Thursday, May 22, 2014

theatre review FAIRY WORLDS! Southwest Shakespeare Company, May 16

Click here to read my complete review (highlights below) of Fairy Worlds! at the Southwest Shakespeare Company. 

Tracy Liz Miller and Randy Messersmith

Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his most accessible and most frequently produced comedies. I've seen various adaptations of the play before, some more successful than others. Fortunately, the production that the Southwest Shakespeare Company is currently presenting is quite good and extremely unusual with two huge benefits going for it. First, the running time is just slightly over 90 minutes, which means you get all of the action and famous lines from the play without any of what some people might say are the "boring" parts, which, while purists might not approve, is a big bonus for theatregoers who aren't too keen on their Shakespeare. But the biggest benefit is the setting. Retitled as Fairy Worlds! and presented as a co-production with the Desert Botanical Garden, the play is set in the outdoor event area of the Garden. Since most of the play is set in the forests outside of Athens, it makes sense to draw upon the natural outdoor setting of the Desert Botanical Garden to frame the action on the stage. With fairy lights in the surrounding trees, more trees behind the stage that are awash in changing color to form a natural backdrop, cactus off to the sides, and Camelback Mountain off in the distance, a mystical aura heightens the magical moments in Shakespeare's script.

Part romantic comedy, part fantasy, the play is a pure ensemble piece that follows several characters entwined in romance. At the center are two pairs of young lovers who become lost in the woods and fall under magic potions of the fairies and sprites who live there. This is framed by two other couples, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, who are about to be married, and Titania and Oberon, the Fairy Queen and King, who use their forest home as a playground for the mortals whom they encounter there, mischievously playing tricks on them. Added to the mix are a group of bumbling Athenian tradesmen, led by the weaver Nick Bottom, who plan to perform a play at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding feast, but first, Bottom finds himself mixed up in the tricks of the fairy world.

Director/Adaptor Jared Sakren skillfully keeps his abridged plot moving forward, with an appropriate balance between a light touch for the comic moments and a more assured directive for the few serious ones. Together, they nicely combine to portray the enchantment and humor of love. Sakren is also quite effective in his staging, with nice use of the expansive stage. An acrobatically "choreographed" lover's quarrel actually brought a few gasps to the audience at the performance I attended, in reaction to how effectively and accomplished it is staged.

As most productions of the play do, two actors play the parts of both Theseus and Oberon and Hippolyta and Titania. Tracy Liz Miller brings nice layers of mysticism and feistiness to Titania and Hippolyta, appropriate since Hippolyta has just been defeated in war by Theseus and is somewhat reluctant to wed him. Randy Messersmith is quite effective as Oberon, with just the right level of foreboding to show jealousy and anger he displays, and how he uses magic for his benefit, though his Theseus is a bit too one-note for me. However, he does display a nice combination of regality and leadership in the part. Ted Barton's Bottom has a sweet charm to his roughness, and perfectly hams it up. Barton brings a good blend of comic timing, expressive looks and funny voices to the role and his "death" scene in the play within the play is one of the funniest things you'll see on stage this season. Beau Heckman, who also plays two parts, brings the right level of excitement to both Peter Quince, one of Bottom's co-patriots, as well as Egeus, the father of Hermia, one of the four young lovers.

As the four young lovers, Allison Sell is a spirited and emotional Hermia, while Portia Beacham provides a perfectly high-strung Helena. Andy Cahoon and Jeremiah James make dashing partners for Hermia and Helena. Paul Michael Thomson, as Puck, the sprite who continually uses the love potion on the wrong person, is acrobatic, lean and small, just like you'd expect a sprite to be. His physical abilities work well with the choreographed movement, where motions like the wave of his hand create perfectly timed "magical" reactions from the mortal characters.

Jeff Thomson's scenic design incorporates an expansive stage, which is used effectively, though the majority of the important action is staged toward the front or center. With minimal set pieces, the simple use of some fog effects, and lush lighting from Michael J. Eddy, we are transported to the various locations in the play. Several light towers are seamlessly incorporated into the scenery with snake lighting that, when lit, appear to be the colorful branches of magical forest trees.

With the combination of the dreamlike sets and lighting, sublime costumes and the swiftness of the abridged version of the script, Fairy Worlds! is a fun-filled, fast-paced, romantic evening with a very good cast, confident direction and an impressive setting that casts a magical spell over the audience.

The Southwest Shakespeare Company production of Fairy Worlds! runs through June 1st, 2014, with performances at The Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 535-1202.

Photo: Joe Abbruscato

Friday, May 16, 2014

theatre review VENUS IN FUR, Arizona Theatre Company, May 3

Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams
Click this link to read my complete review (highlights below) at Talkin' Broadway of Venus in Fur at the Arizona Theatre Company.

