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!



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.



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


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.