Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TITG Presents a High Caliber Annie


The cast of Annie at Theatre in the Grove. Photo by Justice Cushing
By Aaron Morrow
Given that I had neither attended an event at the Theatre in the Grove, nor seen Annie, it is fair to say that I was completely unprepared for the delightful evening in store.  I have to admit to a little trepidation at my seating, which was no more than fifteen feet from the orchestra pit and near enough to the stage that I could probably read the labels on the costumes, but once the show began, I was so swept away by the production that I probably would have been blissfully ignorant of a zombie invasion until they reached my row.
Jennifer Yamashiro, Mackenzie Gross, and Brandon B. Weaver
From the opening note of the overture to the final note of the finale, it was clear that the orchestra led by Sheryl Macy was the engine of the production - they played with a glorious combination of vibrancy and restraint that allowed the vocalists to shine.
Early in the show it was apparent that opening night nerves were at play and there were a few strained verses, but to my ears the ensemble hit all the right notes.  Mackenzie Gross, the actress who plays “Annie,” is a delight, deftly alternating between a tough little optimist and the heart-tugging orphan who simply wants to be reunited with her parents.  In a production filled with wonderful music, it is Mackenzie’s touching rendition of “Maybe” that I will remember.
Natasha Kujawa, Zachary Centers, and Jeanna Van Dyke
I had always wondered about the obsessive fascination that female actors that I have met seem to share about the role of Miss Hannigan.  From the start Jeanna Van Dyke’s portrayal was thoroughly unlikeable, tawdry, sleazy…and hilarious.  I found the juxtaposition of Van Dyke’s Hannigan to an equally wonderful Jennifer Yamashiro as Grace Farrell, hysterical.  The scene in which Grace tells Miss Hannigan that Oliver Warbucks wants to adopt Annie is worth the price of admission all by itself.
In a production that abounds with high caliber vocalists, musicians and material, I could not get enough of Jennifer Yamashiro.  The combination of her vocal talent and the believability that she infused into her role as Grace Farrell was glorious.  And Brandon B. Weaver’s delivery, gravity and timing gave a real dimension of warmth and credibility to the relationship between Warbucks and Annie without over-emphasizing the deep melancholy of the connection they share.
While Gross, Van Dyke, Yamashiro, and Weaver establish a foundation of excellence for the production, it is the exceptional ensemble that director Darren Hurley assembled which elevates TITG’s Annie from good to over-the-top great community theater.  Luella Harrelson’s precocious and scene stealing “Molly” is delightful, Natasha Kujawa’s “Lily St. Regis” is a revelation (in the program she says it’s her “dream role” and she delivers it fabulously) and she is the perfect foil for Zachary Centers’ convincingly greasy “Rooster Hannigan,” Darrell Baker gives a warm and grounded performance as larger-than-life icon FDR, Emma Holland’s “Star To Be” solo is extraordinary and Sarah Ominski sparkles in multiple roles.

Darrell Baker (seated) with Julio Montelongo, Tom Robinson,
Adam Barrett , and Carole Golart
I’m not sure I have ever seen a musical that uses choreography so effectively to set the narrative tone.  Choreographer Carla Kujawa’s choices are superb, and the ensemble executes that vision so well that even if we had been unable to hear a note, pretty much the whole story was delivered flawlessly by the motion and blocking of the cast.
In an evening of great musical theater, the one somber note always present through the warp and weft of the tapestry of the performance was its dedication to Abby (who was to be in Annie) and Anna, who as the program states were “two beautiful souls that left us much too soon.”
All in all, if Annie is indicative of the quality that Theatre In The Grove has been producing for the last 42 years, then there are a lot of theater lovers like me who should probably be kicking themselves for waiting so long to make their way out to Forest Grove.
Annie is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 22, with performances at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 pm on Sundays.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

For Theater Lovers, It Really Is A Wonderful Life!

At Bag&Baggage Productions, Jessica Geffen as Lana North-Berkshire, Adam Syron as Francis
Fishbourne, Gary Strong as Winston Whiteside, Ian Armstrong as Carlson
Callaway, Megan Carver as Petunia Pennywhistle and Branden McFarland as Pete
Paulson, photo courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography


 
 By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 
Hillsboro residents are fortunate to have two companies offering live theater in town – HART and Bag&Baggage. From a community perspective, these very different troupes should not be viewed as rivals, but as complementary players, each group offering something uniquely wonderful to local fans of live theater.

Bag&Baggage’s stage in the glamorous old Venetian Theatre gives them room for lush shows with elaborate sets (and huge audiences). HART’s compact theater provides a cozy space where patrons and actors are separated by only a few feet, providing an intimate connection between cast and audience.  Bag&Baggage gives lots of local high school students their first opportunity to experience live theater through its TEN4ONE program, offering free tickets on a space available basis. HART, through its symbiotic relationship with the STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy, gives many Hillsboro-area youth their first chance to sing, dance, and act on a real stage. Bag&Baggage has, in lieu of a lobby, an upscale full-service restaurant and bar. At intermission, HART’s petite lobby lures patrons with the scent of freshly baked cookies and fresh-brewed coffee (not to mention free champagne on opening nights!).

