Monday, August 18, 2014

C.A.S.T. Ventures Into the Woods (Jr.)

From left: Adam Burgess (Jack) and  Lilian Wakefield (Jack's mother)

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

When Into the Woods made its Broadway debut in 1987, many audience members opined that the show should have ended on the “happily ever after” note of the first act – a charming amalgam of fairy tales with great songs, fun characters, and no dark side. Theatre in the Grove’s current C.A.S.T. (Children’s After School Theatre) production of Into the Woods, Jr. conforms nicely to that model, as the one-act condensation never really delves into the mature second-act themes of the Sondheim classic. The sanitized version, which would horrify us in any other context, is both entertaining and appropriate in a production designed for youthful performers, and the kids in the C.A.S.T  production do a fine job of bringing this complex Sondheim work to a  younger audience.

What from the original work is retained? Red Riding Hood and her voracious appetite for baked goods, the Wolf and his voracious appetite for Red and Granny, the Baker and his wife, the Witch whose curse renders the Baker childless, the tasks set by the Witch to reverse the curse, Cinderella and her dysfunctional step family, light-fingered Jack (of beanstalk fame), his loving Mother and trusty bovine sidekick Milky White, Rapunzel, and two lovestruck Princes. What is lost? Infidelity, murder, chaos, destruction, revenge, and some boffo songs. The weirdly omniscient narrator is replaced by a group of children reading a book of fairy tales – a nicely logical approach to the material.

Director Jeanna Van Dyke has succeeded in attracting and retaining many of the area’s best youthful performers – several standouts in the current production are veterans of last year’s Fiddler, Jr. and last winter’s Hobbit (including Assistant Director Adam Borrego), and we have really enjoyed watching these young artists develop. We are also pleased to see several new actors in the troupe, ensuring that C.A.S.T. will have access to a broad talent base in years to come.

The Baker (Jeremiah Stephens) and his wife (Brea Grimes) are perhaps the show’s strongest all-around performers – great vocals, clear and convincing acting that anchors the entire production. Athena Van Dyke (as Red Riding Hood) is charming, funny, and bouncy, and she has great timing. While some of the higher notes are a bit of a stretch for her pleasant alto voice, she manages to sell her songs effectively. Noah Burgess (as Jack) does a fine job on “Giants in the Sky,” captures his character’s wide-eyed, dotty innocence, and interacts beautifully with Milky White the Cow. Cinderella (Brenna Fitzgearld) has a flair for the physical comedy required of her role, and her pretty voice makes “Steps of the Palace” one of the evening’s best numbers. Another show highlight is the always popular “Agony” – carried off with aplomb by the two Princes (Adam Borrego and Nick Nieder). Mikayla Wallace (the Witch) is convincingly sinister, although some of vocals are muffled by her mask. The vocal ensemble numbers are equally strong, demonstrating the depth of the show’s talent base.

As with any opening night, there were a few technical problems, but the professionalism of the cast ensured that they never dropped a beat. Remarkably, the whole show was assembled in only three weeks (just 12 days  of rehearsal) – a tribute to the dedication of the director, cast and crew. Forest Grove is lucky to have such a fine youth theater program, especially one that is free to the actors (and with a maximum ticket price of $5.00) so that all local youth have access to live theater.

Into the Woods, Jr. plays at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, through Sunday, August 24th with performances at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 on Sunday.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Best Little Whorehouse in Tigard

Colin Wood, Sharon Maroney, and Dan Murphy star in the
production at Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Although the cultural gap between the average Portlander and a stereotypical Texan is wider than the Rio Grande, locals occasionally feel the need to get in touch with their inner good ol’ boys (‘n gals). Broadway Rose regularly caters to this curious predilection – this year with their sh*t-kickin’ production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Director Peggy Taphorn, just off a stunning turn with The Music Man, milks this particular heifer for all it’s worth; she and her outstanding cast and production team deliver a lively and entertaining evening despite the limitations of the script.

The story is astonishingly shallow, little more than a formulaic (if odd) vehicle for a whole lot of singing, dancing, and downright funny lines. A slimy television do-gooder and some slippery politicians successfully campaign to close down the Chicken Ranch, a notorious Texas brothel. Miss Mona, the madam (do NOT call her that to her face!) looks back longingly to her earliest days as a “pro” at the time of JFK’s inauguration. Her nostalgic recollections are not shared by Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, her long-time protector and (sort of) boyfriend, who has much clearer memories of the Kennedy assassinations (JFK and Bobby).  Shy and Angel, newcomers to the Chicken Ranch, have sad stories that are never really developed – perhaps just as well, given the limited number of laughs to be found when daddy gets a little too sweet on his daughter. An assortment of other characters (football players, a houseful of whores, a waitress, cheerleaders, crusader Melvin P. Thorpe and Co., politicians, Jewel the whorehouse maid) sings and dances up a storm. The show works because this motley crew (beautifully supported by the always amazing band) sings and dances so well that the audience really doesn’t care about the story line.

Choreographer Jacob Toth has outdone himself - the male dance ensemble is as strong as any we have seen on a Broadway Rose stage. While a bit more mature than his fellow hoofers, Dan Murphy (playing Thorpe) kicks up his bootheels with the best of them, and adds his strong voice to the already powerful vocal group. The distaff side, whether playing cheerleaders or prostitutes, is just as good – and the combination of these fillies and stallions more than justifies the price of admission to this spicy Broadway Rodeo.

Emily Sahler (as the waitress) delivers perhaps the most moving song in the show, “Doatsey Mae,” with a lovely poignancy that makes us wish we knew more of her story. Carmen N. Brantley-Payne (Jewel) is a powerful soulful belter whose upbeat “24 Hours of Lovin’” keeps the audience wide awake (and reassures us that some women do it for love, not money).  Colin Wood (Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd) clearly earns “best actor” honors for the evening, and it’s a real shame that his fine voice is only featured in one solo. Wood and Sharon Maroney (as Miss Mona) create a weird but believable chemistry that enhances the show’s best (really only) consistent story line, and the audience gets to know these two characters well enough to care about their fates.

Clever set and lighting design allow the show to move seamlessly from whorehouse to locker room to restaurant to governor’s mansion, so the action never stops. Costumes are about what one would expect in a tasteful brothel, but Melvin P. Thorpe and his Dogettes are bedecked in truly over-the-top glitz befitting the spirit of his team of Limbaugh-esque crusaders.

Broadway Rose’s The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas runs through August 17th at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.