Tuesday, February 23, 2016

theatre review - CITY OF ANGELS - Theater Works - February 21, 2016

Ian Christiansen and Matt Zimmerer
Photo by Wade Moran / Moran Imaging

"The 1989 musical City of Angels won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book and Score, and ran for more than two years on Broadway, yet it is a show that doesn't seem to be produced that often. Fortunately, Theater Works in Peoria is presenting the musical, featuring the creative team from their hit production of Follies from last season, and this production is as well conceived and thought out as the show itself. Featuring a sensational jazz score, City of Angels moves between the beautiful, yet slightly seedy, technicolor world of 1940s Hollywood, where New York novelist Stine has been hired to adapt his book into a film, and the black and white world of the film he is writing. While the disillusioned Stine writes, rewrites, and deals with the temptations and distractions of Hollywood while his wife is back in New York, his screenplay comes to life in front of us in the form of a film noir mystery led by private-eye Stone. City of Angels is witty, glamorous, full of suspense, and completely original....director Phillip Fazio has a handle on making sure we always know which world we are in. With 40 scene changes...and the fact that all of the actors, except the two leads, play a part in each story, there could be disastrous results. Fazio succeeds in several ways.....Cy Coleman's sumptuous music and David Zippel's intricate and clever lyrics are masterfully played by a smoking band led by music director Steve Hilderbrand. ...As Stone and Stine, Matt Zimmerer and Ian Christiansen are well cast. Zimmerer has the look and demeanor of the hard-boiled, beaten, and jaded detective. While he effectively portrays Stone as a private eye right out of numerous 1940s films, he also displays the right emotional connection to how he got to be the person he is, which we see play out in flashbacks. Christiansen is equally good in showing how Stine is simply trying to retain the artistic intent of his novel in the film adaptation while at the same time juggling his attempt to please his wife, his girlfriend, and his producer. ...Intelligent and well thought out musicals as well conceived as City of Angels come along very rarely. While it might prove a little challenging to less inclined theatergoers, due to the overlapping and complex storylines, Theater Works' production is a stellar achievement, with a superb cast, clever design elements, and clear and crisp direction."

Monday, February 22, 2016

theatre review - THE CHILDREN'S HOUR - Desert Foothills Theater - February 19, 2016

Bella Tindall, Carolyn McBurney, Matthew Harris,
Jennifer E. Rio, and Kellie Dunlap
Photo by Tiffany Bolock / Desert Foothills Theater
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 28th.

 "Based on an actual court case from the 1800s, Lillian Hellman's 1934 play The Children's Hour focuses on how a lie told by a child drastically impacts and virtually destroys the lives of two women. Desert Foothills Theater presents this rarely seen play in a fine production that features a stunning performance by teenager Bella Tindall as the girl who tells the lie....Hellman's dialogue is succinct and extremely well written, though the play itself is a little wordy, somewhat melodramatic, has some slow going parts, and the court case scene, in which the two women sue for libel, all happens offstage. ...As Martha and Karen, Kellie Dunlap and Jennifer Rio do well with their roles, though there is a slight disconnect in their acting styles, with Kellie's expressive nature sometimes at odds with Rio's more stoic and less emotional delivery. This occasionally causes a few of their scenes together to seem not quite believable. However, in the third act where Karen has a confrontational moment with her fiancé Joe (played very well by a sure footed Matthew Harris), followed by a conversation between Karen and Martha, with Martha searching for some understanding of the truth as to the woman she is and the shame that comes with it, both Dunlap and Rio deliver credible moments. As Mary, Bella Tindall is exceptional. She has a perfect, realistic take on this bratty girl who causes trouble, makes things up, and is a bad influence on the other girls. Her calculating and expressive eyes and body language portray the spoiled and cocky girl superbly. Carolyn McBurney is equally convincing as Mary's well-meaning grandmother who gets involved in spreading the lies about the women, since she believes her granddaughter.....Director Janis Webb doesn't let the talkier moments of the play bog down the action and she gets lovely performances from the group of teenagers who play the schoolgirls. She also manages to keep the whole play from going too far into melodrama, though a tighter grip on the acting styles might have allowed for a more emotional ending.....While I have a few quibbles with the play and this production, Hellman's words and the Desert Foothills cast come together to show the lasting emotional cost of gossip, rumor and bullying and how the statements of just one young girl can be extremely destructive."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - GOODNIGHT MOON - Childsplay - February 20, 2016

Chanel Bragg and Michael Thompson
photo: Tim Trumble

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 10th.

