Monday, June 30, 2014


Australian singer and actor David Campbell burst onto the New York City cabaret scene around 1997, releasing two solo cds back to back, performing at the infamous club Rainbow and Stars and followed this with roles in the City Center Encores production of Babes in Arms and the Off Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night.

I've posted my review of one of his recordings "On Broadway" before but of note is that on one of his first cds, "Taking the Wheel" he recorded some songs by another up and coming performer at that time, the composer John Bucchino.  While Bucchino has had success as a composer of musicals, including making it to Broadway with his score for A Catered Affair in 2008, his songs have been a staple of cabaret singers for over twenty years now.  Bucchino also wrote the songs for the animated film Joseph: King of Dreams and Campbell provided the singing voice for the title character.  So these two men have formed a friendship that has lasted for close to twenty years, and it's nice that they have finally come together to record an entire album of Campbell singing Bucchino songs.  The title of the album? - a fitting David Campbell Sings John Bucchino.

Bucchino's lyrics tell stories or express emotions in a succinct way with well crafted words and rich imagery and his music never overclouds the lyrics, somehow equally serving them and elevating them so each of his songs becomes something greater than just the sum of the music and lyrics alone.  His songs are so good that it's understandable why they have been performed and recorded by many Broadway and cabaret A-listers.  In fact two of his songs, "Grateful" and "Sweet Dreams" - both present on this recording - have become concert staples for Brian Stokes Mitchell and Barbara Cook.  Campbell's warm, strong voice and clear diction not only shows off his range and musical skill but naturally gets to the emotion and feeling beneath Bucchino's lyrics.  Bucchino plays the piano for all of the tracks and is naturally adept at delivering superb renditions of each of his songs.

The cd begins with the simple playing of a few notes on the piano from Bucchino of the deeply emotional song "Sweet Dreams" that tells the story of a kept gay man and a battered woman who meet in a bus station and discover they are both trying to run away from their pasts, only to find that the dreams they have of a sweeter life are elusive. Campbell's vocals, especially his heartfelt delivery of the lyrics "run away to another skin, a tough one, a pretty one, that won't let the sadness in, won't let the madness win" is wrenching.

"Something Spontaneous" has some witty lyric work from Bucchino in this fairly simple yet winning song about people being too serious, planned and structured to not allow any chance at humor or spontaneity.  Campbell has no problem in navigating around the tricky lyrics, including my favorite "we'll have a talk about how we talk about how we talk too much."  "Unexpressed" - a song I first heard when Patti LuPone sang it in the late 90's - finds Campbell's rich vocals serving the lyrics about someone who has so much love, yet no one to give it to, with Campbell getting the nuance out of every one of Bucchino's lyrics.

The upbeat "Puddle of Love" nicely breaks up the heavier ballads that come before it on the cd.  Campbell's solo from Joseph: King of Dreams, "Better Than I" is a powerful soul searching song about a man at a crossroads, but knowing that someone is watching over him, with the simple yet superb lyric "If I let you reach me, will you teach me?"  "Learn How to Say Goodbye" is another song with intricate driving lyrics from Bucchino that Campbell expertly delivers.  Campbell's last sustained note is impressive.

Campbell does justice to "It Feels Like Home" - a song the late singer Nancy Lamott recorded in a superb version back in the 90's of two people in love at the beginning of a relationship that some people think wrong but find the feeling of home in the simplest of things.  Campbell's voice has a nice gritty feel on the bluesy "What You Need, " a song about loners who find that together they might be able to make it.  "If I Ever Say I'm Over You" is a fairly simple song but one with well crafted lyrics from Bucchino about s person not being able to get over someone, even though they try to say they are.

The cd ends with two songs that Campbell recorded before, back in 1997 on one of his first recordings.  And while it might seem odd to record songs that he recorded before, hearing the same songs sung almost twenty years apart, with all of the life experiences that Campbell has learned over the years, makes them very effective.  While the bouncy "Taking the Wheel" gets a nice retread it is the final song on the cd "Grateful", which interestingly enough was the first track on Campbell's "Taking the Wheel" cd, but works much better as a closing track, since it is a summation of what Campbell and Bucchino feel.  "Grateful" is a nice and fitting end to the cd with lyrics such as "but giving thanks for what I've got makes me so much happier than keeping score" with Campbell instilling each word with truth that shows how truly talented and blessed both Campell and Bucchino are.

My only complaint?  The cd only includes 11 of Bucchino's incredible songs.   Hopefully there will be a "David Campbell Sings John Bucchino - Volume II."

Commercial for the cd:

"Better Than I" from Joseph: King of Dreams -

"What You Need" -

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

theatre review THE PIRATE QUEEN, Paradise Valley Community College, June 22

For my complete Talkin' Broadway review of The Pirate Queen, highlights of which you can read below, just click on this link.

the cast including (center) Andrew Lipman, Andrea Robertson and
Ken Goodenberger
The composer/lyricist team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil had back to back global hits in the late 1980s with their scores for Les Misérables andMiss Saigon. Their attempts to find musical theatre success since then have failed miserably. The Pirate Queen, their only other musical ever to make it to Broadway, opened in April 2007. With the creators of Riverdance, they wrote a musical based on Irish legend Grace O'Malley, but the overblown production met with negative reviews from critics and ran for less than three months.

Paradise Valley Community College's Director of Theatre Andrea Robertson, having liked the music for The Pirate Queen as well as the historical context of the story, thought it would be interesting to produce a show by two very well-known composers that no one else had been able to present. She went through the process of securing the rights to this currently unlicensed show, working with Schönberg and Boublil's representatives, and is now not only producing but also starring in what has become the first U.S. staging of the show since the Broadway production.