It’s Christmas, 2013, and suddenly worlds collide. Both groups are offering what seems to be essentially the same show – It’s A Wonderful Life, the Radio Show (HART) and It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life (Bag&Baggage).  Remarkably, the two productions, like the troupes that spawned them, are complementary rather than duplicative. Read on to find out how!

 

HART

Jody Spradlin, Karen Roder, and Aaron Morrow at HART.
HART Theatre’s theme this season is “HART Looks At Art,” and this year’s holiday show fits like a glove. For those people too young to have attended the taping of a live radio show (and that includes almost everybody!) HART’s presentation of It’s A Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Show may be as close as they’ll get to this grand old American tradition. Director Paul Roder has clearly done his homework – the HART set closely replicates the conditions in a small-town, late 40’s radio studio – a row of chairs, a row of microphones, a row of actors, a table full of sound effects for the Foley artist, a live audience (us), a clock, and two signs (“ON AIR” and “APPLAUSE”).

It’s A Wonderful Life is curiously dark for a holiday favorite – this fundamentally depressing tale of the very good, but suicidal George Bailey is saved at the last minute (as is George) by the intervention of a Guardian Angel, Clarence. Throughout his life, George’s dreams have been dashed by bad fortune, so much that he thinks it would be better if he had never been born. By showing how the world would have been without George Bailey, Clarence lifts George’s spirits and convinces him that his life has, in fact, been wonderful in its own way.

Movie audiences familiar with Jimmy Stewart’s classic portrayal may not recognize the George Bailey they remember in Aaron Morrow’s performance. Stewart’s Bailey, while depressed and angry, retains an avuncular, cartoonish flavor. Morrow brings a darker tone, creating a real character whose private despair bursts out in moments of genuine anger.

In radio dramas, a small group of actors are called upon to play multiple parts. Paul Roder sets the record – in addition to directing, he plays eleven different characters, switching from voice to voice and accent to accent with lightning speed. Tony Smith and Ilana Watson are hard on Roder’s heels, with 10 parts each, and they bring a versatile professionalism that rivals that of the authentic radio performers of the era. Jody Spradlin, while required to play only the part of Mary Hatch Bailey, fills a key role – her warmth and empathy help the audience understand that George is truly blessed, despite the hardships he has endured. Karen Roder puts them all to shame – in addition to doing costumes, window and lobby décor, in her portrayal of Foley artist Gladys “Gizmo” Watkins she is the busiest actor on the set.
 
While the show technically begins at 7:30 (air time for the radio drama), audiences are advised to come early. The theater opens at 7:00, and by 7:15 the WBFR singers (Seth Rue, Sarah Thornton, and Emily Miletta the evening we were there) are warming up the audience with a selection of holiday and ‘40s pop tunes.

It’s A Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Show plays at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro on December 5th, 8th, 12th and 15th at 7:30 pm, and December 7th and 14th at 2:00 pm.

 

BAG&BAGGAGE

It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life is many things – fast-paced, funny, engaging, and witty, to name just a few. The one thing it is not is It’s A Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra classic, as adapted by director Scott Palmer, is not so much the story as it is the vehicle through which the story is told.

Jessica Geffen as Lana North-Berkshire and Ian Armstrong as Carlson
Callaway, photo courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
 A group of veteran radio actors have gathered for the annual Christmas broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life. In a curious parallel to the life of IAWL star George Bailey, from the beginning nothing goes right. A fanzine has reported erroneously that star Petunia Pennywhistle loves rum-soaked fruitcake, and station WBNB is inundated with fruitcakes sent by her adoring public. Petunia dumps the fruitcakes on production assistant Pete Paulson, who absent-mindedly nibbles his way to total inebriation just before airtime. Two key players are missing – the other female lead (who has ditched them to play the Ghost of Christmas Future in another production), and the Foley artist/special effects guru. The drunken Paulson is ordered to replace the Foley artist, a role in which he would have been inept even if he were sober. Player Winston Whiteside arrives with his bimbo du jour, lingerie saleslady Lana North-Berkshire, for whom he has rewritten parts of the show.  The tension is heightened by jealousy between handsome lead Carlson Calaway and Francis Fishburne, who harbors a powerful yen for the fair Ms. Pennywhistle. Somehow the cast manages to lurch through the radio script – it’s a true Christmas miracle! Along the way, the audience is treated to some of the best comedy moments of the season.