"In 1947, author Margaret Wise Brown and illustrator Clement Hurd created the simple children's rhyming bedtime story "Goodnight Moon" that features a young rabbit saying "good night" to the various objects he can see from his bed. Chad Henry has taken that simple story and expanded it into a silly, fun, and heartwarming 90-minute musical about a young bunny child who is too restless to sleep. This family-friendly show will charm even the crankiest person and Childsplay's production is a stunning display of colorfully creative designs and features a talented quartet of actors.
...The idea of taking various items mentioned in the book, including things in the pictures on the wall in the book illustrations, and turning them into musical numbers is brilliant. The best of these is when the picture that features bears and chairs brings the bears to life and turns into a tap dancing game of musical chairs. ...While the dozen original musical numbers aren't that memorable they do add to the fun of the show and represent a range of musical styles....Director Anthony Runfola uses a combination of effectively staged, simple storytelling and theatrical razzle dazzle to entertain...Molly Lajoie's choreography utilizes a range of styles, all of which add to the fun of the show. The set elements by Holly Windingstad are awash in technicolor and imagination as are Connie Furr Soloman's costumes, hair, and make-up designs. Lighting designer Tim Monson creates some lovely images of starry skies that slowly turn dark as the play progresses. As the young Bunny, Michael Thompson couldn't be better. He has an appropriate childlike innocence along with the rambunctious energy of a child who can't sit still and is restless and not at all ready to go to sleep. Chanel Bragg is simply lovely as the Old Lady, while Michelle Chin is endearing as a Mouse and Tommy Strawser is a charmer as a Tooth Fairy who does a little soft shoe routine...While Goodnight Moon may be targeted for younger theatergoers, children of all ages will enjoy Childsplay's production of this sweet, magical story of the little restless Bunny and the magical things he experiences as he attempts to go to sleep."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - SWEENEY TODD: School Edition - Actor's Youth Theatre - February 18, 2016

Macy Wood and Dale Mortensen
Photo by Lisa Webb / Southwest Shots Photography
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 February 27th.

 "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is beloved by many and considered to be one of Stephen Sondheim's masterpieces. However, when you hear that a youth theatre company is presenting this show it might seem a bit strange, especially since it features a murderous barber who seeks revenge and kills those who get in his way. However, the themes of injustice and human suffering and the fact that Sondheim himself was involved in the revised "school edition" of his work, which tones down the sexual references and allows the use of less gruesome visuals, all add up to an experience that provides younger actors the chance to perform, and their audiences to experience, a more sophisticated and challenging show than most usual youth theatre offerings. Actor's Youth Theatre's production of this classic musical has a talented cast and is a visceral, aural and macabre treat....Any concerns over the nature of the story being too adult for a youth theatre company are assuaged by the fact that Sondheim has eliminated a few words of profanity as well as one song that is more adult and a couple of smaller musical moments...Sondheim's powerful score can be a challenge even for professional theatre companies so it's understandable that a youth theatre company may encounter some difficulties with the music. While the majority of the cast maneuver their way through the score with relative ease, there are a few brief moments in which notes are flat or sharp, high notes aren't attempted, or they are not held as long as they should be. But, for the most part, AYT's cast does well with one of Sondheim's most difficult scores. The leads are pretty stellar. Brooding, pondering, and always deep in thought, Dale Mortensen doesn't make one false move as Sweeney. He instills the role with a calculated obsession, along with a furious sense of menace. Macy Wood is equally good as Mrs. Lovett. ...Their voices do well with their many solos and duets and their act one performance of "A Little Priest" is exceptionally well acted and sung....Director Zach Diepstraten does well with the challenging material. His decision to have Sweeney pull a red scarf from a victim's neck with his razor, instead of using blood to signify the many murders in the show, is a perfect solution to adapt the show for a younger audience yet still stay true to the original intentions of the material...Musical director Karli Kemper gets lovely sounds from the cast, with very few errors made in the timing and phrasing of the difficult material, and choreographer Josh Lindblom's steps, including a fun waltz during "A Little Priest," work well without overpowering the show. ..Sweeney Todd is macabre and intensely dramatic yet also extremely rewarding in the way that Sondheim's sophisticated score combines rich ballads and creatively written lyrics that are laced with black comedy to tell the story of a madman. The Actor's Youth Theatre production shows that challenging material can be delivered, and delivered well, when you have the right cast and the right creative team steering them in the right direction, while challenging themselves and their audiences."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - BECOMING DR. RUTH - Herberger Theater Center - February 17, 2016

Jane Ridley
Photo by Mark Garvin
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 28th.