Set in Ireland in the 1600s, determined Grace O'Malley, disguising herself as a boy, defies her pirate father Dubhdara and manages to secure her way aboard his ship. When a storm threatens the boat, she single handedly saves it, proving her worth to her widowed father. Later, on her father's request, Grace agrees to marry Donal, the son of the Chieftain of a rival Irish clan to strengthen the two clans and to show they trust each other, thus betraying her true love from childhood, Tiernan. Meanwhile, across the sea in England, Queen Elizabeth I is humiliated by Grace's clan's attacks on the English fleet and sends Lord Richard Bingham to seize control, which ultimately builds to a confrontation in the second act between Pirate Queen Grace and the Queen of England herself. With two strong-willed women at the helm, The Pirate Queen is a musical full of soaring ballads and songs of determination that portray the deep love for one's country, the strong emotions of separated lovers Grace and Tiernan, the rich genuine history behind the battles, and the ultimate meeting between Grace and Queen Elizabeth I.

The reason the show failed and the flaws of The Pirate Queen are very apparent. The through-sung nature of the score, similar to the other Schönberg and Boublil shows, which eliminates virtually all dialogue, makes some of the plot points and settings of the scenes confusing. While the score includes several attractive ballads and the history behind the story of Grace is intriguing, there are several similar sounding numbers, some clunky tunes and sung dialogue with underscoring that is repetitive. And, unlike a blockbuster film with a pirate or historical theme, there really is no way to accurately portray elaborate sword fights and battles across the decks of two ships on a stage. However, while the majority of the score sounds somewhat reminiscent of other Schönberg and Boublil shows, especially another one of their flops, Martin Guerre, and while several of the ballads are similar in nature, even a lesser score from these two composers is worth paying attention to and better than many of the new musical scores out there. This is a case of a show where the pros just slightly outweigh the cons and Robertson's determination allows Phoenix residents the chance to see a show that not too many people in the U.S. have seen.

This production has more than capable actors in the leads, with the cast made up of actors from the school and faculty as well as from the community. Robertson brings an Irish earthiness to Grace, making her appropriately strong, feisty and athletic. But she also easily portrays the soft side of this larger than life character and the love she has for both her father and Tiernan. Robertson has a legit voice that, while not making the songs soar to the rafters the way that Stephanie J. Block did in the role on Broadway, gives them a more realistic, grounded delivery. Her expressions are also perfectly conveyed, whether they be the sheer joy of being on the deck of a ship and using her sword to fight or those of a sullen nature when she is basically forced to marry a man she doesn't love.

Ken Goodenberger has a gorgeous voice that makes Tiernan's songs soar, and he has several. He and Robertson have good chemistry, making their romantic relationship realistic. Goodenberger's stage presence, facial expressions and body language when he is around Grace or her husband accurately portray a man who is in love with a woman yet cannot be with her. Andrew Lipman as Grace's father Dubhdara delivers an emotionally grounded performance with a deep, rich singing voice that brings resonance to the relationship he has with Grace, his people, and with Ireland. The fact that Lipman's performance is exceptional is especially noteworthy as he was a last minute replacement for an actor who suffered an accident, and Lipman had less than a week of rehearsal time. If you saw Lipman providing plenty of comical moments just a few weeks back in the Mesa Encore Production of The Full Monty, or Big River in April, this is a nice chance to see him show his serious and emotional side.

Director Gary Zaro provides a swift moving production, which says a lot with such a fairly large cast, numerous set pieces, and an abundance of scene changes. His leads are up to the challenge of this through-sung show and he provides nice ensemble work, especially in how he portrays them doing activities like the ship's busy work in the background of the scenes on the boat, as well as in the ensemble work in the fight scenes that Robertson directed. Zaro has staged the scenes effectively, not just using the center stage, though his direction of the funeral scene, where a boat carrying a body is lit on fire and sent off to sea, could be slightly better staged to have the ensemble move away from the boat toward the end of the scene to portray it moving out to the water. As it is now, the ensemble is so close it seems like they would easily catch on fire as well.

While some of Lisa Gray Young's choreography seems slightly out of context to the time of the play, the "Rah-Rah, Tip-Top" number in particular, she more than makes up for that with spirited Irish themed dance sequences at Grace's wedding and the christening of Grace's child. The dancing ensemble is superb in navigating the tricky dance movement. Goodenberger also provides the musical direction for the show and, under Reynaldo Saenz' superb conducting, the eleven-piece orchestra is pretty phenomenal. The tight musical accompaniment with superb fiddle playing by Kaylee Cumpston and the musical underscore that provides lovely echoes of harpsichord and bagpipes in the synthesizer sequencing is simply amazing and lush.

The scenic design by Erik Reid uses two sets of steps and several moving set pieces and drops to move us from scene to scene. The use of large photo projections of the sky, stars and the Irish countryside on the back wall of the stage help in setting the location, which is greatly needed since the book rarely lets us know where we are supposed to be. Tamara Treat's costume design provides a parade of lush period-appropriate costumes, with some knock out dresses for Elizabeth. Leigh Treat's second act hair and make-up design for Elizabeth is splendid. Colin Carter's sound design has most of the leads appropriately mic'd but the ensemble cast was somewhat hard to hear and muddied at times and there were numerous microphone pops at the performance I attended. Hopefully these issues can easily be remedied with more performances under their belts.

So, while The Pirate Queen isn't on the same level as Schönberg and Boublil's two hit shows, and is far from a perfect musical, the score does have its merits and the PVCC production has competent leads, lush costumes, swift direction, and a spectacular orchestra. So if you missed this show on Broadway, are an admirer of Schönberg and Boublil's other shows, are a fan of lush scores, or are just curious to see what this Broadway flop show was like, I'd recommend taking a journey with this Pirate Queen, as you never know if it will ever set sail again.

The Paradise Valley Community College production of The Pirate Queen runs through June 29th, 2014 at the PVCC Center for the Performing Arts, 18401 North 32nd Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered or by calling (602) 787-7738

Photo: Tiffany Bolock

theatre review THE BOOK CLUB PLAY, Actors Theatre, June 21

To read my complete review (highlights below) at Talkin' Broadway of The Book Club Play, just click on this link.