The strong six-person cast fills a multitude of roles with a combination of sharp delivery and broad physical comedy. Despite the chaotic set-up, the characters never step over the line from slapstick to unrestrained farce. Ian Armstrong (Calaway) is hilarious as he slips from his character’s haughty demeanor to a truly boffo Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Branden McFarland  (Pete Paulson) makes the most of the oft-thankless role of male ingénue, despite being mute throughout Act I. Somehow he manages to constantly draw the audience’s attention by being virtually (and sometimes literally) invisible to the rest of the cast. His impassioned speech in Act II pulls the radio show together; a moment that could have been disgustingly maudlin is saved when he concludes his speech with a dead-drunk pratfall.

Jessica Geffen simply sparkles in her portrayal of Lana North-Berkshire. She is a crass, brassy, bawdy innocent, dazzled by the lure of show biz and 100% committed as she hurls herself into one absurd characterization after another. Scott Palmer has created a very funny role, and Geffen lets none of the comic potential slip away.

It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life is too good a show to be limited to one run at the Venetian. We hope that Scott Palmer will share his script and staging with other theater companies so that a wider audience can join in the fun.

Bag&Baggage’s production of It’s A (Somewhat) Wonderful Life is playing at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, Hillsboro through Monday, December 23d.

Monday, December 2, 2013

GLAD (PLAID) TIDINGS FROM BROADWAY ROSE


Pictured left to right are Sean Powell, Jeremy Sloan, Matthew
Brown, and Robert Head. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 
On this lovely Thanksgiving day we are thankful that we consider ourselves reviewers, not critics. Last night’s production of Plaid Tidings at Broadway Rose would stymie a critic – there is, quite simply, nothing to criticize. The show is not just perfect, it’s: wonderful, enchanting, festive, funny, wistful, heartwarming… everything a Christmas show should be.

Show creator Stuart Ross brought the original show, Forever Plaid, to the stage in 1990. For years he resisted writing a sequel, but he finally relented after 9/11, convinced that “we all needed a little joy and a little cozy holiday fun to lift spirits.” It is something of an understatement to say that he succeeded, and his success is amplified three-fold by the sensitivity, wit, and craftsmanship of Director Dan Murphy and Music Director Jeffrey Childs (not to mention the cast – but more about that later!).

Former high school buddies Sparky, Jinx, Smudge, and Frankie had formed a close-harmony guy group, The Plaids. The group’s none-too-successful career was cut short by a fatal car crash; they were on their way to a show when they collided with a bus full of Catholic girls off to see the Beatles.  The Plaids have already returned to Earth once in their role as celestial Guardians of Harmony (in Forever Plaid) and they have no idea why their have been brought back for a sequel. The slow revolves around their musical attempts to fulfill an unknown destiny, carrying us through decades of musical styles (most done, of course, in their signature 4-part harmony). With the help of a disembodied Rosemary Clooney they finally figure out that they are here to give the Christmas show they never got to do (and to bring a little harmony into the lives of their audience). Not surprisingly, the rest of the show is comprised primarily of the Plaids performing their holiday masterpiece, “Plaid Tidings.”

While each of the Plaids (Matthew Brown as “Sparky,” Robert Head as “Jinx,” Sean Powell as “Smudge,” and Jeremy Sloan as “Frankie”) has the opportunity to shine in solo or lead performances, Plaid Tidings is a quintessentially ensemble show.  Despite their four amazing voices, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts that it is senseless to parse out individual performances for special praise. Each performer is called on for much more than his vocal prowess – we get juggling, dancing (Agnes de Mille would be stunned at their use of “plumber’s friends” in lieu of Fiddler’s broomsticks), pratfalls, an amazing attempt at the splits, physical comedy, accordion and piano playing, and a hefty dose of shamelessly wide-eyed and innocent pathos.

Of course, the Plaids don’t do it all by themselves.  Bassist Sean Vinson and pianist Jeffrey Childs provide a full and polished musical background (except when Childs is off on his “union-mandated break”), and Bearclaw Heart’s lighting design is, as always, impeccable. The cleverly designed sets flow seamlessly, taking the Plaids from four mikes on a bare stage to a completely realized holiday setting without delay.

No other Portland area company rivals Broadway Rose in presenting concert-quality music to musical theater audiences, and Plaid Tidings is Broadway Rose at its finest. It just doesn’t get any better than this.  As word gets out, tickets will go fast – buy now. You deserve a Plaid Christmas.

Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s Plaid Tidings runs through December 22 at the New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard. See the Broadway Rose website for show dates and tickets.

 

 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

‘Tis The Season to Be Silly at BCT!


If It's Monday, This Must Be Christmas plays at Beaverton Civic Theatre

 
 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s 2013 season has taken its audiences on a wild ride from the sublime to the ridiculous. After the somberly enthralling production of The Crucible, this versatile troupe brings us If It’s Monday, This Must Be Christmas, a piece of holiday fluff that ends the year on a much lighter note.


