Saturday, January 11, 2020

STAGES’ Chicago Heats Things Up at HART

Photo by Frank Hunt

By Tina Arth

Chicago holds the record as the longest running musical  (and the longest running musical revival) in Broadway history. It is a challenging show – doing it well requires not only fine actors and solid vocals, but also top-notch choreography delivered with style and precision to honor Bob Fosse’s original vision. I have seen two productions of Chicago that really knocked my socks off, and remarkably, both were done by high schoolers, and both in Hillsboro (must be something in the water?). My first trip to Chicago via Hillsboro was over a decade ago, my second just last Saturday night at HART Theatre, where an amazing STAGES cast is drawing full houses and copious cheers for the relatively new (2017) high school edition of the Kander and Ebb classic.  Director/choreographer Linda Anderson has assembled a dynamite cast from an enthusiastic and talented mix of STAGES veterans and newcomers, and the result will surprise anyone skeptical about the potential of youth theater.

The story hasn’t changed much for the high school edition – just a slight reduction in overt sexual themes and adult language, a few songs removed. It’s still a broad parody of the glitz and glamour that defined the “American Dream” of the Roaring Twenties – set in Chicago, where almost anything goes. We see chorus girl Roxie Hart murder her lover, then convince her hapless schlub of a husband, Amos, to take the rap. Roxie’s cover story falls apart, and she ends up in jail with several other notorious female killers, including vaudevillian Velma Kelly, currently the darling of the sensational and sentimental press. Headline grabbing lawyer Billy Flynn adds Roxie to his caseload (he already represents Velma) and the two women compete for headlines, public support, and Billy’s attention. The ultimate goal is not just acquittal – the women are convinced that their time in the spotlight will propel them to stardom.

I think one reason Chicago works so well is that, despite the darkly mature themes, the authors have taken a playful view of the material that meshes beautifully with the natural joie de vivre of a stage full of singing, dancing teens. Neither the dancing nor the vocals are perfect in the STAGES production – but they are brimming with an energy and vitality that really bring the material to life. There is no self-consciousness in the STAGES cast’s embrace of Bob Fosse’s inimitable style – the rolling shoulders, turned in knees, hip thrusts and shuffling that manage to be simultaneously sexy and silly – somewhere between conventional dance and pantomime in unison.  These kiddos have worked hard to make it look easy, and the result is not to be missed.

Riley Irvine is spectacular as Roxie Hart – she’s lithe, flexible, cute as a murderous little bug, and she pulls off her vocals with panache. I especially loved her “Me and My Baby” with Kada and Logan Switzer as a pair of adorable (if somewhat oversized) dancing babies. Madeline Hui has lots of evil fun as Roxie’s rival and ultimate partner, Velma Kelly, starting by belting out her audience-grabbing lead in “All That Jazz” and showing off her vocal and physical flexibility with an eye-catching rendition of “I Can’t Do It Alone.” Margaret Burden’s physicality and stage presence as “Mama Morton” had me scrabbling in my program to be sure I had not misread her age, because twelve-year-olds simply are not supposed to bring that level of maturity to a role!

While many of the best roles in Chicago are reserved for women, there are a couple of key male roles, and STAGES captured some solid performers to fill these parts. Jamie Burgess is appropriately sleazy as Billy Flynn, and he showcases a solid voice and dancer’s fluidity in one of the show’s funniest numbers, “We Both Reached for the Gun.”  For me, the portrayal of Amos Hart can make or break the show, and in the beginning I was a little skeptical that Kit Webster was the right guy for the job. However, Webster’s “Mr. Cellophane” number demonstrated that he really understood not just the role, but the brilliant Bert Williams character that inspired the song, and he took me to the brink of tears.

In addition to acting as director and choreographer, Linda Anderson also gets credit for the show’s fabulous costumes – while the book for the original show may have been modified to PG, the girls were allowed to flaunt some fine bodies in attire appropriate to the era, tasteful but far, far from puritanical. With a very simple, almost black box set, the lighting is key to creating Chicago’s razzle dazzle; Anderson’s concept and Brian Ollom and Jacque Davies’ lighting design are executed flawlessly.

