Friday, May 6, 2016

theatre review - PICNIC - Mesa Community College - April 29

Cedar Eileen Cody, Dolores Mendoza, Brandon Caraco, Samantha Hanna, and Andrew Blahak
Photo by Tom J. McCoy / Mesa Community College

"William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning play Picnic centers on several life-changing events over a 24 hour period in 1950s Kansas. Clear casting and specific direction of this classic drama are crucial to ensure that the somewhat nostalgic situations in the play are handled expertly and that the turn of events don't come across as too melodramatic for a 21st century audience. The good news for Mesa Community College's recent production, which just ended this past weekend, is that the casting, especially of the three main females who are all strong-willed women determined to make it on their own, couldn't have been better and the solid direction kept things centered and specific to the period.
...While it may seem like not much really happens during the majority of the play, except for the arrival of Hal and the growing attraction between him and Madge and how that plays out, there is actually a lot that happens in this 24 hour period. Almost all of the characters go through major changes over the course of this one single day, which is a major compliment both to Inge and his ability to not only write complex characters and to Kevin Dressler's casting and succinct direction, as all of the actors delivered rich portrayals with their characters growing and naturally ending up in a different place then when they began. Flo, Rosemary, and Helen are all strong and dominant women, forced it seems into taking on these typical male characteristics of the 1950s since all three of them don't have husbands to shoulder the burdens of raising children or dealing with the daily chores that were generally set aside for the man of the house to handle. As those three women, Cedar Eileen Cody, Samantha Hanna, and Dolores Mendoza were nothing short of spectacular. ..Sean Peteet's muscular physique and stamina worked well for the part of Hal and, even though this was his first stage role, Peteet exhibited the right amount of confidence within the desperation of Hal's predicament. Kaidi Phillips and Gina Hoyt were winning as Flo's daughters Madge and Millie. ..
Technical credits were sublime for the production, with a lovely set design by Kara E. Thompson full of realistic touches...While Picnic is set in the time period that it first appeared on Broadway, seeing it today brings an added nostalgic element by viewing the way people lived sixty years ago but also having a clearer understanding of what obstacles they faced. It also centers on normal, simple characters in a more simple time. These are the kinds of people who go about their normal daily activities and get excited about a new dress or the Labor Day picnic. Since Inge's characters are much like the average theatregoer, the characters and events of the play are still relatable even though sixty years have passed. With such a wonderful cast and lovely technical designs, MCC's production of Picnic was a rewarding journey to the past."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

theatre review - PETE, OR THE RETURN OF PETER PAN - Childsplay - April 30, 2016

Alan Khoutakoun, Gavin Austin Brown, and Rebecca Duckworth
photo: Tim Tumble
Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 22nd.

""Peter Pan," J. M. Barrie's story of the boy who wouldn't grow up, seems to never go out of fashion. ...Childsplay presents the world premiere of Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan, a modern day sequel to Barrie's tale written by Dwayne Hartford, in a production full of heart, humor, and high flying adventure. With cell phones, words like "cool" and "awesome," karate, and, most importantly, female characters that are just as strong as the male roles in the show, Hartford's adventure brings a fresh, modern sensibility to Barrie's story. Wendy and Henry are the great, great grandchildren of the original Wendy from "Peter Pan."...When she opens up a box sends up a beacon to the sky that brings Peter Pan from Neverland to Wendy's side. ...Wendy butts heads with the somewhat conceited Peter but still finds the adventure that she desires. But is Neverland the solution that Wendy seeks to escape from her controlling mother, or just a temporary stop on the journey to learn some valuable life lessons? Hartford creates identifiable characters and situations that will resonate with any parent or child. His continual use of humor keeps the show light. But there are also plenty of well-choreographed fight sequences (by David Barker) that incorporate the entire cast and bring athletic and comic-infused adventure to the show. While Hartford wisely keeps any hint of schmaltz out of the show, don't be surprised if you find yourself a little misty eyed like I was during the play's moving and heartfelt final scenes. The only downsides to the production are small, but a cast of only eight does make Neverland seem a little desolate and, while the end result is a fun and even moving adventure, there could be a little tightening of the script to speed up some of the action in the two hour running time....Director David Saar elicits wonderful performances from the cast and effectively uses Carey Wong's inventive, scaffolding-style, two-tiered scenic design to create plenty of inventive playing areas. ...Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan is a fun-filled adventure that wisely updates Barrie's famous story to modern times while also giving an equal balance to the female characters. The days of Wendy playing "mother" and tending to the lost boys' house while Peter and the boys are off on an adventure are long gone. While it could be tightened up a bit, with a gifted cast, clear direction, and fun creative elements, children of all ages will most likely jump at the chance to join Peter and Wendy on their fun filled adventure."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

theatre review - URINETOWN - Tuscany Theatre Company - April 21, 2016

Lauren Scoville and Adam Bei
Photo by Lisa Webb / Southwest Shots Photography

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 30th.

 "... Urinetown is a musical that is a crowd pleaser...nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three, including awards for the very funny book by Greg Kotis and the witty score with music by Mark Hollmann and lyrics by Hollmann and Kotis. Tuscany Theatre Company's production of this satirical comedy is well directed with simple yet vibrant creative elements and a cast who know how to correctly wink at the audience as they dive headfirst into the material to ensure that the satire lands effectively, while also instilling their characters with plenty of warmth. The musical is set in the not too distant future. Water has become so scarce that private bathrooms have been banned, doing your business in the street or even behind a tree faces severe consequences,; and a corporation has been put in charge of a series of pay toilets scattered across the land ...Kotis also instills a playful parody of famous musicals and musical conventions into the proceedings while also shedding light on such serious topics as greed, capitalism, and even ecological disaster. Hollmann's music is ever changing, with brisk, upbeat numbers, charming romantic ballads, and a rousing gospel tune; and the lyrics are continually witty and colorful. ...Director Andrea McFeely knows exactly how to guide her cast to deliver the satire, romance, and self-mocking tones of the piece, and they do so, for the most part, perfectly. As Bobby and Hope, Adam Bei and Lauren Scoville are simply adorable. Scoville's sweet nature and Bei's determination make them a realistic couple with a shared purpose. /.. Harold LeBoyer is OK as Hope's father. I just wish he were a little more strong and forceful to project a sense of menace and darkness in the role....While most of the ensemble work well there are a couple of actors who cross the line from satire into overacting and McFeely would be wise to pull them in line in order to not draw attention away from the intended focus of a few scenes. Karli Giles Kemper's assured music direction delivers lovely vocals throughout, including some tight harmonies from the ensemble during the rousing "Run, Freedom, Run!." Shannon Perkins's choreography is excellent...Urinetown is an extremely clever musical with an ever-changing plot, interesting characters, and some very catchy musical numbers. While it may not appeal to everyone, since it is dark and satirical, it is very creative and ultimately an extremely appealing show. Tuscany Theatre's production has very good leads and a strong supporting cast that, when combined with spot on direction and choreography, make for a very solid production."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - BRING IT ON - Spotlight Youth Theatre - April 23, 2016

Phoebe Koyabe, Katie Czajkowski, Carly Grossman, Maggie Waller, Sam Primack,
Trey DeGroodt, Clay Rollon, and Brandon Reyes
Photo by Alayne Vogel

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 8th.