John Ollis as Harry Monday
 
Author Pat Cook began his prolific career as a playwright after being inspired by Neil Simon. While Cook’s script is often clever, Mr. Simon can rest easy – Cook’s work is no challenge to such classic comedies as The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite. Happily, by late November theater audiences are sometimes less interested in great writing than in silly comedy, which Cook delivers with a vengeance.
The story? Good heavens! The gift-wrapped payroll for Harrigan’s Department Store has disappeared, along with the store’s Santa Claus. Whodunit? Store employee Loretta Mondello calls in her son, private eye/dogwalker Harry Monday, whose bumbling detective style ultimately cracks the case (of the missing money – inexplicably, Santa never does turn up…). Along the way, mayhem ensues (two acts worth)!

The “bumbling detective” (who is really quite shrewd) is a stock mystery character. However, Harry Monday, as portrayed by John Ollis, defies the stereotype – lots of bumble, not much shrewd. Ollis frequently breaks the “fourth wall”, addressing the audience in a friendly but conspiratorial tone that keeps us on track with the show’s convoluted plot.

Allen Denison portrays Harry’s occasional sidekick, pickpocket Louie Grandville, with aplomb.  Denison gives us the perfect con man: slightly shady but smooth and articulate.  Rival department store owner Mildred Wolensky is portrayed by Helena Greathouse, whose Czech accent, combined with a pronounced declamatory style, creates a curiously compelling character.  

Allen Denison as Louie Grandville
What passes for love interest in the show comes from the relationship between store employee Carson Page (Les Ico) and store owner’s daughter Penny Harrigan (Harmony Rutter).  These two young actors deliver some of the most natural and believable moments in the play. The other two younger performers also bring their best games. Kassy Williams does a great job of portraying Polly Brogan, a nagging little brat in search of Santa, and Riley Edwards (Harry Monday as a child) shows so much moxie that one wonders how he grew into the bumbling adult version of the character.

Patti Speight brings all the intensity of a ticking biological clock to the role of Scarlett Kloontz, and Patrick Brassell (store owner Titus Harrigan) is appropriately bombastic. Patricia Herkert creates a frenetically wide-eyed and perky elf who ranges from excitable to downright hysterical.

Director George Herkert has assembled a fine production team. The set, while simple, is attractive and appropriate, and the costumes capture the spirit of the characters. The huge opening-night crowd proved a bit distracting – many audience members were seated in portable chairs along the aisle with less than optimal sight lines, and the show began more than ½ hour late. Perhaps the time has come for BCT to reconsider their admirable “donate two books, get in for $5.00” opening night promotion – maybe by selecting a slower evening (or matinee) for this attractive deal.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of If It’s Monday, This Must Be Christmas runs through Sunday, December 8th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 8:00 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matiness on Sunday.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Chaos, Comedy, Christmas at the HART



Front: Sarah Felder, Back: Rachael Schoen, Grace Malloy,
Christian Vece, Yoonie Shin
 
 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 
HART’s current production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is probably not the best show we’ll see this holiday season, but it may well be the most enjoyable. In the lobby before the show, Director Ray Hale said “you can’t go wrong with kids” – while this is not always the case, it’s certainly true of this particular collection of quirky young performers.
 
Author Barbara Robinson tells her simple tale quickly, with a series of blackouts to speed the story along.  It’s time for the annual Christmas pageant, and the regular director, Mrs. Armstrong, is out of commission. A team of locals gang up on fellow mom Grace Bradley, who reluctantly agrees to direct the show. Her husband, Roberto, who is no fan of the annual production, even more reluctantly agrees to help out by shepherding the shepherds and baby angels. The casting process falls apart when the Herdmans, who are the worst kids in the world, demand lead roles. Nobody dares oppose this group of cigar-smoking, lying, stealing, violent thugs, whose marginal grasp of the basic Christmas story casts the Wise Men as spies and Herod in need of a thorough beating. Of course, a little good old-fashioned holiday magic transforms the Herdmans, who end up giving their Christmas welfare ham to the baby Jesus (so much more practical than myrrh!). 
Gladys Herdman puts pressure on the narrator, Maxine
Kimberly Auran, Grace Malloy
Even with 30 talented kids on stage, there are a few real standouts. The role of sneaky little prig Alice Wendleken was filled on opening night by Rylie Bartell, who brings a gleeful abandon to her appalling self-righteousness.  While each of the four baby angels is disturbingly cute, we couldn’t take our eyes off of four-year-old Zebulen King, whose irrepressible squirming, bobbing, and weaving leaves the whole audience giggling.  Beth Bradley (played by Libby Solheim) keeps the story moving along with her concise and insightful commentary.
And then there are the Herdmans – especially Imogene (Sarah Felder) as history’s least maternal Mary. Felder’s transformation from belligerent and neglected delinquent to loving symbol of maternal devotion is surprisingly touching, and has a salutary effect on the rest of the wild Herdman brood. Younger sister Gladys Herdman (Grace Malloy) steals several scenes with her exuberant take on the Angel of the Lord – not so much a Heavenly Messenger as a “Shazam!” shouting Dark Knight.

