Monday, April 27, 2015

theatre review - THE TOMKAT PROJECT - Stray Cat Theatre - April 24, 2015

Brady Weber, Chris Mascarelli, Brandi Bigley,
Chanel Bragg and Tim Shawver
(photo: John Groseclose)

"The Tomkat Project follows the crazy courtship, marriage, and divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. While not everything about Tomkat is successful, it is a humorous play, with several laugh out loud moments, and Stray Cat has assembled a small and very talented cast who play the dozens of characters involved in the Cruise and Holmes story with chameleon like grace. Playwright Brandon Ogborn has crafted an interesting comedy that follows the relationship from its strange beginning to its even stranger end, the media obsession, and the parade of crazy characters who were involved. He also includes the many bizarre situations and interviews that happened during that time and his play has a nice payoff in the second act.  Ogborn wrote the play based on facts, rumors, theories, lies, "and, when appropriate, Wikipedia." Ogborn is also a character in the play, serving as the narrator, and his play lays out the many mysteries surrounding the Cruise/Holmes relationship, the potential role that Scientology played in it, and the erratic behavior that Cruise exhibited during their time together. While the majority of the play is made up, there are many actual conversations reenacted when a sign is held up that reads: "This dialogue is verbatim." These parts include the many notorious interviews that happened throughout the TomKat craze. We relive Cruise's disastrous press interviews, including his TV interview with Matt Lauer where he debates Brooke Shields' use of drugs for post-partum depression and calls Lauer "glib." The infamous couch jumping interview with Oprah Winfrey, where he professes his love for Katie, is a comical highlight. Each of these reenactments are hilarious and cringe worthy, knowing that the idiocy we are seeing actually happened.  And while the first act is humorous, Ogborn turns the tables in act two with the appearance of Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth who wrote a scathing article on Michael Jackson as well as one painting Holmes as the victim in her relationship with Cruise. Ogborn ponders the question: what if Katie Holmes is the villain in the story? Was she the one being used or the opportunist out to further her career? Was Cruise simply naïve and being manipulated by The Church of Scientology to further the Church's best interests? This twist, and the debates Ogborn has with Orth, and replays of scenes we've already witnessed but now with the victim roles reversed, elevate the play into a thought-provoking commentary and a cautionary tale about not believing everything we read and about just how far from the truth celebrity gossip might be. However, while there are many funny parts, Ogborn doesn't quite write as comical as he could, with some of the set-ups for the wackier moments not having as funny as a payoff as they should.  Director Louis Farber stages the proceedings with a fast pace and a cast of seven who are exceptional. Chris Mascarelli has a fairly good handle on Cruise's famous mannerisms and way of speaking, and actually makes you feel sorry for him. Brandi Bigley has Holmes' signature mannerisms down pat, from her constant need to touch and often move her hair to how she sometimes talks out of the side of her mouth in a somewhat quiet way. The rest of the cast vividly play dozens of characters. David Chorley is brilliant as the conniving, manipulative Scientology front man David Miscavige. Tim Shawver is just as good as Katie's confused dad, who is determined to get her away from Cruise. Kellie Dunlap morphs with a refined ease between Katie's mom and the relentless Orth. Chanel Bragg is a hoot as Oprah...and has a blast as Cruise's male lawyer. The TomKat Project ponders many "what if?" questions in our wacky world of celebrity fascination. Ogborn's play may not answer the many questions that are raised into the TomKat relationship, and could be funnier than it is, but it is an interesting study and an exposé of how the media can both help and destroy a celebrity. The ending is comically sweet, with the audio from an actual conversation between Winfrey and Cruise played out over the speakers in the theatre, in which Winfrey states "This is unbelievable," and Cruise responds, "I know, I know." While Winfrey is speaking about the view from Cruise's Colorado home it could just as easily apply to the entire TomKat history and Ogborn's in-depth, well-researched analysis of it and Stray Cat's crackerjack cast." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

theatre review - PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES - The Palms Theatre - April 23, 2015

