Wednesday, October 29, 2014

theatre review SEMINAR, Actors Theatre, Oct. 27

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Andy Cahoon, Kim Richard, David Barker, Kerry McCue and Will Hightower

For anyone who has ever written anything, getting honest feedback from a respected peer, editor or mentor can be a painful experience. And while a play centered around writers who talk to other writers and critique what they've written sounds like a potentially pretentious bore, Theresa Rebeck has written a play with realistic characters and crackerjack dialogue. The witty drama Seminar is receiving a well-cast and smartly directed production from Actors Theater that manages to be instantly relatable to anyone who has ever shied away from hearing the truth about themselves or something they've created.

Set in New York City, Leonard, a former writer of some merit, now works as an editor and conducts private 10-week writing seminars for aspiring writers at $5,000 a person. He states that he tells the truth, so if you don't want to hear it, or can't deal with it, then this class isn't for you. However, it's debatable if he is really just telling the truth or simply belittling the students as a way to get back at what has transpired in his life. The four of the students Leonard is "instructing" in his seminar have some writing talent, or at least they think they do, and over the course of the 100 minutes of the play all five, including Leonard, will learn something about themselves and each other as well as the truth about their writing abilities.

Told mostly in a series of short scenes, Seminar is a well-written play that shows the effects, good and bad, of being brutally honest. Rebeck has written some great monologues for her characters, but it is a drama with a number of very funny lines and some touching moments too. Rebeck has constructed the play in a way that doesn't allow you to exactly know the relationships the characters have to each other until about halfway through, and you also don't quite know how the seminar came to be and exactly who the character of Leonard is until well into the evening. It is nice to not be hit over the head with all the relevant data in the first five minutes as some plays do; instead, the dialogue flows naturally, with the facts coming out how they would in normal conversation. And while this might seem like another example of the often told story of "teacher with issues who inspires his students while also learning from them," it doesn't exactly follow that plot and Rebeck is very wise to keep the mushy or inspirational moments to a minimum. It is simply a good play, with good characters and smart, funny dialogue and one like recent Broadway hits ProofDoubtGod of Carnage and Red that have gone on to have healthy lives in regional theaters since their Broadway debuts.

Director Ron May has not only cast the roles perfectly but has also directed the cast to give excellent, engaging, and realistic performances. "Some people can't stand the truth" is Leonard's main line of defending his critiques, yet as delivered by a pretentious, egotistical man, you never quite know how to take it. David Barker effortlessly manages to portray Leonard as the man who finds a way to manipulate the most vulnerable parts of each of his student's character. Barker's line readings instigate pain and hate but he also inspires with just a few moving words and the simplest of phrases. While Leonard is often very dark and mean spirited, there are also moments of pain, jealousy and fear that Barker expertly conveys. It is a well-rounded performance and, even though you don't like the character due to his venomous treatment of the students, you do realize in the end that he is doing what he thinks is best for them.

The rest of the cast are just as good. As Kate, the woman who hosts the weekly seminar sessions, Kerry McCue is multi-dimensional in her portrayal of the rich neo-feminist who finds herself defensive and hurt, not only in defending her Jane Austen themed story that she's been working on for six years but also in how she is guarded and slightly uptight in talking about her low cost, rent-controlled and very large Upper West Side apartment. McCue hits the right beats in her nuanced portrayal of Kate. Conflicted, resentful, jealous and self-doubting are just a few of the many adjectives to describe Martin, Kate's school friend, who we learn is just about the only one of the group with any integrity left. Will Hightower is delivering an appropriately rich performance in this role, and his ability to show agitation, frustration and disapproval are well played.

While Andy Cahoon and Kim Richard have less to do as the pretentiously preppy Douglas and the overly flirty Izzy, they are complete naturals in their portrayals of these two somewhat stereotypical roles, with both instilling a sense of honesty and vulnerability in the parts. Cahoon's portrayal of the entitled young writer is especially effective in the scene where Leonard reviews his work, with Cahoon's changing facial expressions of joy, pain, confusion and acceptance simply perfect. Richards is a delight as the fun, sensual woman who, while she appears to be the type of person who isn't afraid to do what is necessary to get what she wants, also seems she is a lot smarter than she's letting on.
Director May moves the evening along briskly, but also allows the piece to breath at the appropriate moments, especially when Leonard is reading something one of the students has written and the silence in the audience is almost crackling with anticipation of exactly what comments he will make. Jeff Thomson's set design effectively shows the apartments of two of the characters, which are as vastly different as their inhabitants. Costumes by Lois K. Myers' are character appropriate, from the colorful ties, bow ties, sweater vests and other preppy attire for Douglas to the sloppy, inexpensive shirts and jeans for Martin. Since the play is set over many weeks it's nice to see that each character has several different outfits to wear, so we don't see them in the same one over and over again like some productions might do.

While there are a few moments where the verbal tennis games or Leonard's diatribes go on a bit too long, and the ending, for some, might tie things up a little too neatly, Seminar ends up being a witty, dialogue heavy play that is rich and even moving. With extremely nuanced, polished, and well directed performances of Rebeck's well-crafted characters, Seminar is receiving an exceptional production from the Actors Theatre.

One word of caution—there is plenty of profanity and some sexual references in the play.

The Actors Theatre production of Seminar runs through November 9th, 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


To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Joshua Vern, Aya Nameth, and Alanna Kalbfleisch
The 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Tryingis a comedy that tells a fairly simple story of a young man and his rise up the corporate ladder—with all of the business politics and office romances that come along with that climb. It has a fun, infectious score by Frank Loesser but is also steeped in the time period of the 1960s and filled with the sexism and sexist characters that the period personifies. While book writers Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert take a satirical look at corporate life during those years, the audience must check political correctness at the door in order to get past some of the now very un-pc elements of the plot. The Theater Works production has two positive aspects going for it that help make those unappetizing moments and characters easier to digest. First, recent corporate dramas like the hit TV show "Mad Men" and the film The Wolf of Wall Street satirize the corporate game, along with all of the sexism and sexual hi-jinks, but take a far less comical tone than How to Succeed..., making the musical more of a charming period piece than a garish, shocking one. Second, director Toby Yatso doesn't try to hide or downplay any of the sexual shenanigans—in fact, he relishes them and makes them even more funny and satirical, which results in a heightened comedy sense and a more upbeat and fun show.

J. Pierrepont Finch is a former window washer who, upon reading a book called "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," finds himself quickly on the way up the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket company by following the steps in the book. Finch befriends J.B. Biggley, the president of the company and, in a very determined way, he figures out how to be in the right place at the right time to overhear important information that helps him as he ascends the ladder.

In order for a production of this show to succeed, it must balance the satire with the sincerity of the characters and situations so we can root for the characters while we are laughing at the situations they've gotten themselves into. Yatso doesn't make the portrayals of the characters too cartoonish or too broad, factors that would go against the well written book and make the overall effect too satirical. He plays up the period elements of the piece, making the sexist moments into comical ones, and has the female characters be more equals to the men in their intelligence. This is especially apparent in the part of Rosemary, the secretary who is in love with Finch, who is now more a co-conspirator in Finch's plan instead of just a dimwitted secretary whose goal in life is to marry a businessman.