David Ives' play Venus in Fur was a pretty big hit in New York three years ago. It started its life Off Broadway, moved to Broadway in a limited run for Manhattan Theatre Club and then transferred to a different Broadway theater for a commercial run. The play portrays a combination of a battle of the sexes, masochism, and the goddess Aphrodite and is receiving its Arizona premiere—one of the first productions of the play directed by a woman—at the Arizona Theatre Company with an exceptional cast.

Playwright and director Thomas (Michael Tisdale) has just ended a frustrating day of auditions, trying to find the woman to play "Wanda" in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel "Venus in Furs." A storm brewing outside the rehearsal studio has nothing on the hurricane that is about to take place inside when Vanda (Gillian Williams) shows up. Thomas' first impression is that she is just like every other girl he's auditioned that day—all form and no substance, believing that the play is all about S&M and sex since the word masochism comes from Sacher-Masoch's name. But Vanda soon shows Thomas that there is more than he can imagine beneath her exterior. The two begin a cat and mouse game of seduction and domination where roles are frequently reversed and one never really knows what is real and what is not.

Williams as Vanda gets the more juicer role to play, or roles in this case, since she at first comes across as a clueless, though tough and extremely vocal "actress" but also becomes someone else entirely different once she begins to audition as the play within a play's Wanda. Her ability to transition easily between the various "roles" she plays is especially refreshing and fascinating to watch. As the audition process goes forward and the scenes are broken up between the audition and a discussion between Thomas and Vanda about the play, sex, and Thomas' personal life, Williams uses her voice and body language to move seamlessly from one character to the next. She easily gets across a clear distinction between these two characters and is an outright hoot as Vanda the actress but just as impressive as Wanda the character in the play.

Tisdale is equally effective as Thomas as well as the male character in his play, Severin. And, while it is the more "weaker" of the two roles and less forceful, Tisdale's ability to come across as more subservient makes sense. At one point in the play they trade characters, and Tisdale is quite extraordinary when he becomes Wanda. The chemistry between the two actors, at times, is intense.

Direction by Shana Cooper is just about perfect. Nuanced, comedic and light, but also forceful and direct when necessary—and this play has many mood swings. While she may bring a more feministic view to the production, I think her direction actually makes the romantic feelings and moments more realistic, yet she also doesn't shy away from the more intensely sexual moments of domination and submission. I believe having a woman director also drastically helps Tisdale's luminous portrayal of Wanda really come to life, and not just seem like a man mockingly playing a woman. Cooper also adds nice touches through the incorporation of set pieces, including the humorous use of a piano and a piece of pipe that stretches from the floor to ceiling.

While I missed the play on Broadway, I did see one of the first regional productions last year at the George Street Theatre in New Jersey. I wasn't taken that much by that production, most likely due to the small stage that didn't allow the play to breathe. Fortunately, the Arizona Theatre Company production has a large stage that, with two exceptional actors and an assured director, give the play and the characters enough space to pull us in to their intricate, sexual power struggle. And, while overall the play isn't that controversial or even titillating, it does comment on the modern themes about sex, sexuality and sexual roles and how they compare to the period and characters in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel.

While Williams and Tisdale are just about perfect for the parts, with each more than able to handle their own in the often changing roles the two play of dominant and submissive, they can't completely mask the few shortcomings in Ives' play. With several shifts in tone that happen too abruptly and too many unanswered questions it might leave you wondering. Does Vanda have a pre-conceived plan or agenda? Does she already know who Thomas is before she enters the room or is she just a very quick study? Is Thomas' play autobiographical? Is Thomas imagining his entire encounter with Vanda? The answers are left up to the audience to decide, which makes the play intriguing, though slightly unsatisfying. Fortunately, with two great actors, impressive direction and first rate creative elements, including a superb set design, they more than make up for the few misses in the writing.

Venus in Fur at Arizona Theatre Company runs through May 18th, 2014, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 256–6995.

Photo: Chris Bennion

theatre review PURLIE, Black Theatre Troupe, May 2

TA Burrows, DeAngelus Grisby and Anne-Lise Koyabe
To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway of Purlie (highlights below) click on this link

The 1970 Tony Award winning musical Purlietells the story of a fast-talking black preacher in the South and his ongoing struggle with the arrogant white plantation owner who still keeps his workers enslaved, even though the story is set well after the end of slavery. While the show is very dated and the musical is a fairly simple send up of the racial types of characters of the period, the score does include a couple of moving gospel inspired numbers and the Black Theatre Troupe's production is fairly good, with some rousing performances, especially from the supporting cast.