 "Dr. Ruth Westheimer became a household name in the 1980s due to her radio and TV shows in which she spoke frankly about sex...What many people didn't know, and some still don't, is that there was much more to the story as to how a young Jewish woman, who was born in 1928 Germany, grew up to become a famous sex expert. That story is the steady foundation of Becoming Dr. Ruth, Mark St. Germain's one woman show that has been performed in many cities across the U.S. the last few years. The charming and moving show is being presented at the Herberger Theatre Center in downtown Phoenix for a three-week run that ends on February 28th. The setting of the play is 1997 in Ruth's Washington Heights, New York, apartment. It's two months since her husband Fred passed away, and Ruth is packing up her apartment to move across town. Throughout the course of the play Westheimer will talk directly to the audience, as she says "it's much better than talking to myself," and receive phone calls from her son and daughter who question her decision to move so close after the death of her beloved husband. Over the 90-minute play we will also get the story of her life which details how she became the famous sex therapist. Westheimer's story is fascinating...St. Germain never seems to sugar-coat the struggles that Westheimer went through, and his dialogue squarely presents her as the warm and witty person we know from her many TV appearances.....However, there are a few hiccups in the play. For the first hour, almost every time the play brings up anything about the Holocaust or any very serious topic there are phone calls that Ruth receives or distractions that switch the focus...However, the end of the play does include a reflective moment about how impactful, and always present, the Holocaust is to her, which makes up for many of these earlier inconsistencies in tone. With the exception that she looks much younger than the age of 69 that Ruth is at the time of the play, Jane Ridley is lovely as Ruth. She has the famous accent down almost perfectly and infuses the character with the sense of passion and personality that made Ruth famous....In the play, Dr. Ruth mentions that the brain is the most important organ when it comes to sex. Becoming Dr. Ruth uses that same organ to make us laugh, connect, and most importantly "feel" for the amazing journey this woman took and the heartbreaking experiences she had that ultimately made her into the woman that she became."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

theatre review - THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY - National Tour: ASU Gammage - February 16, 2016

Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky
photo: Matthew Murphy
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 21st.

"Composer Jason Robert Brown has won two Tony Awards for his musical scores yet none of his shows has had a Broadway run of longer than a few months. It's unfortunate, as Brown's music and lyrics are almost always exceptional. Last season he won two Tony Awards for his score and orchestrations for the musical The Bridges of Madison County. While that show only ran for three months in New York, a national tour of the show launched this past November and comes to Tempe for a week long run. Brown's score is lush and romantic and, even though the musical is long, somewhat repetitive, and slow going in parts, the touring cast is exceptional. Based on the bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County is set in 1965 Iowa and focuses on the four-day affair between a lost and lonely Italian war bride whose family is away on a trip and the equally lost National Geographic photographer who comes to town to photograph the covered bridges in the area. ...Marsha Norman's book for the show follows the plot of Waller's novel fairly closely and she instills her dialogue with a freshness and a perfect Midwest America sensibility. Brown's score is sensational, featuring a combination of operatic soaring songs along with bluegrass and country flavors. However, it is a ballad heavy score so there are several similar sounding songs as well as a few for the supporting characters that slow the plot down. With a running time of over two and a half hours it could be tightened, with some of the songs cut or trimmed, and have an even more lasting impact. The cast for the national tour is excellent. Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky are Francesca and Robert and both have superb voices that bring an emotional connection to Brown's succinct lyrics. Both characters are similar—lost in their current lives and looking for something but unsure what it is—and the connection they have for each other is immediate and the heat they generate is palpable...The staging for the dramatic scenes and the movement work very well together to tell the story and move the plot along. Especially effective is how the ensemble is used to not only move the various set pieces around as the scenes change but also in how at many times they are on the sides and at the back of the stage, seated, while the more dramatic moments unfold. These elements add a theatricality to the piece while also giving the sense that the people surrounding Francesca's life in Iowa are always present, so her responsibilities are always felt. The ensemble also adds a soaring choral voice to several of the musical numbers. The creative elements, all of which are modeled on the Broadway designs, are excellent. ... While this musical isn't perfect, the end result still evokes a deep feeling of romance with two interesting and intriguing characters and a cast who is able to do justice to Brown's music."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - PINOCCHIO - Valley Youth Theatre - February 13

photo: Skye Fallon/VYT
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 21st.

"...Pinocchio, Greg Banks' fairly new theatrical adaptation of Carlo Collodi's story, is a faithful retelling of the story of carpenter Geppetto and the boy he creates out of wood. Banks uses a story-within-a-story structure and plenty of imagination to bring the magical, fun, and heartwarming story to life. Even though there are a few shortcomings in this adaptation, Valley Youth Theatre's production has a talented cast of young performers who instill the story with humor and heart. ...Banks takes a group of painters, who are in the theatre getting ready to paint it for an upcoming production, and turns them into storytellers who portray the characters in Collodi's children's novel "The Adventures of Pinocchio." They use the materials, equipment, and supplies they have on hand to paint the theatre to recreate the famous scenes and moments in this tale of a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy....the show does take a few extra beats to get going and also lags in points. There are also numerous moments of audience interaction that prolong the story and are repetitive. ...most younger audience members are sure to enjoy the creative touches the play and this production use to tell this beloved story. Even with the few quibbles, it is charming and funny, and the ending is moving and heartwarming....As Pinocchio, Corey Hawk does well as an obnoxious, rambunctious, and somewhat ungrateful boy. Yet, after Pinocchio takes the wrong path, Hawk effectively shows us how Pinocchio has learned his lesson and makes an optimistic change in his look on life. Taylor Davis is sturdy and strong as Gepetto. The fact that Davis is a woman adds another layer to the portrayal and shows that it doesn't matter what gender (or even age) one is—anyone can tell a story if they know what they are doing. ...Valley Youth Theatre's Pinocchio uses everyday items and a small talented ensemble to create stage magic. While I have a few reservations about this adaptation, VYT's production proves to be a fun and upbeat exercise in the power of imagination in storytelling." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - ALL MY SONS - Grand Canyon University - February 14, 2016

