Monday, November 28, 2016

PARFUMERIE MORE THAN JUST A GENTLE CHRISTMAS COMEDY

Gary Copsey, David Heath, Arianne Jacques.
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography


By Tina Arth

When Bag & Baggage announced their 2016-17 season last April, few people would have predicted that the decision to replace their traditional Christmas farce with the relatively obscure Parfumerie would prove so prescient.  However, co-directors Scott Palmer and Cassie Greer did not miss the significance in November 2016 of a play that embraces love and hope in the face of an ominously xenophobic political climate. The result is a show that is funny, heartwarming, but still able to subtly remind us of shadows on the national horizon.

While Parfumerie is new to American stages (it was first performed in English translation in 2009), the story is widely known to fans of stage and screen. Author Miklos Laszlo’s original 1937 Hungarian play, Illatszertar, has been reworked as 1940’s The Shop Around The Corner, 1949’s In The Good Old Summertime, the 1963 musical She Loves Me, and most recently 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. Although the names and locale sometimes change, the basic story is the same – two pen pals fall in love through anonymous correspondence while unknowingly waging daily battles as co-workers. After the story has been told and retold by the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, Barbara Cook, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, is there anything new to be gained from the efforts of Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage? My answer is unequivocally “yes” – I found myself riveted by the deeper character and story exploration in the original play, and by the way it augments my appreciation of She Loves Me, my personal favorite among the adaptations.

Of course, even the best script calls for skilled actors, and B&B has assembled a first-rate cast to tell the tale. David Heath (as Parfumerie owner Miklos Hammerschmidt) gives a fiercely moving performance as he moves through his character’s anger, grief, despair, and ultimate contrition. Patrick Spike finds both the humor and pathos in his role as Sipos, the pragmatic wage slave who just wants to keep his job in tough economic times, and Eric St. Cyr’s consistently funny take on the hapless but ambitious Arpad takes the edge off some of the show’s darker moments. Nobody on local stages can top Andrew Beck for supercilious, unctuous depravity, and his portrayal of the thoroughly despicable Kadar fully lives up (or down) to his potential.

While the love-hate relationship between brittle, defensive Amalia Balash (Arianne Jacques) and her soulmate/nemesis, George Horvath (Joey Copsey) is the heart of Parfumerie’s many adaptations, the original play has a broader thematic focus.  However, the production still finds ample humor in the two characters’ confused relationship. Copsey’s juvenile mockery of his colleague (exemplified by his relentless mispronunciation of her name) and Jacques’ hostile, wounded reactions shape the plot, and the eventual revelation provides a satisfyingly romantic resolution. Jacques gets some of the show’s best comic moments in the scene where Amalia contrasts her anonymous pen pal’s sterling qualities with (her perception of)
George’s profound character deficits, and Copsey does a fine job of gradually revealing how very wrong she is. 
Ultimately the two characters’ problems pale beside the serious issues confronting Mr. Hammerschmidt, and a few subtle touches (an overzealous policeman, a hidden menorah, the emphasis on the Parfumerie’s elaborate Christmas d├ęcor) make it clear that in 1937 Hungary a rising fascism is a portent of much worse to come. The final scene is a beautiful, but slightly chilling, masterpiece of caroling harmonies and gently falling snow underscored by the distant pulse of a police siren.

Megan Wilkerson’s detailed scenic design, in concert with Jim Ricks-White’s lighting and special effects, create the ambience necessary to transport us back to an elegant 1937 Hungarian parfumerie, and Melissa Heller’s costumes provide just the right touch of formality for a European capital city of the era.

Audiences conditioned by three years of Bag & Baggage’s KBnB buffoonery will find this year’s holiday show to be very different, but every bit as enjoyable, as previous productions.  The meatier content (and family-friendly script) should draw an enthusiastic response from the company’s regulars and from newcomers in search of solidly entertaining Christmas theater.

Bag & Baggage’s Parfumerie is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through December 23d, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm.




A VERY MERRY PDX-MAS FROM BROADWAY ROSE



By Tina Arth

Trust Broadway Rose to close its 25th season with panache! This year’s Christmas show, A Very Merry PDX-Mas, is an updated reprise of Celebrate Home, the first show to play at the venerable theater company’s New Stage in 2008. The show provides exactly the kind of experience its audiences expect for the holidays – impeccable vocals, a liberal dose of humor, some fine dancing, and a measured dose of scene-stealing kiddos to charm even the surliest Scrooge.

Local director/author Abe Reybold’s original show was a lovingly Portland-themed parody of traditional holiday revues, and the occasional facelifts ensure that it stays fresh as it returns to the New Stage every few years. Director Dan Murphy and a spectacular production team join with a dynamite cast to present a two-hour medley combining traditional, untraditional, and slightly twisted Christmas music into the perfect kickoff of the 2016 holiday season.