Based on Ossie Davis' play Purlie Victorious and set in a time "Not Too Long Ago," the musical is the story of Purlie Victorious Judson, a self-proclaimed "new fangled preacher man." Purlie has just returned home to his shack on Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee's plantation with a young woman named Lutiebelle. Purlie has searched all over the land to find a woman who looks like his long lost cousin and Lutiebelle fits the bill. Purlie plans to fool the Ol' Cap'n into thinking that Lutiebelle is his cousin in order to get the $500 inheritance that Ol' Cap'n has been holding for her. Purlie wants to take the $500 to buy the beloved church that his father started. With "over the top" performances to emphasize the stereotypical nature of the period, characters and setting, Purlie plays every moment for the comical and not the serious, which helps, but the script is very old-fashioned and the characterizations are so broad that the whole show seems to always be at odds with the politically correct nature of today. Because of this, the show, which is rarely produced, really doesn't hold up very well today and is best viewed as a period piece.

The Black Theatre Troupe production features a fairly sparse set design, which is fine since the musical itself doesn't call for anything overly elaborate, but the greatly reduced four-piece band somewhat diminishes the exuberance of the score. Fortunately, the majority of the cast deliver high energy performances which helps to somewhat offset the dated nature of the script. T.A. Burrows is energetic and inspiring as Purlie. He is engaging, and easily gets across the man who is always preaching and is a big talker, but has an even bigger ego. Anne-Lise Koyabe manages to make Lutiebelle appropriately Insecure and demure, with her eyes continually cast downward and her seemingly sincere comments about how she doesn't believe she is pretty. While they both instill their songs with some realism and emotion, Koyabe's voice, though loud and forceful, doesn't seem to always connect with the lyrics of the song, especially in "I Got Love," which should be a song about self-discovery, but instead just comes across as a "by the numbers" performance with little meaning. Koyabe's voice is also sometimes off key and rangy, especially in her sustained higher notes, and you never really believe that she is in love with Purlie or truly as innocent as she is supposed to be.

Director/choreographer Laurie Trygg does best with the musical sequences that involve the entire cast, providing them with vibrant, energetic dance steps. However, the issues with the book don't help when the direction of the book scenes is just serviceable. Mario Garcia's costume designs are effective including nice colorful dresses for the women and dark suits for Purlie. The appropriately dirty and sweat-stained clothing for Gitlow and the male ensemble show the impact of spending the days in the hot sun picking cotton, an especially effective touch.

While the show is fairly out of date, and the characters all emphasize the stereotypical nature of the people and situations of the period, Purlie still has its charms. With an engaging supporting cast that features some spirited performances and an energetic turn by Burrows, the Black Theatre Troupe's production, while mainly just serviceable, does occasionally have some effective and vibrant moments.

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Purlie runs through May 18th, 2014, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 602 258-8129

Photo: Laura Durant

theatre review WAIT UNTIL DARK, Mesa Encore Theatre, May 1

Click here to read my complete Talkin' Broadway review of Wait Until Dark at Mesa Encore Theatre- highlights below.

Playwright Frederick Knott has had a fairly good year in the Phoenix community theatre world this season, with his two famous thrillers receiving impressive productions. After a suspenseful production of Dial M For Murder at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale a few months back, now comes an equally chilling Wait Until Dark as the last show of the season in Mesa Encore Theatre's inaugural "Black Box on Brown" series of plays.

Set in a basement apartment in 1960s Greenwich Village,Wait Until Dark is the story of blind Susy Hendrix and her unfortunate encounter with three criminals. Susy's husband Sam innocently brought a doll to New York from Canada as a favor for a woman he met at the airport. The woman said the doll was for a sick girl and that someone would come to his apartment to pick it up. Sam and Susy have no idea that the doll is stuffed with heroin; that the person who was picking up the doll has been murdered; or that a sociopathic killer and two small time, recently paroled, con artists are planning to do whatever necessary to get the doll. Disguising themselves as various, seemingly harmless characters, the three men work their way into Susy's apartment, searching for the doll, literally right in front of her. Knott deftly uses Susy's blindness as a perfect theatrical conceit to raise the chills several notches, since the audience sees the deceitful and horrific events unfolding that Susy can not. Even with a few holes in the plot, and situations that seem unfathomable today (including Sam unquestionably transporting the doll across the border for someone he's just met and Susy's continual habit of letting strangers through her door) the play still makes for a gripping theatrical endeavor.

The Mesa Encore cast is up to the challenges, with an impressive Emily Lynne Baker as Susy. She easily gets across a woman who is somewhat demure at first, but, after realizing what is going on around her, ratchets up her defenses so as not to become a victim herself. Since Susy has only been blind for a year, due to an accident, and is still learning how to deal with her condition, it makes sense that Baker plays her as a bit frantic. Baker also realistically never strays from the blank gaze she continually casts to represent Susy's blindness.