" is refreshing that the recent musical Bring It On takes little more than the name and theme of the 2000 cheerleading movie it comes from. With a completely new plot and characters, the musical is an exuberant evening of comedy, music, dance, and energetic cheerleading acrobatics. Spotlight Youth Theatre presents the Phoenix regional premiere of the show in a high energy production with superb direction and featuring an excellent cast of teenagers. The plot follows high school senior Campbell, the perky, driven cheerleading team captain of the Truman High School squad. When she is redistricted to Jackson High, which is over in the "hood," she goes from being the top of the pack to the outcast who has lost her main goal. Not only does she not quite fit in but Jackson doesn't have a cheerleading team. ...Jeff Whitty's witty script does coast a little in the beginning until Campbell gets to Jackson High, where it really takes off, but it also doesn't always go where you think it will go, which is refreshing. ...With a score by three different composers you might think that the music wouldn't quite gel, but it does, with many effective numbers including rousing ensemble numbers and soaring ballads with music styles that range from traditional musical theatre to R&B, hip hop, and even a little rap....Carly Grossman plays Campbell with the appropriate amount of high energy as well as fear for her new surroundings...Grossman also has realistic acting skills to pull off the loneliness and confusion of suddenly being an outsider along with superb vocal skills to also effectively sing about that experience. As Danielle, the leader of the "crew" at the new school whom Campbell attempts to befriend, Phoebe Koyabe has the perfect blend of sass and "you think you're better than me but you aren't" attitude but also displays a compassionate side as well. ...At just 15, Koyabe's soaring vocal abilities are exceptional. Grossman and Koyabe also instill their parts with a clear sense of vulnerability beneath self-assured exteriors. Maggie Waller is Bridget, who also gets redistricted along with Campbell. ..Waller is a comic gem in the part...Trey DeGroodt is exceptional as La Cienega, one of Danielle's crew. I absolutely love how this character, who is clearly either transgendered or simply a gay man who prefers to wear drag, requires no explanation, back story, or heartbreaking revelation and is completely accepted by the Jackson students, no excuses required. DeGroodt's portrayal is cliché-free and full of substance and style, from his line delivery to the way he walks, sings, and dances....Director Kenny Grossman draws superb, honest performances from his cast with everyone delivering realistic, caricature free portrayals....Choreographer Lynzee Foreman seamlessly weaves together the cheerleading sequences into the story...The only downside in the dancing is due to the low Spotlight ceiling which doesn't allow for any high flips and pyramids (which were a huge highlight when I saw the show on Broadway) to be incorporated into the cheer sequences....With an exceptional cast, sure-footed direction, and vibrant choreography, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production is a fun filled, high energy, high flying time that does full justice to this story about self-esteem, true friendship, and acceptance."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

theatre review - THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART - National Theatre of Scotland - Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts - April 22, 2016

Jessica Hardwick
Photo by Peter Dibdin
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 24th.

The National Theatre of Scotland's ...original play The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has come to Scottsdale for a week long run, and what an exciting and immersive theatrical experience it is. ..the plot follows young academia Prudencia Hart who has come to the small town of Kelso, on the Scottish Borders, to attend a conference. It is a snowy, cold, wintry night and when she finds her car snowed in she sets off to find a place to stay for the night. Little does she know what is waiting for her at the very hellish bed and breakfast that she's booked for the evening. ...Delivered almost completely in rhyming couplets...the play is fun and energetic, though it does have some downright spooky moments...the audience sits at large tables, with the actors bringing the storytelling and live music throughout the crowd as the tale unfolds. The cast of five are exceptional. Jessica Hardwick is Prudencia and she is luminous as the smart, social outcast who finds herself in a very strange situation. ..Wils Wilson has not only directed a gifted cast, but with minimal props and virtually no set, manages to create the settings of the piece exceptionally. ..David Greig's script is impressive, especially in his ability to use rhyming couplets to tell Pru's story. However, there are a few moments when it gets bogged down just a bit or where the shift in tone, from outright comedy to intense drama, is a little jarring. But sit back and simply let the story of Prudencia's dance with the devil unfold all around you and you will most likely find yourself very happy you took the journey.  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

theatre review - THE DROWSY CHAPERONE - ASU Lyric Opera Company - April 17, 2016

Alex Kunz and Brittany Howk
photo: Tim Trumble
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 24th.

 "The Drowsy Chaperone, which is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary of opening on Broadway, is one of the most joyful musicals of the past several decades. The show is narrated by a man who doesn't just love musicals he LOVES them. There is one musical he is especially enamored with, and the joy that particular show brings him washes over the orchestra pit and into the audience in Lyric Opera Theatre's exceptional production of this Tony winning show. This show is set in the apartment of a single man who is feeling a bit blue so he decides to play the cast recording of his favorite show, The Drowsy Chaperone to cheer himself up. This fictitious 1928 musical is one that he says perfectly achieves the escape from reality that musicals can provide. As he plays the record for himself, and for us as the fourth wall is fairly nonexistent in this show, the musical comes to life in his apartment....Tony winning bookwriters Bob Martin and Don McKellar are to be their decision to include such an interesting character, Man in Chair as he is called, someone that anyone who loves musicals can immediately identify with. His obsession with musicals, and this musical in particular, and how we get to know him as a person is what makes him not only three dimensional but a person we truly care about. The ASU / Lyric Opera Theatre cast is exceptional in delivering superb vocals as well as plenty of laughs. As Man in Chair, Alex Kunz is exceedingly endearing. The few times when he speaks about himself, his past, and his personal feelings make us also care deeply for him. The superb voices and refined comic abilities of Frances Tenney and Brittany Howk add plenty of lift and zing to their roles as the Drowsy Chaperone and Janet Van De Graaff, respectively. Their individual solos of "As We Stumble Along" and "Show Off" are excellently delivered with big, belting voices. As Janet's fiancé Robert, Drake Sherman's clear vocals and winning stage presence are especially appealing....Director Robert Kolby Harper adds numerous original touches to make the production shine. His decision to bring Man in Chair out into the audience at several points in the show (completely unobtrusively, so if you're concerned that you may be pulled into the action on stage you have no worries) makes perfect sense, especially since he does continually talk to the audience throughout the show, so this is a logical next step. He keeps the pace fast but makes sure the charming moments shine through, too.... Choreographer Molly Lajoie has crafted plenty of upbeat dance steps into the show and together she and Harper incorporate the ensemble members seamlessly into the action. Music director Brent C. Mauldin achieves beautiful, lush sounds from both the cast and the impressive twelve-piece band. ...While The Drowsy Chaperone is ultimately zany and full of fluff, it is an exceptionally well-crafted musical with a big heart. If you happen to be feeling blue like Man in Chair is at the start of the show, with an impressive cast, flawless direction, and excellent creative elements, this production will definitely make you laugh a lot and leave with a smile."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS - Arizona Broadway Theatre - April 19, 2016

Cassandra Norville Klaphake and Mark DiConzo
Photo by Scott Samplin

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 8th.

