Thursday, December 13, 2018

TITG Closes the Year With Nuncrackers

Jennifer Yamashiro, Pruella Centers, Jeannine Stassens, 
Brandon Weaver, Wendy Bax. Photo credit to Jenn McFarling

By Tina Arth

The Little Sisters of Hoboken have taken their show on the road, so they must really like each other – how else to explain three of them reprising a show I saw six years ago at a different theater? The current production at Theatre in the Grove has a different director, several new cast members, a petite orchestra, and the irrepressible Parker Pup collecting toys in the lobby – but despite a few ragged moments, the heart of the show still beats strong, and the silly, irreverent humor is definitely intact. Director Ken Centers (with the help of the Reverend Mother’s piercing glare and Sister Mary Hubert’s threatening yardstick) has transformed the most dysfunctional troop (and troupe) of nuns in history into a total crowd-pleaser, and local audiences are reveling in the fun.

Nuncrackers is the Christmas-themed third of a series of sequels to playwright Dan Goggin’s original musical nun-fest, Nunsense, and like the others, it is filled with Catholic humor and a mixture of comic and more touching songs. In this version, the Little Sisters are preparing to do a live Christmas broadcast from their new television studio in the convent basement (paid for with Sister Mary Paul’s Publisher’s Clearing House winnings). Of course nothing goes right – Sister Mary Leo is on the injured list right before her big ballet number, Father Virgil has to step in to cover for the absent Sister Julia Child of God on her cooking show, Sister Mary Robert Anne is relentlessly scheming on how to score a big solo number, and Sister Mary Paul (aka Amnesia) delivers nonstop malapropisms that sometimes leave little to the imagination. Of course, this is holiday themed musical comedy, so the show must (and does) go on, with lots of help from an active audience participation program. Oh – and the mystery of the stolen Christmas gifts is resolved with the expected heartwarming solution!

The sisters have brought in three school kids from Mount St. Helen’s Convent School, and the trio (Abrianna Feinauer, Rachel Newton, and Ian Romig) brings a lot of comic and vocal talent to the show. Romig is a hoot to watch, as he goes along with the ridiculous demands placed upon him – his body says “I’m being a good sport” but his face tells a different story. Another high point, setting the tone for the whole show, is the entire opening sequence (instead of music or a conventional curtain speech, we get nuns telling slightly off-color jokes and some truly bizarre Christmas gifts for a few lucky audience members).  Wendy Bax (Sister Mary Paul) follows up her Secret Santa gig with a rendition of “Santa Ain’t Comin’ To Our House” straight from the back alleys of Dollywood, and the tutu-clad Jeanine Stassens (Reverend Mother) and Brandon Weaver (Father Virgil) attack “The Nutcracker” with surprising vigor – what they lack in grace, they make up for in enthusiasm.

One of the best scenes is Weaver’s cooking show – in a world where fruitcake humor can be mind-numbingly tired, Weaver uses little more than physical comedy and fake fruit to leave the audience in stitches. The audience is rooting from the start for Jennifer Yamashiro (Brooklyn-born Sister Mary Robert Anne), but when she finally gets her big chance in “All I Want for Christmas” it’s doubly poignant, as she’s joined on stage by son Noah doing a couple of fine trumpet solos. Pruella Centers (Sister Mary Hubert) is as much fun to watch as to listen to with the over-the-top vocal riffs in her big number, “It’s Better to Give.”

Based on the nearly sold-out house, it looks like Theatre in the Grove is once again demonstrating the company’s knack for offering just what their audiences want. Many of the best seats are gone for upcoming performances, so buy now!

Nuncrackers is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 23d, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Ralph Radio Theatre’s 1943 Christmas From Home – Holiday Heart and Soul

By Tina Arth

Never having been exposed to Ralph Radio Theatre, I had no idea what to expect from the group’s 2018 offering – but since it was playing just down the road at the Alpenrose Dairy Opera House I decided to give it a shot.  As a Christmas musical, the show falls somewhere in the middle – a few strong vocalists, lots of good harmony, and the fine accompaniment by the Dreamfire Express Band more than compensate for a few wobbly moments. However, in its role as a Christmas tribute to the troops and those who remained stateside during WWII, the show leads the pack. Author Pat Kruis Tellinghusen finds a beautiful balance between the now campy humor of 1940s radio technique, advertising, and general schmaltz and the heart-breaking reality of the human face of war.

