Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christmas on Broadway @ Broadway Rose

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer
Pictured from left is Joshua Stenseth, Rebecca Teran, Amy Jo Halliday, and Norman Wilson


By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

‘Twas the day after Thanksgiving – some may call it “Black Friday,” but Broadway Rose managed to dispel the darkness with a shiny new entry into the world of holiday theatrical offerings. The opening night of “Christmas on Broadway” was a high-spirited, high-energy tribute to every clichĂ© about the holiday season, and it worked like elves on Christmas Eve.

Director/creator Rick Lewis succeeds in amalgamating Christmas traditions old and new into an original and witty, “let’s do the show here!” musical that is alternatively charming, wry, warm, and sarcastic – and consistently entertaining. The five principals (four Broadway wannabes and the theater’s crusty tour guide) waste no time worrying about the story’s plausibility as they rush headlong into two breathtaking hours of song and dance celebrating much-beloved Christmas traditions.

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer
Picture from left is Rebecca Teran, Norman Wilson, and Amanda Valley
Amanda Valley is much more than a tour guide for a group of performers stranded in an empty Broadway theater (well, empty except for a conveniently placed band and a full house of enthusiastic Broadway Rose patrons).  A little bit Marlene Dietrich, a little bit Louis Armstrong (“’Zat You, Santa Claus?”), and a lot more talent than inhibition – she is a delightful comedienne and accomplished singer who dives head first into her memorable performance.

The four hopeful ingĂ©nues (playing themselves) are Amy Jo Halliday, Joshua Stenseth, Rebecca Teran, and Norman Wilson. This powerhouse quartet delivers some of the best vocals we have seen this year; many of the songs are ensemble numbers, and the harmonies are superb. Happily, each is also given individual spots in which to shine. Rebecca Teran had blown us away as “Little Shop’s” Audrey, and she brings the same level to such numbers as “The Christmas Blues” and “Never Fall In Love With An Elf” – imagine Fanny Brice, only much, much cuter.  Amy Jo Halliday switches fluidly from opera to farce in numbers like “I Want Eddie Fisher For Christmas” and “The Pretty Little Dolly,” and she is stunning in “Phantom of the Nutcracker Express,” a hilarious send-up of all things Lloyd Webber.

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer
Pictured from left is Amy Jo Halliday and Rebecca Teran
Despite stiff competition from the distaff side, the men in the show manage to carry their own weight quite nicely. Joshua Stenseth, effective throughout, really sparkles in “Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwanzaa” -  though his attempts to draw the audience into a sing-along are frustrated by the song’s impossibly convoluted lyrics, he keeps the crowd laughing at this uber-multi-cultural parody. Broadway Rose audiences are all familiar with Norman Wilson, who has graced the New Stage with multiple star turns in recent years. He has a marvelous voice, and his Frankie Valliesque falsetto in “White Christmas” takes the Berlin classic to new heights (pun intended).
The addition of eight pajama-clad little girls and one amazing high-school baritone (Ben Newton) lends a poignant note to an otherwise lighthearted evening. The little girls’ charming “Christmas Alphabet” number, followed by Newton’s beautiful rendition of “Believe,” provide a welcome break in the madcap pacing of the show.

The second song in the show, “It’s Better With A Band,” is something of an understatement, at least with respect to this production. Highest praise is due to Musical Director/Conductor/Pianist Jeffrey Childs, bassist Sean Vinson and drummer Ben Wasson, who provide a full and rich musical accompaniment with only three instruments, yet never overwhelm the vocalists.
Nowhere is the show wittier than in the set design and props. The deceptive simplicity of descending snowflakes and Christmas trees (along with a truly marvelous hat-cum-Maypole) both augment and underscore some of the show’s best moments.

Broadway Rose’s reputation is built on excellence in musical theater, and “Christmas on Broadway” provides a wonderful continuation of the company’s proud tradition, and the four-week run of the show provides ample opportunity for audiences to enjoy the production.