"Based on a true story, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas may not be the best musical ever written but it does feature some catchy tunes and lovable characters. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production features an impressive cast and lush creative elements that combine to overcome many of the flaws of this underdeveloped and anticlimactic musical. Set in the fictitious small town of Gilbert, Texas, in the 1970s, Miss Mona is the proprietress of the Chicken Ranch, the local brothel. Mona is fierce but compassionate and extremely loyal and protective of her girls. She is also loyal to the local Sheriff Ed Earl and we soon discover that they also share a romantic past. When the big city investigative TV reporter Melvin P. Thorpe threatens to expose the Chicken Ranch in an effort to protect the morals of the citizens, it threatens Mona's livelihood as well as her relationship with Ed Earle. The lively score by Carol Hall features memorable, folksy country western tunes and upbeat ballads. But the book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, which is based on King's investigative story about the actual Chicken Ranch, is sorely lacking in character and plot development...Fortunately, the ABT production plays up the romance between Mona and Ed Earle, which helps give some shading to their characters, and features an exceptional cast and superb choreography by Kurtis W. Overby, which help bring plenty of showbiz razzle dazzle to the proceedings. Director Andy Meyers, who also is a hoot as Thorpe, does his best to try to make some sense of the minimal plot. He draws fun portrayals from his cast, with the female ensemble making each of Mona's girls a distinctive character. ...Cassandra Norville Klaphake isn't just all business as Mona, but also projects a motherly love for these young women. Her earthy voice interjects feeling into her songs. Mark DiConzo is a comic joy as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, adding "good old boy" ticks and mannerisms to his stage movement and a deep Texas cadence to his vocal delivery. It all adds up to a very funny portrayal. ....Meyers and Overby create several showstopping moments ...By playing up the romance between the leads, which adds heart and heat to the production, and clarifying a few things with wise directorial choices, ABT's production does what it can to sidestep the flaws in the original book. With a very good cast and some impressive choreography, the end result is a high energy, extremely professional production that provides a fun, nostalgic look back. Just try not to pay too much attention to the lack of plot developments."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

theatre review - 9 TO 5 - Desert Stages Theatre - April 15, 2016

Skylar Ryan, Brandi Bigley, and Harley Barton
Photo by Heather Butcher
Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 8th.

 "The musical 9 to 5, which is based on the 1980 film comedy, is a quirky comic gem that follows three underpaid and underappreciated working women who get revenge on their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss. Scottsdale Desert Stages production, while a bit bare bones, features talented leads and spirited direction that instill plenty of heart within the humorous show....
Director/choreographer Cambrian James provides a fast pace and fun movement, and has found a cast that deliver with ease just about every comic bit as well as the several uplifting moments in Resnick's book. ..While the set design is minimal, Aurelie Flores' costumes and James' wig designs bring back the horrifying looks of the '80s with big hair and loud prints adding to the humor of the show. The three leads all create believable three-dimensional characters. Brandi Bigley, Harley Barton, and Skylar Ryan as Violet, Judy, and Doralee are all excellent...Bigley....interjects a realistic sense of frustration under Violet's professional demeanor that comes with the territory of being passed over for promotions, because she is a woman, when she knows she can do a better job than the man who got promoted. Bigley also adds plenty of zaniness and a big dose of fun to the part, with good comic timing, especially when Violet believes she's poisoned her boss. Her two co-stars are equally impressive. Barton blossoms as Judy, the recently divorced woman who has gone back to work and often finds herself crying but then finds her footing, and eventually herself, over the course of the show. Barton has a big, booming voice that does justice to the soaring ballads Judy sings. ...Ryan is extremely likable and feisty as Doralee but also has plenty of charm and really makes you care for her....Ryan also has a strong voice and her solo, "Backwoods Barbie," is touching. The fact that Barton is just 17 and Ryan is in her early 20s and are both delivering such well-rounded performances is exceptional....9 to 5 is a fun, funny, fast-paced musical with characters you can root for. With talented leads, and James' always professional directorial and choreographic touches, DST's production is energetic and wacky but also full of charm."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - THE OUTGOING TIDE - Theatre Artists Studio - April 16, 2016

Judy Lebeau, Steven Fajardo, and Michael Fleck
photo: Mark Gluckman

"There have been numerous books, films, TV shows, and articles that focus on the impact of dementia and Alzheimer's disease on both the individual suffering from it as well as their family members. Bruce Graham's play The Outgoing Tide is a realistic account of the toll the disease takes on a family of three but with plenty of humor to not become completely depressing. Theatre Artists Studio's production features a gifted cast who brings an emotional resonance, and a large dose of compassion, to this illness that effects so many people while effectively depicting the difficult choices people make in dealing with it. Set in a small cottage on Chesapeake Bay, Gunner and his wife of over 50 years, Peg, are visited by their son Jack. ...Gunner knows he's starting to lose it and Peg is trying to convince him, with Jack's help, to move into an assisted living facility. But after seeing a close friend deteriorate in a similar situation Gunner has no desire to end up there. So he's come up with a solution that will forego any relocation to a nursing home and provide for his family, but he just has to tie up some loose ends first....Graham's script slowly gives us information about the fractured dynamics and emotional baggage of this family. ...The result will most likely be felt differently depending on how close one has been to dealing with a family member suffering through one of these diseases. But no matter what, this somber play's final scene packs an emotional punch. The Theatre Artists Studio cast are all giving effective, realistic, and moving performances. Michael Fleck instills the role of the opinionated but lovable Gunner with a sure-footed stubbornness..Yet it is the way he shows Gunner's courage and conviction concerning the decision he makes that will resonate in how pure it is. Judy Lebeau deeply conveys the ongoing pain, frustration, and struggle in dealing not only with Gunner's memory lapses but with her desire to do what she believes is best, ...As their son Jack, who always gets put in the middle of his parents, Steven Fajardo is equally adept at portraying a man who, while going through a difficult period himself, finds himself having to pick sides. Director Judy Rollings sets the right tone throughout, with a good balance between the almost gallows humor of a few moments and the more quiet scenes. ...While a fairly simple play, The Outgoing Tide features believable characters and a situation that many people have unfortunately encountered. It is a quiet play, with many tender moments as well as some very funny ones, and with a gifted cast and clear direction the Theatre Artists Studio presents a beautiful production that gives voice to an issue that few people wish to talk about."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - MEET THE DRYERS - Brelby Theatre Company - April 16, 2016

Mia Passarella and Devon Mahon
Photo by Anjali Patel

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 30th.

 "Brelby Theatre Company's original play Meet the Dryers is a laugh filled journey set on a horrible Thanksgiving Day that focuses not only on this very funny family but on our obsession with social media....a loving family that oozes warmth and love. Brelby's production, while slightly uneven, is very fun, with as much charm and humor as the sweet and comical Dryer family. Teenager James, the youngest Dryer, has an active imagination and has been feeling left out, so he has taken creative liberties to post exaggerated, fictionalized stories about his family online. When the truth about James' online fiction comes out over Thanksgiving it creates even more strife than usual in the extended Dryer family. ...Writers Shelby Maticic, Megan O'Connor, and Luke Gomez have created interesting characters and a plot that is intriguing and keeps us wondering how it will end. ...The trio of writers have created individuals we can all identify with, along with an obsession that we almost all have. While the play is full of warmth and plenty of laughs, there are a couple of small issues. When we first meet each of the Dryer family members we see them instead as the fictionalized version that James has created. This is a bit jarring and confusing at first and, with ten characters to introduce this way and some of these fantasy sequences overstaying their welcome, it takes a while to set the main plot in motion. Also, in the second act, when things get more serious and heartfelt, there are several similar lines that are spoken in overlapping unison by different characters. While this is an interesting and different creative touch, it comes across as slightly pretentious, especially since it is completely different in tone and style from the rest of the play. The cast is composed entirely of Brelby company members which helps in achieving natural and realistic relationships among the characters. They are all gifted in creating believable people and in portraying them realistically with both humor and charm....Director Shelby Maticic has done an exceptional job of staging the action so that all spaces of Chrispen's excellent set are used effectively ...Pretty much everyone today is obsessed with social media...It is that fascination that is expertly portrayed in Meet the Dryers along with a family anyone would love to call their own. While the main plot is slight, and I have a few small issues with the script, it is the combination of fun, identifiable characters with clean and smart direction and creative production design that turns this play into a charming, funny, heartwarming, and zany treat."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

theatre review - VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE - Theater Works - April 13, 2016

Bruce Laks, Debra Rich, and Cathy Dresbach
Photo by John Groseclose

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 24th.