Maybe the show’s powerful effect on me is partly due to its timing – I saw it on a day of national mourning for Bush 41, which had already revived powerful memories of my own dad’s service in WWII. However, I think even without those stimuli I would have responded to the story of how Kenny Saito and his family lost everything when they were “relocated” to Minidoka, the message left on the airman’s grave on Kiska, and many other touching moments.

Like most “live radio” productions, the show is done in real time – radios don’t just go silent so the audience can spend 15 minutes in the lobby of the theater. Led by emcee (and actual radio veteran) John Hugill, the cast delivers 90 minutes of songs, some from the era and some traditional Christmas tunes, led off by the poignant and topical “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The musical numbers are punctuated by a series of vignettes, some from a very Portland point of view – Vanport housing, rivalries between Lincoln and Wilson High Schools, ration coupons from Laurelhurst, and the reaction of locals to the relocation of friends and neighbors of Japanese heritage. The more somber moments are leavened by the cast’s wonderful advertising spots – Teel Tooth Cleanser, Woodbury Facial Soap, Lifesavers, and of course everyone’s favorite, Camel Cigarettes.

Some things to watch for include the lovely little waltz number with Chuck Weed and Robin Michaels, Daniel Rhovan (pretty much any time he’s on the microphone, with his mobile face and equally mobile speaking voice – and in his spare time he makes a fine Foley artist), David Connelly’s monologue, and Emily Smith’s vocal solos. Jennifer Gallagher’s amazing eyes and musical versatility (who plays the mandolin these days!?) are equally mesmerizing.

A few of the show’s extras merit special mention. First, producer/Director Kimberly Poe has designed a first-class program – so many detailed touches and genuine period images that I’ll actually hang on to it as a keepsake. Second, the colorful and authentic women’s costumes contrast brilliantly with the sober precision of the men’s authentic military uniforms. Finally, bandleader/vocal director Cary Buchanan and his 6 musicians deliver a big-band feel that works beautifully in that great barn of an opera house!

Ralph Radio Theatre’s 1943 Christmas From Home plays at the Alpenrose Dairy Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland with 7:30 performances December 8th, 14th, and 15th – not too many more chances to go!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Twilight Goes for Laughs – and Nails It!

Rob Harris, Dorinda Toner, Ruth  Jenkins, Madison Gourlay,
David Mitchum Brown, and Blaine Vincent III.

By Tina Arth

I must toss another bouquet to the exceptional diversity of this year’s holiday theatrical offerings – Twilight Theater Company’s The Game’s Afoot – Holmes for the Holidays is pure fun, well done, with just a faint glow of Christmas festivity that sets the season yet contrasts dramatically with the show’s sinister events. Playwright Ken Ludwig’s quasi-Holmesian farce, in the hands of director Tony Bump and a uniformly lovely cast, is a hilarious tribute to the entire murder-mystery genre with its non-stop plot twists and equally twisted personal relationships.

Imagine if you can, a world without Sherlock Holmes. While the Holmes persona and mythos were created by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the master detective was propelled into the American consciousness in large part by actor/playwright William Gillette, who shaped the contemporary image of Holmes while playing the role over 1300 times for American and English audiences. Gillette made a fortune off his Holmesian theatrical endeavors, so it’s not surprising that he spent a fair amount building Gillette Castle, his own personal retreat on a bluff high above the Connecticut River, and Gillette’s magnificent home (well, a set representing the home, and laden with a delightful array of hidden rooms, secret doors, gadgets and widgets) is the setting for The Game’s Afoot. Stripped to its barest essence, the story is: Gillette is exiting the theater after a performance when someone takes a shot at him, hitting him in the arm. He retreats to his mansion to convalesce under the watchful eye of his doting mother, Martha.  Just before Christmas, he invites the other cast members for a festive weekend visit, with the unexpected addition of universally reviled theater critic Daria Chase. Attempting to be a detective, rather than just portray one, Gillette uses a play-within-a-play format in an attempt to uncover the identity of his assailant (shades of Hamlet?). His ploy fails, and things turn deadly when Daria turns up with a knife in her back – which triggers the arrival of the bumbling Inspector Goring. I’ll say no more to preserve the whodunit surprises of the intricate plot, which owes at least as much to Agatha Christie as to Conan Doyle.