Go to the STAGES website and buy tickets right away – only two more weekends, and several shows are close to selling out.

STAGES’ Chicago runs through Sunday, January 19th, at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

It’s A Christmas Miracle (Worker) at Twilight!

 Nina Monique Kelly and Olivia Holmstedt

By Tina Arth

To further embed its reputation for playing way outside the borders of the sandbox, Twilight Theater is presenting playwright William Gibson’s Tony award-winning The Miracle Worker in the wintry timeslot traditionally reserved for holly and mistletoe, Scrooge and Cratchit, or at least Santa and an octet of tiny reindeer. For this I offer up heartfelt thanks – there are a lot of great plays out there, and it just doesn’t make sense to dedicate 1/8 of the year to one particular (if large) genre. Several years ago, Director Doreen Lundberg led a fine Washington County cast through a multi-award winning production of The Miracle Worker, and I suspect that she has been hankering to take another shot at the play ever since. Now that I’ve seen her 2019 take on the show, I’m glad she did – the Twilight production is a lovely way to conclude Twilight’s 2019 “In the Buff” season (and no, there are no nude scenes!).

For the uninitiated: The Miracle Worker is based on the true story of a woman named Anne Sullivan who in 1887, when not much older than child herself, moved from Boston to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to tutor a young blind and deaf girl, Helen Keller. The Kellers have no idea what to do with their daughter – half brother Jimmie wants her institutionalized, mother Kate wants to shelter and indulge her, and her father, Captain Keller, wants peace and order in his family (and subservience from his employees). Sullivan brings her own experience with blindness, fierce intelligence, persistence, and utter lack of deference to a seemingly impossible task – breaking through to Helen’s brilliant but trapped mind. Using innovative teaching methods, in a few months Sullivan succeeds in transforming her charge from a completely spoiled wild animal into a child able to learn, and ultimately to understand the roots of language, communicate with those around her, and connect with the outside world.

The show can be tough to cast well – in particular, the role of Helen is critical, demanding a young actor able to tell her whole story without the use of words. Olivia Holmstedt handles the part superbly – she is on stage almost constantly for three acts, and carries off the physical demands flawlessly. Her eyes never focus and she responds to stimuli with her entire body. More important, she somehow radiates the inner turmoil, sly cleverness, fierce temper, confusion, and emotional neediness of her character. While the roles are less demanding, the play also requires several other young girls to portray household help and blind girls in Boston. Director Lundberg managed to find 5 fine actors ranging from 7 years old to early teens to fill these smaller, but still significant roles.

The adult cast is similarly strong. Valerie Asbell’s “Annie Sullivan” is a complex mixture of self-doubt and obstinacy – tough, yet vulnerable and, like Helen, seeking connection. Asbell maintains a consistent and nicely underplayed Irish accent that reinforces her character’s essential traits, and she delivers even the sassiest lines with style. Nina Monique Kelly’s “Kate” seems like the polar opposite – conciliatory, gracious, calm, positive – but she also reveals a core of inner steel that allows her to fight for Helen and, ultimately, to make hard choices her daughter ‘s future.  I really enjoyed Rick Barr’s “Captain Keller” – his hair trigger temper, bluster, and military mien are at odds with an inner softness, and Barr transitions nicely between his interior and exterior selves.  Blaine Vincent III’s “Jimmie” is similarly divided and nuanced, as he fights for respect and love from a father who doesn’t have a clue and gradually achieves d├ętente with his stepmother – the contrast between Blaine’s expressive eyes and Olivia’s sightlessness subtly emphasizes the problems each has in learning to communicate.

The decision to perform The Miracle Worker in an essentially black-box set was inspired. Twilight’s facility is small enough for a really intimate audience/cast relationship (even more so if, like me, you sit in the front row), and much of the story is told not with the words but with the actors’ facial expressions. The absence of a detailed set forces us to focus with laser-like precision on their faces, allowing us to discern the inner dialogues that most accurately project the characters’ feelings and reactions. In addition, eliminating lengthy scene changes supports Lundberg’s overall pacing, which keeps a longer show from dragging.