Several of the adults (in particular, Molly Stuckey as Grace Bradley, Luis Ventura as Roberto Bradley, and Sue Ellen Christenson as Mrs. Armstrong) give excellent performances, but this show is all about the children who animate and illustrate the tale.
If you need a little Christmas, start at the HART. The quiet beauty of the set’s stained-glass windows and velvet hangings evoke a peaceful sanctuary – in direct contrast to the frenetic energy of the pageant preparations. Pianist Alice Dalrymple provides flawless accompaniment to pageant participants, and holiday music by the STAGES show choir starts the evening and sets the proper tone – reverent, yet slightly chaotic. The tech crew literally and figuratively shines despite the challenge of over 100 separate lighting cues – another tribute to Director Ray Hale’s patience and attention to detail.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through December 15th, with shows at 7:30 pm on November 22, 23, 29, 30, December 6, 7, 13, 14 and 2:00 pm November 24, December 1, 8, 15.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Innocence and Villainy at Mask & Mirror


 
 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 
Mask & Mirror Community Theatre kicks off its 2013-14 season with a generous dose of good old-fashioned musical melodrama, No, No, A Millions Times No! (Only a Farmer’s Daughter). Although it is by no means a holiday-themed show, the production delivers a hearty dose of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia that is well suited to the festive mood of the season.

Melodrama can be challenging. The script is often simple, and an effective production requires that cast and audience throw themselves unreservedly into the show, suspending pretty much every thing they ever learned about appropriate theatrical technique and decorum. Director Sandy Libonati has done an admirable job with her cast, all of whom wholeheartedly throw themselves into their over-the-top roles. The opening night audience, while appreciative, did not quite live up to their end of the bargain. Perhaps in 2013 a melodrama audience needs a bit of tutoring in the conventions of the genre; the director might consider doing a few brief warm-up exercises (“hiss.” “boo,” “ahhhh,” etc.) to loosen up the crowd.

As with any standard melodrama, the story can is pretty black and white. The farmer’s daughter, Nellie, thought to be a paragon of virtue, has been microscopically soiled by the villain, Stafford Blackman, who lured her to the big city with the intent of “doing her wrong.” Having detected Blackman’s villainy, she flees back to her trusting Pappy Quackenbush and love-struck suitor, Noble Hart. Blackman and his corrupt paramour, Gwendolyn Finefeathers, sneak back to the farm to abduct Nellie and hold her for ransom. Nellie is rescued and confesses what little there is to confess to her forgiving family and friends; Blackman and Finefeathers get their just desserts, and a rich mineral deposit on the farm solves all potential financial problems for the good guys, who live happily ever after.

We first saw John “Bart” Bartholomew playing the villain in last season’s M&M melodrama, but this year he has cleaned up his act to play the crusty but loveable Pappy Quackenbush; this gives him the opportunity to better display his fine singing voice. His vocal prowess is matched by that of Nick Hamilton (Noble Hart), who brings a hilarious naivety to his sincere, bumbling, but ultimately heroic character.

In addition to the named characters, there is an outstanding vocal ensemble well integrated into the production, and they do a lot to keep the show humming along.  A high point is their support of Sierra Kruse (Emmeline) and David Slotemaker (Iffy Cann), who give surprisingly winning performances as the two ingénues. Their big number, “Walkin’ With Emmeline,” is one of the show’s strongest songs.

Of course, no melodrama is complete without a villainous villain, and Michael Allen (Stafford) does a great job of living down to our expectations.  Vicki Brigham, who gives us a chilling and haughty Gwendolyn, nicely augments his aura of evil.

The real standout performance is delivered by Sarah Thornton (Nellie Quackenbush). Sarah completely immerses herself in her role, and she captures the audience’s hearts every time she walks on the stage. Her magical performance is only enhanced by her singing voice – she has wonderful vocal control, and her sweet voice truly expresses the sweetness of her character.

There are two more weekends to catch this fun show – please come prepared to boo, hiss, and cheer!

Mask and Mirror’s No, No, A Millions Times No! is playing at Calvin Presbyterian Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard through November 24th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.

 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Monsters in the Grove



Zachary Centers as Igor.



By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

A darkened stage – lights come up on two giant (dare we say “magnificent”) knockers at Theatre in the Grove’s Halloween extravaganza, The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. The locale (New Transylvania) and iconic characters (drawn from the brilliantly written and cast original movie Young Frankenstein) are a natural for an audience seeking live theater in the spooky season.