While both of Knott's plays are probably better known for their screen adaptations, experiencing them live, with the thrilling events unfolding in front of you, is something that can't be matched on the big screen. Even with a few small missteps, there are still plenty of jolts, thrills and suspense, along with a fairly impressive cast in the Mesa Encore Theatre's production of Wait Until Dark.

Wait Until Dark runs through May 10th, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box on Brown theatre located at 318 E Brown Rd #101, Mesa, AZ 85201. To order tickets, and for information on upcoming productions at Mesa Encore Theatre visit

Sunday, May 4, 2014

theatre review ONCE, National Tour, ASU Gammage, April 29

Click here to read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of the National Tour of Once.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal
The new musical Once, winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, is based on the Oscar winning movie of the same name that tells the story of a guy and a girl in modern Dublin. He is Irish, she is Czech. They meet somewhat unexpectedly on the street where he is performing, and over the course of about a week find a connection that brings out feelings they've each long forgotten. They are both somewhat accomplished, though not professional, musicians and the music they make alone and together adds a dimension to the story unlike any musical that I can think of. The national tour of the show started last fall and has come to Tempe for a week long run.

The show features music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (both of whom starred in the film), including all of the original songs from the movie as well as some new ones the two have written. It is a story of two people from different worlds who are somewhat lost in their lives. The characters are simply called Guy and Girl. Guy's girlfriend moved away to New York, leaving him heartbroken, lost and feeling worthless. He lives with his father and repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop, but it is really only when he sings and plays his original songs that he comes alive. Girl lives with her mother, her daughter, and some fellow Czechs. Once she meets the Guy and hears a rough demo tape of some of his original songs, she urges him to make a professional demo recording, and she will help him make that happen. They are both somewhat muses for each other and some of the most intimate and touching moments are when they are singing solo songs that we assume are about the other person.

Ryan Link and Dani de Waal are the Guy and the Girl, and both are on par with Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti who originated the parts on Broadway. While de Waal gets some of the best dialogue in the show it is Link who really shines on the majority of the songs. His voice has the right shades of purity and roughness to get every nuance out of the songs, and he has the perfect lost boy look that allows de Waal and the audience to fall in love with him while also wanting to help him find his way. He also appears to be a very gifted guitarist. Link is actually the understudy for the tour lead Stuart Ward, who is off for this week of the run, so how accomplished he is in the part is very impressive. De Waal has a natural gift for comedy which comes in handy in this show. She has a charming personality and we can easily see why the Guy falls for her Girl. De Wall also has a lilting, rich and pure voice that really strikes an emotional core in her songs. Enda Walsh has written the book for the musical, and while some of the lines for the Girl might appear clichéd, de Waal's delivery of them, in her thick Czech accent, somehow makes them seem more realistic than they would be if they were said by someone else in the cast.

Director John Tiffany and the creative team for the tour are the same as in the Broadway production and Tiffany does a good job of combining the simple plot elements with the fact that his entire cast is also his orchestra. He has created some very memorable stage images as well. The entire cast is almost always on stage, with the ensemble sitting in chairs on the sides of the stage, which allows them to perform the music accompaniment, thus serving somewhat as a "Greek chorus," always watching but rarely commenting on the action in front of them. Choreography or "Movement" as they are calling it, is by Steven Hoggett and, while some of the ways the ensemble are incorporated are very effective, especially during the song "Gold," there are also a few times when it is stylized almost to the point of being laughable. But there were only one or two of those moments. The scene changes also receive fun choreographed movement.

Once is a magical musical, unlike anything out there and one that I think really connects with many people. The touring production is on par with the Broadway production, with two extremely talented actors in the leads, an amazingly gifted ensemble cast, and simple, creative and truthful direction and choreography. Once is one musical I don't think you should miss, either on Broadway or on the top notch national tour.  Once runs through May 4th, 2014, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit 

Photo: Joan Marcus


theatre review GOOD PEOPLE, Actors Theatre, April 27

Katie McFadzen, Cathy Dresbach and Maria Amorocho
Below are highlights from my review at Talkin' Broadway of Good People at Actors Theatre, click on this link to read the complete review.

David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony nominated Good People is a contemporary play that touches upon the modern-day class cycle and how the loss of a job can force someone to do things that they might not have otherwise done. It is also the story of a life that none of us would ever hope to live. The Actors Theatre is presenting this powerful play in an impressive production with an excellent cast and assured direction.