There’s a lot to praise in the 8-person cast. A few particular highlights?  Watch Ruth Jenkins’ marvelous turn as bumbling mama bear Martha Gillette – a sweet old lady who will go to any lengths to protect her baby boy. Keep a close eye on Blaine Vincent III (as the charming but dumb as rocks Simon Bright) – does his “gee whiz” naivety conceal anything? Marvel at Madison Gourlay (as Aggie Wheeler) as she slips into a new personality for every man in the room. Don’t miss the sharp timing and quirky chemistry between Rob Harris and Dorinda Toner (as Felix and Madge Geisel). Enjoy every snarky minute you get with Marcella Laasch (Daria Chase) before her untimely demise. Admire how cluelessly Doreen Lundberg (Inspector Goring) stumbles into clues, and how seamlessly David Mitchum Brown (William Gillette) floats in and out of his Holmes persona. The cast works together like a well-oiled machine (much better than some of Gillette’s household gadgets), and despite a barrage of alternate facts, they keep the audience on board.

Finally, special props to Scott Miler’s elaborate set design plus Tony Bump’s and Jennifer Johnson’s the glorious costumes, which helped to establish the time, place, and social milieu of the action. In his Director’s Notes, Tony Bump says “There's no place like Holmes for the Holidays!” – I could not agree more.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Game’s Afoot – Holmes for the Holidays is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through December 16th, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


 Lalanya Gunn, Nicole Rayner, Karen Moore, Sara 
Beck, and Les Ico
By Tina Arth

Three shows in, the 2018 holiday play season is making me feel like the boy who cried wolf – but in reverse. Will readers believe the praise I am heaping on some of the shows I’m seeing? Will they dismiss my pleas to “not miss this gem” as hyperbole, naïve sycophancy, or intellectual cowardice? This is a risk I’ve got to run, because Beaverton Civic Theatre’s beautiful production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky demands star billing (pun intended) and deserves nothing but full houses.  Director Patrick Nims may be new to Oregon, but Silent Sky is ample proof that his impressive Bay area resume is much more than hype.

The play is based on the true story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose brilliant analytical work at Harvard (kept behind the scenes in the male-dominated academic world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) formed the basis for Edward Hubble to establish that the universe is expanding. Working as part of “Pickering’s Harem,” an all-woman team of human “computers” under the direction of astronomer Edward Charles Pickering, Leavitt and her female colleagues set the stage for much of modern astronomy. In Gunderson’s version of the story, a much larger group has been condensed to just three (real) women, Leavitt, Pickering’s former housekeeper Williamina Fleming, and fiercely feminist Annie Jump Cannon. The cast is completed with two fictionalized characters, Henrietta’s sister Margaret and Peter Shaw, a young astronomer working under Pickering. While Henrietta has left the family home to pursue her work at Harvard, homebody Margaret pursues the thoroughly traditional roles of wife and mother, sustained by her religion and her love of music. Despite their vast external differences, the two sisters maintain a powerful bond, and it is Margaret’s music that gives Henrietta the inspiration for her greatest discovery. The plot is embellished nicely by Shaw’s infatuation with Henrietta, the growing relationship between the three “computers,” and Henrietta’s (genuine, and tragic) severe illness that ends her life just as her work is on the verge of receiving public acclaim.

I was amazed by the precision of the performances of Karen Moore (Henrietta Leavitt), Sara Beck (Annie Cannon), and Lalanya Gunn (Williamina Fleming). Moore’s machine gun delivery captures not only the character’s partial deafness, but also a quirky, almost-autistic obsession with the night sky and the potential vastness of the universe. Gunn maintains a lovely Scottish accent throughout, embellishing her cheeky British wit with her warm, down-to-earth approach to life. Beck is simply fierce – an angry mama bear protecting, not her babies, but the science she reveres, yet allowing a reluctant tenderness toward her fellow computers to color her performance. The chemistry between the three women is evocative and believable, and their comedic interactions lend a lovely light touch to an otherwise intense work.