Without much in the way of a set, Robin Pair’s lighting design works overtime to create mood and to shift our attention from one part of the stage to another as the action demands.  Finally, Karen Roder’s costume design is generally precise – accurate for the period, appropriate for each character’s social status. I am a bit curious about Olivia’s footwear choice (roughly akin to combat boots) but can imagine a rationale for the decision.

I have seen, and enjoyed, several different versions of The Miracle Worker, but this one affected me with unusual emotional power, and kept me near tears toward the end. There’s only one more weekend to enjoy it – by all means trek to Twilight for a three-act break from The Jolly Season.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Miracle Worker is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through December 22, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

TITG’s A Christmas Carol – Santa Delivers a Mixed Bag

Michael Colvin and Chandano Fuller

By Tina Arth

For this year’s holiday season Theatre in the Grove is presenting a relatively new adaptation of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol by playwright John Mortimer. This version, first performed in 1994 by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, is essentially faithful to the original story (and the host of subsequent stage and film versions). However, it is a very distinctive approach – and the changes make it especially challenging to stage effectively in a community theater setting, where limited human and technological resources can be a handicap. Director Jeananne Kelsey’s valiant effort to reproduce both Dickens’ and Mortimer’s vision is neither an unqualified success nor an abject failure – some things work very, very well and others seem a bit forced or awkward.

The principal difference I perceived between this and other adaptations I have seen is the attempt to tell a lot of the story through the eyes of the people of London. A great deal of the action takes place in London street scenes, and much of the story is told by using the large cast as group narrators, each delivering short sequential bursts of exposition. The approach makes it clear that the story’s poverty and greed is not endemic to a particular time, place, and people, but a problem perpetrated by and victimizing all; this makes more possible the connection that the story’s moral is not limited to 19th century London, and can be applied just as easily to our current political and economic systems.

So – what works, and what doesn’t? The first thing the audience sees is the set, and Zachary Centers’ design is superb. He and his carpenters manage with paint and plywood to recreate the look of a street of Victorian row houses, including the varying textures and styles of the era and locale. The use of large folding doors and windows, combined with props on wheels, allows the scene to shift fluidly from indoor to outdoor settings. Just opening the huge second-story windows into the second story brings the audience directly into Scrooge’s bedchamber and allows critical features like his crimson bed-curtains to assume their proper prominence. The scene where we are able to watch Scrooge disrobe and dress behind a translucent screen is one of the most effective in the whole show, and it is made possible by this clever set element. Another effective choice is the casting of Tanner Morton as both Bob Cratchit and Young Scrooge. Morton manages both parts nicely, but is easily recognized as being the same actor, which really enhances the fundamental relationship between two seemingly very different men.  

While the role is not huge, Lura Longmire does a nice job of capturing Mrs. Cratchit’s anger toward Mr. Scrooge and her tenderness toward her family, and Zach Centers totally nails the goodness and optimism of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Many of the best moments are those involving the children in the cast – their irresistible cuteness softens the edges of practically every scene, and if space allowed I would rhapsodize about each of them. Special props to Izzy Swendig as Tiny Tim. Tim is often played so melodramatically that A Christmas Carol starts to feel like “The Tiny Tim Show,” but Swendig shows restraint, allowing us to perceive that illness and poverty are by no means limited to members of the Cratchit family. Little Emma Klingler also demands recognition for her three roles as a small Cratchit, Fan, and the haunting Want.  Finally, all three ghosts (Wendy Bax, Ron Hansen, and Michael Feuerbach) are fun – the audience clearly loved seeing their friends done up in over-the-top costumes, exuding spectral excess.