Natalie S. Ward, Jamie Coblentz, Scott Campbell, and Keach Siriani-Madden
Photo by Darryl Webb / Grand Canyon University
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 21st.

 "Phoenix theatergoers currently have the rare gift of two exceptional American classic dramas that both center around dysfunctional family dynamics. Arizona Theatre Company's Fences, that just opened this past weekend and is led by an ensemble made up of professional actors who are all members of Actors' Equity, is virtually matched by Grand Canyon University's production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, with a cast almost entirely composed of college students. Based on a true story, Miller's 1947 drama focuses on the tragic costs of war, and the companies and people that profit from it. In late-1940s suburban Ohio, businessman Joe Keller's company knowingly manufactured and shipped cracked cylinder heads which were used in planes and led to the deaths of 21 World War II pilots. Joe was exonerated but his partner Steve Deever wasn't. Joe's elder son Larry has been missing in action for three years and Joe's wife Kate refuses to believe that Larry isn't coming home. ...Centering around the themes of loyalty, betrayal, and animosity as well as the American dream to succeed, All My Sons is a well-written play that dissects family dynamics yet it is also somewhat slightly melodramatic and some might say even dated. However, with companies like Halliburton and Blackwater and high profile names like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney all capitalizing on the military, the focus on war profits and the impact it has on those involved is especially relevant today.
GCU's production, skillfully directed by Claude Pensis, features an exceptional cast. Scott Campbell and Natalie S. Ward are superb as Joe and Kate. Campbell's combination of chumminess, egotism, and forthrightness in his portrayal attempts to hide the conniving, powerful, and dangerous man that Joe is underneath....Ward is superb in showing how Kate's disillusionment has now swallowed her whole. Her ability to portray Kate's nervousness is matched equally by her steadfast determination in how she refuses to admit or believe what she knows is true....Pensis' decision to forego an intermission is a good move as this way the focus on the plot and the revelations never lets up. He also keeps a steady hand on his cast to ensure that no one, not even the comical neighbors next door, ever let the affair cross the line from serious drama to melodrama..All My Sons addresses a multitude of themes, from family loyalty to moral responsibility. Yet it is also an honest portrayal of how sometimes the path to succeed can be filled with dishonesty and disillusionment. Arthur Miller's play is full of revelations and soul searching with an ending that packs a punch. Grand Canyon University's production is top-notch, with a gifted cast and solid direction."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

theatre review - FENCES - Arizona Theatre Company - February 13, 2016

David Alan Anderson, Kim Staunton, and Edgar Sanchez
Photo by Tim Fuller
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 28th.

"August Wilson's Fences, part of his 10-play cycle on African-American life in the 20th century, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award that year for Best Play. It is a stellar achievement in playwriting and Arizona Theatre Company presents an equally stellar production, with an incredible cast, sublime creative elements, and spot-on direction. It is simply not to be missed....one of the best nights I've had in the theatre in a very long time. Fences is set in the late 1950s in Pittsburgh where garbage man Troy Maxson appears to finally have everything in his life in order. He has a loving, caring wife, Rose, and a steady job, plus a house that is his own. But everything isn't as solid as it seems. The impact of shattered hopes and dreams and the resentment those things can bring plus a heavy dose of betrayal are right around the corner. ..Wilson's exceptional, evocative, and thought-provoking drama. ..Wilson created characters and situations that anyone who has ever experienced some form of dysfunctional family dynamics can identify with, regardless of race. ...The ATC cast couldn't be better. As Troy, David Alan Anderson is giving a fearless, fearsome, and powerful portrayal, with as many nuances as the character has. ..Kim Staunton's Rose is steadfast and warm. ..superb portrayal of a woman with a fierce sense of herself and sheer will and determination. ...James T. Alfred is Lyons, Troy's eldest son from his first marriage, and Edgar Sanchez is Cory. Both have a natural style in their line delivery and in ensuring that the changes their characters go through as the events of the play unfold are realistic...Terry Bellamy is exceptional as Troy's brother Gabriel, who suffered a brain injury in World War II and actually believes that he's the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel is the heart of the play and Bellamy's portrayal is heartbreaking, with his final scene a moment of pure beauty...Director Lou Bellamy does an exceptional job in ensuring the pressures and problems that the characters face are portrayed realistically. ..The creative elements are extraordinary, with Vicki Smith's set design realistically portraying the back porch and entire two-story facade of Troy and Rose's house...With an anti-hero at its center, the beauty of Fences, and this production, is that it never attempts to make you truly like the character of Troy. Yet, even though the main character is ultimately unlikable, Wilson's play shows how compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, the realization of lost hopes and dreams, and the loving bond of family can ultimately become a celebration of life. This production of this American classic is captivating, engaging and first rate."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