For those readers not familiar with the classic monster movie genre, a little background is in order. From 1930 to 1946, Universal Pictures released a series of movies that came to define the American public’s view of monsters – Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Dracula, and many more. In 1974, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder co-authored Young Frankenstein, a loving parody of pretty much every black and white monster movie Universal Pictures ever made. The film starred Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars – truly, a galaxy of the finest film comedians – leaving many big shoes to fill. In 2004, Mel Brooks (notably, without Gene Wilder) turned the movie into a Big Broadway Musical, chock full of huge production numbers, derivative songs, and (happily) lots of the best shtick from the movie.

The TITG production, while ragged in some of the large ensemble numbers, does a generally magnificent job of filling many of the “biggest shoes” from the movie cast. Stevo Clay, in particular, positively channels Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein, without sacrificing the small touches that make the part his own. He slips smoothly from the supercilious nerd professor (Dr. “Fronkensteen”) to a hysterical pudding of a man, and ultimately to the confident and triumphant Dr. Frankenstein, and loses none of the comic genius of the original movie role. Jodi Coffman also draws heavily on Madeline Kahn’s portrayal of Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth Benning. Her “don’t touch me” attitude is conveyed quite effectively, and does not require the “Please Don’t Touch Me” production number to express her character. Coffman particularly sparkles in the love scene with the monster, Ron Hansen, and the song “Deep Love” is one of the few musical numbers that really adds anything to the production.

Ron Hansen gives the surprise standout performance of the evening. Once the monster becomes somewhat sentient, his expressive eyes and mouth seem to take on a life of their own, the intelligence and humor belying the rotting green flesh of his face. Carly Wasserstein, as the sexy lab assistant Inga, is playfully seductive and yodels like a pro (who DOES that?). She also maintains her German accent with greater precision than any of the other characters, cementing a lovely performance.

The multi-talented Centers clan (Zachary as Igor, Pruella as Frau Blucher) contribute many of the evening’s funniest moments; they are the bearers of two of the show’s most beloved running gags (“What Hump?” and the recurrent neighing of the horses whenever they hear the words “Frau Blucher”). As with the earlier “Please Don’t Touch Me,” the production number “He Vas My Boyfriend” is unnecessary – the original line is funniest when first uttered by Frau Blucher, and should have been allowed to stand alone.

The set is somewhat Spartan at first, but the laboratory scenes are a real highlight – lots of ‘30s style high-tech equipment with flashing lights and a perfectly weighted rising platform that nicely reproduces both the Universal sets and the Young Frankenstein parody. It would have been nice to have had the hut scene with the Hermit centered on the stage so that the entire audience could fully appreciate the delicate dance with hot soup.

While by no means a perfect show, TITG’s Young Frankenstein is a great way to spend a pre-Halloween evening laughing with fellow monster fans. Because of mature themes and language, it is not appropriate for younger children.

The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein runs through November 3 at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove. Performance are at 7:30 pm October 25, 26, 31 and November 1, 2; 2:30 matinees are offered October 20 and 27.

Stevo Clay (right) as Frederick.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

B&B presents an "ambitious" Gatsby


The Great Gatsby-Ty Boice as Gatsby-Cassie Greer as Daisy -
courtesy Casey Campbell Photography
 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 
Bag and Baggage Theatre artistic director Scott Palmer can never be accused of taking the easy road, as he clearly demonstrates in his ambitious production of The Great Gatsby (adapted by Simon Levy from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel). The production itself is beautiful, and the acting generally superb. However, the necessarily condensed format of live theater does not allow for a complete exploration of the story’s characters and themes; the show may appeal most to an audience already familiar with (and fond of) the novel.


The Great Gatsby-Ian Armstrong as Nick
- courtesy Casey Campbell Photograhy

In order to cram the meat of Gatsby into two acts, Levy tells a somewhat expository, disjointed, and episodic tale. Much of it is related by young Midwesterner Nick Carroway, off to make his fortune in post-WWI New York, who falls in with an extraordinarily vapid crowd of obscenely monied wastrels on Long Island. Nick reunites his alluring but morally vacant cousin, Daisy Buchanan, with the mysterious Jay Gatsby (nee Jimmy Gatz), her pre-war Great Love who was thrown over for the incredibly wealthy Tom Buchanan. While Tom makes little effort to hide his own serial infidelity, he is less understanding when it comes to Daisy’s transgressions. Ultimately, everyone suffers – Tom’s latest lover Myrtle killed in a hit and run accident by Daisy, Gatsby shot to death by Myrtle’s jealous if misinformed husband George, a disillusioned Nick who flees back to the relatively moral high ground of the Midwest – everyone, that is, except Daisy and Tom, who (in Fitzgerald’s words) “let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

From her first moment on stage, Cassie Greer (Daisy) creates a genuinely loathsome character. Her deliberately languid poses and delivery dripping with aristocratic ennui paint a clear picture of a hollow, completely self-absorbed and utterly useless human being. Colin Wood (Tom Buchanan) is equally loathsome; Wood’s burly physique and larger-than-life arrogance perfectly convey Tom’s entitled, alpha-male, competitive, white supremacist persona.