 "Christopher Durang's latest play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, won the Tony Award for Best Play and is centered around a trio of middle-aged siblings dealing with the shortcomings of their lives. The comedy is receiving a fine production from Theater Works with a cast of excellent Valley based actors and adept direction by Daniel Schay. While it is a comedy, there is an unexpected underlying sadness to this production as Schay passed away suddenly last week on the day before the show opened. The cast and crew have banded together to pay tribute to Schay with their very funny and moving portrayals....Cathy Dresbach is excellent as Sonia, who is full of self-pity and feels that she hasn't lived...Dresbach excels in creating a nuanced portrayal. She expertly plays the dramatic and humorous sides of the role, and her heartbreaking but hopeful delivery of a phone call Sonia receives in the second act is a master class in acting. Debra Rich is Masha, a commanding woman who is always used to having her way but also now feels old and vulnerable...Since Masha is the antagonist of the piece it is rewarding that Rich makes the part slightly comical and likable. This is especially commendable since Durang has written the part to be somewhat unrealistically negative, nasty, and mean to Sonia. Both Rich and Dresbach also add plenty of realism to their parts, especially in how they make us believe their characters are soul searching for the answers to their future and the decisions they make. Vanya is a less showy role since he is the quiet and mostly subdued observer, and Bruce Laks is fine in the part, especially in how Vanya attempts to mediate at times the insanity that is swirling around him. Vanya has a comical rant in the second act, where he rages on how he misses the past and worries about the future, and while I believe it goes on a bit too long (something I felt even when I saw the original pre-Broadway production of this play), Laks keeps his outburst realistic and heartfelt....Director Dan Schay did a fine job with his direction, with the right balance between the serious and humorous moments, not letting the funny bits get too broad or too out of control. ...While Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has a couple of flaws in the script and occasional unrealistic characters, it is a modern tale with likable, though slightly odd, characters and a huge heart at its center. It is that heart, along with Durang's smart dialogue that makes this play a warm, comical gem. Theater Works' production features some great performances and is full of warmth and laughs. Schay was the executive director of Theater Works and former managing director at Phoenix Theatre and beloved across the Valley. His work on this production is a fitting tribute to a life dedicated to the arts."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - BLACK PEARL SINGS - Black Theatre Troupe - April 14, 2016

Dzifa Kwawu and Shari Watts
Photo: Laura Durant

 " Frank Higgins' 2006 play Black Pearl Sings, about a convict and a song collector in the 1930s, is receiving a strong production by the Black Theatre Troupe. It is a play about how powerful music is and the importance of documenting it in order to preserve history. With superb performances from Dzifa Kwawu and Shari Watts it is a rich and rewarding journey....Susannah, a white woman working for the Library of Congress to collect songs, and Pearl, an African-American female convict in the Texas prison where Susannah has currently set up shop. Pearl grew up amongst the Gullah people on Hilton Head Island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, and Susannah is interested in obtaining from her the rare folk songs she learned from people on the island and hopes that it will help her secure an academic job. Pearl is more interested in finding her daughter, and the two women realize they can use each other to find the freedom they both so eagerly seek.... focuses on racial issues but also touches upon the struggles of women in the male-dominated world of the 1930s. ..David J. Hemphill has done a lovely job directing Kwawu and Watts. They both deeply embody these very strong-willed women, warts and all, and in doing so create realistic individuals. ...Kwawu and Watts are giving two of the strongest and fully fleshed out portrayals I've seen on stage this season. ...Higgins' story of these two women—one black, the other white, one educated, the other not—in the turbulent racial and sexual times of the 1930s, makes for an intriguing but also exceedingly entertaining play. With superb portrayals by Kwawu and Watts, Higgins' tale of the importance of saving and preserving the past makes for a very powerful and emotional experience."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - Hale Centre Theatre - April 14, 2016

Sarah Pansing and Rob Stuart
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw / Hale Centre Theatre
highlights from local critics reviews - (click link at bottom of each review to read complete review)

Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 14th.

 " While pretty much everyone knows the story of Anne Frank and that her life didn't end happily, the play The Diary of Anne Frank is still a deeply engaging and moving yet ultimately heart wrenching story of lost hope and the unspeakable consequences of Hitler's rise to power. Hale Centre Theatre's production of this classic factual story is exceptional, with a superb cast and concise and well thought out direction that are a tribute to Anne, her family, and the millions of others who lost their lives in the Nazi death camps....Director M. Seth Reines has done an exceptional job. His staging heightens the tension by creating realistic movement that allows the bickering and quarreling to grow naturally from the situations yet also instills the proceedings with the hope that the war will end and their lives will go back to normal....Sarah Pansing is simply sensational as Anne. The excitement she portrays when they first move into the attic, as if it's like being on an adventurous vacation, and the shifting thoughts and feelings Anne experiences as her body changes, are portrayed superbly...The only issue I can find is that Pansing is slightly older than Anne was at the time the family was in hiding. Other than that very small quibble, there isn't one false move, gesture, or expression in her performance.
Otto Frank is the realist, matter of fact, quiet, and loving disciplinarian, and Rob Stuart's performance is as even measured as the man he is portraying. ..It is an appropriately restrained portrayal but Stuart's final monologue delivery is an emotional mind numbing experience that packs a wallop.
The rest of the cast make a well-honed ensemble of distinguished and rich performances that require constant interactions with and reactions to the other characters, since every actor is on stage almost throughout the entire play. ..Brian Daily's set design perfectly instills the sense of claustrophobia that having so many people living in such a small space creates. ..With Reines' excellent direction, Pansing's rich performance as Anne, and an entire cast that embody their roles with a deep clarity, Hale's The Diary of Anne Frank is a deeply moving and emotional experience. Even if you know how Anne's story ends, this production should warrant a visit to be reminded of Anne and how her diary represents so many other people who lived in fear but always had the hope that freedom would eventually come, even if it never did."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

theatre review - SEUSSICAL, THE MUSICAL - Grand Canyon University - April 8, 2016

