Monday, November 30, 2015

KBNB’s Swan Song

Phillip Berns, Peter Schuyler, Andrew Beck, Jessi Walters, Clara
Hillier, Gary Strong, Jeremy Sloan and Jessica Geffen as the cast of KBNB
Radio Classics, photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

If Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is like a snow-covered Mt. Hood, returning annually to preside over the holiday season with predictable majesty, then Bag & Baggage’s A KBNB Kristmas Karol is like Mt. St. Helens, circa 1980 – a once in a lifetime, over-the-top explosion of theatrical farce that blows away its own foundation and leaves the audience wondering “what happened?” To strain the simile a bit more, Kristmas Karol was also preceded by two smaller, but still impressive, earthquakes (the 2013 and 2014 productions of It’s A Somewhat Wonderful Life and Miracle on 43d Street) which presaged what was to come but gave no real warning of the scope of the coming event. With this production, adaptor/director Scott Palmer doesn’t just close the door on his holiday trilogy, he slams it shut and throws away the key.

The lights come up on the now familiar (to Bag & Baggage audiences) KBNB backdrop – but the call letters are askew, the clock is broken, and in place of the studio’s furnishings the stage is littered with tattered boxes, one dangling microphone, and a snake of disconnected cable. As television is fast replacing radio as the dramatic medium of choice, this year’s production of A Christmas Carol will be the station’s last gasp, and it’s set to air in just 20 minutes. Producer Winston Whiteside (Gary Strong) and his oh-so-buxom bride Lana North-Berkshire-Whiteside (Jessica Geffen) arrive to find the station in disarray, and they panic, believing that the station has been robbed – not only of furniture, props, and electronic equipment, but of the scripts they need for the evening’s show. When stars Donald Donaldson (Andrew Beck) and Felicity Fay Fitzpatrick (Clara Hillier) appear, we learn that Donaldson not only hasn’t memorized his lines, he hasn’t even opened the script and is not familiar with the story. The sudden arrival of predatory TV producer Arthur Adams (Peter Schuyler) and his odd entourage introduces another seemingly insurmountable obstacle – apparently, the KBNB folks didn’t get the memo that the holiday radio broadcast had been moved to a studio in Hoboken. “The show must go on” is a nice concept, but seems unlikely until we learn that the greedy Adams is a big Scrooge fan, his “assistant” Laverne North-Berkshire (Jessi Walters) is channeling Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and famous film director Heinrich Huber Hauffman (Philip Berns), despite his unintelligible Mitteleuropean patois, is capable of plugging one electrical cable into another. From the ensuing chaos somehow arises, if not A Christmas Carol, at least the Ghost of Christmas Carols past.

High points of the show include an abundance of riveting physical comedy (Strong must be seen to be believed), the growing enthusiasm of Hillier’s impromptu jingles for sponsor Boromax, Geffen’s giddy hysteria throughout, and Schuyler’s remarkable transitions from slimeball to Dickensian thespian. The scene where Hauffman offers a solution to their problems, but needs fey policeman Patrick Paulson (Jeremy Sloan) to translate, is a gem that lasts long after the cacophony of the show subsides. Less thrilling (although certainly true to the intense parody of the form) are the incessant breast grabbing and the sometimes-inexplicable pants dropping. Frequently, there is just too much happening on stage to keep track of it all, and I’m sure I missed some truly boffo punch lines because I was distracted by constant chatter and activity.

The opening night audience was loaded with Bag & Baggage regulars, who had been groomed by the first two legs of the KBNB trilogy and understood the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” flavor of the evening. One hopes that newcomers (at least the savvy ones who are likely to populate the Bag & Baggage demographic) are able to focus and contextualize the show, find its underlying warmth, and appreciate the amazing acting company that brings such a broad and marvelous variety of theatre to Hillsboro.

Bag & Baggage’s A KBNB Kristmas Karol is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through December 23, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm, and Dec. 22-23 at 7:30pm.

A Taffeta Christmas Present From Broadway Rose

By Tina Arth

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas all over the metro area, but nowhere is the holiday spirit launched with more heart and verve than Broadway Rose’s New Stage in Tigard. A Taffeta Christmas, a 1950’s Musical Revue is drenching its audience with a dose of nostalgia that would be near-lethal were it not leavened by amazing vocal arrangements and lovingly ironic touches.  For scheduling reasons, I suspended my usual “no Christmas activities or apparel until after Thanksgiving” rule to see the show (and don my first holiday-themed attire) at its preview on Thanksgiving Eve – and my flexibility was amply rewarded.

Local author Rick Lewis’ holiday creation, like its predecessor The Taffetas, features sisters Kaye, Peggy, Cheryl, and Donna in a four-piece fifties “girl group.” The girls are back home Muncie, Indiana filming a televised special “Hometown Holiday Hoedown” for their loyal fans. Since the entire TV show is performed live (we are the studio audience) there is no attempt to create a backstory other than what the girls reveal between songs – in about 95 minutes, they deliver thirteen complete songs and three medleys. The holiday theme is pervasive, but not exclusive – songs like “Jambalaya,” “Sincerely,” and the wonderful “Secret Love Medley” lend period-appropriate variety to the show’s offerings. The “Taffeta Chatter” segment, the Galaxy Beauty Product ads, and a too-fabulous guest appearance by Cousin Warren keep the evening moving with a spirit of campy fun.