theatre review - PASSING STRANGE - iTheatre Collaborative - February 11, 2016

Miguel Jackson and Tiffany Pope
photo courtesty iTheatre Collaborative
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 20th.

"You have to hand it to iTheatre Collaborative for having the guts to bring a virtually unknown musical like Passing Strange to town. While this musical won a Tony for Best Book it didn’t last long on Broadway, running just five months. But the raw nerve of the story and fresh energy of the rock enthused score make this a show that is about as far from a traditional musical as you can get. It also has a genuinely sincere and poignant message at its center. iTheatre’s production features some of the best African American musical theatre talent in the Valley and, while there are some flaws in the quirky, rock heavy show, this production is rock solid.... follows the story of a young, lost, black man from L.A., simply called “Youth,” who has to travel to Europe to learn about acceptance. Along the way he experiments with drugs, has encounters with an assortment of characters and adapts, learns and grows from these experiences. The score by Stew (aka Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald is a mix of R&B, funk, pop, rock and the blues. However, the repetitive lyrics and false rhymes are sloppy and, though most of the score is catchy, not much of it will resonate with you once you leave the theatre. The story, which is based somewhat on Stew’s past, is also simple and somewhat unoriginal. It is also a little pretentious in how the main character is called “Youth” while every other character in the show has an actual name. The ending of both acts is also somewhat unfocused and there are some messy moments along the way....Fortunately...the struggle of this young man who escapes to discover who he is will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to find a place to belong and a "tribe" to call their own. ...Director Jeff Kennedy draws inspiring performances from his cast, many of whom play multiple roles. ...The intimacy of the Kax stage at the Herberger Theatre Center also adds another element of connectivity between story, cast and audience. Miguel Jackson and Matravius Avent are exceptional as the Narrator and the Youth. Jackson skillfully guides us through the Youth’s story with a knowing wink in his eye and a sobering, confidential delivery...Avent is very good as the angry young black man who is struggling with his identity and trying to find a way in his middle-class world to figure out who he is and to find his “blackness.” ...As his Mother, DeAngelus Grisby is heartbreaking, distinct and warm. The four other cast members play a variety of roles...All seven have stellar singing voices that make the songs soar. Slightly eccentric, somewhat pretentious and often saying very little while at other times saying a lot, Passing Strange is still a very funny, charming and sincere musical unlike just about any other musical out there. Even with the shortfalls of the story and the mostly unforgettable score it still tells a truthful story of acceptance and self-discovery that blends the past with the present by having an older man narrate the story of his own youthful journey. iTheatre Collaborative’s production may not appeal to everyone but those looking for a musical that is fresh and vibrant, with an exceptionally gifted cast, will find much to like." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Friday, February 12, 2016

theatre review - LOOKING OVER THE PRESIDENT'S SHOULDER - Black Theatre Troupe - February 11, 2016

Walter Belcher
photo: Laura Durant
Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 21st.

"...Alonzo Fields, who was the grandson of a freed slave, worked at the White House for 21 years and was the first black man to be promoted to Head Butler...The one man play Looking Over the President's Shoulder is told from Fields’ perspective of serving under four presidents through some of the more trying times in American history: Pearl Harbor, the rise of Hitler and the Korean War. Black Theatre Troupe presents a smartly directed and well-acted production of James Still’s play. It’s just too bad that the play, while moving and poignant at times and offering an interesting look at America’s complicated history of racism and classism at that time, is stuffed with too many small facts and not enough emphasis on the serious historical moments of the time and also is somewhat vague about Fields’ family. ...Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were the four U.S. Presidents that Fields worked for during his 21 years and Still treats them all fairly, providing new insights into these famous men..It is an interesting play full of facts and remembrances. However, while we understand how Fields’ position demanded that he give up so much of his own personal life, it’s still unclear in the play as to what happened to Fields’ wife and daughter during his over 20 year tenure...Also, Fields comes across mainly as an emotionless observer. That is the role he was forced to play at the White House but it means we never really get a full understanding of the man..But those issues are all faults of the play and not the Black Theatre Troupe production. Director Pasha Yamotahari keeps the two hour play moving briskly. He uses Thom Gilseth’s smart but simply designed set wisely...He adds plenty of movement to not let the play get bogged down. There are a lot of facts and plenty of details about the White House, the Presidents, and world events that Fields mentions in the play, so the fact that it never feels overly long is a testament to Yamotahari’s ability to keep things moving and focused. He also gets an impressive performance from Walter Belcher as Fields. Belcher is powerful and forthright in his portrayal, yet also emotional, moving and touching when needed. It is a well-rounded performance full of nuance and also provides Belcher the chance to play many of the world figures who Fields came into contact with, which he does with ease. ...offers a unique perspective from a man who was in the room where many world events happened and where famous guests attended. While the play could be a little clearer it still offers us the chance and the ability, as Fields states in the play, of "being in the front row and watching the passing parade of history."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Thursday, February 11, 2016