Maren Maclean, Alexis Green, Angelica Howland and Joe Kremer

What elements does a book have to have to define it as literature? If a novel is extremely popular can it also be considered to have cultural merits? Those are the main themes running through Karen Zacarías' comedy The Book Club Play that is receiving a high-spirited production from Actors Theatre this summer. Now, a contemporary comedy set among a group of friends who are part of a book club, and the shared excitement of reading, may sound like a boring premise for a play. Fortunately, Zacarías has created complex, though somewhat stereotypical characters to discuss and debate the topics of literature with an interesting premise that allows for plenty of secrets and character foibles to be revealed. The Actors Theatre production has a top notch cast and adept direction that easily and realistically brings out the comical and serious aspects of the play.

High strung and well-read journalist Ana (Maren Maclean) hosts a bi-weekly book club in her house. Members include her friend, the awkward, scatter-brained paralegal Jen (Angelica Howland); Ana's lazy husband Rob (Joe Kremer), who never reads the books and basically just shows up for the food; and her former boyfriend and Rob's college roommate, the intellectual museum curator Will (Tyler Eglen), who Ana believes is still in love with her. The newest member of the group is Lily (Alexis Green), a younger African-American co-worker of Ana's, who often half-jokingly wonders if she has only been invited to provide some diversity for the otherwise all-white group.

Usually reading only classic, stuffy novels like "Moby Dick," the members of the club have now all agreed to become the subjects of a documentary by the well-known Danish filmmaker Lars Knudsen. The book club meetings will be filmed with a camera hanging high over the living room, which is remotely operated by Knudsen. At first feeling self-conscious, uncomfortable and exposed, the members try to portray the best image of themselves. But they quickly forget they are always under the watchful eye of the camera and secrets are soon reveled and truths told. When Jen mistakenly invites Alex (Ian Christiansen), a professor of comparative literature whose fiancée abandoned him because he hadn't read any of the "Twilight" books, to attend the club after running into him in her apartment building's laundry room, there is more tension. Alex, who wasn't fully vetted by the ever-controlling Ana before joining and is constantly at odds with her, steers the group into a new direction suggesting they read contemporary, popular books like "The Da Vinci Code," which undermines Ana's control and puts the future of the book club in jeopardy.

Zacarías has crafted a play with the interesting conceit of highly intellectual characters who jump at the idea to be featured in a "Big Brother" type documentary while at the same time bemoaning popular culture that includes books like "Fifty Shades of Grey" and the type of reality TV show that one assumes Knudsen's documentary would resemble. Interspersed throughout the show are interviews with various other characters that would appear in the "documentary," from a Walmart book stocker, to a Secret Service agent and a retired librarian. These conversations about the role that books play in these people's lives add a nice dimension to the play and also serve as successful scene changes.

Director Matthew Wiener has cast a strong ensemble, featuring several actors who have appeared across the Valley in numerous productions this season. Wiener manages to instill a nice sense of reality in the piece, never letting the comical moments turn into caricature. With a less talented cast, and less surefooted direction, the jokes could come across as more sitcom-like and the dramatic points less fascinating. Fortunately, Wiener succeeds in perfectly balancing the humorous and dramatic parts so they both come across realistically while also getting his actors to make their characters funny, engaging and convincing, even while portraying their dysfunctional aspects.

Maren Maclean's take on Ana is just about perfect. Portraying the judgmental, culture snob and dictator who believes that "popularity is not culture," Maclean has no problem showing this forceful, territorial woman, though her emotional meltdown in the second act is just slightly forced, especially after the excellent work she has done to show us how strong and driven Ana is. Angelica Howland easily assays Jen's neurotic side but is charming and touching in her revelation that the book club saved her life after a scandal in her past left her jobless and without hope. Howland delivers a lovely multi-layered performance that allows us to see the joy that she gets from the club, reading and the friendships she has formed. Joe Kremer makes Rob the simple, less "cultured" man and former jock. He also gets some of the best jokes in the play, which he delivers with glee, yet we also get a glimpse into Rob's softer side when his plans for married life don't quite match up with Ana's. Kremer and Howland are two of the most proficient working actors in the Phoenix area and have performed several other plays this season, including one they were both in, Stray Cat Theatre's All New People. It is always a pleasant experience watching them perform.

From "The Age of Innocence" to "The Da Vinci Code," books come in different styles and can mean different things to different people. With realistic dialogue, full of interesting characters and situations, and engaging conversation of literary works, The Book Club Play is a fun contemporary look at modern society and the cultural effect that reality TV has on even the most cultured individuals. But it is also a loving testimony to the value of reading and a smart look at "if something means so much to so many people, doesn't that mean that there is something meaningful there?" The Actors Theatre production has an energetic, hardworking cast and confident direction that gets you thinking about just what justifies "art."

The Actors Theatre production of The Book Club Play runs through August 17th, 2014, at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (602) 888-0368.

Photo: John Groseclose

Thursday, June 12, 2014

theatre review BILOXI BLUES, Desert Stages Theatre, June 14

back row: Jaime Pla, Nick Nobs, Bailey Vogt, Zack Pepe;
front row: Todd Michael Isaac, Rick Davis and Ryan Toro 
Click here to read my complete review (highlights below) of Biloxi Blues, playing at the Desert Stages Theatre through August 10th.

Playwright Neil Simon delivered a string of hit plays from the mid 1960s into the 1990s. While many touched upon experiences in his life, his "Eugene Trilogy" of plays that began with 1983's Brighton Beach Memoirs and ended with 1986's Broadway Bound was the most personal, with the central character of Eugene Jerome, his exploits and his family squarely centered on Simon's growing up in New York City in the 1930s. The second play in the Trilogy, 1985'sBiloxi Blues was actually the only one of the three not set in New York, focusing instead on a few months in Eugene's life he spends in Biloxi, Mississippi, for basic training during World War II. With a cast of relatively young but talented actors, the Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre is presenting a well-acted and skillfully directed production of the play that brings out the dramatic parts of this smartly written comedy.