Tarnim Bybee (top), Ryan Usher (bottom), and Cast
Photo by Daryl Webb/Grand Canyon University
 "The cleverly rhyming, imaginary, and fantastical world of the Dr. Seuss children's books was turned into a big Broadway musical back in 2000. While it didn't run long on Broadway, the musical has gone on to find much success across the country, with productions continually presented in schools and regional theatres. Grand Canyon University just closed their production of the musical in a fine production that was colorful and energetic....Seussical uses the well-known characters of several of Theodore Geisel's books. The trio interweave The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant and even the Grinch into a fun show with enough plot to keep older audience members interested, but easy enough for younger theatergoers to still have an enjoyable time. The show features a fun and varied score, with music by Flaherty and humorous lyrics by Ahrens that play off Seuss' famous rhymes....
The GCU cast was good in bringing the many beloved literary characters to life. Ryan Usher had a perfect sense of playfulness and mischief as The Cat in the Hat while Preston MacDonald projected a huge level of compassion as Horton. As Jojo, Bri Ha­Nguyen brought a light-hearted spirit. The duet of "Alone in the Universe" that MacDonald and Ha-Nguyen shared was beautiful and moving.
Devaune Bohall was simply lovely as Gertrude McFuzz and Tarnim Bybee brought a superb singing voice and fun sensibility to Mayzie, a bird who tricks Horton into sitting on her egg to keep it warm while she goes on vacation. ...Director Michael Kary instilled the production with the playfulness and sense of imagination that are a major component of the Seuss books. ...While not everyone in the cast had a stellar singing voice they all sounded good thanks to music director Mark Feary....William H. Symington's set was stellar, full of the crazy angles, strange shapes, and wild colors just like the drawings in the Seuss books. Nola Yergen's beautiful costume designs were on par creatively with the set design and played off the imagination aspect of the books....Full of wit, imagination, and a big heart, Seussical at GCU was a crowd pleasing hit."   -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

theatre review - PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM - Fountain Hills Theater - April 10, 2016

Wade Moran and Timothy Pittman
Photo by Carol Carroll
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 17th.

 "Play It Again, Sam is a sweet romantic comedy that follows the humorous aftermath of a divorce and its impact on a neurotic writer who is attempting to date again. Fountain Hills Theater's production of Woody Allen's 1979 play is a charmer with a cast that delivers Allen's comical script with ease....Director Bob Feugate.. not only found a cast that ensures Allen's humorous dialogue gets big laughs, but they also make the characters believable and not just caricatures delivering a series of punch lines. He also achieves a superb 1970s look and feel for the entire production and keeps the pace swift. ...As Allan, Wade Moran delivers a nuanced performance that has echoes of Woody Allen's well-known obsessive traits without becoming a complete impersonation. ...It is a winning performance. Van Rockwell and Ashley Miller are good as Dick and Linda, with Rockwell's portrayal of the ambitious businessman a nice counterpoint to Moran's nebbish Allan. Miller is believable as the woman who makes Allan realize that he is best when he is just being himself and not trying to impress someone. The scenes Miller and Moran have together are genuine and heartfelt. Timothy Pittman gives a solid portrayal of Humphrey Bogart and an expert and measured delivery of the advice Bogart gives. ...Peter J. Hill's evocative and attractive set and the wonderful costumes from Gail Oliphant bring the 1970s back to life in full force, complemented by Bob and Alisa Feugate's property designs and the hair and makeup creations by Patsy Johnson and Marybeth Ingram. ...Charming, short, and sweet, and also a little silly, Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam is a swift moving comedy with characters you care about. With a good cast, solid direction and lovely creative elements, Fountain Hills Theater's production is a winner."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

theatre review - THE ALL NIGHT STRUT - Phoenix Theatre - April 9, 2016

Trisha Ditsworth, Toby Yatso, Christopher George Patterson, and Brittney Mack
Photo Courtesy Phoenix Theatre / Matt Chesin
Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 1st.

"...The All Night Strut ...features songs of the 1930s and 1940s. While there is virtually no plot or dialogue and very little to string the songs together, Phoenix Theatre's cast is exceptional, the six-piece band is superb, and the direction and choreography are energetic.... a "trip down memory lane" for those who grew up in that era. Younger theatregoers might not quite understand how important these songs were to those who went through the Great Depression or World War II. With sentimental numbers like "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," the reflections of war and the impact of hard times are deeply felt through the lyrics of these songs....However, while the show itself is fun, there really isn't much substance to it and the transitions between the songs are sometimes a bit jarring. Fortunately, the arrangements, both for the band and the stellar vocal arrangements for the four member cast, are excellent and the cast deliver energetic performances which help give some dimension to the material. The foursome include Trisha Ditsworth, Brittney Mack, Christopher George Patterson, and Toby Yatso, all of whom have exceptional, expressive deliveries of their lyrics and superb voices that wring the emotion, heartbreak, and joy from their songs....Director and choreographer Michael Jenkinson adds plenty of razzle dazzle and always changing dance steps to the show that keeps it lively. Alan Ruch's music direction and conducting of the bandare exceptional. ...The All Night Strut is more a concert of the music of the Big Band era than a musical. It also lacks a lot when compared to other musicals, since there is no story or character development beyond what exists in the individual song lyrics, and younger theatre goers, who may not be familiar with the material, might be underwhelmed by the songs. Fortunately Phoenix Theatre has a great cast, awesome band and upbeat choreography and direction that overcome some of these shortfalls as they bring back as the show states "the glorious music of the 1930s and 1940s.""  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

theatre review - SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE - Desert Foothills Theater - April 9, 2016

(back row) Joshua Vern, Jack Lambert, Mason Reeves, Skyler Washburn, and Michael Shulz
(front row) Ali Whitwell, Iesha Mills, Kim Cooper-Schmidt, and Jessica Freiling
Photo by Tiffany Bolock / Desert Foothills Theater
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 17th.

 " The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composed many hit songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Their songs crossed music styles from pop, to rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. Some of their well-known tunes include "Hound Dog," "Love Potion #9," "On Broadway" and "Stand by Me." Desert Foothills Theatre presents a solid production of the 1995 musical revue Smokey Joe's Cafe which features over three dozen Leiber and Stoller tunes. While it is a revue short on plot and character development, it is high on energy due to this production's talented cast. While the song "Neighborhood" is used to somewhat frame the show as a scrapbook of memories, and the characters who live in the neighborhood represent those mentioned in several of the songs, Smokey Joe's Cafe really has no conventional plot. It does, however, let the songs themselves, and the talent of Leiber and Stoller, be the focus on display throughout the show ..Under T.A. Burrow and Damon J. Bolling's skilled direction, Desert Foothills Theater's production features a cast of nine talented Valley performers, including three gifted youth performers who are about to graduate high school. All nine have good to very good voices which do justice to the varied styles of music in the show. The show includes plenty of solo songs along with dozens of group numbers, and the harmonies the nine singers deliver are simply lovely. ...Dan Kurek's music direction is impressive, delivering a rich sound from the small orchestra and superb vocals from the cast. Burrow and Bolling's varied direction and the energetic choreography by Lynzee J. Foreman provide extremely striking segments....While it may lack a lot in plot and character development, since there isn't much of either, Smokey Joe's Cafe is still a crowd pleaser due to the enormous popularity of the songs that Leiber and Stoller wrote. With a gifted cast, skilled direction, and some superb choreography, Desert Foothills Theater's production is a winner."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Monday, April 11, 2016

theatre review - WONDERLAND WIVES - Nearly Naked Theatre - April 7, 2016

Terre Steed
photo: Laura Durant
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 23rd.