Good People is set in South Boston or "Southie," a working class neighborhood where Margie, a single mother in her late 40s, is about to be fired from her cashier job at a local dollar store. She's a minimum wage employee who's been fired because she has been late too many times. Margie has an adult special needs daughter at home whose caretaker was late getting to her, so Margie has a good reason for her tardiness, but that doesn't matter. You like Margie; she's had a tough life and has tried to make the best of it, but she lives within the lines and rules she's been given. She barely complains and is desperately trying to find a job, any job, which will help her pay her rent and care for her daughter. A chance meeting with Mike, a former high school boyfriend who is now a well off doctor, sets in motion the plot which focuses not only on Margie hopefully finding a job but on what would have happened if she and Mike hadn't broken up.

It is a play about the choices that people make and how those choices ultimately affect the people around them as well as the friends who become our family and life support system when times get bad. It is extremely funny and moving as well. I don't want to say much more about the plot as there are plenty of twists and revelations in it, but Lindsay-Abaire has written an interesting story that, while coming across a bit like a soap opera, has such rich characters and realistic dialogue and situations that you can imagine that there really are people like Margie and Mike out there who are living in similar circumstances. The title refers to using the term "good people" to say that someone has good character and upbringing. But, by the end of the play, we realize that even people who we might think are "good people" may not be, and that has to do with the way that Lindsay-Abaire has made almost all of the characters both villains and heroes. I especially like how even Stevie, the young man we don't really like because he has to fire Margie, comes back in the play in an important and positive way at the end.

Wiener has assembled a top-notch cast for this production, with some of the best actors in the Phoenix area, including a stellar performance by Katie McFadzen as a desperate Margie. The actress's ability to get across Margie's way of using non-stop talking to get out of any situation is perfectly played, as well as Margie's sense of pride. Margie is "good people" for sure. McFadzen also has a nice comic sensibility and easily shows the sense of humor that Margie never loses, even with all of her setbacks. It's a heartbreaking performance that McFadzen instills with an underlying sense of hope. And, while McFadzen's Boston accent isn't as thick as it probably should be, it is clear and consistent throughout.

While Good People presents characters and situations none of us would ever hope to encounter, the Actors Theatre production has a crackerjack cast who bring these characters to life. With such an excellent cast and notable direction, Actors Theatre scores again with their production of David Lindsay-Abaire's thought-provoking play.
The Actors Theatre production of Good People runs through May 11, 2014, with performances at the Arizona Opera Center, 1636 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (602) 888-0368.

Photo: John Groseclose

theatre review SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE!, Childsplay, April 26

Click on this link to read my complete review (highlights below) at Talkin' Broadway of Schoolhouse Rock Live! at Childsplay.

Rudy Ramirez, Eric Boudreau, Molly Robinson and Keilani Akagi
Setting something that you have to memorize to music makes it infinitely easier to remember. With rhythmic lyrics and repetitive phrases, things you learned this way years ago can still easily be remembered today. And as anyone who grew up in the 1970s also knows, a series of animated short musical films that aired on ABC on Saturday mornings called "Schoolhouse Rock" showed some of the easiest ways to learn about everything, from nouns, adjectives and conjunctions to how a bill makes its way through Congress to the President of the United States. The upbeat, easy to remember lyrics taught lessons on such topics as grammar, math, history and science. The popularity of the short films caused the series to run into the mid 1980s. This was followed by CDs and videos, as well as a live stage version in the mid '90s called Schoolhouse Rock Live! that included some of the most popular songs from the series. Childsplay just opened Schoolhouse Rock Live! in a wonderful production that is a fun, energetic and engaging way for children of all ages to learn, and for anyone who grew up with "Schoolhouse Rock," a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

The songs of "Schoolhouse Rock" were written by a group of songwriters, including Lynn Ahrens, who would go on to write the lyrics for several Broadway shows. But Schoolhouse Rock Live! isn't just a series of the songs from the TV version performed live; there is a story to give the musical journey some weight. The story follows Tom, a teacher, who is nervous about his first day on the job. He tries to relax by watching TV and when he discovers that "Schoolhouse Rock" episodes are airing, characters emerge to show him how to use the lessons from the TV shorts to help educate his students. What follows is a succession of over a dozen songs, starting with ones on verbs and nouns, and then building upon those principles of grammar to also include math, history, science and social studies.