It's 1943 and 20-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome has just left his home in Brooklyn, New York, bound for Biloxi, Mississippi, on a train with a group of recently drafted recruits headed for basic training in the United States Army. It's a miserable, balmy summer in swampy Biloxi and making matters worse is their hard-headed platoon leader Sergeant Toomey who torments the men in order to instill discipline in them. Toomey also has a habit of picking out scapegoats among the recruits for the others to hate. Eugene, who has decided he wants to become a writer, keeps a journal of his thoughts and observations of his fellow recruits and does his best to avoid any confrontations with Toomey. He also hopes he can lose his virginity and fall in love that summer, hopefully with the same girl. With a diverse group of characters, including the soft spoken, intelligent Arnold Epstein and the irrational Toomey, Simon has written an interesting piece that focuses on Eugene's struggles away from home and Epstein's power struggle with Toomey set against the stories and exploits of the other recruits. With Eugene serving as the narrator of the piece, Simon shows us what happens while young recruits await deployment. Mixed amongst the many laughs of the piece are plenty of realistic moments of the period that touch upon anti-Semitism, homophobia, ethnic and racial prejudice, and the use of violence in military discipline.

As Eugene, Ryan Toro delivers a multi-layered performance, skillfully handling the character's serious dealings with Epstein, his humorous encounter with Rowena, the no-nonsense, married prostitute who only works weekends, and his romantic conversations with the sweet-natured Catholic schoolgirl Daisy. While Toro is engaging in the part, he does come across as just slightly older than most of the other recruits which makes him seem just a bit too experienced and not completely the fish out of water that Eugene claims to be. Fortunately, this only detracts a small bit from his performance, as his encounter with Rowena is naïve and humorous and his wide expressive eyes and line delivery nicely serve as innocent, fresh and droll commentary on the exploits of his fellow recruits. Toro also works well with the rest of the cast and in the end, even with my slight negative comment, he still manages to deliver a solid portrayal of this young man and a memorable performance.

Todd Michael Isaac is superb as Epstein, providing a three-dimensional character and effortlessly portraying this intelligent, hard-headed man who continues to defy the "Army way", even if he ends up degraded and humiliated in the process. The way Isaac shows us how Epstein fights to maintain his dignity, yet doesn't shy away from his confrontations with Toomey, or the other recruits, makes him compassionate and earns our, and Eugene's respect.

Just as good is Rick Davis' portrayal of Toomey. Davis is often frightening and extremely consistent in his delivery of this over-bearing Sergeant from the South. In what could easily become a caricature, he wisely never makes Toomey's relentless way of training cross the line into being comical. In the second act Davis is also very realistic as a drunken Toomey, and also manages to convey the inner conflict that Toomey feels during that scene, delivering a remarkable, and even moving, performance.

Director Mark-Alan C. Clemente easily balances the comedic and dramatic moments, and gets nicely defined performances from his cast. While the play is centered on the story of Eugene, it is really Epstein and Toomey who get the meatiest scenes, and Clemente manages to make their scenes explode with raw emotion. He has also skillfully directed his actors in their delivery of the comic lines to wait a beat for the laughs to subside before continuing speaking, while still coming across in a natural way. While the play is set over a short period of only a few months, Clemente also manages to get his actors to exhibit the growth their characters experience and the lessons they learn.

Part humorous coming of age story, part drama, Biloxi Blues, while not one of Simon's most produced plays, is still a worthwhile endeavor. Full of smart writing and well-defined colorful characters who display the fear and anxiety of young recruits waiting to be shipped off to war, it is a play also full of nostalgia and humor set amongst the disturbing issues that war time brings. While part of a trilogy, the play easily stands alone and you don't need to have seen the others in order to enjoy its rewards. The Desert Stages Theatre production has a top-notch capable cast and precise direction that results in a polished production that humorously and dramatically brings these interesting characters to life.

The Desert Stages production of Biloxi Blues runs through August 10th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at or by phone at (480) 483-1664

Photo credit: Wade Moran/Desert Stages Theatre

concert review DISNEY IN CONCERT, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, June 6

Click here to read my complete review of Disney in Concert, recently performed by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

Walt Disney and Disney animation have always held a certain affection for moviegoers, even before the triumph of their recent mega hitFrozen, and many of their animated films have been successfully turned into Broadway musicals. While Disney has had much luck over the years since the release of their first full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, it was really The Little Mermaid in 1989 that served as the beginning of the resurgence of animation at Disney. Over the past 25 years, the combination of well-honed stories with superb film scoring and top notch songs, often from Broadway composers, has cemented each Disney film as a treat for both film and theatre fans. In fact, their 1991 filmBeauty and the Beast was not only nominated for the Oscar for Best Movie but also got the attention of New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich who deemed it "The best Broadway musical score of 1991" even though it was not yet a Broadway show.

For Disney animation lovers and musical theatre fans, the recent concert for symphony orchestras entitled "Disney in Concert – Magical Music from the Movies" was the perfect combination of rousing film score music and Broadway style movie song. This concert has been performed with various symphony orchestras across the country over the past few years, and audiences in Phoenix got a treat when conductor Stuart Chafetz led the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in this affectionate nod to some of the best music and songs from Disney films. A cast of four talented singers, all of whom have national tour and/or New York theatre credits under their belts, and who have all performed this concert with other symphony orchestras before, provided plenty of energy and emotion while performing the songs. With the added visual impact of scenes and original artwork from the films projected on a large screen above, the right balance between stirring film scores and impeccably written songs showed the magic that the two often create when combined with lively, colorful and often beautiful animation. Written and directed by Sherilyn Draper, with the contribution of musical director Ted Ricketts who created the program for Symphony Pops Music, the concert provided fun, upbeat feelings. It's easy to see why this show has been performed across the country so many times.
Juliana Hansen, Andrew Johnson, Whitney Claire Kaufman and Aaron Phillips were the vocalists for this concert and each was given several opportunities to shine. Hansen and Kaufman took on the songs associated with the "Disney Princess" roles, including The Little Mermaid's Ariel and Beauty and the Beast's Belle, and Johnson and Phillips performed character role songs, such as Beauty and the Beast's Lumiere and Aladdin's Genie.