Les Ico provides critical counterpoint – Ico initially inspires contempt, but later pity as he captures the spirit of every bumbling, embarrassed, easily intimidated and easily infatuated physics grad student I’ve ever met (and I’ve met many!). Nicole Rayner gives Margaret just the right touch of the traditional woman of the era, but with a strength of character that rivals Henrietta’s. The chasm between the two sisters is both illustrated and narrowed when Rayner’s character says, “We both look in the same direction, but our understanding is distinct.” Watching Rayner, there is no temptation to belittle Margaret’s worldview even if we do not embrace it.

The lead role in Silent Sky is, in many ways, filled by the sometimes spine-tingling video projection that surrounds the audience on three sides – at times, it’s like watching a play in a planetarium. Themes of the insignificance one person, one planet, even one solar system in the vast scope of the universe are exquisitely expressed as the scenery transitions from a rural home to Harvard to the vastness of the ocean, then ultimately dwarfed by the majesty of the silent sky. Director Patrick Nims deserves top billing as the architect of this visual feast, and for assembling a cast worthy of his vision. I’ll say it – do not miss this gem.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Silent Sky runs through Saturday, December 15th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

HART Reprises 2016’s Holly Jolly With Some New Twists

The cast of Holly Jolly Family Christmas Show

By Tina Arth

Some things just never change. A great example is HART Theatre’s 2018 production of Holly Jolly Family Christmas Show – yes, there have been numbers added and others removed since the show’s 2016 debut, and yes, there are many new cast members, but the heart of the show is intact. As in its earlier incarnation, on a purely qualitative level it is not the “best” Christmas show of the season – but it’s still one of the most fun, and it’s a true family show, just dripping with appeal for audiences of all ages.  While things on stage occasionally get pretty frantic, Chris Byrne (co-director/choreographer) and Sandy Libonati (co-director/vocal director) have done a great job of corralling and organizing a lot of bodies and voices in the relatively small space available at HART.

Holly Jolly is an original show by local singers/dancers/actors Chris Byrne and Sarah Fuller. The wraparound script tells the story of Christmas Eve 1974 with the Hart family, Phil, Barb, kids Greg and Jeff, with the 2018 addition of grandmother Gammy. While a Christmas tree lurks in the background, the family is nestled around the television, preferring TV Guide’s cornucopia of holiday specials to traditions like “The Night Before Christmas.” The real meat of the show is a montage of live action performances, backed up by video clips of holiday classic shows on an enormous TV screen. Whether you’re a fan of The Grinch, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph, Charlie Brown, I Love Lucy, Andy Williams, David Bowie, or Gammy’s special eggnog–free eggnog recipe (hey, at least it’s vegan!), there’s something for everyone. A series of hilariously retro actual TV ads are the star on top of the tree – a reminder for some of us of the primitive and naïve roots of television, and a shock for younger audience members that we were ever that lame (yes, we were!).

With twenty cast members playing 75+ roles, there’s no way to acknowledge every bright spot in the show, but a few actors absolutely demand special recognition.  For across-the-board excellence in diverse roles, there’s Elise Byrne, Emma Heesacker, Riley Irvine, Rachel Roberts, Nick Serrone, Kieran Thomas, and Max Powell. Powell’s stunning take on Cher is a complete showstopper, Roberts does a marvelously petulant Lucy van Pelt, and Byrne’s Heat Miser is unforgettable. HART newcomer Thomas’ versatility makes him a real find – he channels Frank Sinatra’s energy and Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban flair, and his David Bowie was the unchallenged high point of the show (until Cher appeared).  Henry Bieker and Olin Dawson show off serious comic chops as the young Hart boys, especially with their melodramatic despair and fluid physicality as bored children.  Holly Popkins (as mom Barb Hart) is another welcome newcomer (to HART, and to the USA) with perhaps the best solo voice in the show – and her “White Christmas” duet with husband Phil (Tanner Morton) is exquisite. An unexpected but delightful addition was the cameo by Sandy Libonati’s dog, Jeter, playing Max in the Whoville scene – I would have loved to see more of him, but he’s a youngster and may not have been up for a larger role.

Master carpenter William Crawford’s fine set creates a believable family living room while leaving plenty of space for the TV performers, and light, sound, and video operators William Ferguson and Rebecca Glass stay on top of a truly challenging show. The aforementioned 75+ roles require almost as many costumes, and in addition to co-directing Chris Byrne also takes the lead on that critical role.