"While Jason Alexander is best known for his award-winning portrayal of George Costanza on TV's "Seinfeld," he actually got his start on Broadway, having now appeared in six Broadway shows. Those who only know him from "Seinfeld" might be shocked to learn that before he became famous through that TV series he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1989 for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Alexander recently performed two concerts with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra where he got to show off both his musical theatre chops and his beloved comic skills.
Alexander's clear, exceptional singing voice and his agile dance moves perfectly combined with his natural comedic abilities throughout the concert. His ease in connecting with an audience was apparent through his ability to win them over, which was punctuated with his humorous, self-deprecating patter. The 80-minute act was a journey through Alexander's life, focused mainly on the musicals and artists that were significant to him when he was growing up. While the opening song, "So Exciting For You," which Alexander wrote, was very tongue in cheek in how it commented on how excited the audience should be to see him, it also set the tone for the entire concert—humorous yet  heartfelt.Alexander spoke about the Broadway shows that resonated most with him as a youth, either from listening to the cast recordings that his older sister had or attending the shows with his parents. "Trouble" from The Music Man received a breakneck delivery from Alexander that was full of hand gestures, fast-paced dance steps, and facial expressions that highlighted the lyrics of the song. A medley of songs from Pippin featured a lovely version of "Corner of the Sky" that also touched upon his fascination with magic as a small boy. Throughout his performances of these songs, he reminisced about his past, mentioning several times that he was a "short and husky boy from New Jersey," joked with the audience, and spoke how these shows influenced him to become a performer....The inclusion of "popular" concerts like this one in the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra's calendar allows concertgoers to experience a well-known performer like Jason Alexander doing something they may not be aware he is capable of doing. Alexander's well-structured show gave insight into his past, and his affection for musicals was as palpable as his passion and devotion to performing. His continued praise of the PSO throughout the concert was echoed by the practically sold out audience."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

theatre review - PERÔ, OR THE MYSTERIES OF THE NIGHT - Childsplay - January 30, 2016

Katie McFadzen and Jon Gentry
photo: Tim Trumble

"... Perô, or the Mysteries of the Night is a unique production that features puppets, music, and a cast of four to tell a fairly simple love story. Childsplay’s collaboration with the Dutch theatre troupe Speeltheater Holland, while intriguing and enthralling for more open minded theatre goers, may be a bit too avant-garde for younger audience members but those who are willing to let their imaginations soar will find much to like. The play follows a simple, timeless and often told love story about a shy man who is in love with a woman. But he finds his heart broken when he isn’t able to speak his thoughts and things don’t go the way he plans. ... It is charming, beguiling and also part musical with operatic flourishes and a huge dollop of romance...the European flair and touches of commedia dell’arte in the production may be new and different for some theatregoers, and catch them off guard, Onny Huisink directs with a high sense of theatrical fluidity that is captivating. ...While it is an intriguing concept, and something that you most likely won’t see in town from other theatre companies, the sophisticated theatrical approach may come off a bit pretentious or even confusing, especially for those who are used to more traditional (ie: “American”) children’s theatre productions. But Perô is full of creativity, and this simple, thoughtful and enchanting story will peak your imagination and engage those with curious minds. -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - WINDFALL - Brelby Theatre Company - January 29, 2016

Shelby Maticic, Devon Mahon, and David Magadan
Photo by Fernando Perez

 "The people at Brelby Theatre Company pride themselves on highlighting new works. They are currently presenting the world premiere of Brelby co-founder Brian Maticic's Windfall, which is a funny black comedy with some poignant moments. Featuring a talented cast, composed of several Brelby company members, the end result is a witty and hilarious comedy that is a welcome addition to the Phoenix theatre scene...Maticic writes very authentic dialogue and characters. While you may think you know where the plot is going, he takes it to unexpected places, which is very good. The dramatic scenes, while touching, are a bit less effective, only because of how funny the scenes are leading up to them. ...But there is a bit of unevenness, especially in the tone toward the last half of the second act, which is my only complaint about the play. Overall, it is a good new work. The cast deliver the humorous lines and situations very well ...Fernando Perez is effective with his direction, not letting the tone shifts be too abrupt and staging the emotional scenes with a natural ease. ...Well directed, with a talented cast, Windfall is an unpredictable black comedy that will keep you guessing. It is witty and thoughtful, with realistic characters and natural dialogue—another welcome new play from Brian Maticic and Brelby Theatre Company."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - LA CAGE AUX FOLLES - Fountain Hills Theater - January 28, 2016