A musical revue rises (or falls) on the strength of the vocalists, and all four Taffetas (Kira Batcheller, Stephanie K. Leppert, Natalie McClure, and Dru Rutledge) deliver flawless performances. They are masters of complex four-part harmony, and each has the lead voice necessary to not just carry, but also adorn, frequent solo spots. Blocking a show where each performer is constantly attached to a long microphone cord must have been a nightmare, but Director/Choreographer Dan Murphy manages to keep all four girls posing, dancing, and weaving like they were coated in Johnson’s No More Tangles. Music Director/pianist Jeffrey Childs and his band mates, bassist Fletcher Nemeth and drummer Bill Morris-York, are unobtrusively tucked away in the background but they provide impeccable support to the production.

Costume designer Jim Crino captures just the right fifties Christmas look: bright red dresses accented by occasional touches of white lace or fur, classic “Jackie O” pearls that fit perfectly with the bouffant wigs and bright red lipstick (Galaxy brand, no doubt – the brand preferred by nine out of ten Hollywood starlets!). The scenic design by Gene Dent has the requisite “everything in one place” feel of a fifties TV show; one side of the stage is dedicated to nothing but the sponsor’s products, while the other houses a well-stocked bar that would feel at home in any rec room of the era, and the whole set exudes over-the-top Christmas charm.

A Taffeta Christmas is definitely not for everybody. Theater-goers in search of cutting-edge material, challenging dissonance, and cultural cynicism will have to find their needs met elsewhere – but for the rest of us, Broadway Rose is closing its 2015 season with just the right touch. Several shows are nearly sold out, so buy your tickets on-line as soon as possible.

“A Taffeta Christmas” is playing at the Broadway Rose New Stage Theater, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, December 20th with performances at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matiness on Saturday and Sunday.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The First Belles of Christmas Ringing at Mask & Mirror

Jani VanPelt (Frankie) and Michael Allen (Raynerd). Photo by Al Steward Photography, Tigard

By Tina Arth

Christmas Belles, Mask & Mirror’s offering for the holiday season, is a farce based on the calamitous events surrounding a very bad local Christmas production – and thus, by necessity, is infused with some elements of truly awful stagecraft. It is one of three comedies set in the fictional Fayro, Texas by the prolific writing team of Jones, Hope and Wooten, and centers on the absurd and tacky Futrelle sisters – a fitting sequel to last spring’s Dearly Beloved, with many of the same cast members. Like its predecessor, Christmas Belles needs to be approached in the spirit of unadulterated fun – any attempt to find great art within the script is doomed, and Director Gary Romans (who also directed Dearly Beloved) makes no effort to turn this particular sow’s ear into a silk purse. Silk purses just aren’t that funny.

The three Futrelle sisters are in crisis. Twink (Diana Lo Verso) is temporarily paroled from jail, sentenced for accidentally burning down ½ of a trailer court while trying to destroy her ex-beau’s NASCAR memorabilia. Frankie (Jani VanPelt) looks about 10 months pregnant, carrying unexpected late-life twins due at any moment. Honey Raye (Kari Trickey) is trying to lose her reputation as town slut by directing the annual Christmas program at the Tabernacle of the Lamb Church. Their principal adversaries are Miss Geneva Musgrave (Pat Romans), the overbearing town florist angry at having lost control of a pageant she directed for the past 27 years, and Patsy Price (Virginia Kincaid), the official town snob who disdainfully refers to the Futrelle girls as “the fertile, the flirt, and the felon.” A third unseen but powerful adversary is the food poisoning that has knocked out most of the cast on opening night – we can only imagine the scene that inspires the quote “Now, do any of you know how to shampoo a sheep?” These and a host of subplot crises magically resolve at the end, although I’m not sure that Dub (James Montgomery) ever manages to pass his kidney stone.

The heavily-stuffed VanPelt is remarkably true to the awkward physicality of the extremely pregnant, and injects just the right note of hysteria into her performance. LoVerso shifts seamlessly from wide-eyed innocence to determined escape artist/vandal – her timing and delivery earn lots of laughs. Trickey’s acting captures Honey Raye’s transformation from trash to, well, slightly-less-trashy, but her hair, makeup, and clothing are all a bit too respectable for the part – somebody just needs to tart this girl up a little! Romans’ take on Miss Geneva is superb – she oozes “pushy Southern broad” out of her smug little pores. In Act I, Kincaid’s elitism is believably annoying – but it’s in Act II that she really gets to shine; as she gradually succumbs to the irresistible effects of a powerful painkiller, we see a whole new side of the prim and proper Patsy Price.

Two of the men demand mention, although for very different reasons. While watching a man in agony probably shouldn’t be funny, Montgomery is hilarious as he mirrors his wife’s oncoming labor pains with his frantic kidney stone inspired writhing – and his stoic refusal to pop a pain pill is just plain heartwarming. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I was a bit uncomfortable with Michael Allen’s portrayal of Raynerd Chisum, a mentally challenged and much-loved local character. From what I can tell he played the part as written, so my unease is really aimed at the authors, but it just seems like a cheap shot to milk laughs out of poor Raynerd’s intellectual shortcomings. Allen does, however, turn the tables and partially salvage the role with his exceptionally dignified last-minute rendition of the Christmas story.

While Christmas Belles is broken into two acts, it’s really structured more like a sitcom, with a series of blackouts punctuated by lots of one-liners, clever bits of over-the-top Southern slang, and broad physical comedy. It’s undemanding, a whole lot of fun in the spirit of the ugly Christmas sweater, and it’s a great way to usher in the lighter side of the holiday season!

Christmas Belles runs through November 22nd at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.