The Theater Works cast are all fine actors, comics, and singers. Joshua Vern is perfectly likable and charismatic as the career-focused Finch. He has a strong voice, a pleasing stage presence, good comedic timing, and he's even a decent dancer. It's a smart performance. Jeffrey Middleton is funny and charming as the warm, animated Biggley. Aya Nameth has a witty comic delivery and a powerful voice which she uses to great effect on Rosemary's songs. She instills Rosemary with a knowing wink similar to Finch's.

As Biggley's nephew Bud Frump, the annoying office worker who uses his relationship to the boss to get ahead, Michael Schwenke is giving a goofy and winning turn that fortunately doesn't cross over into chewing on the scenery. Alanna Kalbfleisch, who was a comic gem in Theater Works' last main stage show I Get a Kick out of Cole, is Smitty, the nosey secretary and Rosemary's friend, and she is just as good here. Osiris Cuen, who last Spring starred as an innocent young girl in Childsplay's Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle, has done a complete 180-degree turn as the sexpot Hedy LaRue, which she plays perfectly. And Kathleen Berger, in a featured part as Biggley's secretary, has the perfect air and demeanor of the no-nonsense secretary, showing off her great voice in the showstopping "Brotherhood of Men."

While Yatso's direction works for the most part, the cast does miss some of the finer comical nuances of the script and his scene changes drag on far too long—and there are a lot of scene changes in this show. Kat Bailes' choreography is adequate, though Yatso and Bailes do a nice job with the "Grand Old Ivey" number where Finch is trying to impress Biggley by joining him in his college fight song. Since Finch doesn't know the movements, Yatso and Bailes have Vern a split second behind as he tries to do what Middleton is doing, which works perfectly to make it seem like Finch really doesn't know the movements.

Creative elements are colorful though not elaborate, with Brett Aiken's set design featuring pastel colors of the period. I especially liked the multi-colored desks. Tamara Treat's costumes include an abundance of suits for the men, '60s work dresses for the ladies and a distinctly one-of-a-kind dress for the "Paris Original" sequence. Tim Monson's lighting works well and the sound design from Alex Cozza features a lovely echo effect on a few key words in the act one closer "Rosemary."
Theater Works' production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a fun filled production with several winning performances.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through November 9th, 2014, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 815-7930

Photo: Wade Moran / Theater Works

theatre review THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE, Childsplay, Oct. 25

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Kyle Sorrell, "Edward Tulane," and David Dickinson

"What it means to love and be loved" is the important life lesson at the center of the moving, touching and beautiful Childsplay production of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Childsplay premiered the show last season to critical acclaim, including recently winning seven ariZoni Theatre Awards, taking the honors for Best Overall Production of a Play and Best Original Script. The show is currently receiving four productions across the country this season and Childsplay has also brought the show back for a return engagement through November 16th.

Based on Kate DiCamillo's 2006 young adult novel and adapted by Dwayne Hartford,Edward Tulane follows the adventures of a china rabbit doll that is first given to a young girl named Abilene in the 1930s. With a painted-on mouth, Edward is unable to talk, though he speaks his thoughts to himself. At first, the self-absorbed rabbit doesn't care much for Abilene, concerned more about what outfit he is wearing and if he is placed in a position so he can see the world outside. But once he is separated from the young girl he begins a journey during which he encounters a series of people who take him into their homes and hearts and, through the course of his adventures, Edward discovers the feelings of loss, hope and just what love means. Hartford's adaptation brings the story magically to life.

The production features a cast of four actors, including Childsplay Associate Artists Katie McFadzen and Debra K. Stevens. Director David Saar, his exceptional cast and his highly creative design team don't make a false move in bringing this magical Depression-set journey to life. Kyle Sorrell, who also wrote the original folk based score (and won an ariZoni for his efforts), portrays Edward's thoughts with a soft, sweet, matter of fact voice that works beautifully to bring the selfish china rabbit doll to life. Stevens plays numerous parts and is a complete wonder as the two young girls who fall in love with Edward; her childlike expressions, movements and gentle voice combine effortlessly to make you believe she is the sweet natured Abilene as well as another young child suffering from pneumonia. Stevens also makes a lovable and realistic dog. McFadzen portrays various characters, male and female, young and old, using her wide, animated eyes and vocal inflections to transform with ease. She also provides most of the narration for the piece with perfect, measured delivery. David Dickinson's fiddle playing combines beautifully with Sorrell's folksy guitar based score and he magically changes with various accents from a fisherman to a heartfelt hobo. The transformations the three make, from character to character, are nothing short of revelatory as they become each new role. But it is Sorrell's moving performance that will stick with you for a long time, as he takes us along Edward's emotional journey from self-absorption to heartbreak, hope and the understanding of loving and being loved.

Saar's direction is inspired and includes some fairly elaborate sequences, including Edward being flung over the side of a ship and off a train, as well as many quiet emotional moments that are touching in their simplicity. The highly theatrical production includes set designer Jeff Thomson's creative wooden multi-level turntable that revolves to move us along on Edward's journey and the use of wooden chairs and crates that the cast reconfigures to portray various settings. The props and Adriana Diaz's touching Depression-era earth-tone costumes are always visible around the stage and allow us to witness the actors as they change clothing and move props and set pieces around to become new characters and creatively change the locations. Rick Paulsen's sumptuous lighting design is highly elaborate. Utilizing a curved screen that surrounds the stage, Paulsen embellishes numerous sequences in portraying a storm at sea, life under the water, sunny days, and starry nights. The creative elements also allow theatregoers' imaginations to assist in the transformation of the simple set, props and costumes into the many settings and characters of the play.

Combining the power of theatre with the journey of self-discovery isn't something new, yet this tale of a china rabbit doll who learns to love will touch your heart, stay with you, and most likely make you shed a few tears. The combination of the beautiful story, the inventive design elements, and the extremely talented cast are a perfect example for theatregoers young and old to see how theatre can transport us to different places and how it can inspire us and make us think. Childsplay's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a celebration of the magic of theatre and the wonder of life.

With many adult predicaments, including death and loss, the show is recommended for children ages seven and up.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at Childsplay runs through November 16th, 2014, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0)

Photo: Tim Trumbule


To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

The music that is made when you pair a perfect vocalist and a perfect orchestra can be stunning. That's exactly what audience members experienced this past weekend when Cheyenne Jackson performed two concerts with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. Jackson, while not exactly a household name, has starred in three Broadway musicals, had featured recurring roles on such hit TV shows as "Glee," and "30 Rock" and has also appeared in several, mostly independent, films. But his voice and stage presence are sublime, with pure, clear vocals and plenty of charisma that echoes such famous "entertainers" as Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and even Frank Sinatra. Those men also knew their way around large orchestral jazz arrangements, and that feeling and tone were also present with the masterful playing of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

Besides a spectacular voice, Jackson also has an abundance of charm which, when combined with his personal stories, added an added individual touch to each song. Jackson mentioned how he grew up poor in a small town in Idaho where they had no running water for five years but had two goats named "Harmony" and "Melody." Jackson said that seeing his first touring Broadway show of Les MisĂ©rableswas a life changer and made him realize what he wanted to do with his life, though it would take him many more years before finally deciding to move to New York and try to make a living as an actor and singer.