Roger Prenger, Sky Donovan, and Patrick Russo
Photo by Patty Torrilhon

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

 "... with an optimistic message at its center and a heart-filled story about family that everyone could relate to, La Cage aux Folles became a big fat Broadway smash, won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Book and Score, and ran for over four years. Now, more than thirty years since it first premiered, the central story and lovable characters still resonate and Fountain Hills Theater's production is a winner, featuring a spectacularly outlandish, yet lovingly grounded, performance by Patrick Russo.......the central theme of acceptance still has relevance. Jerry Herman's songs are still vibrant, with the anthems "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times," and the ballads "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There," still exceptionally moving. Harvey Fierstein's book is succinct, fast paced but full of emotion, pathos, and many laugh out loud moments....Sure, the "La Cage aux Folles" nightclub musical sequences may not have as much glitz and glamor as those in a larger production, but the intimacy of the Fountain Hills stage allows a deeper connection with the characters.Director Peter J. Hill gets just about everything right with this production. He manages to make almost every comic moment zing, but also ensures that the emotional heart at the center of the characters beats strong. He has cast four talented men in the main roles, plus a fun group of actors to play the kooky ensemble and the wild "Cagelles" dancers. As Georges and Albin, Roger Prenger and Patrick Russo form a realistic duo...Russo is simply sensational as Albin...He runs the gamut of emotions and is at times strong and at other times weak, campy at times yet also deeply serious. Russo has a lovely stage presence and singing voice...Prenger makes for a charming host of the club and brings a stern yet loving tenderness to the relationship with Russo's Albin. Both Prenger and Russo have a firm emotional connection with each other and the other actors in the show.As the mostly self-absorbed son Jean-Michel, Sky Donovan is appealing, with a sweet demeanor. Even though Jean-Michel implores his father to pretend to be "normal" for just the one night, and to get Albin out of the house, the emotional pleas never come across as insulting....Naughty, witty and full of heart, I highly recommend a visit to the wacky, seedy but very loving drag nightclub and the endearing production of La Cage aux Folles at Fountain Hills Theater."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE - January 27, 2016

Tracy Payne Black, Andrew Lipman, Emily Lynne Aiken, and Brett Aiken
photo: Wade Moran

 "Over a series of vignettes and songs, both comical and sincere, the musical revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change tackles many phases of a relationship. ...Theater Works in Peoria presents a smartly directed production of this hit show with a very talented cast.
With book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (Tony winner for Memphis) and music by Jimmy Roberts, a cast of four play a wide range of characters who appear in short vignettes that cover the journey from dating to marriage, with failures and triumphs encountered along the way. ..DiPietro's dialogue is smart, realistic, and charming yet also moving in the more serious scenes. His lyrics are just as good. Unfortunately Roberts' music doesn't fare as well, with none of the songs having any hooks, phrases, or melodies that you'll remember after the curtain call. Director Brett Aiken has cast a very talented foursome who excel in making the comedic moments funny and the dramatic scenes poignant. While it might seem like nepotism that Aiken cast himself and his wife, Emily Lynne Aiken, they are both exceptional, as are Tracy Payne Black and Andrew Lipman. There aren't any moments where the four don't excel...The four cast members also have nice voices and great chemistry as well as astute facial expressions. They add plenty of thought to their interpretations and hit a range of emotional levels in both the scenes and the songs. While the space is small, Aiken's staging works well....Steve Hilderbrand's music direction achieves lovely sounds from the cast and the two-piece band. Tamara Treat's costumes and Jacob Hamilton's hair and make-up designs are fun and fresh...I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is far from a perfect musical, but it's still a fun journey through life and the ups and downs of a relationship. It's just too bad the songs aren't as good as the book scenes."
 -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre - January 24, 2016

George Piccininni-Avery
photo: Heather Butcher

Click here for more information on this production that runs through March 13th.