The concert got off to a rousing start with the Symphony performing the "Disney Classics Overture," a suite arranged by Bruce Healey of over a dozen themes and songs from films such as Snow WhitePeter Pan,Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, including "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah," "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," and even the "Theme to the Mickey Mouse Club." A lovely suite of songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's The Little Mermaid followed and featured Hansen singing "Part of Your World," her voice giving the song a nice and appropriate "girly" sound that matched well with Ashman's youthful, soul searching lyrics. Kaufman provided a proud and sensitive version of Menken and Stephen Schwartz's "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas with the Symphony's moving and precise playing matching the soaring vocals.

A suite from Menken and Ashman's Beauty and the Beast featured all four vocalists in a nicely delivered rendition of "Belle" which was followed by the love duet of the title song sung effectively by Kaufman with Johnson. Phillips, who is also an accomplished voice-over artist, brought a heightened level of energy to the concert, providing some fun dance moves and high level antics to each of his numbers, including "Be Our Guest" as well as a rousing "I Wan'na Be Like You," from Richard and Robert Sherman's The Jungle Bookscore, which featured some lively backup vocals from the other singers. A medley of songs from the Sherman brothers' Mary Poppins score ended the first half of the concert, featuring numerous well-known tunes with sing-along lyrics projected over some exquisite original artwork and storyboards for the film.

The second act opened with a thrilling suite from The Hunchback of Notre Dame that focused on Menken's musical motifs. The Symphony, as usual, provided amazing accompaniment with every section of the orchestra given plenty of moments to show their adept skills and musicianship. While the focus on the Symphony's capabilities was most apparent during the solo turns the Symphony got, including a driving suite of Klaus Badelt's music from The Pirates of the Caribbean, it was also a highlight during some moments in the film suites that allowed the playing of the Symphony to stand alone without vocal accompaniment.
Menken, Ashman and Tim Rice's score for Aladdin gave Phillips another chance to show his crackerjack vocal skills and high energy dancing with an energetic take on "Friend Like Me." Though that suite's version of "A Whole New World" wasn't quite as successful, with Johnson's vocals surpassing Hansen's during the love duet from this film.

The highlight of the evening was a stirring Suite of songs and film music from Elton John, Rice and Hans Zimmer's score to The Lion King that featured Phillips showing his serious side, in an emotionally heartfelt take on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". And, while Johnson's take on "Under the Sea" during the suite fromthe Little Mermaid wasn't as lively as it could have been, he brought considerable power to "Circle of Life," supported by the trio of singers. The final song in the concert, the usually annoying and redundant "It's a Small World," when delivered as a sing-along, with the words projected on the screen above, actually made the song a fun, joyous affair.

As festive, upbeat and fun as the concert was, there were a few downsides. While the vocalists were used effectively throughout the evening, and all added nice contributions, some of their performances were a bit "over the top" and too energetic, as if they were trying too hard to connect with the audience. While I understand that, in order to rouse the younger children in the audience this may have been the direction the cast was given, I think they are underestimating the abilities and attention span of children who are already familiar with, and in love with, the music featured in the concert. Also, some of the scripted narration that introduced the films and their music was a bit cloying. Fortunately, the amount of narration was small and the over eager performances settled down after the first half of the concert. A major positive was that the audience included an abundance of young children and teenagers, and I didn't notice any of them becoming restless or tired.. Hopefully, attending a concert like this might encourage some of them to attend other performances in the Phoenix Symphony's rich and diverse "Family" concert series or even learn to play a musical instrument.

The Disney animated films have a breadth of captivating music. Hearing music and songs from so many beloved film scores played by the skilled Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and paired with enthusiastic vocal performances, shows the power and sensitivity behind these famous film songs, resulting in an extremely rewarding experience. "Disney in Concert – Magical Music from the Movies" is a nicely constructed show and another success for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

Disney in Concert with the Phoenix Symphony played two performances on June 6th and June 7th, 2014, at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information on upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at

Thursday, June 5, 2014

theatre review THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS, National Tour, ASU/Gammage, June 3

Click on this link to read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway of the National Tour of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, playing through Sunday June 8th in Tempe.

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley 
The recent 2012 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess created some controversy when it was first announced. Originally conceived as a "folk opera" in 1935, the "re-envisioned" revival features a revised and abridged book that includes new dialogue in place of some of the previously sung operatic recitative, new scenes, updated orchestrations, a shorter running time and even a new title, now dubbed The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Those changes didn't sit well with certain individuals, inciting even someone at the level of composer Stephen Sondheim to question the changes that were being made to this American "classic," especially the name change, as the new title gave no credit to original collaborators DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. And while this wasn't the first time this opera had been tinkered with, the updated changes, when combined with the glorious music from George Gershwin and superb lyrics from his brother Ira and DuBose Heyward, don't detract from the original vision of the opera. The Broadway revival was a success, winning the Tony for Best Musical Revival. The national tour of this production, with well-honed performances from Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran as Porgy and Bess and a superb ensemble, started last fall and is running in Tempe through Sunday.

Depicting a group of poor Southern African Americans, Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston, South Carolina's fictitious Catfish Row in the late 1930s. Former prostitute and cocaine addict Bess, eager to be free from her former life but shunned by her fellow inhabitants, finds acceptance from the crippled beggar Porgy who comes to her rescue after the aftermath of a murder finds her homeless. But Bess' former lover Crown and the seductive drug dealer Sporting Life, combined with Bess' troubled past and addictions, threaten to derail her new life and blossoming romance with Porgy.