“Christmas on Broadway” is playing at the Broadway Rose New Stage Theater in Tigard through December 23. www.broadwayrose.org
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer
Pictured from left is Norman Wilson, Amy Jo Halliday, Rebecca Teran, and Joshua Stenseth


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Knives in Hens at HART

The cast of Knives in Hens. Photo by Gina Watson-Haley.

Hillsboro’s HART Theatre Tackles a Tough One

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker 

Knives in Hens is miles from what we have come to expect as a “traditional” Washington County community theatre offering, and Hillsboro’s HART Theatre merits high praise for presenting this kind of challenging material for its audience. When we left the theater, we were unsure about what we had seen, and we are still talking (read: “arguing”) about the show’s themes. Darrell’s initial take was to quote Bob Dylan: “Cause something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

The story is, on one level, quite straightforward: a simple village wife takes husband William’s grain to the mill, and spends time alone with miller Gilbert Horne, a mistrusted outsider. She maintains a rigid distance from the miller until she realizes that William’s extensive time in the barn involves a local girl, not just his beloved horses.  Disillusioned and angry, the “young woman” (that is the only name she bears in the play) sleeps with the miller, they kill her husband, she tells the neighbors that William has left her for a better woman, she returns to run the farm. The miller moves off to a larger town. The three cast members take their bows.

The challenge for the tiny cast is to infuse this tale with meaning, and the challenge for the audience is to deduce what that meaning is. For us, the key is the contrast between an agrarian, pre-literate society (William and the other farmers), whose world is absolutely literal – no imagination, resistance to change, fear of the onrush of the industrial revolution (which, in this village, is represented by the miller, his stone, and most terrifying, his books). The woman is caught in the middle – everything she has been taught frames her entire existence in terms of commodity – she is her husband’s property, and exists only to serve his will. The miller challenges this definition, and when her anger at William overcomes her fear of the unknown, her world becomes three dimensional and she allows herself to become what was once unthinkable.

The first thing the audience sees is a set of incredible beauty and simplicity, with aromatic cedar planks actually milled by master set designer William Crawford at the sawmill on his farm. The scene is enhanced by subtle lighting and soft Caledonian airs that transport the audience to a nameless time and place evocative of primitive Scotland or Appalachia. The initial beauty contrasts starkly with the harsh reality of life for William and the woman, and helps to establish the play’s subtle themes.

Beth Summers as the young woman is the pivotal character in the play. She is a marvelous actress who manages to convey her character’s strength, simplicity, confusion, fear, anger, and ultimately growing awareness of her individuality. She delivers her lines with crystal clarity, and she enhances the dialogue with her fluid body language.

Kalin Lee (William) is well-cast as the rigid, pre-literate dominant male whose world revolves around his perspective. His occasional moments of fleeting tenderness toward the woman do little to soften the mindless cruelty of the life which he imposes on her. Lee’s performance captures the violence, drudgery, and provincialism of the role – even when he quotes from the Bible, his words are hollow repetitions of what he has been told is Truth.

Although the miller ultimately has sex with the woman, his relationship to her is that of an intellectual, rather than a physical, seducer.  Actor Eric Lyness is chameleon-like in his shifting use of sarcasm, scorn, attention, and encouragement to draw the woman into his web. By introducing her to a world of books and ideas that she never knew existed, he frees her to define her own path. Lyness is believable as the disenfranchised outsider, whose motives extend beyond the need for carnal pleasure.

This cannot have been an easy show to stage, and Devan McCoy’s wise casting choices and deft direction help give clarity to a sometimes obscure story. We are delighted that the HART is willing to tackle tough shows and trusts its audience to respond – but we are really looking forward to relaxing with Nuncrackers next month!

Knives in Hens runs at HART Theatre in Downtown Hillsboro through November 11. Shows are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. www.hart-theatre.org