 "Neil Simon's coming of age comedy Brighton Beach Memoirs is a humorous look at the dynamics of family relationships, but it is also full of heart and touches upon the complexities of life. The play takes us back to a more gentle and innocent time with well-drawn characters and a tightly constructed plot that includes plenty of laughs and touching moments. Desert Stages in Scottsdale presents a winning, well-honed production that is both entertaining and rewarding, with a talented cast who are giving sincere performances....Director Rick Davis balances the humor and heart in the play, never letting the comical moments get too sappy and ensuring the dramatic moments land appropriately. He also has found a small talented cast who all create finely shaded portrayals. As Eugene, George Piccininni-Avery is full of charm. He has a winning delivery in his narration as he reports on the trials and tribulations of his family. Piccininni-Avery is engaging and enduring in the part and does quite well with many of Eugene's comical lines. He doesn't quite land every joke, but I have faith that, given a few more performances to get the timing right, he will. ...Heidi Carpenter and Wade Moran portray Eugene's parents Kate and Jack. Carpenter is exceptional as the strong woman who tries to hold the family together. ...Moran also does well in showing us that Jack is concerned about his family and worries about them, yet also is attentive to their needs...While the Jerome family may not be as complex as those families in recent prize winning dramas such as August: Osage County and Next to Normal, Brighton Beach Memoirs is still a rich story of one family working through the challenges that life brings them. Simon's story may have characters that wear their hearts on their sleeves, but it is a timeless story that shows that love and laughter and the power of love and family will always win the day. DST's production has a fine cast and clear direction, resulting in a charming, funny, and touching theatrical treat."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

cabaret review - JANE LYNCH: SEE JANE SING! - Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts - January 23

photo courtesy Jane Lynch
/ Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
"Not your typical cabaret show, Jane Lynch's See Jane Sing! is a (mostly) theme-less evening of comical songs, funny patter, and irreverent humor. Lynch brought her show to Scottsdale's Center for the Performing Arts last Saturday night where her sure-footed comic delivery and warm vocals wowed the sold out audience... Lynch's smart and sassy show, somewhat reminiscent of a 1970s TV variety show in how eclectic, outlandish and comedic it is, succeeds in being a well thought out concert that turns your typical cabaret show on its ear, while at the same time playing to all of the traditional cabaret requirements. ..Lynch's easygoing, warm, bright and somewhat folksy delivery of the songs may also come as a shock to those who only know her from her Emmy winning role on "Glee" ..Yes, Lynch can carry a tune, and carry it very well, but she also knows how to wring the comic moments from even some of the most serious songs. Backed by The Tony Guerrero Quintet, ..Lynch started the show off with the loopy "Wishes" that featured the repeated nonsensical lyric, "If wishes are rainbows, so am I." The jazzy, risqué song "Slappin' the Cakes on Me" followed, receiving a well-mannered delivery from the singer. Those two songs set the tone for the entire show: offbeat, adult and very funny. Lynch's close friend Kate Flannery, who played Meredith Palmer on the TV show "The Office," joined in for most of the evening, providing harmony, back-up vocals, and humorous banter and quips. Their relationship was reminiscent of Sonny and Cher's on their 70s TV series: great chemistry, love and respect for each other, tight harmonies while at the same time mocking and making fun of themselves and their stage partner. Irving Berlin's "Mr. Monotony" received a lush and fairly classical delivery from the pair while Fiddler on the Roof's heartbreaking "Far From the Home I Love" became an up-beat, driving and rousing number that worked splendidly. ...Lynch's undeniable likability and her clear, warm vocals brought a professional shine to the hilariously inappropriate nature of many of the numbers. Her See Jane Sing! show is both unexpected and exciting, full of harmony and a respect and craftsmanship that is fresh and fun but also full of heart"  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

theatre review - CALENDAR GIRLS - Phoenix Theatre - January 23, 2016

Elyse Wolf, Shari Watts
photo: Erin Evangeline Photography

Click here for more information on this production that runs through February 7th.

"The 2003 British comedy film Calendar Girls was a big hit at the box office. Based on the true story of a group of women in Northern England who seductively pose for a nude calendar to raise funds for Leukemia Research, the movie was adapted into a play and Phoenix Theatre presents the Arizona premiere with a superb cast of some of the top actresses in the Valley....... there is minimal drama beyond Chris' butting heads with Marie and some minor confrontations and misunderstandings among the women. And, while the comical moments work best, the dramatic ones lose a little impact without the benefits of film close-ups. Fortunately, Phoenix Theatre's cast is top drawer featuring the cream of the crop of the Valley's "mature" actresses, plus a stellar turn by newcomer to the area Elyse Wolf, who plays Chris. Wolf and Shari Watts, as Annie, form a realistic pair of best friends. Wolf has great comedic timing while Watts gives a lovely, assured delivery in the sensitive moments of the play. Johanna Carlisle, Patti Davis, Cathy Dresbach, and Debra K. Stevens round out the main female roles, with each delivering well thought out characters with some depth, even though the script doesn't always give them much to play off of...Director EE Moe achieves a fast-paced production and derives well balanced performances from her entire cast, letting the comedy shine bright but not overstepping the emotion at the core of the story. The nude scenes are discreetly staged but also delivered with hilarious results....While the theatrical version of Calendar Girls adds very little to the joys of the film, it does result, like the movie, in a heartwarming and moving affair. And seeing some of the best actresses in town having a field day, baring both their hearts and their bodies, is a joyous enough reason to pay them a visit."  -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)