What doesn’t work quite so well? First, the multiple narrators are a problem, given the cast.  The 100% professional cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company may be able to pull off the choppy narrative structure of these segments, but the TITG actors are not all up to this challenge. Thus, some lines were lost from failure to project, garbled accents, and the absence of the split-second timing necessary to carry it off. Another problem area is Michael Colvin’s generally effective, but sometimes rocky, performance as Mr. Scrooge. Colvin has the affect, the attitude, the look, even the walk – but when I saw the show, he appeared to occasionally forget his lines, which led to some awkward pauses and to other actors filling in or trying to give him appropriate cues.

Should you go? Yes, but with the understanding that this is not the traditional A Christmas Carol you might expect. Had I boned up on the Mortimer version in advance, or had the program included a director’s note that explained why it was structured the way it was, I would have had a much better experience. It’s probably much too late for that director’s note, but there’s plenty of time to do a Google search and read up on the show ahead of time. The production retains the essence and importance of Dickens’ themes – may it always be part of our Christmas story!

A Christmas Carol is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 22 with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Little Women – The Musical at HART Surprisingly Fun!

Kathleen Taylor, Aaron Morrow, Sarah Nolte, Samuel Alexander Hawkins,
Elise Byrne, Robin Reese Michaels, Bronwyn Jones, Jessica Gerson, Noah
Miller, and Andy Roberts (on floor)

By Tina Arth

Based on my personal attitude toward the book, movies, and conventional play, I was not terribly optimistic about HART Theatre’s holiday offering, a comparatively new (2005) and very different approach to Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.  However, the book (by playwright Allan Knee), lyrics (by Mindi Dickstein), and music (by Jason Howland) caught me completely off-guard. Instead of two acts of maudlin musical soap opera, I was treated to a fast-paced, almost Cliff’s Notes version of the book, leaving room for plenty of music, exploration of heroine Jo’s experiences outside the March household, and several really engaging (and funny) fantasy sequences drawn from Jo’s vivid imagination. Director Chris Byrne and vocal director Lindsey Lefler have whipped their cast into a singing, dancing, swashbuckling machine that provides some really first-class performances.

Between deletion of some story elements, expansion of others, and a non-linear timeline, audience members not familiar with conventional presentations of Little Women may find it all a bit confusing at first, but even for the uninitiated the story quickly gels. While most of the play takes place in the March household in Concord, Massachusetts, Act I begins in 1865 in the New York City boarding house where Jo is working and pursuing her dream to be an author – it is here that we meet Jo, Mrs. Kirk (the homeowner) and Professor Bhaer. After the opening scene, the action shifts back a year, and we meet the four March daughters, Marmee (their mother), the wealthy, independent widow, Aunt March, their neighbor Mr. Laurence, his nephew Theodore (“Laurie”), and Laurie’s tutor, Mr. Brooke.  Leave it at this: rebellious, independent tomboy Jo shares her home with her Marmee and three close-knit sisters, the conventional Meg, sweet but frail Beth, and Amy, the often bratty youngest girl. They are quite poor, a condition exacerbated by their father’s absence (he has gone off to join the Union Army and fallen quite ill).  Marmee goes off to nurse her husband, and over time the unity of the family is threatened by both illness and romance – by the end, one daughter is lost and the remaining girls have each found love. See the musical at HART for more, and watch the new movie (or an older version) or read the book for all of the details!

Expect to be blown away by the energy and talent of the HART cast – not always perfect, but giving their all and hitting some amazing literal and figurative high notes as actors, singers, and dancers.  A few high points (with no intent to slight actors not mentioned): Elise Byrne’s “Jo” brings jaw-dropping vitality to her role, displaying unexpected talent for physical comedy and hitting some show-stopping, prolonged high notes that set the stage on fire! Jessica Gerson is perfect for the role of quiet, timid “Beth” – but the real fun is seeing her transformed into the heroic Rodrigo II. Sarah Nolte, as the family’s anchor Marmee, is especially moving when she lets her guard down at vulnerable moments, as in the beautiful “Here Alone.” 