 " 'And they lived happily ever after' is a statement often made at the end of fairy tales and Disney animated films to proclaim just what happened to those fantasyland princesses who finally found their prince. But, according to playwright Buddy Thomas, it turns out that everyone doesn't live so happily ever after in Wonderland. His Wonderland Wives, receiving its world premiere in a sassy production from Nearly Naked Theatre, takes those well-known Disney princesses and turns them into desperate housewives in this very R-rated comedy. The end result is silly, campy fun with some delicious catty barbs, a talented cast, and a funny story. Thomas includes the following Disney princesses in his play: Snow White, Cinderella, Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), and Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty)....The plot of the comedy focuses on Cindy's attempt to get back at her friends once her philandering husband ends up in bed with them. She enlists the aid of the Evil Queen from the Snow White tale to help her get revenge. But alas, as in most fairy tales, nothing goes the way one plans and Thomas' play is filled with enchanting characters and witty one-liners that play off of and lampoon these well-known characters and stories. While some of the comical bits overtake the plot in the second act, it is still a charming and often hilarious show....Director Damon Dering, with Thomas' permission, has cast three talented men who appear in drag as Cindy, Belle, and the Evil Queen. Those three, Matthew R. Harris, Bill Dyer and Terre Steed, are skilled comical actors who not only know how to get a laugh, but are gifted drag performers who understand the requirements needed to not just be campy or over the top, but deliver well-rounded portrayals of these women. With every arched eyebrow and expressive glance these "ladies" wring every joke, one liner, and catty comeback for all they're worth. They are equally matched by Nathalie Cadieux and Laura Anne as Snow and Rose....Dering's direction makes the many comical one-liners and visual gags pop while also getting humorous performances from his cast. ...Thomas' play, while a bit long and unfocused in the second act, amounts to mindless fun that elicits plenty of laughter via the comical zingers and humorous adult situations that he puts these beloved figures in. Nearly Naked Theatre's production is a comical hoot filled with some saucy lines and sexy moments and a truly talented cast."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Friday, April 8, 2016

theatre review - OF MICE AND MEN - Arizona Theatre Company - April 7, 2016

Scott Greer and Jonathan Wainwright
Photo by Tim Fuller
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 17th.

"Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck's bleak yet powerful story of ranch workers in the Great Depression, is receiving a superb production from Arizona Theatre Company. The combination of an excellent cast and rich creative elements with Steinbeck's enriching tale, which is full of heartbreak and sensitivity, has the ability to give us a deep understanding of its two main characters and to make us feel a part of the world they live in. ...As George and Lennie, Jonathan Wainwright and Scott Greer embody their roles with realism and nuance.... Greer is simply heartbreaking as Lennie. ...Director Mark Clements focuses on the dreams that the characters have, not letting the loneliness and sadness of these men overpower the strong bond of friendship that's at the core of the story. ......ATC's production of Of Mice and Men features a stellar cast, who deliver sensitive and emotionally moving performances, and solid direction that combine to create an exceptionally rewarding journey. ...". -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

theatre review - 42ND STREET - National Tour: ASU Gammage - April 5, 2016

Blake Stadnik and Kaitlin Lawrence (center) and Cast
Photo by Chris Bennion
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 10th.

 "The musical comedy smash 42nd Street has danced its way to ASU Gammage for a week long run. This classic backstage musical, which is full of practically non-stop dance and fun characters, is a treat—a colorful confection that brims with an infectious glee and a show that will surely put a smile on everyone's face. The touring production, which is modeled on the 2001 Broadway revival, features an exceptionally talented cast who are extremely adept at delivering the show's abundance of toe tapping choreography....... Director Mark Bramble, who also co-wrote the book, ensures that the entire cast deliver their dialogue and lyrics in a period appropriate style. While it borders slightly on melodrama in parts, it also lovingly evokes a long ago and simpler time. Randy Skinner's musical staging and choreography wisely incorporate the original moves that won Gower Champion a Tony for the original Broadway production along with some additional steps that send it soaring into a non-stop frenzy of superiorly composed sequences of always changing styles of dance. The choreography even keeps going past the curtain call. If you love dancing, especially tap dancing, this production of 42nd Street is not to be missed. This company also has three excellent performers in the lead parts of Marsh, Sawyer, and Brock. Demure and naïve but also bright eyed and full of energy and fire, Caitlin Ehlinger is simply smashing as Peggy. Her dancing is exceptional. Matthew J. Taylor infuses the demanding director Marsh with an appropriate air of determination and power, along with charm, fatherly advice, and a hint of romance. ...Kaitlin Lawrence's take on Dorothy Brock is nuanced and full of fierceness with an undercurrent of vulnerability. Her singing is vibrant and smoky....Creative elements are partly based on the Tony winning revival, including Roger Kirk's Tony nominated costumes, which are a non-stop parade of superb, and colorful, period perfect designs...J. Michael Duff's music direction is superb, with clear, stellar vocals from the large cast while evoking the sound of an orchestra twice as large as the eight musicians in the pit. Full of charm and spunk, the national tour of 42nd Street features an exceptionally talented cast who make the vibrant, fun, and spirited choreography become a joyful and infectious experience"  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Monday, April 4, 2016

theatre review - TWELFTH NIGHT - Southwest Shakespeare Company - April 3, 2016

Andy Cahoon, Emily Mohney, Jon L. Peacock, and Allison Sell
photo: Patrick Walsh
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 9th.

 " William Shakespeare’s witty comedy that focuses on lost twins and a humorous love triangle, Twelfth Night, receives a solid production from Southwest Shakespeare Company. Full of charming characters, an abundance of mistaken identity, and several of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines, including “If music be the food of love, play on,” SSC's production has a wonderful cast, including an effervescent Allison Sell as Viola and a deliciously superb Emily Mohney as Olivia....Sell is exceptional in delivering a wide range of emotions as she pivots between displaying the pain of her unreturned love for Orsino and her disdain over the unwanted advances of Olivia...Mohney is just as good as Olivia. ...These are two characters who are passionate women and Sell and Mohney excel in their portrayals. The comical quartet are also quite good, though they border on being somewhat broad a few times which almost tips the comic scale of the show off its axis into a territory too much at odds with the rest of the play. ...The quartet are appropriately mischievous, with (David) Dickinson a simply dandy “fop,” while (Clay) Sanderson is the perfect comic foil as the overbearing and bossy Malvolio. ...Director David Vining does well in achieving upbeat comical and layered serious performances .. moved the time period to the late 19th-century and changed the setting from the coast of the Adriatic Sea to a small Greek island...While the sunny, aquamarine setting adds brightness to the humorous moments, the updated time and location doesn’t really add, or detract, much from the play. (Jason) Steffen adds a couple of fun songs throughout though they don’t exactly fit into the Greek setting or time period....Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production may not add much to the play with their updated Greek setting, but with an exceptional cast it still amounts to a sunny, spirited and robust romantic comedy romp."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Monday, March 28, 2016

theatre review - GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS - Desert Stages Theatre - March 25, 2016

J. Kevin Tallent, Walt Pedano, and Jeff Carpenter
Photo by Heather and Dana Butcher / Desert Stages Theatre
Click here for more information on this production that runs through May 15th.