Director Anthony Runfola puts a modern spin on these classic 1970s and '80s songs by including updated references to "selfies" and texting language like "lol" and "omg" in the brief dialogue scenes around the musical numbers. "Interplanet Janet," the song about the solar system, has also been updated with an added line to state that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Musical director Alan Ruch has also wisely updated the arrangements to bring a modern, pop/rock feel to the musical numbers. Energetic, fun and varied choreography from Molly Lajoie combines nicely with Runfola's creative use of the entire space to stage the many energetic numbers. The combination of the video game inspired set design by Holly Windingstad, Tim Monson's rock concert style lighting and the clever use of projections from Limitrophe Films make this production really shine. Also, D. Daniel Hollingshead's costumes are bright, colorful and effective and make the actors stand out from the more subtle, muted shades of the set design. The projections are continually varied and creative and include words of various sizes projected on white boards held by the cast during "Unpack Your Adjectives" and "Interjections" as well as the use of an x-ray style cartoon of a beating heart during "Do the Circulation." Monson's lighting design also uses shadows to great effect, including a simple yet clear way of showing the large silhouettes of hands and fingers counting during the multiplication sequence. All in all, there is very effective and clever use of all of the production elements

Schoolhouse Rock Live! shows that learning can be fun with catchy songs that are memorable. Childsplay's production is imaginative, with superb creative elements and an energetic cast. Short on narrative, but with such hit "Schoolhouse Rock" songs as "Just a Bill," "Conjunction Junction," "Interjections" and "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing," this show will really make any person who was schooled on "Schoolhouse Rock" smile. Recommended for children ages six and up, it will teach younger children a thing or two about many topics and will most likely be a refresher course for the adults in the audience as well.

Schoolhouse Rock at Childsplay runs through May 25th, 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 start at $12 and are on sale at or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0)

Photo: Tim Trumbule

theatre review LES MISÉRABLES, Phoenix Theatre, April 26

Caleb Reese and the Cast
To read my complete review of Les Misérables at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) just click on this link.

The mega-hit musical Les Misérables gets just about everything right in the transfer from book to stage. As one of the most successful stage musicals ever, Les Misérables is a worldwide phenomenon. The show won numerous Tony and Olivier Awards and is still running in London. A second Broadway revival just opened in New York and the musical received a fairly successful film adaptation. Phoenix Theatre presented the show in 2009 and has brought it back this year as an encore presentation. It is a most welcome return. The intimacy of the stunning Phoenix Theatre production brings out the emotional center of this epic tale of struggle and redemption as well as new insight into and understanding of the story.

Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, and set in 19th century France, Les Misérables tells the epic story of Jean Valjean who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. When his original five year sentence becomes almost twenty after he tries to escape, he becomes a bitter and desperate man. He is paroled but in a moment of desperation robs a bishop, who in turn saves him; that act of kindness gives him a second chance. How that event turns him into a positive person, along with his redemption and how that changes him, is the force behind the emotional journey of the story. Valjean leaves his past behind to become a changed man and help others around him. The fact that he did run away and is being hunted relentlessly by the police inspector Javert, is the major driving element behind the plot.

This is a co-production with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, as was the 2009 production, and several of the cast members in the current production also appeared in '09. The cast that the Phoenix Theatre has assembled is phenomenal, with superb voices all around. Douglas Webster returns as Valjean, and is giving a stellar performance. He is one of the best Valjean's I've seen (and I saw about ten on Broadway, including Colm Wilkinson who originated the part and was nominated for a Tony for his performance). Webster provides an intense emotional connection to his songs, giving each lyric an added depth and meaning, with a great deal of thought. His three dramatic solos, "Valjean's Soliloquy," "Who Am I?" and especially the emotional "Bring Him Home," are vivid and profound. It is a performance you won't soon forget.

If you've never seen a production of Les Misérables, or are a fan and want to pay a return visit, the intimate and stunning Phoenix Theatre production is highly recommended.  

Les Misérables runs through May 25th, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 254-2151.

Photo: Sara Chambers/Phoenix Theatre

theatre review THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DIETY, Stray Cat Theatre, April 25

Charles Campbell, Pasha Yamotahari, Cisco Saavedra,
Jeremy Gillett and Keath David Hall
To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety, just click on this link.

Stray Cat Theatre is following up its recent knock-out production of The Whale with a play that couldn't be more different from that intimate and absorbing drama of one man's personal journey. Set inside the world of professional wrestling, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz, a 2010 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is part satire and part comedy, with a touch of drama. It's rough and loud with body slams, kicks, knock-outs, and booming rock music galore—and a full-size wrestling ring where the Tempe Performing Arts Center stage used to be. With five more than capable actors portraying larger than life personalities, the production shows us a world we may not all be familiar with, through situations that are immediately identifiable.

The play follows Macedonio "Mace" Guerra, the Puerto Rican fall-guy for the successful THE Wrestling League whose job is to continually lose to the other less skilled wrestlers in order to make them look better than they actually are. Mace is constantly biting his tongue at the inappropriate and uneducated racist remarks that "EKO" Olson, the owner of THE, makes and manages to hold his own against the charismatic Chad Deity, the champ. When Mace discovers "VP", an Indian-American Brooklyn kid with charisma who he thinks can make a great addition to THE and whom he could manage, he believes this is the way to rise above being just a supporting player in a world he loves. However, EKO has different plans, creating wrestling "characters" for both VP and Mace that paint them as anti-American villains, touching a bit too deeply on the stereotypes that professional wrestling relies on and the personal lives and experiences of both Mace and VP.

