the three other actors must play all of the other 100-plus characters in the show. The cast is so good at becoming multiple characters that there were times when I believed there must be other actors waiting in the wings when all four actors were already on stage.

Michael Kary plays Hannay with the perfect touch of a proper English gentlemen (by way of Canada, no less). Kary has the right balance of manners, charm and good looks to easily carry off the leading man part. And while he doesn't get as much chance to dive into the slapstick nature of the show as his co-stars do, he still manages to provide some laughs simply with his facial gestures. Kary's English accent is also superb.

Angelica Howland has only three parts to play, those of the three women Hannay comes in contact with, but she so brilliantly plays each one, it is difficult to accept that it is the same actress. The accents alone, especially the one she uses for Annabella Schmidt, the German woman whom Hannay is accused of killing, are not only legitimate accents but hilarious ones as well. Like Kary, Howland's facial gestures and even just a simple glance not only provide an additional layer of humor but also add the necessary romantic tone to the play. I credit director Matthew Weiner with the nice shadings of romance amongst the jokes.

All of the other parts are played by Toby Yatso and Pasha Yamotahari and they are both amazing in their ability to play so many different roles, sometimes within seconds of each other. The use of various wigs, mustaches and hats, partnered with Yatso's and Yamotahari's rubber-like features and skills at accents, is a theatrical delight as well as pure insanity at many times. Add to this the fact that Yatso is about a foot taller than Yamotahari and you have a partnership made in comic heaven. Having seen this play with the original Broadway cast I have to say that Yatso and Yamotahari exceed the original two Broadway "clowns."

Wiener's direction not only strikes the right balance of comedy and romance but the required amount of suspense as well. Every chase scene and escape from the film, including some on trains and in cars, takes place on stage using a combination of theatrical magic and only a few set pieces. It is amazing how a few trunks and some lighting can come together with your imagination to portray a chase on top of a train. When done correctly, simple things can easily come together to provide theatrical magic. It reminded me a lot of the recent Broadway play Peter and the Starcatcher (coming to ASU/Gammage in January) which also uses a small cast to play many parts and minimal sets to portray various locations. Wiener is adept at making us believe in the magic of theatre through techniques like making a car out of a few set pieces. He also has a keen ability to direct this cast of four into a strong comedic team.

Robert Kovach has created a set design that evokes the backstage of a theatre, as if the cast we are seeing are "performing" this show within a show, and he also cleverly constructs the numerous settings out of just a few simple set pieces. Costume designer Connie Furr has come up with dozens of colorful costumes, hats and other wardrobe pieces to help us to easily identify the various characters in the play. Paul Black's lighting design provides the shadows and light of a suspense film.

In addition to references to other Hitchcock films, music from his films in included as well. The small bits of music work perfectly as a theatrical score for the action on the stage, both suspenseful and romantic. The play does get a little tired toward the end, and there are a few moments when the cast gets just a little too broad for my taste, but The 39 Steps is a homage to the master of suspense himself, and any fan of Hitchcock, suspense, comedy, spoof or theatrical imagination is bound to have a good time with the Phoenix Theater's production.

The 39 Steps is being performed at The Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Rd. Phoenix. through October 20th. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling (602) 254-2151.