Many of this year’s holiday shows are only peripherally related to Christmas, which makes Holly Jolly an utterly welcome way to rev up your seasonal spirit. Grab the family or hook up with a group of like-minded friends and head to HART, but save Gammy’s special eggnog for post-show relaxation in the warmth and safety of your own home!

Holly Jolly Family Christmas Show is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, December 16th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Ring in the Holidays With Bell, Book and Candle

Norman Wilson, Jessi Walters, and Kymberli Colbournephoto by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

When I was busily counting my blessings last Thursday, one of the things I was thankful for was the exceptional diversity of this year’s holiday-season theatrical offerings. A shining – no, sparkling – example of this is Bag&Baggage’s delightful Bell, Book and Candle, John Van Druten’s 1950 play, later made into a classic 1958 movie and part of the inspiration for the TV series Bewitched. B&B’s 2018-19 theme is “Love. Thrill. Magic. Wonder. Change.” and director Scott Palmer’s production hits every note.

Like much good theater, the show can be enjoyed on several levels. The most superficial take is great fun – a witty comic romp with an eccentric social circle in 1950s Greenwich Village. The tale unfolds as a family of campy, over-the-top witches (Gillian, warlock brother Nick, and Aunt Queenie) encounter two outsiders – one a conventional, mainstream romantic lead (Shep Henderson) and the other an author (Sidney Reditch) who is exploring witch subculture for his next book. Gillian is ferociously attracted to Shep, and originally essays to seduce him without the use of witchcraft, but eventually casts a fast-acting spell. Shep is hooked. Gillian is furious when she learns that Nick has been revealing the secrets of witchcraft to Sidney, and she casts a spell that will prevent his book’s publication. Aunt Queenie, having come to witchcraft later in life, has no appropriate peer group and no clue about how to blend in with the regular humans around her. Naturally, things go awry. First, the romantic spell is strong enough that Gillian also succumbs - catastrophic for a witch, since falling in love means that she loses her supernatural powers. Neither Nick nor Aunt Queenie knows how to react to the new, human Gillian, and neither is eager to lose a beloved sister/niece to conventional society. In the meantime, Shep storms off when he learns that he was originally ensnared by witchcraft, and tries (but fails) to return to his former fiancé. As in any good rom-com, ultimately he and Gillian reunite and things work out reasonably well for Nick and Queenie.

Viewed through a more analytical lens, Bell, Book and Candle uses its frothy exterior to deliver a thought-provoking exploration of the dilemmas faced by members of a forbidden subculture faced with the choice of concealing their true selves or being rejected and scorned by the dominant majority. The title is a dead giveaway, as it refers explicitly to excommunication rituals rooted in the Dark Ages, historically the most powerful weapon against those who will not or cannot conform to social norms of the day. From this angle, Van Druten’s play becomes a thinly veiled protest against the repression of nonconformists. My recommendation? Watch the play as pure entertainment, enjoy every wry and witty moment, but set aside some time later to ponder potential deeper themes – it’s a bit like getting two plays for the price of one!

While all five cast members give strong performances, the show really belongs to the three witches. Jessi Walters is brilliant as sly, seductive Gillian, her transition to heartbroken human stunning (yes, those are real tears!), and she wields those huge eyes and fabulous legs like a forties femme fatale. Kymberli Colbourne’s “Aunt Queen” is utterly fabulous – a glimpse of Aunt Clara from Bewitched but more seductive, less befuddled. Speaking of Bewitched, there’s Norman Wilson as warlock Nick – frequent touches of Paul Lynde’s “Uncle Arthur,” but with a crisper delivery, boyish enthusiasm, absolute self-confidence and remarkable swagger – he handles the other two men as adroitly as he handles his dashing cape, combining great timing, physical comedy, and an utterly cheerful snarkiness.

The magic comes alive through the creativity of the production team – in particular, Jim Ricks-White’s lighting and Lawrence Siulagi’s projection design. Melissa Heller’s sometimes eye-popping costumes could stand alone to define each character – one look at Nick’s spectacular plaid suit next to Shep’s relatively restrained pin stripes tells us everything we need to know.

After the endless barrage of carols, Santa, and elves it’s a real treat to settle in for some real holiday magic – and Scott Palmer’s Christmas offering is a present you owe yourself. Final hint – while you’re there, give your mouth a little thrill with one of the ginger cookies at the bar!

Bag&Baggage’s Bell, Book and Candle is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through December 23d, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.