Andy Roberts’ villainous “Braxton” is high melodrama, and Noah Miller’s “Rodrigo” is hilarious as he leaps into the imaginary fray.  Miller’s sensitive performance as Laurie provides some of the best acting in the show, and his skill as a dancer sets a high bar for the rest of the cast.  Another fine performance comes from Samuel Alexander Hawkins, whose “Professor Bhaer” plays such a key role in the musical version – I had not really seen Hawkins’ vocal ability in previous shows, and was impressed with the maturity he brought to the role.  Finally, the overall vocal ensemble work was utterly lovely – powerful, accurate, and worthy of HART’s upgraded new sound system.

As usual with community theater, people off-stage wear multiple hats - Director Byrne’s responsibilities included both set and costume design, and she did an impressive job with all of her roles. Lovers of more traditional presentations of Little Women should thoroughly enjoy this unique take, and for the Little Women averse (like myself) the show is a must-see!

Little Women is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, December 22, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.  There is an additional 2:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, December 14.

The Game’s Afoot – And Remarkably Fleet!

Peter Schuyler, Signe Larsen, Patrick Spike, Phillip J.
Berns, and Arianne Jacques, with Jessi Walters (seated).
Photo by
 Casey Campbell Photography.

By Tina Arth

Yes, Virginia – there was a William Gillette, and there is a Gillette Castle. That’s about where the resemblance to reality ends in Bag&Baggage’s utterly hilarious and wildly farcical production of playwright Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays. Director Kymberli Colbourne has guided (goaded?) a superb cast to heights of melodrama and beautifully choreographed physical comedy not often seen on local stages, and the entire production team (with special props to scenic designer Shannon Cramer) has created a delightfully meta atmosphere that completely draws the audience into the fun.

The story is based (very loosely) on American actor/playwright William Gillette, whose many stage performances as Sherlock Holmes helped to make the master detective a household name in the US, as well as creating many of the stereotypes of the Holmesian mythos. Shortly before Christmas, Gillette is shot in the arm while exiting a theater after a performance. He retreats to his Connecticut lair, the elaborately designed Gillette Castle, to recuperate under the care of his mother, Martha.  Gillette invites his fellow cast members to spend the holidays at his estate – ostensibly just to celebrate, but actually in hopes of using his skills as a master detective (he sometimes confuses himself with the character he plays on stage) to solve the mystery of who shot him. Using a play-within-a-play format, he tries to uncover the identity of his assailant. Things go awry, despised theater critic Daria Chase turns up with a knife in her back, the classically inept Inspector Goring arrives to investigate, and through a series of tortured plot twists the guests and audience are led to the show’s surprise conclusion.

All eight cast members deliver memorable parodies of 1930’s stars noir, and the show begins by setting up their performances with a series of appropriately melodramatic film clips. Andrew Beck’s William Gillette is simply wonderful  - dry, sardonic, and much larger than life – he makes it clear to everyone that he is the star. Arianne Jacques as Aggie Wheeler is the quintessential wide-eyed starlet, whose apparently innocent mien barely masks her ambition – and she absolutely rocks an art deco gown that evokes the top of the Chrysler Building.  The always-exquisite Jessi Walters is delightful as the thoroughly despicable Daria Chase, and she earns every epithet ever thrown at a venomous (if perhaps accurate) critic.

Phillip J. Berns, who plays the charmingly overt social climber Simon Bright, uses his energy and mobile facial expressions to silently comment on the action even when he’s far from center stage, and he is thus eminently worth watching.  Speaking of watchable, a cross-dressing Patrick Spike gives Martha Gillette a fabulously campy affect – ludicrously bewigged and attired and clearly having fun portraying a much larger-than-life mother hen.

The action takes place almost exclusively in Gillette’s living room, one of the cleverest sets I’ve seen. Instead of creating the lavish splendor one might expect, designer Shannon Cramer fills the stage with life-sized sketches of the room’s design elements, utilizing what appear to be giant chalkboards for crude drawings, augmented by detailed notes. I particularly liked the giant Victorian Christmas tree and the arrow pointing to a trick latch, but the bookcases augmented by the proposed color palette are no less fun.