"David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize winning play Glengarry Glen Ross focuses on a series of unpleasant yet complex and intriguing details the highs and (mostly) lows of the ruthless world of high-pressure sales and cold calls...With a crackerjack cast who create realistic characters, and clearly polished direction, Desert Stages Theatre's stark production is a winner as it focused solidly on Mamet's characters and explosive dialogue. ...Smooth-talking Ricky Roma is at the top of the sales leader board while Shelley Levene, who has been experiencing a sales slump and is extremely agitated, isn't even on the chart. Hot-headed Moss and meek and nervous Aaronow don't like the way the office is run and Moss comes up with a plan to get back at the owners of the firm. All four are after the hot leads in order to sell real estate in Glengarry Highlands, Florida, ensuring their clients that this is a lucrative land deal....Director Virginia Olivieri has found a cast of actors who are more than capable of rising to the occasion required to bring Mamet's characters vibrantly to life. J. Kevin Tallent is superb as Shelly Levene, the older member of the sales force.... Walt Pedano is just as good as the slick, persuasive and persistent Richard Roma ...Olivieri's direction draws rich performances from her cast while also making sure the style of Mamet's writing rings true. The staccato delivery that Mamet's dialogue requires and the repetitive nature of many of the lines may come across as unnatural or farfetched to some. But this highly skilled ensemble, under Olivieri's astute direction, create fireworks from Mamet's succinct words which they deliver in a sure-footed natural cadence that makes this production crackle....While the play might be a hard sell to those looking for a show in which the characters actually grow by learning from their mistakes, are somewhat sympathetic, or at least have some humanity, it is Mamet's sharp dialogue and intriguing characters that have made this play one that will never go out of style. Desert Stages Theatre's production has a fantastic cast and smart direction, and the end result is a loving tribute to the style and substance of Mamet's masterful words."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

concert review - JOHN PIZZARELLI & JESSICA MOLASKEY - Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts - March 19, 2016

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey
 "The musical intersection where jazz, Broadway, and the Great American Songbook meet is a most happy one under the assured musicianship of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. The married duo performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts last weekend in a simply sublime evening of Pizzarelli's exceptionally skilled guitar playing and Molaskey's solid vocals. Backed by an outstanding jazz trio...Pizzarelli and Molaskey delivered a two-hour concert of varied songs, including several standards, some pop hits by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, and several showtunes by Stephen Sondheim. While Pizzarelli's intricate guitar playing takes the focus on many of the songs it is Molaskey's reflective vocals that add depth and layers, and even play off of and echo John's exceptional guitar skills. Pizzarelli and Molaskey are about to celebrate their 20th anniversary together...Many of the songs in their concert commented on relationships, and the playfulness and self-deprecating humor of the couple was a natural fit for many of these songs. ..The biting yet humorous cynicism of Sondheim's "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company served as a playful commentary between the couple. His "Children and Art" from Sunday in the Park with George and "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods served as a reminder of the importance of instilling both art and children with the right level of responsibility, since they are what artists and parents leave behind when they are gone....Some standards were also featured in the evening, including a lovely pairing of "You Made Me Love You" and "It Had to Be You." ...Three songs from decades ago that focus on death, dread, and doom (Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" from his Graceland album along with his "Late Great Johnny Ace" and Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls") were combined and turned into a contemporary view of the world...But it was a song from over seventy years ago that served as the highlight of the evening. John sang Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific with only his own guitar accompanying him in a folksy version of the song. It was a stirring delivery that served as a reminder of how we all need to make our own decisions about our fellow human beings and not listen to our parents or our politicians and their potentially racist views. Jessica commented that she asked John to sing it that night. The fact that the concert happened just hours after Donald Trump's speech less than 20 miles away did not go unnoticed."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

theatre review - LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL - Phoenix Theatre - March 18, 2016

Yolanda London
photo: Matt Chesin
Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 3th.

"...Lanie Robertson's drama whisks us back to 1959 to a bar in South Philadelphia where Billie Holiday is giving what will ultimately be her last performance. Phoenix Theatre's production features a mesmerizing performance by Yolanda London, who pours her heart and soul into her nuanced portrayal...Robertson's play is a bit of an odd duck—part life remembrance, part cabaret act—that also shoehorns in just about every important detail from Holiday's life in order for anyone who doesn't already know about this famous woman to have a better understanding of her and what she endured through her life. While it does tend to be overstuffed, meanders a bit, and seems a tad overlong even though it only runs 90 minutes, it is also filled with warmth and humor and some heartbreaking stories...Yolanda London gives an exquisite performance as Holiday. While I'm no Holiday expert, I am familiar with her music, and London's delivery of these songs is stellar, with impeccable phrasing and a vocal inflection that is uncanny in its resemblance. London performs each of these songs exquisitely, with both passion and pain. While her singing is impressive, it is in her storytelling that London comes even more alive with a rawness and edge to her remembrances. She is giving one of the most breathtaking performances I've seen in quite some time...Director Pasha Yamotahari doesn't make one false move. ...Joel Birch's scenic well to evoke a jazz club of the 1950s...Daniel Davisson's lighting design is exquisite...Josh Lutton's stunning costumes, including a ravishing white dress for London, and Terre Steed's hair and make-up designs magically transport us back to the period. Dark, seductive, astonishing, and heartbreaking are just a few adjectives to describe London's stellar performance. While the play has a few shortcomings, London's superb take on this legendary woman is a portrayal you will not want to miss."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Monday, March 21, 2016

theatre review - QUILTERS - Fountain Hills Theater - March 17, 2016

Jenny Harrington, Angela Kabasan, Danielle Hale, Cynthia Elek, Larah Pawlowski, Jennifer Whiting, and Colleen Corliss
Photo by Patty Torrilhon
Click here for more information on this production that runs through March 27th.

 "If you ever find yourself complaining about the hardships of life today—the short battery life of your cell phone, not having free wi-fi access, an extra-long line at Starbucks—you only need to think about the problems the American pioneer women endured to realize how easy your life actually is. With courage, dedication and an almost unfailing determination, they dealt with numerous natural disasters and the threat of fire, while almost all also having a dozen children, a farm, and livestock to tend to. Quilters is a valentine to these women and, while the musical itself has a few shortfalls, the production on stage at Fountain Hills Theater has a stellar ensemble of gifted ladies who bring these women vibrantly to life. The plot of the show is fairly basic. Sarah is reaching the end of her life so she has decided to create a "legacy" quilt that she will then pass down to her daughters. Each block of the quilt will represent a significant moment in either her or her daughters' lives, or the life of a friend or family member....Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek have crafted a book with a series of vignettes that move us along the journey of these hardy women. Damashek also wrote the score, which has an emphasis on folk music. However, while the book is interesting, there is no linear tale and no character arcs to keep you engaged, since as soon as the story and woman behind one block of the quilt is finished the cast moves on to the next. ...Damashek's score is slight and not very memorable. ...director/choreographer Noel Irick has not only found a superb cast to pull this material off but she has staged and choreographed the piece exceptionally. Her varied movement adds dimension to the songs and she achieves unique and diverse performances from each of the seven women in the cast. Robin Peterson's music direction and the vocal talents of the cast create some of the most luscious harmonies I've heard in years...As the headstrong Sarah, Cynthia Elek has a huge dose of spunk and a sure-footed portrayal of this commanding woman. Colleen Corliss, Danielle Hale, Jennifer Harrington, Angela Kabasan, Larah Pawlowski, and Jennifer Whiting play the six daughters and each one is given the chance to shine and show off both her vocal and acting chops. ...While there are some shortcomings in the score and book there are many rewarding moments in Quilters, such as showing how life on the frontier was for these women and also sharing an appreciation of the quilting process. Highlighting the women's stories by the blocks in the quilt is a smart way to show us just how difficult, but also rewarding, these women's lives were. While you may not come away humming any of the songs, the stories, Irick's direction, and the characters and harmonies the talented Fountain Hills cast achieve are all stirring in their beauty."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

theatre review - STUPID FUCKING BIRD - Stray Cat Theatre - March 13, 2016

(foreground) Phillip Herrington, (left to right) Louis Farber, Melody Knudson,
Charles Sohn, Shari Watts, and Wyatt Kent
photo: John Groseclose
Click here for more information on this production that runs through March 26th.