Along with his growing up tales, he also focused, with just the appropriate amount of balance to not go overboard, on his realization a couple of years ago that he was an alcoholic, and how his sobriety helped him not only become a better man, but achieve a clarity in his life.

That clarity came across in his vocals, which were highlighted with exceptional deliveries of three songs from Broadway shows, including an impeccable "Something's Coming" from West Side Storywith pure, rich vocals and his eyes searching the auditorium perfectly in tune with the lyrics, and a jazzed up take on "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow. Saying it was a role he hoped to play one day, he delivered a lush Frank Sinatra inspired take on Guys and Dolls' "Luck Be a Lady." He also performed some upbeat Latin influenced arrangements of "Americano" and "Besame Mucho," which showed the deep tones his voice is able to achieve, along with the recent Michael BublĂ© inspired take on "Feeling Good" and a rousing "I (Who Have Nothing)" that showed Jackson's perfect control of his voice. His playful rendition of the Mac Davis penned Elvis Presley hit "A Little Less Conversation" included a touch of Elvis' trademark snarl and some skilled pelvic thrusts.

But it wasn't just standards or American Songbook selections that he wrapped his pipes around; he also showed his skill on some recent tunes, including an excellent take on Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" with a fun, winking, playful deliver of lyrics such as "I told you I was trouble, you know that I'm no good." Talking about his sobriety and how he lost himself before he realized he was an alcoholic, and how he had to fall back into the man he knew he could be, he delivered a heartfelt, emotional version of Once's "Falling Slowly" that turned the lyrics "Take this sinking boat and point it home, we've still got time, raise your hopeful voice you have a choice, you'll make it now" into a personal journey of discovery. A piano accompaniment only arrangement, played by musical director Ben Toth, of Joni Mitchell's classic "A Case of You" received a beautiful meditative rendition.

The personal moments also included two tunes Jackson penned himself, which were actually quite good: the introspective "Mr. Lonely Boy," which showed the emotional impact of his personal experiences, and a touching tune he wrote about his grandmother, "Red Wine is Good for My Heart." Act one ended with a smashing, inspiring take on the Sam Cooke classic "A Change Is Gonna Come" and an encore pairing of "What a Wonderful World"/"Auld Lang Syne" that was the perfect ending to a perfect evening. The Phoenix Symphony, under Randall Craig Fleischer's accomplished conducting, proved once again that they are able to play any type of music with absolute skill, not only in their expert accompaniment to the varied styles of songs Jackson sang but also with the act two opener of Charlie Parker's "Shaw Nuff" which featured an impeccable sax solo in the brass and woodwind focused arrangement.

Cheyenne Jackson and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra was another perfect example in the Symphony's series of "Pops" concerts.

Cheyenne Jackson with the Phoenix Symphony played two performances on October 24th and 25th, 2014, at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at

Photo: Courtesy Cheyenne Jackson/Phoenix Symphony Orchestra

theatre review THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Hale Centre Theatre, Oct. 23

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Jacqueline Brecker, Kathleen Jensen, Amy Dubin, Sydney Del Fosse, Brandi Bigley, Macy LeCheminant, Dale Mortensen and Austin Porter

The Sound of Music is one of those shows that seem to be staged every season, due to the instant name recognition of the title, the well-known songs, the emotionally rich yet also funny story the show tells, and the fact that it is one of the most beloved musicals of all time. But, so many things can go wrong with a production of this show: two leads without the appropriate chemistry; children of varying ages lacking believability; or an inappropriate balance between the comedy and dramatic moments. So, I'm happy to report that this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is receiving a virtually flawless production at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert.

For those who need a refresher of the plot: Set in 1937, The Sound of Music follows the story of postulant Maria as she serves as a governess for a naval captain's seven children in Austria once it seems a religious life isn't in her future. The Captain and Maria find themselves falling in love just as Hitler's regime is about to invade Austria, and the must find a way for their family to escape before the Captain is forced back into service under the Nazis. It is a classic musical with the right balance of humorous scenes, joyful songs, and inspirational moments. It is definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein's most famous show.

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's book is perfect, with succinct dialogue and no superfluous scenes, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's score is simply one of the best. Hale is presenting the version of the musical that includes the two additional songs written for the Oscar winning 1965 film adaptation but also maintains the two songs from the stage version that were cut for the movie.
The "in-the-round" staging and the small size of the theatre allow for many emotional moments to soar with a profound intimacy that can only be achieved when the audience is so close to the actors. Hale Centre productions seem to almost always have exceptional casts, direction and creative elements, and their The Sound of Music is no exception.

As Maria, Brandi Bigley is perfectly expressive in showing the many layers of Maria, both comedic and dramatic. From Maria being unsure of what her true calling is, to finding the joy in the time she spends with the children, while also being confused by the connection she has with the Captain, Bigley portrays the nuances of the role with ease. And her voice soars through some of the best known songs. Rob Stuart is Captain von Trapp and, like Bigley, he creates a fully fleshed out person, with the appropriate stern and stiff characteristics of a widowed sea captain who spends so much time away from home that he doesn't quite know the right way to raise his children. Stuart's measured line delivery and rigid demeanor perfectly convey the role. We also see how the time the Captain spends with Maria changes him and makes him a better man and father; Stuart and Bigley form a realistic couple with the appropriate elements of love and passion. Stuart's singing voice has a deep emotional resonance that he puts to good use in a very personally delivered "Edelweiss."

Carrie Klofach is a slightly younger Mother Abbess than is often cast, but her youthfulness works, bringing a more immediate connection with the similarly aged Maria. Klofach instills the role with a fun, joyous side that comes to light in the duet she sings with Maria, "My Favorite Things," but her serious nature and authority come out in full force with a soaring version of "Climb Every Mountain." The other nuns at the Abbey, played by Heather Fallon, Lynanne Cottle and Heather Gahagan, deliver a witty version of "Maria" but also provide some stirring, soaring harmonies on the several hymns in the show. Fallon in particular doesn't miss a beat as the disapproving Sister Berthe. As Elsa, the woman the Captain is seeing when Maria first arrives, and the Captain's friend Max, Laura Pyper and Brandon Zale are excellent in the roles. Pyper achieves the right balance between being calculating, charming and warm and Zale is simply lovable as Max.

Jacqueline Brecker is the Captain's oldest daughter Liesl, and Connor Wince is Rolf the young man she is in love with. The two recently starred in Hale's version of Footloose so it's nice to see the couple on stage again. Brecker has an exceptional voice and a lovely stage presence; the duet she shares with Wince, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," includes a fairly elaborate dance routine with Wince executing some amazing high leaps and jumps. The other children are played by Dale Mortensen, Macy LeCheminant, Austin Porter, Sydney Del Fosse, Amy Dubin and Kathleen Jensen. Not only do they look like they could really be siblings, but all are directed to behave as if they are children who've only had a governesses with minimal interaction with the real world. This is especially apparent in the opening moments of "Do Re Mi" when all of the children show the appropriate hesitancy at joining in on the song. While they all excel, Porter is superb in his naturally realistic take on the part, Mortensen shows the appropriate stage of a boy who is on the verge of becoming a man, Del Fosse has plenty of wit in her delivery of some of the shows key revelatory lines, and Jensen is simply adorable as the youngest of the von Trapp children.