Diaz has created an interesting play with interesting characters. He uses the portrayal of stereotypes, both good and evil, to show us how we almost instantaneously identify, in a mostly negative way, people about whom we don't really know that much. This is something that can easily be seen in, not just the world of professional wrestling, but the world in general. But since Chad, the "hero" and champ of the league, is a black man, it seems he is also saying that we still have a lot to learn in the way that Hispanics, Indian Americans and other non-white people are portrayed and perceived. And while the play is entertaining and upbeat, and brings up some interesting points, it does suffer from too much narration from Mace, letting us know what he was thinking at a specific time or telling us about specific events. In fact, about one third of the play is Mace narrating and talking to the audience. The excess narration bogs things down a bit. The play also lacks a concise and comprehensive ending, or at least an ending that has a better conclusion for the characters we've just invested our time with. Though the ride to the ending is an upbeat and entertaining one and the play might be a little lacking, the characters Diaz create are fascinating.

Director Ron May has fortunately found five guys to bring these larger than life characters to life, all of whom easily come across as people you could actually see in a wrestling ring. Cisco Saavedra instils Mace with a sense of repressed struggle between the profession he loves and the constant battle against the negative words the people around him use and the stereotypical characters he is asked to play. Mace believes in the "art" of wrestling, something he's had a calling for since he was a kid. He understands that EKO is the boss so Mace needs to just keep his thoughts to himself, afraid that if he speaks what he is feeling it will cost him his job. Saavedra easily gets across Mace's struggle with subtle facial expressions and clenched teeth. Through Saavedra's performance we clearly see that Mace has seen too much and now has doubts.

Director May does an impressive job of getting his actors to show us the real people underneath the caricatures they play. He is also creative in the staging of the action, and there is a lot of it, along with using the entire theatre to stage the many "elaborate" entrances the wrestling characters make into the ring. Eric Beeck's inventive set design manages to surround the wrestling ring with two raised platforms and a series of steps that provide May with plenty of areas to create the various locations in the play. Daniel Chihuahua's costume designs are in line with the types of outfits the characters of professional wrestling wear, but also include some humorous ones for the crazy roles Mace and VP are forced to play. With the creative video projections and media design by Jesse Cabrera, Jeff A. Davis' rock star style lighting, Joey Trahan's clear and loud sound design, and that full-size wrestling ring, you feel many times as if you are at an actual wrestling match.  

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is thought provoking, entertaining and full of heart. It has a keen sense of showing us inside the world of professional wrestling, with its own version of theatricality and "characters" that are the backbone of the profession and the fans who love it. The Stray Cat production has a fine, game cast, assured direction and manages to be raucous entertainment even if Diaz doesn't quite find a way to fully wrap up the serious issues of stereotypes he brings up.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through May 17th, 2014 with performances at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th Street in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at

Photo: John Groseclose

theatre review THE PORNOZOMBIES, Nearly Naked Theatre, April 19

Stefan Jorgensen and Laura Anne Kenney
Click here to read my complete Talkin' Broadway review (highlights below) of The Pornozombies.

Let this serve as a warning: mad, sex-crazed zombies have taken up residence at the Hardes Little Theatre for a few weeks. Anyone afraid of a small dose of partial nudity mixed in with various and comic simulated zombie sex scenes and a decent share of profanity should stay away from the intersection of McDowell and Central until May 11th. But for those looking for a funny and frivolous spoof of both zombie movies and '70s soft-core porn films, you couldn't do much better than The Pornozombies, the latest "adult" live theatre endeavor from Nearly Naked Theatre.

Matt Casarino's play follows Detective Karla as she investigates a strange threat to the country—zombie porn. Evil scientist Dr. Hadfield has created a serum that reanimates the dead, bringing them back to life with a heightened sex drive. Hadfield documents the zombies' activity for science and distributes the videos to the local video store where they gain a large following. Karla makes it her mission to stop Hadfield and save the country. Though we're not quite sure that the country really wants to be saved.

With a humorous narrator as our guide, Casarino has crafted a fairly witty and satirical play, with some very funny lines and situations. He also mixes in several references to the cautionary tale movies of the 1940s and 1950s that served to warn society of natural threats to the country, like Reefer Madness, which warned of the evils of smoking pot. However, the play does drag just a bit with some unnecessary moments for a few of the secondary characters.