The Great Gatsby-Cassie Greer as Daisy-Colin Wood as Tom
-courtesy Casey Campbell Photography
Perhaps the trickiest role is that of Nick Carraway (Ian Armstrong) because it is neither black nor white – neither victim nor oppressor, neither rich nor poor.  Armstrong manages to convey Carraway’s ambiguous relationship to his cousin and her crew – simultaneously attracted, puzzled, and repelled by the lives they lead; eager to be accepted and yet hesitant, and ultimately unwilling, to buy in to their decadence.

And then there’s Gatsby (Ty Boice). Boice clearly expresses Gatsby’s superficial charm and the hollowness of the Golden Boy character Gatsby has invented for himself. However, he misses the mark a little by underplaying Gatsby’s other side – the real Jimmy Gatz that he occasionally reveals to Nick - the wartime buddy and regular guy. This may be as much a function of the script as the actor.

Ironically, the only unambiguously innocent character is murderer George Wilson (Adam Syron). Syron does a fine job of portraying a baffled working-class victim of his wife’s infidelity and Buchanan’s coldly mocking false promises. Despite the character’s obsequious and sometimes desperate sniveling, Syron earns the audience’s sympathy and (by killing Gatsby) respect for standing up for himself.

Costume designer Melissa Heller has created beautiful, period-appropriate costumes that capture the tawdry glitz of the early ‘20s. The minimalist set sketches the opulence of the setting, and the dock built out into the audience is a clever touch that nicely supports the illusion of unseen bay-front mansions.

The Great Gatsby runs through Sunday, October 20th with shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:00. All performances are at the VenetianTheatre, 253 E. Main Street, Hillsboro.

 

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Crucible at BCT


Cast members of "The Crucible" at Beaverton Civic Theatre

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Witch-hunts. They form a recurrent theme throughout recorded history. Like it or not, the potential exists in all cultures for an outbreak of “endemic persecutory mania,” where a society suffering from mass paranoia turns upon itself. Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible, while written in direct response to the political “witch-hunts” of the McCarthy era, is as pertinent and potent today as it was over sixty years ago.

Kira Batcheller as Abigail
In Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of The Crucible, director Doreen Lundberg demonstrates a penetrating comprehension of Miller’s essential themes. In a show where the actors too frequently go over the top, but rarely plumb the depths of their characters, Lundberg elicits restrained but powerful performances from her 21-member cast.

The play is based on the actual Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, when over a six-month period 19 “witches” were hanged (and one reluctant witness pressed to death) on the basis of evidence from a group of hysterical young girls. In Miller’s version the girls’ afflictions are orchestrated by 17-year-old Abigail Williams, the jealous and delusional ex-lover of farmer John Proctor, in order to get rid Proctor’s wife Elizabeth. Ironically, Elizabeth (and her unborn child) survive the ordeal, while John Proctor hangs.

The story opens with the Rev. Samuel Parris (Aaron Morrow), Abigail’s uncle, bemoaning his fate while sitting at the bedside of his nearly catatonic daughter Betty (Addison Groendes). Over the course of the play, Morrow convincingly takes his character from the self-centered and self-pitying accuser to the recalcitrant and broken man who, too-late, faces his culpability for the horrors visited on Salem.  Like Parris, Ann and Thomas Putnam (James Bass and Valarie Griffiths Brown) have a daughter who appears to be afflicted. Brown effectively conveys Ann Putnam’s despair (having lost seven children she cannot bear to lose another) and anger at the pious midwife Rebecca Nurse (Virginia Kincaid), who is mother to eleven and has never lost a child.

Kraig Williams as Rev. John Hale
Kraig Williams is simply brilliant in the role of the Rev. John Hale, the scholarly witch hunter brought to Salem by Parris to investigate the bizarre and frightening behavior of the “afflicted” girls. His original goal is to discover and expel the devil from the community – but by the end he finds that the real evil is in the court itself, and that he has no power to stop this destructive machine. His transition from true believer to shattered doubter is a moving testimonial to the play’s deepest themes.

John and Elizabeth Proctor (Seth Haas and Letitia Maskell) are the driving forces propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Seth Haas brings a subtlety to his role that may be unexpected to fans of Daniel Day Lewis’ angry performance in the movie version. Haas finds in Proctor’s character a maturity and thoughtfulness that elicits sympathy without histrionics.  The modern audience has no trouble relating to Haas’ believable performance as a complex, flawed, but essentially good man. Letitia Maskell’s interpretation of Elizabeth Proctor’s tortured position matches Haas’ performance in its integrity and intensity.  Elizabeth’s shame, fear, and anguish flow from her husband’s infidelity, and Maskell shows a steely tenderness that captures every nuance of the role.