Director D. Scott Withers doesn't make one false step. Every scene and moment appears to have been expertly thought out to make full use of the intimate space. The scenes are all staged so effectively that no matter which side of the stage you are seated on you will feel an intimate connection with the characters and story. With plenty of movement by the actors, you will also never feel that a scene is staged with you looking only at the backs of the actors. There are also about a half dozen scenes creatively staged by Withers to be performed on the various staircases throughout the auditorium during the numerous scene changes. Choreographer Laurie Trygg supplies an abundance of dance steps, including the highly creative choreographed musical "performances" in the show when the von Trapp Family is singing as a group. The combination of Withers' direction and Trygg's choreography provides almost constant movement in the many memorable moments, adding to the joy of the show.

While the Hale "in-the-round" setup mean that there is no ability to show the expansive von Trapp home, as so many other productions of this show rely upon, set designers Adam DeVaney and Brian Daily provide expensive looking furniture and lush topiary pieces to portray the scenes in the house and gardens. Their designs for the Abbey are just as effective in bringing these locations to vivid life. Mary Atkinson's costumes are superb, including appropriate and period perfect suits for the Captain, some lavish designs for Elsa, and colorful clothing for the children. Jeff A. Davis's lighting design uses shadows and rich colors to provide some lovely visuals, especially in the atmospheric opening of the show set at the Abbey. His designs are especially impressive in how they direct us where to focus in the many set change scenes that are staged on the staircases. Lincoln Wright's music direction provides rich tones in the numerous songs the nuns sing as well as in the songs where the children's voices must harmonize seamlessly. The wig and make-up designs by Cambrian James are character and period appropriate. Also, stage manager Justin Peterson must be commended for the efficiently timed scene changes.

The Hale production of The Sound of Music is first rate, joyous and emotional, with an excellent cast, superb direction, rich and abundant choreography, and creative touches. It is one of the best 
productions I've seen of one of the best loved musicals of all time.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of The Sound of Music runs through November 29rd, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (480) 497-1181

Photo: Nick Woodward-Shaw/Hale Centre Theatre

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

theatre review FOREVER PLAID, Palms Theatre, October 22

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Nicholas Gallardo, Will Leonard, Matthew Chappell and Danny Karapetian
For a show that got its big break in a very small Off Broadway club in New York City almost twenty-five years ago, Forever Plaidhas found ongoing success virtually around the world. The small musical is a trip down memory lane with over two dozen songs from the '50s and '60s in lush arrangements, sung by four gents in a humorous and charming story of their lives. The Palms Theatre opens their 2014 musicals series with a solid production that features four gifted guys giving witty, original performances.

The upbeat show tells the story of four clean-cut high school lads from the early 1960s. They are a singing quartet who call themselves "The Plaids" and dream of recording an album. Their only problem? When the show begins we learn they were killed in a car accident, right before they could record their record, when they were struck by a bus of Parochial schoolgirls who were on their way to see the Beatles debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The girls survived but the Plaids did not. However, they've just returned from the afterlife for another chance at musical success.

Director/choreographer Stuart Moulton makes just about all the right choices—from his ability to draw age appropriate performances from the four actors to his skill in the varied, humorous and period perfect dance moves. I've seen several productions of this show but this is the first time I clearly got the distinct characteristics that set each of the four apart from each other as well as the sweet nature they all possess. Also, the way Moulton has his actors instill their characters with stilted movements at the beginning of the show, since it's been a while since they've performed and they are a bit rusty, is perfectly played. However, the first few minutes are also a bit clunky, with the four entering from the audience, and the busywork of setting the scene is a bit unclear. Fortunately, that's the only very small misstep in Moulton's direction.

Since there isn't a lot of story beyond the simple plot and a few choice remembrances each of the guys tells about his past, it's necessary that the four Plaids are played by talented actors with excellent voices who are able to assay the various characteristic of each Plaid and harmonize perfectly together. The Palms production is exceptionally well cast, with good actors and singers who look naturally different from each other, which helps to instantly tell them apart.

The show is a complete ensemble piece with each guy also getting a chance or two to solo. Danny Karapetian as Sparky is the most comical, with his speech impediment occasionally flaring up, yet he also provides a touching solo on "Catch a Falling Star" and gets to show off his piano playing skills during "Heart and Soul." As Jinx, Nicolas Gallardo has the best voice of the quartet and his solo of "Cry" is a huge crowd pleaser. Matthew Chappell is charming as Smudge. While he worries a lot and most of his dance moves are opposite and backwards from the other guys, his solo on "16 Tons" is richly delivered. As Frankie, Will Leonard is the pseudo leader of the group and has a natural connection with the audience, delivering some lovely vocals.

There are many humorous and touching moments in the show. While the performance of "Lady of Spain" during a very prop heavy "Ed Sullivan Show" sequence is extremely funny, the sumptuous, a capella version of "Scotland the Brave" is appropriately heartfelt. These are just two of the many highlights of the show.

Tia Hawkes' costume designs include impeccably crisp tuxedos for the guys. Lighting Designer Russell A. Thompson provides some lush moments, including a lovely star-filled sky effect, and Brian Honsberger's sound design is perfectly clear. Music director Stephen Schermitzler and music supervisor Khris Dodge have derived beautiful harmonies from the Plaids as well as a rich, full sound from the small onstage band.

Featuring many familiar old songs from a simpler time, Forever Plaid is a fun show that oozes charm and charisma. With lush harmonies delivered by four very talented singers, and fun, inventive choreography and direction, The Palms Theatre production is a crowd pleaser.

The Palms Theatre production of Forever Plaid runs through November 22nd, 2014, at 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. Tickets and information for their upcoming productions can be found or by calling 480 924-6260

Photo: Mike Benedetto / The Palms Theatre

theatre review ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, Paradise Valley Community College, Oct 19

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Cameron Manning, Rosemary Dann and Skye Ayers
To give you an idea as to how popular the classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace is, this past weekend you could have seen three different productions of the play in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Joseph Kesselring's 1941 comedy features plenty of eccentric characters, an abundance of charm, and numerous humorous moments, so it's understandable why it's produced so often. While two of the productions are still playing, the Paradise Valley Community College production, which had a capable cast, a beautiful set design and solid direction, just ended its run.

Set in 1941 Brooklyn in the home of sisters Abby and Martha Brewster who have taken it upon themselves to help out their lonely, old gentlemen boarders by murdering them with a lethal concoction of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide. Their gentle but crazy nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Roosevelt, lives with them. Their other nephew Mortimer, who is a drama critic, has just asked his girlfriend Elaine to marry him when he discovers his aunts' latest victim stuffed in the window box. Mortimer's discovery sets the plot in motion as he attempts to figure a way out of his predicament. But it only gets worse. First, Mortimer finds out his aunts have killed other boarders and then his other brother, the not so sweet, homicidal killer Jonathan, shows up at the house with his accomplice Dr. Einstein with a dead body of their own to hide.

While Kesselring's play is a delightful period piece, there are silly situations, several simple and daft characters and things start to get a bit tired in the second act. The fun plot does have several twists and turns and an ending befitting of the eccentric characters.

