Tuesday, June 2, 2015

HART’s SPAMALOT A Real Crowd Pleaser

L to R: Nick Serrone, Carl Dahlquist, Laurence Cox (King Arthur ), Stephen Radley, James Pennington. 
Photo: Garry Bastian Photography. 

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

In the words of the immortal Monty Python, “If life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.” What is left out, but implied, is that sometimes you need to be extremely, ridiculously, absurdly silly. The British comedy troupe Monty Python has succeeded in capturing the enduring loyalty of American audiences in a way that other classic Britcoms (think Benny Hill, Rowan Atkinson, the “Carry On” franchise) have utterly failed. HART Theatre’s production of Spamalot brilliantly illustrates the point –opening night brought a full house of enthusiastic devotees of this uniquely British art (?) form.

Those unfamiliar with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on which the musical is based, may find the production puzzling – nothing in their previous lives will have prepared them for uproarious laughter about a shrubbery – but such Python novitiates (and it is a religion) are encouraged to just sit back, forget about reason, and enjoy the silliness.

Given the theater’s small size, Director Dorinda Toner and her production staff have done a remarkable job of bringing a very large show (there are 22 performers, and countless costume changes) to the space available. It helps that they use (very well) pre-recorded music – there’s no place to put an orchestra, and the complexity of the score would be ill-served by basic piano, bass and drums. The set is striking – a detailed castle structure that serves a multitude of purposes while constantly reinforcing the Arthurian ambience of the story line.

While the six Laker Girls form an energetic and cohesive vocal and dance ensemble, Mila Boyd (“Lady of the Lake”) holds the only starring female role, and she nails it. Her amazing voice, dark beauty, and lithe body are perfect for the role of an over-the-top siren/seductress. She delivers solidly on several key songs, nowhere more so than in her pathos-ridden rendition of “Whatever Happened to My Part?”

The pivotal role of King Arthur is nobly filled by Laurence Cox, whose regal bearing never falters as he strives to turn his motley crew into the Knights of the Round Table. He confidently prances across the stage, keeping perfect time with the coconut-clapping hoofbeats of Patsy (Brian Kennedy), his loyal page. The pair are especially moving in the tragic ballad “I’m All Alone” – Cox for his angst-ridden solo, Kennedy for his mute protest. The four principal knights, Sir Lancelot (Nick Serrone), Sir Robin (Stephen Radley), Sir Galahad (James Pennington), and Sir Bedevere (Carl Dahlquist) bring a quirkily novel interpretation of knightly valor – sort of Camelot meets The Village People.  Andy Roberts is utterly captivating as both the French Taunter and the Knight of Ni – his Franglais accent suitably execrable, his knightly bearing commanding and imperious.

The ensemble is vocally tight, and there are several impressive moments of outstanding tap dancing by both the men and the women. The juxtaposition of serious stagecraft and absurdist humor gives Spamalot the cheery gravitas it needs to keep the customers satisfied. In the final singalong, the audience is exhorted to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and the HART production provides ample support for this philosophy!

HART Theatre’s production of Spamalot runs through June 21st, with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. A special performance has been added at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 21st.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Mama Won’t Fly Takes Off at TITG

Jessica Reed, Shelly Heesacker, and Tanja Crouch. Photo by Theatre in the Grove.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Theatre in the Grove’s latest offering, Mama Won’t Fly, is one in a series of Southern-themed farces by the prolific writing team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooter – the third of their shows that we have seen on Washington County stages in the past few years. Like the others, it’s a family-friendly, audience-pleasing bit of pure entertainment, but unlike 2013’s Dixie Swim Club this show lacks any significant themes – it’s just a whole bunch of funny lines and physical comedy wrapped around a slim plot.

In a nutshell: Savannah Honeycutt has promised her brother that she’ll deliver their mom, Norleen Sprunt, to Santa Monica Beach in time for his wedding four days hence. Unfortunately, they have to drive all the way from Alabama stuck in mama’s vintage Buick because mama won’t fly.  For Savannah, this promises to be the road trip from hell – cooped up with her meddling, match-making mother for thousands of miles. Things get more complicated with the unexpected arrival of bride-to-be Hayley Quinn, who hopes to become a true Sprunt by bonding with her new relations on the trip. Stage weapons, Texas troopers, car thieves, a hopped-up truck driver, an alcoholic ex-stage manager, a cross-dressing former fiancĂ©, and an unbelievable assortment of odd relatives introduce every imaginable I Love Lucy-type complication along the way and, predictably, all’s well that ends well.

The three lead characters are ably supported by six extraordinarily versatile, if occasionally over-the-top, actors who fill a mind-numbing 22 parts.  David Cabassa’s high point is his inexplicably Hispanic portrayal of Officer Dugger, brighter than Barney Fife but still no Andy Taylor. Donald Cleland is simply mahvelous as the unexpectedly fetching Spud. Patti Speight literally and figuratively sparkles as a Vegas showgirl/wedding officiant (“do you want the $40 or the $60 wedding?”). However, it is Anne Kennedy (as the light-fingered alcoholic ex-stage manager) who gets the best line of the evening: “rehab is for quitters!”  Not to be outdone, the stagehand (Tom Robinson on opening weekend) is hilarious, if silent, as he carries out his many duties.

If the leads were played like the supporting cast, the show would be a train wreck instead of an enjoyable farce – but Directors Jeanna Van Dyke and Susan Dieter-Robinson had the good sense to rein in these key characters. Jessica Reed (“Savannah”), Shelly Heesacker (“Norleen”), and Tanja Crouch (“Hayley”) play their roles seriously, no matter how absurd the situation. Reed’s ability to keep a straight face while wearing the ugliest dress on Earth leaves the laughs where they belong – in the audience. Heesacker manages to stop just short of being unforgivably overbearing, so that her character’s sympathetic portrayal at the end is somewhat believable. Quinn is hapless, clumsy, goofy, but consistently endearing – the most lovable character in the show by a mile!

Mama Won’t Fly is good fun precisely because of the lack of any pretense of deep themes or great art – a great way to spend a few hours immersed in silly theater, laughing along with folks who are there for nothing more than a good time.

Theatre in the Grove’s production of Mama Won’t Fly runs through June 13th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:30.