Part tragedy, part "slice-of-life" drama, Porgy and Bess features distinct characters, and this cast all manage to instill an appropriate feeling of loneliness as well as an abundance of joy and longing to their parts. Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy both bring a deep level of truth and genuineness to their portrayals. Stampley achieves a nice amount of intensity in how Porgy continually tries to protect Bess, and his rich and pure voice sends his songs soaring. Moran's voice has a deep feeling of earthiness that grounds it in a heightened sense of reality that works well to naturally portray Bess's conflict between her old ways and her newfound desire to be "decent." The intense duet "I Loves You, Porgy" has a perfect amount of desperation underneath it and is emotionally satisfying.

Alvin Crawford as Crown, Bess' former abusive lover, is strong and forceful with a powerful voice, and Kingsley Leggs does a nice job in making Sporting Life, the drug dealer, the continual temptation to Bess, with his constant offering of free "happy dust" to her. However, Leggs' solo, "It Ain't Necessarily So," doesn't quite achieve the level of satisfaction it should.

Director Diane Paulus has managed to make the abridged, revised version of this classic tale fairly successful, though there is a certain amount of melodrama still present, as well as some of the characters' motivations, especially in a couple of Bess' scenes, is lacking and therefore make a few of the plot points a little confusing. However, the addition of the rousing choreography from Ronald K. Brown that grows organically out of the scenes and musical numbers is a highlight. The creative elements for this production, while professional, are somewhat minimal. Using a series of wooden planks for his stage and just three drops to portray various locales, set designer Riccardo Hernandez uses brown hues and barren walls to portray the low income settings and the heat of the summer time frame of the story. Costume designer ESosa fairs better, with a series of period and character perfect costumes. I especially like Bess' sexy red dress and high heels that we first see her wearing that are then replaced by a simple dress and bare feet to show her attempt to lead a more decent life. Christopher Akerlind's lighting design is effective in delineating the various scenes and settings of the play, and his use of shadows in a few scenes to heighten the emotions of the moment, is quite impressive.

While this updated version makes it somewhat more accessible and the dialogue adds a bit more clarification to some parts, Porgy and Bess is still at its core an opera. So if you're afraid of large choral numbers sung by the entire ensemble with lyrics that aren't that easily understandable, or the heightened emotions that most operas entail, with a somewhat lack of the clarity behind some of the actions of the characters, you'd best be advised to steer clear of Gammage this week. But, if you are prepared to experience soaring melodies and the full, rich lushness that a large orchestra can deliver, and performers who are conveying rich portrayals of these classic archetypes, I'd highly recommended attending the national tour of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess runs through June 8th, 2014, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480 965-3434. Additional tour dates can be found at

Photo: Michael J. Lutch

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

theatre review THE FULL MONTY, Mesa Encore Theatre, May 31

To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of Mesa Encore Theatre's production of The Full Monty, just click on this link.

Julian Peña, Michael Leeth, Damon J. Bolling, Barbara McBain, Andrew Lipman, Jonathan Holdsworth, Chad Campbell and Aaron Zweiback 

Turning successful movies into Broadway musicals is a trend that has been going on for years now and there doesn't seem be an end in sight. One of the more successful of these adaptations was the 2000 musical The Full Monty. Taking this British 1997 hit sleeper film and basing it in Buffalo, New York, might seem like a bad move in that the English working class sensibility of the film would get lost. But the themes that are brought up in the film—of unemployment, divorce, single parenting and reversed gender roles—are universal and just as relevant today as they were when the film and musical first premiered, so moving the location to a repressed U.S. city like Buffalo actually makes complete sense. The show was a hit on Broadway and has been a staple of regional theatres in the time since. The Mesa Encore Theatre's production has engaging direction and a capable cast that easily brings out the humor and charm of the characters and makes the identifiable themes instantly relatable.

The story follows Jerry, an unemployed, divorced father of a teenage boy, and his former co-worker and best friend Dave. Unable to find work, and behind in his child support payments, when Jerry hears how much the women in town paid to attend a "girl's night out" with a touring group of Chippendale's male strippers, he hits upon the idea of finding a few local guys to put on a one night only strip show of their own to make some quick cash. But getting a bunch of unemployed fellows with low self-worth, body issues and deep fears of self-consciousness to take off their clothes for money isn't an easy thing. And when Jerry hears that the ladies in town aren't interested in attending his show, since they've just seen the "real thing" with the Chippendales, he does the only thing he can to remedy the situation and make the money he needs. He states that he and his buddies are willing to go "the full monty" and take everything off, a proclamation that doesn't sit well at all with his five fellow stripping buddies.

The updated book by Terrence McNally, which creates realistic, three dimensional characters, and David Yazbek's jazzy score elevate the musical, making it better than most of the other film to musical adaptations. The show was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and if it weren't for a little show called The Producers that opened on Broadway that same season and won every Tony Monty had been nominated for, I think the show would have won many Tonys, including the one for Best Musical. So it's easy to see why the show has become so popular in regional theatres.

The actors playing the six main male parts in this production form an engaging, cohesive group. As Jerry, Damon J. Bolling imparts a nice sense of urgency and eagerness in his willingness to do just about anything to be with his son. And while he struggled just a bit on a few of the high sustained notes at the performance I attended, he has a strong, pleasant singing voice. Andrew Lipman, who was a highlight in MET's last show Big River, scores as Jerry's best friend Dave. Lipman is a big guy, but moves smoothly and has no qualms about using his extra weight for comic effect. Chad Campbell, Julian Peña, Michael Leeth and Jonathan Holdsworth round out the rest of Jerry's stripping gang and each brings a terrific amount of energy and realism to his role. Campbell is a comic delight in the part of mama's boy Malcom, eliciting huge laughs from the audience with his ability to make Malcom a sweet, simple man who finds humor in the smallest things.