Director Andrea Robertson assembled a capable cast comprised almost entirely of MCC students, with nearly all managing to portray these broad, peculiar characters with ease. Rosemary Dann and Skye Ayers made Abby and Martha loveable and sweet, just the type of aunts anyone couldn't help but love. While they were both effective, especially in the natural way they presented their activity of killing the older men in a perfect "matter of fact" way, Dann was exceptional, with her realistic line delivery and the abundance of charm she brought to the part. As Mortimer and Elaine, Cameron Manning and Rebekah Corbin made a fetching and genuine couple. Manning's shocked facial expressions when his aunts tell him about their mercy killings was perfectly comical as was his agility in raising one eyebrow in several key scenes for humorous effect. Corbin brought a nice sense of feistiness to her role and it was clearly believable that she and Manning were an item.

As Jonathon, Matthew Pulido used an appropriate deep booming voice and a maniacal, menacing laugh that always implied a sense of danger underneath. While Nathaniel Lutz was just about perfect as the confused Teddy, his lines were sometimes lost due to the many times he was upstage, a somewhat rushed delivery, and the unfortunate fact that none of the actors were mic'd. While the PVCC Theatre isn't that large, the use of microphones would have been appreciated as, while I was sitting fairly close to the stage, there were numerous lines I missed. With a thick German accent, comic mannerisms and an agile use of his body, AJ Farrimond was perfect as Dr. Einstein. Though I never really felt that he was truly evil, due to his sweet disposition, it was still a very effective portrayal. Also, Ric Alpers was a complete natural as the Police Lieutenant who shows up toward the end of the second act.

Robertson's direction was solid, allowing a nice balance between the funny and serious moments with neither getting completely out of hand, something that can be an issue with a black comedy. She also successfully staged the action across the expansive set, including an effective use of the staircase and landing at the back of the stage for Teddy's numerous exits and entrances. Robertson also changed the genders for a couple of characters, presumably in order for more female students to be featured in the show, and it worked seamlessly.

Creative elements were period perfect, including a spacious, realistic set design from Erik H. Reid that featured wood paneled walls, a large bay window and window seat, and the aforementioned staircase. Reid also supplied the lighting design, with vibrant elements in the nighttime scenes to portray the lights outside the house as well as those coming up from the basement when the basement door was opened. With the addition of 1940s furniture and accessories and Jessica Florez's character appropriate costumes, which included beautiful lace lined funeral clothes for the aunts, it was an inspired design combination.

With an adept cast, successful direction, and very good creative elements, Paradise Valley Community College's production of Arsenic and Old Lace did justice to this perennial chestnut. Sure, it's a silly show filled with funny characters and almost implausible situations, but when done right it instills the laughs with charm and warmth, which is just what the PVCC production achieved.

The Paradise Valley Community College production of Arsenic and Old Lace ran October 10th to the 19th, 2014 at the PVCC Center for the Performing Arts, 18401 North 32nd Street in Phoenix. Tickets and information for their upcoming productions can be found at or by calling (602) 787-7738

Photo: Tiffany Bolock

theatre review CAUGHT IN THE NET, Palms Theatre, Oct. 18

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.
Victor Legarreta (top) and
Erik Hogan

Adding to the inspired hilarity they created with their production of Run for Your Wife, which opened last week, The Palms Theatre just opened their production of Ray Cooney's sequel to that show, Caught in the Net. The sequel is just as effective as Cooney's other famous farce and The Palms' production has expert direction, perfectly timed comic performances, and an ending that is an inspired payoff to the craziness on stage.

Caught in the Net takes place fifteen years after Run for Your Wife. John Smith is still married to two women with two separate homes, and still keeping everything in order, thanks to a well-scheduled timetable that allows him equal time with both women. His latest problem? His two teenage children, one from each wife, have found each other online, and are making plans to meet up, a plan that could foil John's perfect situation. His double life is at the brink of spiraling once again out of control. With help from his lazy neighbor Stanley, John tells lies that pile up as the two attempt to keep the kids from meeting each other—with all out lunacy once again prevailing.

Director Victor Legarreta again shows his skill in not only directing the extremely well-timed cast members but in playing the part of John. His ability to portray John as a simple man whose not so simple life is a complete mess is perfect. In the second act he gets a chance to deliver John's elaborate plan to resolve everything, which he intensely relays with fast talking, comical precision. Legarreta's direction of the quick succession of fast moving interjections, door slams, and entrances is meticulous. The opening sequence, which involves both of John's wives and his two kids, is even more intricate than the opening scene in Run For Your Life, with the Palms cast in perfect sync as they deliver the fast-paced dialogue.

The seven-member cast consists of six of the Run for Your Wife actors plus Jessica Webb as John and Mary's daughter Vickie. Erik Hogan once again is hilarious as the slacker, unemployed Stanley, whose involvement in John's dilemma isn't always helpful. Shannon Connolly as Mary fortunately seems to have even more to do in the sequel, and her constant barking at Stanley and the looks of rage she throws are superb. Caitlin Newman brings so much charm to the part of Barbara that it helps balance Mary's anger and disappointment. Jesse Staubach and Mark Kleinman, who play the two policemen inRun for Your Wife, take different roles in the sequel. Staubach portrays Gavin, John and Barbara's son, and he instills a perfectly sweet nature to the part. Kleinman plays Stanley's mumbling, confused father with hilarious results. As the new addition to the cast, Webb, who is only a senior in college, holds her own with the more experienced actors. All seven employ crisp English accents beautifully.

Creative elements are the same as the earlier play, with set and props designer Thomas R. Prather's double living room set and Mary Atkinson's costumes period perfect with nicely detailed touches. Erik Hogan's sound design includes phone calls and door chimes delivered in perfectly timed precision from stage manager Cindy Farnsworth.

Full of flawless comic timing, many moments of physical humor, and an ending that ties everything up with a big grinning bow, The Palms' production of Caught in the Net is just as entertaining and charming as their production of Run for Your Wife. With a perfect cast and flawless direction, any fan of British farce can't go wrong with the double hit of these two very funny Ray Cooney comedies.

The Palms Theatre productions of Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife and Caught in the Net play in repertory through November 15th, 2014 at 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. Tickets and information for their upcoming productions can be found at or by calling 480 924-6260

Photo: Palms Theatre

theatre review RUMPELSTILTSKIN, Mesa Community College, Oct. 18

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here
Sam Richardson, Marissa Salazar and Janae Dunn

One of the more famous Brothers Grimm fairy tales that has yet to be turned into a Disney movie, Rumpelstiltskin has been adapted into an hour-long theatrical show that audience members of all ages can enjoy. The Mesa Community College production of the drama just ended its two-weekend run in a fine presentation with a talented cast of young actors and confident direction, with sumptuous creative elements including some beautiful costume designs. While the MCC production has ended its run, it will now tour through the Mesa school system, performing a dozen more times over the next month for hundreds of students.

Fleshed out somewhat from the original Grimm tale, playwright Linda Daugherty has crafted a fairly faithful adaptation with a few moments of humor to help liven up the prevalent darker themes. When Uta doesn't want to pay his taxes, he lies to the King and says that his daughter Alana can spin straw into gold. The King takes the girl, locks her away in a tower in his castle and tells her that if she doesn't turn the straw that he has brought her into gold he will kill her. Distraught, Alana doesn't know what to do until a strange little man appears and tells her that he can turn the straw into gold, but only if she gives him some of her precious items. With the King continually asking for Alana to repeat her gold spinning abilities, his son Marius falling in love with Alana, and the strange man becoming even more demanding, Alana doesn't know what to do.