Vocal arranger Jay Tumminello has molded the seven cast members’ seamless, and often exquisite, harmonies in the show’s many ensemble numbers – but each actor has ample opportunities to shine in solo and duet arrangements, too. A leading contender for laugh-filled highlight of the show is, surprisingly, also a showcase for Dru Rutledge’s flawless operatic training – her “Exsultate, Jubilate: Alleluia” is simultaneously hilarious and ethereal, and a great vehicle for her comic as well as vocal chops.  The women’s ensemble (Rutledge, Sarah DeGrave, Cassi Q. Kohl, and Danielle Valentine) does a breathtakingly beautiful version of “The First Noel” in the Big Nativity Medley, ensuring that we get an ample serving of serious Christmas music to complement the show’s lighter moments.  Collin Carver simply nails some of the funniest numbers, including a slightly amended version of “My Favorite Things” and the ubiquitous “My Birthday Comes On Christmas.” Isaac Lamb’s “I Like Old People” provides some serious competition in the lively “Kidz Medley” – there’s something about a big bearded guy playing a kid (well) that just resonates with the audience! The eight real children in the show are a bit more refined when they appear in Act II – at least, until they break into their funky dance routine. Another unforgettable moment is “The Annoying Drummer Boy” featuring the four women plus Carver and Benjamin Tissell– we’ve all been there, right?

The Portland-specific vibe of the show is faithfully captured by scenic designer Jim Crino’s set – we get the clock at Union Station, the curiously phallic Portland Theater sign, St. John’s Bridge, and Mt. Hood gleaming in the background. Costume designer Brynne Oster-Bainnson brings the theme home with a surfeit of lumberjack plaids and subdued colors – in place of red and green the cast sparkles in cranberry and loden (accented, of course, with tasteful touches of brown).  As always, the accompaniment alone is worth the price of admission - music director/pianist Jeffrey Childs accompanied by bassist Fletcher Nemeth and percussionist Bill Norris-York are the hardest working folks on stage.

A perfect mix of old standbys, newer songs, and flat-out parodies in A Very Merry PDX-Mas makes it an ideal way to usher in the holiday season. Out of town guests will love the Portlandia flavor, and locals will cheerfully acknowledge that yes, we are just a little bit weird (and proud of it).

A Very Merry PDX-Mas is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Thursday, December 22nd. See their website (broadwayrose.org) for specific performance dates and times.



Wednesday, November 9, 2016

SCHOOL OF ROCK HITS HILLSBORO

 Max Nevers ("Dewey") with ensemble. Photo by Frank Hunt.

By Tina Arth

For sheer, unbridled energy nothing beats a stage full of tweens and teens giving their all to a rock musical. STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy taps into this excitement with School of Rock, The Musical – Youth Production. Director and choreographer Luis Ventura, vocal director Barbara Edwards, and music director Joe Aloia have done a great job of molding 28 young actors into a raucously cohesive unit that swarms over the stage at Hillsboro High.

It’s actually quite a coup for STAGES to have gotten the rights – while the full musical is playing on Broadway, only a small number of theaters nationwide are cleared to do the Youth Production; STAGES is the only theater group in Oregon to have earned this privilege.  There are strings – they must use a live band (no karaoke allowed!) and they need more audience capacity than HART, where they usually do their shows, can offer.  The show is based on the popular 2003 movie starring Jack Black, and playwright Julian Fellowes retains much of the feel of the movie. While some of the movie’s original songs are retained, many of the show’s songs were newly written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater.

The story revolves around failed rock singer/guitarist Dewey Finn (just kicked out of the band “No Vacancy”). To earn some cash, he poses as substitute teacher Ned Schneebly at the elite, private Horace Green School. Within a short time, Dewey wins over the skeptical kids in his class – they become his co-conspirators, pretending to be learning mathematics while Dewey is actually transforming them into a rock band, a hard-headed manager, back-up singers, and roadies worthy of the upcoming Battle of the Bands. After some early clashes with principal Rosalie Mullins, Dewey discovers the uptight woman’s two weaknesses – beer and Stevie Nicks – and ultimately gets her support of his unorthodox activities. In a moment reminiscent of both The Music Man and The Mighty Ducks, the underdogs prevail, horrified parents become ardent fans, and kids with low self-esteem find themselves accepted and loved.

In a huge cast, a few roles and performances are real standouts. Caitriona Johnston (“Principal Mullins”) is a confident and dynamic actor, and she handles the vocal demands of the role with ease. Max Nevers (“Dewey”) is at his best when showing off his dancing (and leaping, and falling) skills – his vocals are sometimes rough, but the role does not demand a perfect voice (he is, after all, playing a rock star). Rylie Bartell (as the painfully shy new girl, “Tomika”) is a joy to watch and listen to as she finds her voice and earns a solo with her lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace.” While Jolee Morris (“Summer”) doesn’t have a big singing role, she does a fine job of transforming herself from an uptight, Harvard-bound snob to a fiercely determined band manager.

The cast and crew make good use of William Crawford’s simple, flexible set design. Costumes (designed by Luis Ventura) are effective at capturing the elite private school ambiance.