the cast of Pump Boys and Dinettes
(photo: Mike Benedetto)
"Set in a small town in North Carolina, Pump Boys and Dinettes is a fun-filled show with a folksy charm set against a backdrop of country, pop, and gospel tunes. While there is little to the plot or story, it takes you back to a simpler time and the laid-back ways of the South where the talk centers on dating, drinking, fishing and the local shopping mall. Currently at The Palms Theatre, there is also plenty of toe-tapping and hand-clapping songs, and an energetic cast led by the stellar voiced Rob Watson.  The musical tells the story of the men who work at a gas station and auto body shop on a quiet spot on Highway 57 and the two sisters who run the diner on the other side of the highway. The energetic songs tell about the characters' experiences, romantic encounters, their love of fishing and their grandma, work and the need to get away for a vacation. It is a slice of life show, with minimal plot, but full of charm and funny jokes and characters. The added impact of all five of the male actors being very capable musicians elevates the musical into much more than just the sum of its parts.  Director David Simmons is an actor and musician so he understands the demands of being able to effectively do both at the same time, and he has assembled a very talented cast, including many Palms regulars. Rob Watson is Jim, the main narrator of the show, and his excellent voice is used to great effect throughout, especially on the a capella "Fisherman's Prayer." Jim is part owner of the Pump Boys gas station, and Watson brings a keen sense of the easygoing, laid-back lifestyle to his performance. Danny Karapetian is L. M., Jim's partner in the shop, and the two portray a realistic working relationship of friends who constantly joke with each other. Karapetian plays the piano well and sweetly sings a couple of the show's ballads, including the one hit song that came out of this show, "The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine." Jim's fishing buddy Jackson is played by John Thomas Hays who is a skilled guitarist and vocalist. His solo of "Mona" is a highlight. The spunky, eager, and always ready to please Prudie Cupp and her sister Rhetta Cupp, who serve up homemade pies at their Double Cupp Diner, are played by Caitlin Newman and Kira Galindo. These two actresses have an abundance of sass and exceptionally strong voices that really makes their songs and interactions with the "boys" and the audience pop. Sure, Pump Boys and Dinettes is hokey, and a show that some people who like more traditional musicals might not quite enjoy, but it is also a fun show with songs and a setting that are nostalgic. Part musical theatre, part country-rock concert, the Palms Production has an enthusiastic cast who are also gifted musicians. While it is a short show, running just over 90 minutes, it is energetic, full of down to earth characters and down-home fun." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 16th

Friday, April 24, 2015

theatre review - BUYER & CELLAR - Phoenix Theatre - April 22, 2015

Toby Yatso
(Photo: Erin Evangeline Photography)
"Jonathan Tolins' one man play Buyer & Cellar takes a brief passage in a design book written by megastar Barbra Streisand and turns them into a humorous and touching 100 minutes of pure joy. The play had a healthy Off-Broadway run, and Phoenix Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the comedy in a tightly directed production with a spirited performance by Toby Yatso.  The book Streisand wrote is called "My Passion for Design," which goes into elaborate detail about the making of her palatial Malibu estate. Buried in the middle of the book is a mention of the "shopping mall" she had built in the basement of her barn to house her vast collection of collectibles. Tolins used those few sentences as a springboard to fabricate the tale of struggling, out of work actor Alex More who ends up getting a job managing the series of stores.  At first Alex is unsure of what to do in his new job, so he patiently cleans and organizes the items, waiting for Streisand to show up to look at her belongings. When she finally makes her way down into the basement, and after looking around for a few minutes at the many items she has collected throughout her life, she comments to More, "you have nice things." The look that More gives her and the laughs that come from the audience make you realize two things. First, that Tolins has found a perfect tale to portray the eccentricities of a celebrity like Streisand, but one that also shows her vulnerability, loneliness and insecurities. And second, that Yatso's skilled acting abilities are a perfect match for the six characters in the play, with each role receiving a refined sense of individuality.  Tolins has written fully fleshed out characters of both More and Streisand that dive well below the superficial level of their shared interest of her "belongings" and into the past and present of each character. His dialogue is direct and clear and concise, especially what he has written for Streisand to say. He is able to take the public knowledge of her and create an evening that is both funny and emotional. Tolins has many plot points build throughout the play and there is also a bit about a throw pillow that has a nice pay off as well as a hilarious sequence involving a coupon.  Yatso is More but he also plays all the other characters, including his boyfriend, Streisand's housekeeper, and Streisand herself. Every one of these characters gets their own personal voice, style, and mannerisms and Yatso is completely natural in the way that he easily navigates between them, especially in the numerous conversations they have with each other. Yatso's channeling of Streisand is more than just a simple impression or imitation. While his take on Barbra may border a bit too close to the line of caricature, especially with his overly thick Brooklyn accent, he still manages a lot with just a simple facial expression, a dramatic pause between sentences, the specific pronunciation of a word, and his continually moving hand that sweeps Streisand's imaginary long hair off his forehead with Barbra's infamous long fingernails. In doing so, he fully embodies her and at the end of the evening it feels like she was there on stage and we got a glimpse into the mind of this mega celebrity.  Director Ron May does an exceptional job of not only getting such an amazing performance out of Yatso, but also in his ability to stage the entire play on a set with just a few chairs and a table to portray multiple locations. The only downside is that there are numerous and slightly lengthy musical interludes between a few scenes that stop the momentum of the play. Buyer & Cellar is a touching yet rollicking good time with an amazing performance by Yatso at the center. While it may run about five or 10 minutes too long, with a few similar situations repeated to get the point across that really don't have to be, it is still effective. It doesn't mock or ridicule Streisand, but instead paints her as an extremely wealthy, yet somewhat lonely person who just happens to have a lot of stuff that she wants to have on display to see. If you think of all of the things you might own that are packed up in boxes in your basement, it does seem much more logical to have them on display, even if that means you have to build a mall in your basement like Streisand did." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)