"Stray Cat Theatre presents the Valley premiere of Stupid Fucking Bird, a modern twist on Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, with a superb cast that gets to the heart of the serious and comical moments present in the adaptation. While not everything works in this take-off of Chekhov's play, the dramatic scenes, and monologues in particular, are smartly acted and directed. However, the problem is that the comedy is sometimes at odds with the more dramatic moments and you don't really care for most of the characters and aren't that concerned for what happens to them.. focuses on creative angst and love, both fulfilled and unrequited, and the mostly failed relationships and unsuccessful artistic endeavors that result from them. Posner also adds a huge dollop of self-reference into the piece, including having Conrad announce that he has written a play called Stupid Fucking Bird and having the actors break the fourth wall to talk to the audience at numerous times, and commenting that they know they are in a play. But this play within a play element never plays out to fruition and some of Posner's ideas...fall flat and don't really add much to the thrust of the play. While the self-referential component of the piece runs the risk of becoming precious or pretentious, it fortunately never does. However, it also doesn't add anything to the overall play. If Posner is trying to be funny, he is, but having the characters tell us that they know they are in a play and then proceeding onward with their individual character arcs and never having this element return to have any relevance is just lazy, awkward, and ultimately meaningless...Stray Cat's cast is exceptional and they create realistic, identifiable characters, even though they are almost all so miserable that you never truly care for them. ...Director Ron May infuses the proceedings with a deep sense of empathy and elicits rich performances from his cast. He knows how to mine laughs from the pathos of the characters and situations yet also makes the dramatic scenes sizzle. ...Full of angst and irony and characters who are "lost in love and dismally disappointed," as Mash states at one point, Stupid Fucking Bird will probably best be enjoyed by those who are familiar with Chekhov's play or those who appreciate Posner's irreverent take on the material and self-referential view of itself. Chekov himself spoke of new forms of theatre, and Posner also has Conrad lament this need to "open new possibilities." I just wish Posner had been able to find a way to truly pull all of his ideas together to truly create this new form of theatre that Chekov spoke of so many years ago."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER - National Tour: ASU Gammage - March 15, 2016

Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey, and Adrienne Eller
Photo by Joan Marcus
Click here for more information on this production that runs through March 20th.

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder... is one of the cleverest musicals of the last decade....a sheer delight. The national tour... is definitely not to be missed. What if you were born poor...only to find out that your mother was actually a disinherited member of an influential and extremely wealthy family who rebuffed her when she married for love and not money? And what if you also discovered that only eight members of the family stand between you and the head of the dynasty? That's what happens to Monty Navarro in 1909 London and, once Monty finds himself snubbed by the family as well, he makes it his mission to bump off those eight members so he can get back at the family for what they did to his mother and become Lord of the D'Ysquith family....Robert L. Freedman's book is sharp, smart, and fast paced. The well-crafted tunes with music by Steven Lutvak and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak are full of witty wordplay, delicious double-entendres, a range of musical styles, and exceptional phrasing....The fun theatrical conceit that the show uses is to have one actor play all members, both male and female, of the D'Ysquith family who stand between Monty and his goal. ...the requirements to make this all work in a fast-paced musical require a skilled comic actor and some speedy costume changes. John Rapson excels in the tour de force nature of this request, distinguishing each role with nuance and a huge dose of comedy...if you didn't check your program you may not realize until the curtain call that the entire family is being played by one man. Kevin Massey is also tasked with a herculean effort—to portray a man we all root for as he goes about killing a series of people who didn't really do anything wrong. The fact that he shines as Monty is due to the combination of his assured portrayal and his lovable demeanor. ...Director Darko Tresnjak's inventively skilled contributions show why he deservedly won the Tony for his direction of this show. He cleverly uses Alexander Dodge's beautiful, eye-popping set design...his deft touch ensures the elaborate story, with its succession of characters, remains clear. The colorful, exquisite and detailed costumes justifiably won the Tony Award for Linda Cho, and Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting design adds plenty of allure as well as a few comical touches to the show. Dan Moses Schreier's crisp sound design and Gammage's new sound system make sure that every lyric can be heard with extreme clarity. With equal parts silliness and wit, a charming book and exceptional score, and sharp creative elements, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is a musical treat to be savored. With a gifted cast and creative elements on par with the Tony winning New York production, the national tour is exceptional."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

theatre review - NOW. HERE. THIS. - A/C Theatre Company - March 12, 2016

Micah Jondel DeShazer, Brenda Jean Foley, Kevin Fenderson, and Tracy Payne Black
photo: Laura Durant
Click here for more information on this production that runs through March 26th.

 "...A/C Theatre Company, is presenting their second show of their premiere season, Now. Here. This. in its Valley debut. Written by the talented team behind [title of show]Now. Here. This. unfortunately is a musical that doesn't quite know what it wants to be. While there are a few exceptional songs and moving stories, the musical overall is unfocused and plays more like an extended cabaret act of stories and songs that don't always tie together. A/C's production features a talented cast, smart direction, and a great sounding small band who try their best to make sense of the whole thing. The conceit of the show is that four close friends are visiting their local Natural History Museum and the exhibits at the museum and events that happen to them that day become the launch pad for the personal songs and stories they sing and tell. But, for the most part, these connections with the museum exhibits are extreme stretches...The title of the show comes from Thomas Merton's theory of living in the moment, at the intersection of the Now, the Here, and the This. However, almost all of the stories and songs in the show are about past experiences so, while they may form the makeup of who these four people are today, they don't exactly quite relate to living in the moment...
The A/C cast is quite skilled in making the stories and songs not only seem relatable but also inherent to themselves and personal as well...Tracy Payne Black gets the best material in the show, including moving stories about her character's father and growing up with a hoarder for a parent. Her vocals, like those of the rest of the cast, are impressive, delivering an emotional, almost introspective connection to the lyrics. While Brenda Jean Foley's character is mostly used as counterpoint to the others, her rendition of "This Time" is quite beautiful. Kevin Fenderson and Micah Jondel DeShazer deliver most of the comic moments and are good in their portrayals...director Thomas Strawser does an impressive job ...There are plenty of lush harmonies in Bowen's varied score, and Curtis Moeller's music direction ensures they sound lovely. Now. Here. This. is far from a perfect musical, but there are several moments where the material and characters come together to deliver emotionally relevant material. It is unfortunately only at those times that this A/C Theatre Company production truly soars."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)