On the night I saw the show, there were some problems with the microphones that made it difficult to understand all of the lyrics (and even some dialogue). While the pit band does a great job of capturing a pounding rock ”wall of sound” effect, they might be well advised to turn down the amplifiers to accommodate the weaker microphone system if these problems persist.

The STAGES program does a great job of offering opportunities for Washington County kids to work on and around live theater stages. Productions like School of Rock are a great argument for providing arts in our schools and communities, and the best way to show your support is to go see the show. I promise you’ll have a good time!


STAGES production of School of Rock – Youth Production is playing at Hillsboro High School, 3825 SE Rood Bridge Rd. through Sunday, November 20th with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mask & Mirror’s Sparkling Ballyhoo

 Katherine Roundy ("Sunny") and Jay Dressler ("Joe")

By Tina Arth

Every once in a while I am treated to a hidden theatrical gem, and The Last Night Of Ballyhoo by playwright Alfred Uhry (better known for Driving Miss Daisy), definitely fits the bill. In the hands of a fine team from tiny Mask & Mirror Community Theatre, Uhry’s work comes to life with a complex and moving mixture of comedy, angst, bigotry, jealousy, and love that cannot help but touch the audience.

The story is set in 1939 Atlanta in the home of the wealthy Freitag/Levy household. The presence of a small Christmas tree and surrounding discussion make it clear that while it’s a Jewish household, they adhere to a standard of class-based, genteel Southern Judaism that is more about social standing and acceptance than honoring the Shabbat – for them, Judaism is an accident of birth to be camouflaged, not a religion to the embraced. The plot revolves around the five residents, Adolph Frietag, sister Beulah (“Boo”) Levy, sister-in-law Reba Freitag, Boo’s daughter Lala, and Reba’s daughter Sunny. Two young men round out the cast: Adolph’s new assistant Joe Farkas (a Brooklyn Jew, and thus very much a horse of a different color) and the socially desirable, if somewhat odd, Peachy Weil, an import from Lake Charles, Louisiana.

While Hitler’s Germany is ominously on the move in Europe, Boo’s overriding concern is finding Lala a date for a big dance (held at a posh “restricted” country club on the last night of the upscale Jewish community’s annual Ballyhoo celebration). The flamboyant, awkward Lala is yet another step removed from reality – her obsession with the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind has released an inner Southern Belle perhaps best left confined. Boo and Lala are palpably jealous of Sunny, a quietly attractive and brilliant Wellesley student who is clearly the apple of her uncle Adolph’s eye. As the story unfolds, Joe forces Sunny to examine the class bias with which she was raised, and the whole group learns a bit about what it means to be part of a Jewish family and community.

There are only seven cast members, and each deserves mention, as each plays a critical role with amazing finesse. Benjamin Philip’s “Adolph” is the salt of the earth – steady, hard-working, fair, quietly loving. Life has not worked out the way he thought it would, but Philip gives his character a steady intelligence and dignity that make him one of the most consistently likeable characters in the production. Virginia Kincaid’s “Boo” is completely opposite – angry, jealous, shrew-like – but Kincaid gives her character an undercurrent of maternal frustration and pathos that somehow engenders the audience’s sympathy.  As sister-in-law “Reba,” Diana LoVerso provides much of the evening’s comic relief – not the shiniest star in the family constellation, she delivers the most absurdly literal replies and retorts with a wide-eyed innocence.

Kathryn Schelonka (“Lala”) somehow manages to portray the family drama queen without going over the top – not an easy feat when throwing a temper tantrum on the living room floor in a hoop skirt better suited to Scarlett O’Hara. Despite the comedy inherent in some of her situations, she always goes for the dramatic import rather than the cheap laugh. Katherine Roundy’s “Sunny” is serious and quiet – a lovely intellectual more interested in the works of Upton Sinclair than Margaret Mitchell. Roundy’s best moments come when she talks about growing up Jewish in Atlanta and when she is forced to confront and overcome her own inner biases.

The two young men, ultimately suitors to Lala and Sunny, are worlds apart. Robert Altieri manages to make “Peachy” sarcastic, flippant, occasionally casually mean, but still somewhat likeable because of his wit and honesty. Jay Dressler’s “Joe” is superbly drawn – the quintessential outsider, with a Brooklyn accent and attitude to match. Dressler gives the character an intensity and intelligence that really drive the fundamental conflicts of the production.

Director Jayne Furlong has achieved something truly beautiful, and (while she gives all credit to her cast) there is a consistency to the actors’ dedication and focus that reflect a good director’s careful hand – I found myself trying to simultaneously watch all of the actors because they never let down, even when they were not the center of attention. Furlong’s set design is detailed and functional, allowing for the frequent entrances and exits inherent in a Southern drama.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo is so good that it demands the largest audiences possible in the compact space available. The show deserves to be a sellout, and I hope audiences will find their way to Tigard to enjoy this little gem.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo runs through November 20 at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on November 10, 11, 12 and 19 and 2:00 p.m. on November 13 and 20. Please note that there is no show on Friday, November 18 and there is a show on Thursday, November 10.