Director Chris Hamby instills a lively level of direction in the production, effectively using the space wisely and partnering well with choreographer Paul Pedersen, who makes the dance moves for the men natural, especially in getting across the sense that most of them don't actually know how to dance. Creative elements are fine for a community theatre production, with the costume designs by Joe Navan and Pam Pershing nicely done, though Chris Peterson's scenic and sound design is pretty threadbare. At the performance I attended there were a few small set mishaps and some scene changes that took longer than they should, as well as missed light cues and microphone problems. But hopefully they will get those issues resolved with more performances under their belts. Debra Jo Davey leads an impressive eight-piece band and manages to get the depth of Yazbek's score from her small group of musicians.

A celebration of life's struggles and one's abilities to overcome the obstacles that get in the way, The Full Monty is a musical filled with adult humor and situations but also a considerable amount of charm. The Mesa Encore Theatre production gets many things right. The fact that the six actors in the lead male parts don't exactly have muscular bodies or model looks, yet their characters summon the strength to find themselves and overcome their problems, goes a long way to show that any of us "average Joe's" can find a way to deal with the lemons that life throws at us.

The Full Monty runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through June 15th, 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 at

Photo: Wade Moran

theatre review MY FAIR LADY In Concert, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra/Phoenix Theatre, May 30

Click here to read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of the recent concert production of My Fair Lady, presented by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Phoenix Theatre.

The size of orchestras for Broadway musicals has drastically declined over the years. During the golden age of Broadway in the 1950s an orchestra consisted of close to thirty musicians, while most today have only around a dozen, with synthesizers now substituting for several instruments. In regional and community theatres it can be even worse; sometimes just a few individuals are responsible for playing the score to a famous show, often resulting in a very thin sounding musical accompaniment. So it's fortunate for theatre lovers in the Phoenix area that the Phoenix Theatre and Phoenix Symphony Orchestra have came together once again for their annual musical theatre collaboration and we had the opportunity to experience My Fair Lady with an orchestra of more than 50 musicians. Hearing the classic Lerner and Loewe score, with such familiar songs as "I Could Have Danced All Night," "The Rain in Spain," and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" performed by a large, lush orchestra could easily transport even the most cynical person into a state of happiness. And with a cast that excels in portraying these classic characters, the whole evening culminated into a musical theatre lover's dream.

As the fourth annual musical theatre collaboration between the Valley's two arts organizations, the slightly abridged version of this well-known show was directed by Phoenix Theatre Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard, with the orchestra under the baton of guest conductor, and Tony Award winner, Ted Sperling, who has also led the Symphony in other concerts in the past. Barnard and Sperling worked together on last year's collaboration, South Pacific, and their effectiveness in collaborating is quite apparent.

Based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956. Set in London in 1912, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, upon meeting phonetics expert and aficionado of the "science of speech" Professor Henry Higgins, wishes for the better life a more refined accent would deliver. The self-centered Higgins wagers a bet with his fellow linguistic professional Colonel Pickering that he can transform Eliza into a proper lady within six months just by teaching her the correct way to speak. The combination of Alan Jay Lerner's book, with its sophisticated sense of humor, the instantly loveable characters of Eliza and Higgins, and the glorious score by Frederick Loewe elevated My Fair Lady into a smash hit, winning six Tony Awards including the top honor of Best Musical.

The success of any production of My Fair Lady rests on the relationship between Eliza and Higgins, and with the assured performances of Jeannie Shubitz and Terry Lee Gadaire this one didn't disappoint. Shubitz's lilting soprano easily let her songs soar and her well-honed acting skills painted a multi layered character that quickly showed Eliza's aspirations for a better life, one that included having to put up with Higgins' bullying. Shubitz also played the role of Eliza in the Arizona Broadway Theatre production in 2011. Gadaire's Higgins, at first, might have come across as just a bit too harsh and selfish, but the amount of humor and wit he brought to Lerner's famous dialogue and his rich singing voice created an engaging portrayal.

The two arts organizations have already announced a fifth collaboration for next May, with performances May 29th to the 31st, 2015. While they've not yet announced what musical they will be presenting, I'm sure it will be another excellent experience and just as successful as this year's co-production of My Fair Lady.

My Fair Lady with the Phoenix Symphony and the Phoenix Theatre played three performances from May 30th to June 1st at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at Upcoming production information at the Phoenix Theatre can be found at

Sunday, June 1, 2014

theatre review THE MIRACLE WORKER, Hale Centre Theatre, May 24

Melody Knudson, Richard Enriquez, Clara Moffitt and Emily Mohney
To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of The Miracle Worker, just click on this link.

William Gibson's classic play The Miracle Worker tells the true story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, two women who unfortunately aren't as well known today as they were back when the play first premiered on Broadway, in 1959. Keller, probably the world's most famous blind person, became a world famous author, speaker and champion of the disabled, and by doing so made the world better for people with disabilities, and Sullivan is the woman who helped Helen realize her potential when she was just a very young girl. So, while their names might not be that well known by young people today, the play is a fascinating reminder of their touching story and struggles they both overcame. The Hale Centre Theatre is presenting an exceptional production with brilliant performances by Clara Moffitt and Emily Mohney as Helen and Annie.

Set in 1880s rural Alabama, The Miracle Worker begins when Helen loses her sight, hearing and speech through a dangerous illness in infancy. Lost in her world, she grows up and fights against those who love her, to be understood by them, while she attempts to understand the world around her. Her family, thinking that over-indulging her is the right approach to helping her, watches as she grows up to be an out of control 6 year old with no boundaries. After Helen knocks her younger sibling out of its crib, Helen's mother Kate decides that finding a qualified teacher and guardian is what Helen needs. After contacting the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Annie Sullivan is hired and over the course of the play we see how Annie breaks through to Helen to teach her manners and show her that everything has a name and those names can be identified by spelling words into Helen's hand.