Fortunately, Director Damon Dering has found a cast more than willing to let their inhibitions go and their inner zombie and/or porn star out. Laura Anne Kenney does a nice job of showing us the determination Detective Karla has in stopping Hadfield, as well as her lack of good detective skills. She easily gets across Karla's no-nonsense attitude. While her rough detective accent comes and goes, she wrings plenty of laughs from her fairly straightforward dialogue. Doug Loynd, who also designed the costumes, is having a blast as Hadfield, easily portraying the disturbing side of this mad scientist as if it's completely natural and everyone else is crazy. Aaron Blanco, who was sullen and on the edge as the racist ballplayer Shane Mungitt in Nearly Naked's last show, Take Me Out, is showing his comic chops, giving a superb take on the Narrator of the piece. He is dapper in his dark suit and tie, with superb enunciation, and relishes his lines, especially his continual warnings to the audience.

While The Pornozombies isn't exactly a great play, it is a fun, humorous satire, with numerous laugh out loud moments and a cast more than game to bring the zany characters and situations to life. While this is an "adult" show, there is only one scene with simulated sexual activity, and it's the funniest moment in the show. The narrator gives plenty of warning before it happens, just in case anyone decides they can't take it and want to leave the theatre. I strongly urge you to stay.  

The Pornozombies runs through May 10, 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

Photo: Jordon Torne

theatre review BYE BYE BIRDIE, Desert Stages, April 18

To read my entire review at Talkin' Broadway (excerpts below) of Bye Bye Birdie at Desert Stages Theatre, just click on this link.

"Bye Bye Birdie is a fun and upbeat musical all about the innocence of America in 1960 and the fascination with rock music that was sweeping the country at that time. The musical is based on the time in 1957 when Elvis Presley, at the top of his fame, was drafted into the U.S. Army and gave a woman from the Women's Army Corps "one last kiss" before he shipped off overseas. Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale is presenting the musical as a part of their "Next Stage Theatre" series, which features cast members aged 12-19. The production is fun and upbeat, just like the musical, with some talented kids in the cast and a hilarious performance from director Lisa Barton (the only "over 19" year old in the cast) in a supporting role.  

It's 1960 and rock and roll superstar Conrad Birdie has been drafted into the army. Rosie, the secretary turned girlfriend of Conrad's business manager Albert, comes up with a publicity stunt to send Conrad off in style. Conrad will appear in Sweet Apple, Ohio, where a member of his teenage girl fan club is chosen to receive "One Last Kiss" from Conrad while he sings a new song of the same name, which will be broadcast live on "The Ed Sullivan Show." However, everything doesn't go exactly as planned, especially when Albert's domineering mother Mae hears of Albert's plans to quit the family business and go off, at Rosie's wishes, to become an English teacher.

With a charming score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and a humorous book by Michael Stewart, Bye Bye Birdie features songs that became well known hits, including "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do." It also made a star of Dick Van Dyke, who won a Tony for playing the part of Birdie's manager. The show also won the Tony for Best Musical in 1961.

Director Lisa Barton has assembled a fairly capable cast of teenagers for the show. Jacob Emnett demonstrates a charming, yet perfectly frantic side to the mama's boy Albert. Megan Farinella makes Rosie appropriately feisty in her dealings with Albert's mom Mae, but she also shows a lovely and sweet side when it comes to her encounters with Kim, the Sweet Apple teenager enlisted to kiss Conrad goodbye, and Kim's beau Hugo. Jeremy Yampolsky has the gyrating dance moves and voice inflection to instill Conrad with just a hint of Elvis but not so much to make him an Elvis impersonator. The whole cast are excellent actors, giving plenty of thought and feeling to their line readings and their vocal abilities are fine to very good, with Farinella the best of the group. Her second act solo "Spanish Rose" receives a perfect comical delivery with Farinella expertly managing her way around the tricky lyrics.

Barton is a knock out as Mae, the most domineering mother ever. She wrings every comic moment out of every guilt-inducing line she has, and is a force of nature on stage. I also really liked Erin Tarkington's take on Ursula, one of Kim's best friends and fellow Conrad Birdie enthusiast. She has appropriate facial expressions and the right level of excitement in her actions and in her dealings with the other characters to make this supporting character into a very individual person.

Bye Bye Birdie is a classic musical that pokes fun at teenagers and their rock and roll obsession with performers like Elvis Presley. But it also is a show with a lot of heart that celebrates the simple middle-class American values of the early 1960s. It works fairly well for the "Next Stage" series of Desert Stages shows that features cast members aged 12 to 19, since the majority of the characters in Bye Bye Birdie are in fact teenagers. Director Lisa Barton does a nice job in directing a very large cast of teenagers and is exceptional in her portrayal of Mae, the domineering mother from hell.

The Desert Stages production of Bye Bye Birdie runs through May 4, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at or by phone at (480) 483-1664.