Director Kevin Dressler has assembled a gifted cast, some of whom play double parts with the use of different voices to set the roles apart. The small cast is quite effective in portraying the characters, especially Janae Dunn as the strange little Rumpelstiltskin, bringing the right balance of menace, playfulness and mischief to the role. Marissa Salazar plays Alana with the appropriate layers of fear, desperation, and concern for her future. Sam Richardson as Marius has the requisite charm needed to play the warm Prince, which is a nice respite from Jared Kitch who portrays Marius' father the King as a man only looking out for himself. Leah Aumick and Lucia Williams provide humorous voices for the two roles they each play, with Aumick virtually unrecognizable as Arna, the older grandmother of Alana, compared to her later role, the bright and much younger Birdy whom Alana meets once she is taken to the King's castle. Williams efficiently provides much of the humor in the second half as the eavesdropping friend of Alana, Pigeon.

Dressler's direction balances the serious moments with humorous ones so it doesn't let the dramatic elements of the story get too intense. Creative elements are quite lush, especially Mallory Maria Prucha's costume designs which range from various layers of cloth for Rumpelstiltskin; torn, worn rags for Uta, Arna and Alana; and rich colorful designs for the King and Marius. The lighting design by Alan Moerdyk paints the varied moments, from the bright sunny ones to the more intimate, dramatic ones, with beautiful hues and the appropriate use of shadows. Shawn Smith's sound design incorporates some moody musical underscoring to flesh out the dramatic moments.

While aimed more for a younger audience, MCC's production of Rumpelstiltskin is a charming adaptation of the Grimm Brothers' tale. Under Dressler's solid direction, the young talented cast effectively brings the story to life in an enjoyable production with solid creative touches including some beautiful costumes. I'm sure the students in the Mesa schools will enjoy it as much as the audiences at the MCC Theatre did.

The Mesa Community College production of Rumpelstiltskin ran October 10th to the 18th, 2014, at the MCC Southern & Dobson Campus at 1833 W. Southern Avenue in Mesa. The play will tour 12 performances to eight different Mesa Public Schools elementary schools on Fridays during October and November as part of the Theatre & Film Arts Department's outreach program. Information for their upcoming productions of Mother HicksBeyond Therapy and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof can be found at

Photo: Mallory Maria Prucha

theatre review NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Theater Works, Oct. 17

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway click here.
Zane Reisert, Taylor Raine Updegraff, Lorraine Barker, Tommy Cimato and Disney Girkin 

George Romero's classic 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead may not have been the first to feature humans fending off a slew of zombies, but it definitely struck a chord in the terrified hearts of moviegoers. The first time I saw the film was in the late '70s when it was shown on a college campus in the town I lived in. The screams and fear that the film roused from the audience was intense. While Romero's film resulted in numerous successful imitations, including Romero's own sequels to the film and a couple of modern remakes, it is probably the hit TV show "The Walking Dead" that is keeping the zombie craze alive today. So, it's no surprise that Theater Works in Peoria's YouthWorks group is presenting the dramatized version of Romero's film for their October offering. While it lacks a bit of focus, it is a fun frolic with a few scary moments and a young cast that relishes bringing the tale to life.

Lori Allen Ohm's adaption is fairly faithful to the cult classic film, set in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1968. The story begins in a cemetery where Johnny and his sister Barbara are placing a wreath on their father's grave. Johnny jokes with his sister that the ghouls are "coming to get you" and before you know it, one does, though it gets Johnny and forces Barbara to flee to a nearby farmhouse to hide. There she discovers Ben, who is also hiding and quite good at killing zombies with his shotgun, as well as a family and young couple who are holed up in the basement. Together they successfully fight off several of the undead after boarding up the doors and windows of the house. They also find a radio and TV where we learn that a radioactive meteor has crashed nearby and the high radiation levels have reanimated the dead, bringing them to life, and they are now killing and feeding off the living. We know it's only a matter of time before the zombies will find a way in and our small group will be reduced in size.

The young cast are all having a lot of fun with their characters. As Ben, Taylor Raine Updegraff does a fine job of portraying basically the only sane person while everyone around him seems to either be in shock, going crazy, or on a power trip. The part of Barbara is a somewhat challenging role, as she has to sit quietly onstage for most of the play in shock over her brother's attack. Lorraine Barker's confused looks and vocal outbursts actively convey the blow that the experience caused Barbara. Zane Reisert is stern and straightforward as Harry Cooper, a man trying to protect his wife and daughter. Reisert achieves the appropriate sense of frustration as Harry doubts everyone and always has to be the one who is right. The rest of the ensemble cast do well in their parts as do the slew of zombies that pop up throughout, including several that get very close to the audience.

While director Layne Racowsky is to be commended for drawing serious portrayals from the actors, with only a couple going a little too far over the top, she unfortunately makes a couple of missteps with the staging. Presented as an almost immersive experience, with the action taking place in front, around, and even in the middle of the audience, there are a few moments, especially one that happens on the floor of the aisle in the middle of the large seating area, that some audience members may completely miss. I blame most of this confusion on the decision to have so many zombies throughout the entire play, even during some of the important dialogue scenes, which pulls us away and makes it unclear as to where we should focus our attention. We never get the sense, as in the film, that there is at first just a handful of zombies outside the house that continues to grow and grow to dozens. That shock and realization that the zombies aren't going away is virtually lost.

However, Racowsky is successful in staging the quiet moments in the house with Barbara and Ben as well as the confrontations Ben has with Harry. She is also effective in using various areas of the auditorium to stage the numerous TV broadcasts, especially when partnered with Mollie Flanagan's perfect lighting design that instinctively instructs us where to look. Also, there are several moments of humor and Racowsky and her cast do a fine job in making them pop. In one scene, a TV news reporter asks the County Sheriff (Isle Reisert) if the zombies are slow moving. "Yeah," the sheriff replies, with perfect deadpan delivery, "they're dead." Racowsky also incorporates a funny curtain call with the actors still in character.

Set designer Brett Aiken's whitewashed monochromatic set is beautiful and, while it is fairly minimal, it ties perfectly into the black and white film. Flanagan's lighting is superb, especially when combined with Marcus Myler's sound design. Together they create vivid imagery of explosions and fires outside of the house. Myler's use of the sound of a heart beating and dripping water in the cellar scenes is also quite effective. Make-up designer DeAndrea Vaughn does a masterful job creating zombies in various shades of decay, with plenty of gore and blood on their faces, appendages and clothing. Kathi Miller and Brenda Moulder's monotone costume designs work well with the black and white set, with just a few pieces of clothing that have color in them.

Compared to the film, there is minimal gore in the play, so it works well for younger audience members who might not be quite ready to experience the film. While Theater Works' production ofNight of the Living Dead could be scarier and spookier with a little more clarity, it still amounts to a fun, frivolous campy time with chills and a few laughs, a capable teenage cast, and highly inventive creative elements.