Steve Holgate as Governor Danforth
The strength of this production is, in part, in the restraint shown by the actors – and this is nowhere more clearly illustrated than by the afflicted girls. In place of unbridled (and potentially comic) hysteria, the audience sees a much eerier and colder Stepford Wives/Village of the Damned ensemble under the thumb of the truly evil Abigail Williams (Kira Batcheller).  Of this group, only Mary Warren (Marina Neal) ever attempts to reveal the girls’ duplicity. Neal brings real emotional depth to the dramatic shifts in her character.

W. Paul Brewster provides a few moments of dark comic relief in the role of Giles Corey, whose stubborn individuality leads to his ultimate demise (he is the lucky fellow who gets pressed to death).  We cannot ignore the almost-diabolical duo of self-righteous judges (Steve Holgate as Governor Danforth and Chris White as Judge Hathorne). White’s eagerness to “hang ‘em high” contrasts, but ultimately complements, Holgate’s pretentious vision of even-handed but inhumane “justice.”

Set designer Alex Woodard and the construction crew have produced a beautiful backdrop for the play’s events that captures the stark simplicity of the Puritan era. Scene changes are efficient and swift, a welcome feature in a long play.

BCT’s excellent production of The Crucible deserves as full and appreciative a house at every performance as it had on opening night.

The Crucible is playing through October 13th at the Beaverton City Library auditorium. Performances are at 8:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.

 

Monday, September 23, 2013

LUCKY STIFF Knocks ‘Em Dead at Broadway Rose



 
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
 

Broadway Rose’s current show, Lucky Stiff, is the first product of a highly successful collaboration between lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Once on This Island, Ragtime, Seussical). It is an absurdist murder farce – sort of “comedy of errors” meets “Dashiell Hammett” – but with lots of singing and a fair amount of dancing. Luckily for the audience, Broadway Rose never does anything by half-measures, and the quality of this production transforms what could be two hours of formulaic fluff into a great evening of entertainment.

The story itself is predictably convoluted and nonsensical. Harry Witherspoon, a downtrodden, dog-hating British shoe salesman, inherits six million dollars from his long-lost American uncle, Tony Hendon – but there are strings attached. In order to claim his inheritance, Harry must treat Uncle Tony’s embalmed corpse to a weeklong vacation in Monte Carlo – gambling, sky- and scuba-diving, the works! Should Harry fail, Uncle Tony’s millions will go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn.  Harry’s efforts to fulfill Uncle Tony’s wishes are countered by the machinations of Tony’s lover, Rita LaPorta, and by Universal Dog Rescuer Annabel Glick. Suffice it to say that things get complicated.
 
Robert Winstead brings his extensive experience as a vocalist and a comic to the role of Harry Witherspoon. His English accent is convincing, and his marvelously expressive face clearly conveys both the pathos and the determination of his character. Winstead sings on more than half of the show’s songs, and his solid vocal performance buttresses several fine ensemble numbers. His duets with the lovely soprano Ecaterina Lynn (“Annabel Glick”) are especially effective  - comic or poignant as the story demands. Lynn’s earnest, dog-loving fanaticism is a perfect foil for Winstead’s befuddlement, and the two share many of Lucky Stiff’s funniest moments – especially in the brilliantly staged bedroom/dream sequence.
 
Amy Jo Halliday brings a frenetic bimboism to the part of Rita LaPorta, Uncle Tony’s extraordinarily classless half-blind lover (she refuses to wear her glasses) and accidental murderer.  Her over-the-top character is matched by the power of her brassy vocals, and she knows just how far she can push the role. David Smidebush displays remarkable physical fluidity throughout; his spectacular tap dancing helps to make “Harry’s Nightmare,” a captivating bit of stage magic and choreography, the high point of the show. 
 
Other noteworthy performances include Darren Hurley’s turn as the lounge-lizard/maître d’hotel/singing nun/Arab and Catherine Bridge’s portrayal of Dominique, part b-girl, part Spanish dancer, all femme fatale.  The ensemble, as expected with any Broadway Rose production, is flawless. Music director/conductor/pianist Alan D. Lytle once again brings vocal and instrumental magic to the New Stage.
 
Director/choreographer Dan Murphy presents what may be the cleverest staging of any show we have seen in recent years.  In addition to the above-mentioned bedroom/dream sequence, the series of vignettes showing Witherspoon, Uncle Tony, and Annabel parachuting, scuba diving, and fishing their way across the stage keeps the audience in stitches.  Lucky Stiff may not be terribly profound, but this production provides high quality musical theater and immerses its audience in an evening of beguiling entertainment.
 
Lucky Stiff is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through October 13th.