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 fiancĂ©e, 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.