Sunday, January 13, 2019

Dial M for Murder at Lakewood

Heath Koerschgen, Jacob Lee Smith, and Clara-Liis Hillier
By Tina Arth

If we know the who, the why, the where, and the how of a murder, how can it still be a mystery? Lakewood Center for the Arts’ production of Frederick Knott’s classic 1952 Dial M for Murder answers the question with a smart, elegant show that keeps newbies guessing while offering Dial M veterans the fun of watching for tells. Director David Sikking and his able cast ensure that the now 67-year-old play retains a contemporary flavor, despite changes in mores and technology in the intervening years.

The key to this elegant murder mystery is just this: will the villain be caught, and if so, how? Urbane retired tennis champ Tony Wendice tries to pull off the Holy Grail of crime – the “perfect murder.” The intended victim is his wealthy wife Margot, who has ended a brief affair with American TV writer Max Halliday. While Max (now relegated to the friend zone) is visiting, Tony conspires with an old school acquaintance, the corrupt Captain Lesgate, to do the deed (thus ensuring that Tony will inherit Margot’s substantial estate).  The action speeds up when Tony and Max go out for the evening, leaving Margot home alone and a perfect target for the assassin. Things go exactly as planned until the end of Act I, when Tony’s plot goes horribly awry. Act II is devoted to unraveling the murderous mess, helped along by Halliday’s imagination, a classic bumbling detective, a purloined letter, a mass of cash, inexplicably unlocked doors, and other nifty plot points to keep the audience on its toes.

Jacob Lee Smith handles the role of Tony with a light touch – charming, but not so smarmy that we initially hate him, and he smoothly lets his dark side shine whenever Margot’s back is turned. Clara-Liis Hillier is vulnerable, sensitive and sincere as Margot, and her palpable fear makes her battle with Lesgate (Tom Mounsey) a white-knuckle ride.  Heath Koerschgen (Max Halliday) really shines in Act II, as he glibly uses his screenwriter background to construct an elaborate, Hollywood-worthy explanation of how the crime might have played out – and he gives the role a subtlety that left me hard pressed to spot the point at which he starts to take his fantastic scenario seriously.

From the moment I saw Don Alder (Chief Inspector Hubbard) awkwardly kneeling in the doorway, I knew I was watching the authentic archetype for a universe of Columbo-like detectives – slightly clueless, but never an over-the-top buffoon, until he finally shows us (and the rest of the cast) the brilliance of his intellectual sleight of hand. The entire cast (except Koerschgen, the American) adroitly delivers their dialogue in the requisite, class-appropriate British accents.

John Gerth’s scenic design does a fine job of (literally) setting the scene – detailed, elegant, immediately conveying the upper-crust world Tony so enjoys (courtesy of Margot’s wealth). Grace O’Malley’s costumes fill the same role for the actors – I was especially taken with Tony’s shiny suit and Margot’s peignoir, but the hemline on Margot’s first dress is somewhat disconcerting.  Special props to Jeff Forbes’ lighting design – there is no change of scenery, yet the set is never static and the mood shifts nicely through the use of darkness and light.

Dial M can seem like a long show, but director Sikking paces his actors and uses all of the tech at his disposal to keep the audience fully involved, and he does full justice to Knox’s brilliant, tightly plotted show.  Despite the disappearance of phones with actual dials, Lakewood’s current offering is every bit as engaging and fun as in any of its previous stage, film, and television incarnations.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

2019 Open with STAGES’ Blockbuster Les Misérables

Photo by Frank Hunt

By Tina Arth

As we open 2019, I cannot imagine a better time for passionate young people to take to the stage for a powerful show about sacrifice, honor, and social justice – in other words, for Hillsboro’s STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy to present the school edition of Les Misérables. Director Luis Ventura and Musical Director Erin Riha have managed to attract a truly first-rate group of young actors (age range is 13 to 18) and molded them into a dynamic ensemble accented by powerful lead performances that do full justice to Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo story. For those not already immersed in the world of Les Mis fandom, the story is complex and sometimes confusing, moving from Digne to Montreuil to Paris, and from 1815 to 1823 to 1832 – all with no spoken dialogue. However, when the words “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me…It is the future that they bring, when tomorrow comes!” ring out, it’s impossible to miss the passionate relevance of the tale – I could not help but think of the kids from Parkland. In short, this cast made me care about the characters and the story – high praise from someone who is, in general, not a Les Mis fan.

In a nutshell: 19th century France is wracked with poverty and social inequality. Hero Jean Valjean is released on parole after 19 of his 20-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks parole, infuriating Inspector Javert, who becomes obsessed with seeing Valjean punished. Valjean assumes a new identity, becomes a wealthy factory owner, and learns that one of his employees, Fantine, has been unjustly fired and driven to prostitution to support her daughter Cosette. Fantine dies, but Valjean vows to take care of Cosette. Valjean pays a handsome price to free Cosette from the evil Thénardiers, but is forced to reveal his real identity and flee from Javert. The Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine loves young student Marius, who falls for Cosette. Marius could flee with Cosette and Valjean, but chooses to stay to fight on the barricades with fellow idealistic rebels. The students capture Javert as a spy, but Valjean shows up, shows him mercy, and releases him. As the barricades fall and the rebels are massacred, Marius is severely wounded, but Valjean finds him and carries him through the sewers to safety. Javert dies, Cosette and Marius are wed, Valjean dies. People sing a lot, followed on opening night by a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation from a full and enthusiastic house.

Isaac Chapelle (Jean Valjean) is a real find – an accomplished vocalist who makes the challenging role seem effortless, whose robust vocals can be easily heard over the music, and who is a skilled enough actor bridge the 17-year gap in his age from prologue to closing (despite a less-then-believable beard). The show would be worth attending just to watch him, but he is ably supported by the other leads and a versatile ensemble cast. Three key women (Anna Brenner as Fantine, Ruth Hailey as Cosette, and Sherwood’s Rachel Doyel as Éponine) bring amazing vocal chops to the stage, owning their roles and giving heart-breaking authenticity to their stories.

Benjamin McGregor and Noelle Parent as the despicable Thénardiers offer spectacular comic relief, going close but never completely over the top. Zakeus Vertner seems like a classic loveable scamp as Gavroche, yet he creates a character who evokes an audible gasp when shot on the barricades (for me, the most “Parkland” moment of the show).  With my apologies to the rest of the cast – there were several other notable performances – I must single out ensemble member Annika Hyatt, who gave remarkable intensity to a series of minor roles.

Sets, costuming, and lighting all exceeded my expectations for a youth performance by a mile, and a close look at the program makes it clear that it took a village to mount this amazing production. STAGES founder Cindy Williams, along with Ventura and Riha, have given 30 young performers the chance to perform in a beautiful “bucket list” show that should nurture their love for theater while showing the world that youth theatre can rival, and even best, many adult productions. Currently, all performances are sold out.

STAGES production of Les Misérables is playing at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, January 20th, with Friday and Saturday sows at 7:00 PM and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM.