Thursday, June 23, 2016

HMS Pinafore Sets Sail in Multnomah Village!

Dennis Britten (Sir Joseph), Lindsey Lefler (Josephine), and Ron Swingen (Captain Corcoran)

By Tina Arth

Judging from the size and responsiveness of the opening night audience, it appears that the gentle folk of Southwest Portland are eager to welcome light opera into their community. 138 years after the show’s London debut, the Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) is having way too much fun with Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the Multnomah Arts Center. Working with a very diverse group of performers, artistic director Dennis Britten and musical director Linda Smith have crafted a terribly funny show with a genuinely impressive vocal ensemble and a few fine solo vocalists.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, a quick and dirty definition of “light opera” might be “a short, amusing opera with a happy ending and in which some of the text is spoken” (thanks, For those unfamiliar with Pinafore, it is (like most of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan) not only a fine example of the art form, but offers thoroughly engaging relevance as a work of social criticism parodying the least attractive elements of traditional British society. So soon after Orlando, who would not warm to a show revolving around the theme that we love who we love, and social conventions and class distinctions are irrelevant in matters of the heart?

In addition to his contributions as artistic director, Dennis Britten fills a key role, playing The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., (First Lord of the Admiralty) – the title alone tells us all we need to know about the character’s pretentiousness and utter self-absorption. Britten swaggers and condescends with the supercilious, over-the-top bluster expected of a 19th century upper-class Englishman, and his affect sets the tone for the entire production. Phyllis Fort (“Little Buttercup”) is his complete opposite – an aging trollop from the wrong side of the pier with a heart of gold encased in a slightly tarnished, but still lusty, shell. These two theatrical veterans anchor the show with their comic timing and commanding presence, and their voices are well suited to the droll demands of their roles.

The shining star of this production is Lindsay Lefler, playing the Captain’s daughter Josephine. Her beautiful, fully trained voice is ideal for the part, and seems to flutter out of her with no visible effort at all. She has the wide eyes and cutely mobile face necessary for a comic ingénue, and understands that in Gilbert and Sullivan, even the loftiest aria must be delivered with a light touch - nothing softens the impact of a ringing soprano like a touch of self-parody.

Among the rest of the cast, two men particularly shine. Jacob Mott (“Dick Deadeye”) is satisfyingly ominous, and imbues his performance with over-the-top melodrama that keeps the audience laughing. Tom Hamann (“Bill Bobstay”) projects the manly virtue so lovingly parodied in “A British Tar” – and his vocal turn in this number is equally memorable.

Vocal Director Alice Smith has really polished the men’s and women’s choruses, turning a lot of serviceable voices and a few really excellent ones into a powerful ensemble with frequent flashes of surprising beauty. With the occasional help of flutist Aurea Taylor, Smith also provides the entire “orchestra” with her gifted work at the piano.

Sue Woodbury’s costumes are elaborate and often authentic – lovely period gowns and hats for the sisters, cousins, and aunts, an elaborate uniform for the Lord Admiral, and simple stripes togging the lowly seamen. Joe Rosenthal’s detailed set establishes the shipboard locale and provides ample levels for all of the show’s activity.

I hope that LOoP will continue to shine the light of light opera on the stages of Southwest Portland with productions of this quality. It’s fun, lively, thoroughly entertaining, and done much too rarely.  Go, see it, and tell your friends!

Light Opera of Portland’s HMS Pinafore plays at the Multnomah Arts Center, 7688 SW Capitol Highway, Portland through Sunday, June 26th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Rachel Jaques  as "Chicklet"

By Tina Arth

When a simple Washington County girl ventures out to the North Portland theater scene, I guess she’s got to expect that things will get a little weird. However, previous productions at Twilight Theater Company definitely had not prepared me for the very funny, oddly charming, extremely bizarre Psycho Beach Party. Playwright Charles Busch (also widely acclaimed for such classics as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Die, Mommie, Die!) has created the ultimate sixties comedy/horror/surf movie parody – first shown on stage in 1987, and translated to the big screen in 2000. Ravyn Jazper-Hawke, through a series of imaginative choices in casting and direction, has given the show a distinctly Portland flavor (including classic Pacific Northwest style snow-white limbs on some of her surf bunnies). The absence of any attempt to imbue the tale with even the slightest redeeming social value allows the cast and audience to just relax for a couple of hours of adult-themed playfulness.

Whether you remember Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello fondly or with a tinge of embarrassment (or have no memory of them at all, courtesy of your youth or an overly enthusiastic embrace of sixties drug culture), the show should strike several chords of recognition – think Mommie Dearest meets Psycho meets Rear Window meets Gidget/Beach Blanket Bingo., and stir in just a soupçon of Three Faces of Eve. The final product is the story of flat-chested tomboy Chicklet, a wannabe surfer, and her beach-loving companions. Master surfer Kanaka reluctantly agrees to give Chicklet surf lessons, but soon learns that the word “red” causes her to shift to one of her alternate personalities. We soon learn that Mrs. Forrest (Chicklet’s mom) is a bit unhinged – could she be the perpetrator of the weird attacks that are plaguing Malibu? What about runaway Hollywood legend Bettina? Or buddies Provoloney and Yo Yo, clumsily trying to find their way out of the closet and into the sun? Will the audience and cast have a sighting of the dreaded Land Shark? These questions and many more can only be answered by going to see the play!

Several performances are particularly noteworthy. Rachel Jaques (as “Chicklet”) plays her scrawny ingénue with a lot of heart, and does a fine job of switching to the dominatrix Ann and Southern store clerk Tylene at the drop of a word (aided by ominous lighting shifts). Alastair Morley (“The Great Kanaka”) is masterfully pretentious as a cigarette-puffing surf god who turns into a puddle of terrified masochism whenever Ann’s persona emerges.  Amanda Anderson (as the nerd “Berdine”) and Eva Andrews (as man-hungry “Marvel Ann”) are satisfyingly stereotypical. By all means watch for the odd (OK, very odd) chemistry between Marty Winborne (“Provoloney”) and Ted Hartsook (“Yo Yo”), manly Malibu men aspiring to Hollywood fame and fortune but lacking any of the usual prerequisites.

For me, the real tour de force is Bee Philip (okay, we all know it’s Benjamin Philip in drag) as “Mrs. Forrest.”  He is the Hollywood dragon-lady personified, as coldly manipulative and evil as any aspiring Joan Crawford. When he cries, “You don’t know how repugnant it is to have a man’s sweaty thing poking at you” and then pulls out a jock strap (“…a peter belt. This is the pouch that holds their swollen genitalia”) we start to understand why poor Chicklet might have a spare personality or two.

The staging is simple – lots of beach balls and a few flexible backdrops to create the Forrest home, Kanaka’s shack, and of course the sands of Malibu. Perhaps the evening’s most sustained laugh came from the scene where Chicklet and the boys are actually out surfing – a bit of clever stagecraft that really works. Costumes are appropriate to both period and place, which makes them even funnier on the unlikely physiques of the actors. Finally, the sound is pure fun – a cheesy theme song supplemented by the real surf music of the era. The combinations of these elements makes for a bizarrely entertaining production – just don’t bring the kids!

Twilight Theater Company’s Psycho Beach Party is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, June 25th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.

Monday, June 6, 2016

On Golden Pond – Summer at Its Finest!

Joe Silver, Anita Zijdemans Boudreau, Patti Speight, and Jason Weed.

By Tina Arth

Theatre in the Grove closes its 2015-16 season with Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond, a beautiful love story thinly disguised as a terribly funny take on dysfunctional families. It’s an inspired choice for a community theater – small cast, incredibly meaty roles, diverse age range, and a story that completely ensnares the audience from the opening of Act I to the end of Act II. For two (blissfully air-conditioned) hours Friday night, the audience was transported to the Thayer family’s summer home on Maine’s Golden Pond. We were given an extended peek into the world of aging fathers, disaffected daughters, alienated teens, buttoned-down boyfriends, and a subtle but intense love affair between two old marrieds nearing the end of their time together. The script is smart, witty, and surprisingly unpredictable in places; at the end, we have learned no Great Truths, but we have seen how many paths can lead to family reconciliation.

The story is much like that of the enormously popular 1981 film. Norman and Ethel Thayer (Joe Silver and Anita Zijdemans Boudreau) arrive at their isolated summer home (perhaps for the last time – Norman is turning 80) in the Maine woods. Norman seems to be suffering from the early stages of dementia, but while his memory may be fading, his tongue is as sharp as ever.  Ethel’s energy and cheer are heavily taxed by Norman’s quirks, but she soldiers on and manages to maintain her sense of humor and her wonder at the beauty of Golden Pond. The arrival of their divorced, childless middle-aged daughter Chelsea (Patti Speight), her boyfriend Bill (Jason Weed), and Billy Jr. (Sam Dennis) is initially disruptive, but when Chelsea and Bill take off for a month in Europe, leaving Billy with the Thayers, Norman’s world quickly changes. Norman and Billy quickly bond, each finding in the other something that they had been missing – the change in Norman is so dramatic that Ethel remarks, “We should have rented a 13-year-old boy years ago!” When Chelsea and Bill return (now married), Norman and his daughter are finally able to reconcile after years of conflict.

While the story arc seems to follow the turbulence between Chelsea and Norman, it is the power of Ethel and Norman’s relationship that really tells the tale. Joe Silver creates an utterly authentic picture of an intellectually powerful man rejecting the inevitable losses of aging. His timing and deadpan delivery of a series of one-liners fuel the comic element of the play, but he also captures his character’s essential vulnerability – the one scene where he truly lets his guard down and shares his limitless love for Ethel is utterly moving.  Anita Zijdemans Boudreau works in perfect tandem with Silver, creating a kind of steel-cored angel to prop up her cranky and disintegrating spouse. Her sense of wonder at the beauty of their environment shows how she replenishes her spirit, and in one key scene with Speight she also displays sparks of genuine anger that round out her persona.

Speight’s “Chelsea” is a careful balance between bitterness, whining, and flashes of determination as she creates a forty-something woman finally ready to reinvent not only her relationship with her father, but her whole approach to life.  Sam Dennis is perfectly cast as “Billy” – he is snotty, snarky, and smart enough to stand up to Norman, but still needy – in other words, a classic 13-year-old boy on teetering on the edge between childhood and manhood.

Director Gavin Knittle has brought together a skilled group of actors with just the right chemistry to bring life to a tale of love, loss, and hope.  The cast’s ability to deliver sharp comedy and serious themes makes it a show not to be missed.

On Golden Pond plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through June 19th with performances at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.