Night of the Living Dead runs through November 2nd, 2014, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 815-7930

Photo: Moran Imaging / Theater Works

theatre review KING JOHN, Southwest Shakespeare Company, Oct. 16

Liam Thibeault and Maren Maclean

William Shakespeare is continually at the top of the list of the most produced playwrights across the U.S. every season. So when Southwest Shakespeare Producing Artistic Director Jared Sakren jokingly states that their current production of Shakespeare's King John is the Arizona premiere of the play, 400 years after it was written, it comes as a bit of a shock. But since the obscure King John is one of the Bard's least produced plays, it is understandable—the last time the play was on Broadway was almost 100 years ago. While it is one of his lesser known plays it is still a well formed historical drama. Southwest Shakespeare's production has a more than capable cast and expert direction that turn this historical battle for the throne into a high energy political power struggle.

Richard the Lionheart is dead, so his younger brother John becomes King. However, there is a rival to the throne—Arthur, the young son of John's older dead brother Geoffrey. When John gets word that King Philip of France supports Arthur's claim, and that he is sheltering the boy, the plot is set in motion: Two families, two countries, and two Kings are pitted against each other in a battle for the throne.

Southwest Shakespeare has been advertising the play as the "original 'Game of Thrones.'" While there aren't any flying dragons in Shakespeare's tragedy there is plenty of intrigue, sword fights, deaths, and domineering mothers, just like the hit TV show and book series. And there is one very large throne as well. However, in the end, King John, while very entertaining, is more in line with other historical Shakespeare dramas and not the sex charged, blood soaked, pop-culture sci-fi hit.
Director Sakren has assembled a fine cast to take on the historical roles. Beau Heckman delivers a skilled portrayal of the King who is doing everything possible to defend the legitimacy of his throne. As Richard's illegitimate son Phillip, Ross Hellwig is quite good. His narration to the audience is wittily delivered, and while he proficiently gets across Phillip's mischievous side, he is just as good in showing the character's persistence and honorable devotion to John.

Maren Maclean delivers a powerhouse of emotions in her portrayal of Arthur's mother Constance. Her outbursts show her capable range and intensity, and the pained anguish she instills in Constance once her son is captured is superb. As Hubert, the person John assigns to look after Arthur, Jesse James Kamps is terrific; he intuitively shows Hubert's dilemma when forced to do John's dirty work. Clay Sanderson is less successful as King Philip. While he manages to get across the part of a leader, his stiff delivery of the lines is somewhat at odds with Heckman's more well-rounded, intense portrayal of how we think a King should behave.

As, I believe, the two youngest cast members, Liam Thibeault and Hayden Skaggs expertly navigate their way around Shakespeare's lyrical prose with ease. Their youthful exuberance brings moments that are touching and exciting, with Thibeault's portrayal of Arthur particularly impressive.
Sakren's direction is clean and clear, with most of the action happening toward the lip of the stage, which adds to the immediacy and clarity. He also cleverly uses the various entrances into the theatre for his cast to move about, and the second level balcony in the auditorium for one humorous scene, which adds to the dramatic and theatrical feel of the production. Sakren also partners well with fight choreographer David Barker in staging some very realistic and high intensity battle sequences.

While the creative elements are fairly lean, especially the minimal set design by Eric Beeck, they are still quite effective. With the exception of one set element used for a fairly short scene, the only main set piece is a superb, giant throne, which ties in perfectly to the thrust of the plot. Lighting designer Daniel Davisson has crafted some lush stage shots with a lighting plot that follows the action and perfectly directs the audience's focus to the important parts of the stage where the action is unfolding. His use of darkness and shadows for the battle and more dramatic scenes is quite effective. Costume designer Maci Hosler has crafted a series of beautiful and elaborate dresses and tunics from plush velvet, luxurious brocade, and varied patterns and fabrics. They are exquisite. Joshua Martin provides a lush dramatic musical underscore and various sound effects including superb ones for the battle scenes.

Shakespeare's King John is a realistic, intriguing portrayal of a man jockeying for the throne and doing everything in his power to hold on to it. While it's one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, with no famous "quotable" lines, it does have meaty parts, an understandable story, and is a swift production—running just two hours with intermission. With an almost perfect cast, impressive direction, and fighting scenes that are fast and furious, Southwest Shakespeare's production is not only recommended for Shakespeare fans and Shakespeare completists, but for those who enjoy historical dramas and suspense and yes, even "Game of Thrones" fans.

King John runs through October 25th, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 535-1202

Photo: Mark Gluckman/ Southwest Shakespeare Company

theatre review NARNIA - Valley Youth Theatre, October 12

Owen Watson and Sarah Pansing
Like many other famous works of literature, C.S. Lewis' classic children's book series "The Chronicles of Narnia" has been adapted into just about every form of entertainment possible. Valley Youth Theatre is presenting a full-length musical version of the first book in the series, called Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with a talented group of child actors and singers, excellent costumes, and skilled direction that effectively guides the large young cast in delivering the themes and messages of Lewis' novel of courage, faith and the triumph of good over evil.

The story begins as four children are sent to an English countryside mansion to avoid the Nazi bombing of London during World War II. The youngest of the children, Lucy, finds a wardrobe in the house that is a secret passageway into a magical world called Narnia. There she encounters many talking creatures and animals as well as the evil White Witch who is determined to put an end to Aslan, the lion, who is the reigning King of Narnia. Lucy convinces her siblings to journey to Narnia with her, and together they help Aslan in his battle against the evil Witch.

Only slightly abridged from Lewis' novel, this adaptation was written by Jules Tasca with music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman. The book is fairly faithful, touching upon all of the major moments in the novel and, while the musical score isn't entirely memorable, it does feature several impressive numbers including one in the second act, "Deep Magic," that is a knock-out.

Director Bobb Cooper has found a talented cast more than capable of portraying the multiple characters in the story. Makenna Jacobs, Alex Kirby, Andy Wissink and Owen Watson bring to life the wonder that the four children (Lucy, Susan, Peter and Edmund) discover once they enter Narnia, with Watson especially effective as the at first sour-faced Edmund who finds himself relishing the promise of power and the title of Prince he may achieve as he falls under the spell of the White Witch. All four are featured in several songs and possess pleasing voices, with Watson delivering some rich vocals in his numbers.

As the leaders of good and evil, Sarah Pansing is effective as the White Witch, with an appropriate sense of strength and wickedness beneath her charming exterior, though she isn't as devilishly evil as she could be, which actually works for a show with so many young children in the audience. Pansing is a powerhouse singer, providing her numbers with rich, strong vocals from the jazzy "Hot and Bothered" to the showstopping "Deep Magic" which she shares with the entire cast. Pansing is giving a most impressive performance and has a great future ahead of her. Brandon Reyes' portrayal of Aslan is appropriately graceful and gentle, though the adaptation doesn't really give him a chance to show the strength that Aslan has. Reyes also does quite well in showing Aslan's sweet, caring side in several scenes and songs including the moving act one ender "Cair Paravel" and his duet with Edmund, "From the Inside Out."