The Game’s Afoot requires elaborate choreography – the characters are constantly executing carefully time entrances and exits, as well as the controlled chaos of a fast-paced environment where actors celebrate, drink, argue, fight, and occasionally drag a body (Walters’ proficiency at playing dead weight is simply staggering). Director Colbourne and her cast and crew create one of the funniest Bag&Baggage Christmas shows I’ve seen, and the company deserves nothing but the full houses they are earning for the run.

Bag&Baggage’s The Game’s Afoot is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through December 23d. However, all shows are currently sold out except for December 19th and 20th.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

It Happened One Christmas - Broadway Rose Delivers

By Tina Arth

While I love Christmas music, the season can find me groaning at the prospect of a seemingly endless procession of holiday shows. However, 2019 has been a happy exception. Of the five post-Thanksgiving shows I’ll have seen by December 25th, only two are overtly Christmas-themed – and only one is gifted with a hearty dose of holiday songs. Better yet, the company offering my lone dose of mangers, Santa Claus, and Bethlehem is Broadway Rose. Their musical revue, It Happened One Christmas, offers a carefully curated and unexpectedly diverse selection of standards and newer material delivered by truly amazing performers. The result is about 1½ hours of dynamite music, a bit of wraparound plot, and nothing that sounds even remotely like Christmas muzak – exactly what I wanted!

The production is the result of collaboration between Managing Director Dan Murphy (also the show’s director) and author/musical arranger (among his many talents) Rick Lewis.  It’s Christmas Eve, and after all of the shoppers have gone home, Santa’s Chalet in Grimbles Department Store is empty except for security guard Walter and cleaner Frances – or so they think. Unknown to the two, a quartet of exceptionally lively mannequins are singing and dancing their way through the evening, although they quickly disappear almost every time the humans show up. Frances and Walter build a lovely friendship as they reminisce about Christmases past, find comfort in each other’s company and chase away loneliness in this least likely setting for a holiday dinner.

All of this is, of course, just an excuse for the cast to sing and dance their way through the evening – and so they do! After an opening ensemble number, we first meet Walter (Fred Bishop) when, alone on stage, he launches into a pitch-perfect (and perfectly schmaltzy) “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” In the cleverly staged “Real Live Girl” we learn that he, like “Mannequins” Chad Cramer and Jalena Scott, can also dance – even if one of the mannequins is actually a mannequin!  Scott and Cramer follow the number with a lovely “Winter Wonderland” and a lively “Man With the Bag” that amply showcase their remarkable voices.

While the ensemble work is lovely, and the ballads are moving, it’s the addition of some gentle comic fare that keeps the evening really alive. Jennifer Goldsmith’s “Frances,” the crusty cleaner with attitude and a heart of gold, delivers some of the evening’s best light moments, with her expressive  (somewhere between Fanny Brice and Carol Burnett) face, clear grasp of physical comedy, and a voice that won’t quit. Another comic standout is “Mannequin” Megan Tudor – her “Never Fall In Love With An Elf” is a showstopper! Dance Captain Tudor displays another side when she and partner  “Mannequin” Colin Stephen Kane dance their way through “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” – the woman is a true musical theater triple threat! Kane gets a chance to show off his skill as a vocal soloist in “Beneath the Tree,” an original song by Rick Lewis that fits nicely in the program.

The holiday cheer is amplified by scenic designer Kristeen Willis’ wonderful set, evocative of the temporarily festive basement of an old-fashioned department store. Phil McBeth’s lighting design is perfect – depending on the demands of the moment, the atmosphere changes from a slightly sad “after the party” air to full-on holiday cheer. Props, as always, to musical director/pianist/conductor Jeffrey Childs, Bassist Amy Roesler, and drummer Mitch Wilson – although we never see them, they provide the platform on which the whole show is built.

Recent Broadway Rose shows have been selling out quickly, and this one is no exception – there are very few seats available for the remainder of the show’s run. Get on the website immediately, be very flexible, and you just might be able to snag a ticket.