Director Diedra Celeste Miranda has done an excellent job of balancing the drama and comedy in the play and of getting the majority of her actors to deliver top notch performances that very rarely approach melodrama. With an impeccable Irish accent, Emily Mohney plays Annie beautifully. It is a realistic performance that shows the spirited, feisty woman who doesn't shy away from the frustration she encounters as she is bound and determined to teach Helen. Clara Moffitt is also giving a performance you won't soon forget, as Helen. Completely convincing and just a 5th grader, Moffitt exhibits striking acting skills in her portrayal of Helen. She is not afraid to show us this angry, confused girl who only acts out as she is frustrated and lost in her own world. Equally as impressive is Melody Knudson as Helen's concerned mother Kate. Knudson's sheer sense of determination and compassion is extraordinary. All three actresses are giving some of the strongest, most vivid performances in the Phoenix area this summer.

Miranda stages the action effectively in the round, staging scenes throughout the space with plenty of movement to ensure the audience hardly ever has an actor's back to them. She also uses the staircase from the corner second story platform effectively, especially in the pronounced way that Helen's initial entrance immediately shows us the issues a blind and deaf person faces. While, overall, Miranda's direction of her actors and the story is impressive, there is the inherent confusion of the script's few, brief flashback sequences that Gibson never fully fleshes out and an occasional lapse or two into melodrama, but those are just very small bumps in an otherwise exceptional production.

Touching and heartwarming with passionate performances, the Hale Centre Theatre's production of The Miracle Worker is extremely impressive, with three rich, memorable performances and solid direction. The play and this production are faithful and poignant tributes to the legacy of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of The Miracle Worker runs through July 5th, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (480) 497-1181.

Photo: Nick Woodward / Hale Centre Theatre

theatre review YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Arizona Broadway Theatre, May 23

Click here to read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

Becca Gottlieb, Adam Vargas, Kurtis W. Overby, Kathi Osborne and Brad York
Mel Brooks' 1974 film Young Frankenstein is a comedy cinema gem. A huge hit at the box office, it was a loving homage to the monster movies of the 1930s and '40s, centered specifically on the Universal series of Frankensteinfilms. After Brooks' huge stage success in 2001 with the adaptation of his film The Producers, it was only natural that he would tap into his film library for a follow up. But with Young Frankenstein's hit film history and memorable characters to live up to, and saddled with an inferior score, the screen to stage transfer forYoung Frankenstein didn't fare as well as The Producers, running just over a year on Broadway. It's a shame it didn't have a longer run, as the musical features almost all of the famous comic lines and humorous bits from the film and the end result is a fun, frenzied and familiar romp. The Arizona Broadway Theatre is presenting the Arizona premiere of the show in a bang up production with impressive creative elements, solid direction and an impeccable cast that wrings every vaudeville-style comic moment and bawdy nuance from the script.

The plot follows Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Kurtis W. Overby), the grandson of a mad scientist who created a monster out of various body parts that went on to terrorize the countryside. Frederick wants nothing to do with his ancestors but agrees to go to Transylvania to inspect the property he learns he has inherited. There he meets a hunchback servant named Igor (Brad York), the frightening housekeeper Frau Blucher (Kathi Osborne), and Inga (Becca Gottlieb), a beautiful young woman with a local community college degree in Laboratory Science. After reading his grandfather's journals, Frederick becomes intrigued and before you know it, this odd quartet of characters is in action reanimating the dead, with hysterical circumstances. With a never ending stream of jokes, already familiar dialogue directly from the film that has already entered our vernacular, and numerous song and dance numbers thrown in along the way, Young Frankenstein is ultimately a fun-filled laugh riot that overcomes the few sub-par songs in Brooks' score.

Kurtis W. Overby easily gets across the eccentric, brilliant and excited parts of the intelligent yet socially inept Frederick. While Frederick is relegated to being the "straight man" for most of Brooks' and book co-writer Thomas Meehan's jokes, Overby's expressive eyes add an element that makes the comic bits soar. He also is a talented dancer and singer and excels during his many song and dance numbers. Brad York's Igor is simply a comic delight. York has perfect comic timing and a rich voice and gets laughs by just the way he slinks across the stage. Overby and York's duet of "Together Again for the First Time" is a borsht belt gem. Cassandra Norville Klaphake makes Elizabeth, Frederick's over-sexed fiancée, truly original, bringing a more sophisticated air to the part then Madeline Kahn did in the film, which works, especially with the affected "Continental" accent she uses. While Elizabeth isn't in as much of the show as some of the other characters, Klaphake milks the humor and nails her two somewhat naughty songs with seductive glee and one of the biggest and clearest voices in the Phoenix area. Overby, York and Klaphake have all worked together for several years now as part of the ABT creative and business team, and their friendship and ease in working closely with each other in their "day jobs" comes across on stage.

Once again, Arizona Broadway Theatre delivers top notch design elements. Jack Magaw's scenic design delivers a neverending parade of set pieces, including a lovely silhouette of the Frankenstein castle on a hill at the top of the show. There are a lot of sets in the show, and many scene changes, so Magaw has chosen wisely to not over-do most of the design, which speeds up the set changes. However, his elaborate design for the laboratory set is quite effective. Sublime lighting by Tim Monson uses lush purples and blues to portray the many night-time settings and Jason Lynn's sound design has some great sound effects that have hilarious results. Morgan Andersen's costumes are on par with the rest of the creative elements, with lush outfits that fit perfectly in the 1930s time frame of the story. Together the elements all add up to a slick, but not overly cluttered design.

While it may not have been a hit on Broadway, ABT's production of Young Frankenstein is hysterical, escapist entertainment with a perfect cast that turns the whole affair into an affectionate crowd-pleaser.

Young Frankenstein runs through June 22nd, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (623) 776 – 8400.

Photo: Mike Benedetto / Arizona Broadway Theatre