In the supporting cast, Sam Primack and Noa Gauthier are hilarious as the constantly bickering Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Their Cockney accents a humorous addition to the characters, Primack and Gauthier are natural comedians and I expect seeing them both in many professional shows in years to come. Billy Deihl and Vincent Pugliese round out the major parts, both achieving effective moments as the Professor/Father Christmas and Tumnus, the faun that Lucy meets in Narnia, respectively. Hep Witzel gets several solo moments to show off his impressive ballet skills as the White Stag.

Director Cooper is to be praised for not only effectively balancing the dramatic and comedic moments without letting the serious ones get too intense, but also in bringing out such accurate and realistic performances from his young cast. The fact they have all developed consistent English accents that they retain throughout the entire show is impressive. Choreographer Christine Merrow provides varied steps for the numerous music styles and does wonderful work in the larger numbers that require practically the entire cast to be on stage dancing. Music director Mark Fearey draws fine vocals from the actors and conductor Alexander Tom is skilled at achieving a full sound from the small orchestra and in directing the youngest, least experienced members to navigate through the songs seamlessly.

Creative touches are well done, especially Karol Cooper's elaborate costume designs that include a sleek lace gown for the White Witch and a rich coat with fur-lined lapels for Aslan, as well as a never ending stream of elaborate costumes for the numerous Narnia inhabitants. The make-up and wig designs are superb, with almost the entire cast's faces painted with clever effects, including humorous painted whiskers and teeth on the Beavers' faces, and ornate wigs that are quite impressive, particularly the one to depict Aslan's elaborate mane. While Dori Brown's set design is fairly basic, with just a simple set for the short scenes in the English mansion and a set of risers upstage for the Narnia sequence, her series of tree flats that seamlessly transform from winter to spring with just the inconspicuous change of Daniel Davisson's lighting design is terrific. Davisson also adds many evocative moments, especially to the numerous dramatic scenes.

Faithfully recreating the magical and mysterious land of Narnia with a vastly talented cast of young performers, Valley Youth Theatre's production of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is moving and imaginative while also being an inspiring and faithful adaptation of Lewis' original novel. A number of the talented actors and singers in the cast have bright futures ahead of them.

Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at Valley Youth Theatre runs through October 26th, 2014. The theatre is located at 525 North First Street in downtown Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at or by calling 602 253-8188.

Photo: Barry Smith

theatre review VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, Arizona Theatre Company, Oct. 11

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Suzanne Bouchard and Suzanne Warmanen

After I saw the world premiere of Christopher Durang's latest playVanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, two years ago, I commented that it was such a successful comedy it was destined to have a healthy life in regional theatres. Not only did it win the Tony last year for Best Play but it was recently announced that it is the most produced non-Shakespearean play across the country this season. Durang's comedy is centered around a trio of middle-aged siblings dealing with the shortcomings of their lives, and the play is receiving a superb production from the Arizona Theatre Company that opens their 2014 season with a well-honed ensemble cast, a fantastic set design and sure footed direction. This is the Arizona premiere of the show and also a co-production with the Guthrie Theatre where this production ran earlier in the summer.

For this play, Durang has borrowed liberally from the plots of various Chekhov plays. But, by putting the plots of those plays into a pot, stirring with a spoon and setting on simmer, he has come up with a humorous takeoff on them, crafting a well written comedy that is set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Vanya, Sonia and Masha are siblings whose parents were so literally inclined that they named their three children after characters in Chekhov's plays.

Masha, a successful movie actress, is always working, so she left her two siblings behind at the house they all grew up in to care for their aging parents. The parents are now both gone and Masha has returned home to show off her new boy toy Spike, attend a costume party, and drop some bad news about that house they're all connected to. While Masha was away working and making enough money to pay for the upkeep of the house and the expenses required to care for her parents, Vanya and Sonia feel they have been left behind and are trapped; they are angry at Masha for the exciting life she has led while they've had no lives at all. It is an interesting view of two sides of an issue that many have to deal with, the care of aging parents and the toll it takes on those involved, and how it can pit siblings against each other. The themes in the play—sibling relationships, the selling off of the family house, wasted lives and even a play within a play all—are drawn from Chekhov's plays including The SeagullThree Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. But of course this is a comedy, not a Chekhovian drama, so Durang wrings every possible comic bit out of these situations, including lines like "if everyone took antidepressants Chekov wouldn't have anything to write about," that not only get huge laughs but connect the characters and plot with the works of Chekov.

Suzanne Warmanen pretty much gets the best material of the three siblings as Sonia, the sister who comments on her life by saying "nothing ever changes." It's the best written part with a wide range of emotional outbursts and well-written comic lines. Warmanen expertly plays both sides of the role with several stand-out moments, from her impeccable and insanely comical impression of Maggie Smith to her heartbreaking delivery of a phone call Sonia receives in the second act. It's an award-worthy performance. Suzanne Bouchard has the difficult task of being the antagonist of the piece as sister Masha, yet her ability to make Masha not only look like an ass but one that we also root for says a lot about Bouchard's skill as an actress and her trust and faith in the material. Like Warmanen, Bouchard adds a grounded touch of realism to the part, with both women making us believe the characters they are playing are soul searching and naturally coming up with answers about their lives and the decisions they now need to make.

The part of Vanya is more the subdued observer, at least for the first half of the play. Charles Janasz instills a perfect sense of the onlooker who tries to mediate the insanity around him. Vanya also gets a comical monologue that is triggered by Spike's texting at an inappropriate time that is proficiently delivered by Janasz.

Also in the cast are Joshua James Campbell as Spike, who brings a nice combination of youth, foolishness, and sex appeal, hitting all the right notes of the part; Ali Rose Dachis as the young woman who lives next door, giving the character an appropriate ethereal quality; and Isabell Monk O'Connor as the cleaning lady, who at first seems more of a throwaway part, but turns out to be very connected to the actions of the play. I especially like how Dachis delivers the sweet running gag where she says that Vanya reminds her of her uncle so she will call him "Uncle Vanya" as well as O'Connor's premonition outbursts and her hilarious use of a voodoo doll. Those humorous bits are just icing on this comical cake.

Director Joel Sass clearly knows how to bring both the humorous and serious moments to life as well as how to stage the action across the expansive set to make it both intimate as well as not too claustrophobic. With a cast delivering on all cylinders with ease, Sass must also be commended for bringing the right balance between the comedic and dramatic moments to allow both to have resonance.

Production elements are top notch, including an amazing stone-walled house set design by Todd Rosenthal and character perfect costumes by Ilona Somogyi, with very colorful ones for the costume party they attend. Note that Vanya wears mismatched socks to show his somewhat rumpled character. Lighting designer Barry Browning paints the scenes beautifully—from the bright, sunny morning to the twilight of evening with stars in the sky.

While Durang has had some successes in the past, like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, he's also had his share of misfires, such as Sex and Longing, or plays that while somewhat successful were very much on the odd side like The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and don't get produced a lot. While Vanya and Sonia... manages to be a modern tale with likable, though still somewhat odd characters, thus completely in line with Durang's other works, it also has a huge heart at its center—and that, along with the playwright's smart dialogue, makes it a warm, comical gem. Durang has crafted his most accessible play, and this production is just as funny as it was at the McCarter and in New York. The Arizona Theatre Company production is a sure-fire comic hit.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Arizona Theatre Company runs through October 26th, 2014, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased or by calling (602) 256 – 6995

Photo by Jeff Smith