It Happened One Christmas is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, December 22.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Man Who Came to BCT

 Jayne Ruppert, Chuck Weed, and Peter Bolger

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s ambitious fall offering of The Man Who Came to Dinner is a huge show in many respects. Start with the playwrights – Pulitzer Prize winners George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who teamed up on this and several other much-loved works of the American stage.  Add in a massive cast, with 23 players who fill 32 roles. Top it off with a l-o-n-g script - it’s a sprawling, three-act comedy with two intermissions, three hours plus of lots of dialogue peppered with countless laugh lines and a hefty dose of physical comedy (Kaufman also wrote for the Marx Brothers, and it shows). Director Matt Gibson must have faced some profound challenges when it came time to cast his show – a classic laden with a few dream leads and lots of hilarious supporting roles that inevitably draws a plethora of eager and able auditioners, and he managed to snag a few of the area’s best comic actors for his show.

The play is set in the late 1930s in the upscale Stanley home in Mesalia, Ohio. The story (and the universe, in the opinion of the main character) revolves around the plight of Sheridan Whiteside, an utterly self-centered radio personality on a speaking tour who injures himself slipping on ice outside the Stanley home. Soon after the Stanleys bring him into their home to recuperate, they discover that Sheridan is the houseguest from hell. The Stanleys take refuge upstairs after Sheridan takes over their living room, den, telephone, and staff for the two-week period leading up to Christmas morning. When not kvetching at his long-suffering assistant Maggie, berating his nurse and doctor, and offering unsolicited advice to family members, he entertains a series of guests including several paroled ex-cons and some extraordinarily eccentric show biz types. While he thoroughly alienates Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, he does bond with the two Stanley children, the bizarre Aunt Harriet, the household staff, and local newspaper man/aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson. When Maggie finds romance with Bert and the two become engaged, Whiteside commits the ultimate transgression, using subterfuge to break them up rather than lose his assistant.  Act III is laden with surprises, and things work out pretty well, but with a final twist that leaves the family and the audience with a parting groan.

With such a large cast it’s only possible to recognize a few of the actors – starting with Chuck Weed’s fun and flexible take on Whiteside. As illustrated by his choice of friends/allies, Whiteside has no tolerance for Mid-Western pretentious mores, and Weed does a lovely job of switching between snidely pompous iconoclast, manipulative and overbearing boss, and enthusiastic supporter of the different, downtrodden and powerless (artists, actors, household help, children, and criminals). Erin Bickler’s Maggie is pitch-perfect as the brash, wisecracking assistant who takes a lot but never buckles – she reminds me of such 30s/40s comediennes as Joan Davis.

Two local comic heroes, Les Ico and Daniel Rhovan, live up to their hype and then some. Ico’s “Banjo” (Groucho? Harpo?) is a marvel of timing, delivery, and physicality – well worth waiting for, as he doesn’t appear until late in the play.  Rhovan is equally memorable as the flamboyant “Beverly Carlton” (based on Noel Coward). Virginia Kincaid once again earns my “most disturbing” award as Aunt Harriet – another character with a big Act III payoff. Speaking of Act III payoffs, watch Patricia Alston as actress Lorraine Sheldon, who has clearly earned her loose-living reputation as well as her final disposition.  For me, the real sleeper comic performance comes from Jayne Ruppert as the harassed yet stoic nurse, Miss Preen. Ruppert finds just the right level of deadpan desperation, and her restraint pays off with a solid round of applause when she finally lets it all out.

Director Gibson places 100% of the action in a detailed living room set, which allows him to eliminate lengthy scene changes that could slow down the action, and his pacing is brisk. Pam Taylor’s costume design is particularly effective, nicely capturing the 1930s era; the women’s dresses are particularly accurate, and lend a lot to the ambience.

Be prepared - even with minimal scene changes, The Man Who Came to Dinner is still a long show. I noticed a few audience members leaving after each intermission – a terrible decision, in my opinion, since Act III pays off so well – hang in there!

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs through Saturday, November 23d at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sundays.