Thursday, August 8, 2019

Footloose Explodes Across the Stage at Broadway Rose

Nick Serrone, Amanda Pred, Cassandra Pangelinan, Eric Asakawa, Lydia 
Fleming, Erik Montague, and Calvin Lieurance

By Tina Arth

In many ways, I missed the eighties: job, spouse, kid, dog, left me culturally limited to Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers. The original Footloose wasn’t even a blip on my personal radar, and I went into the Broadway Rose production of the musical version with no more than the vague awareness that “7 Degree of Kevin Bacon” had been a thing. Peggy Taphorn’s director’s note informed me that, in her opinion, “…it has a great story! It’s not just a simple story about a ban on dancing and a rebel with a cause…” I’ve got to disagree – from a story standpoint, that’s exactly what it is, in most part aimed with laser focus at the sophistication of a 13-year-old. HOWEVER – that just doesn’t matter. From the moment that Kayla Dixon sang the first notes of “Footloose” it was clear that this show was going to be spectacular, and by the time Eric Asakawa started dancing I was mesmerized by the energy, athleticism, and artistry of the amazing cast.  The credits mention screenplay and stage adaptation, but for this show, more than any other I remember, all credit should go to the folks who wrote the music, the music director and band, Taphorn’s choreography, and a stage full of singing, dancing dynamos.

Condensed version for those of you who share my cluelessness about the show: Ethel McCormack’s husband has walked out, leaving Ethel and teen son Ren without enough money to stay in Chicago – they are forced to move in with Ethel’s sister and brother-in-law in a fictional hick town called Bomont where the sidewalks are rolled up at 6 PM. Worse yet, a tragic accident several years ago prompted the town council to ban all dancing. Ren is truly a fish out of water in Bomont, and his progress toward fitting in isn’t helped when he pays too much attention to Ariel Moore, the minister’s daughter and girlfriend of local bad boy Chuck Cranston. Ren is befriended by terminally shy Willard, who has a weirdly one-way relationship with Rusty – he never talks, she never stops talking. Chuck hits Ariel, Chuck hits Ren, Ren’s plea to the town council to bring back dancing is denied, Ren and Reverend Moore have a moment, dancing ban is lifted, The Big Dance.

Where do I start on this production? I mentioned Kayla Dixon (Rusty) grabbing me with the opening number, but not how the power built as the voices of Cassandra Pangelinan (Urleen) and Amanda Pred (Wendy Jo) kicked in. This trio repeated their magic with “Somebody’s Eyes,” and when Malia Tippets  (Ariel) joins them in “Holding Out For A Hero” the quartet literally stops the show with their singing, dancing dynamism. While Tippets is a superb singer and dancer, her real strength is the authenticity of her performance as a teenage girl torn between the need to rebel and reject her father’s domination and the equally powerful need to capture his attention and approval.

I suspect that few Footloose directors have had the good fortune to land a trained opera singer who also has a background in competitive gymnastics – Eric Asakawa was simply born to play Ren McCormack. He moonwalks, does backflips, even vaults over other performers with flawless form that takes the breath away and moves his dancing off the charts. It’s nothing short of miraculous that he can sing at the same time, and by the end of I Can’t Stand Still he owns the audience.

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit is moving and honest as Ariel’s mother Vi, who unflinchingly tries to defend her daughter from Reverend Moore’s heavy handed parenting, and the trio of Kelly-Pettit, Tippets, and Ali Bell (Ethel McCormack) give the show a whole new dimension with their timely Learning To Be Silent. Bruce Blanchard’s Reverend Moore captures the role’s essential duality – both rigid preacher and loving dad, trying to do the right thing for his family and his flock and setting us up nicely for his final conversion. Calvin Lieurance is appropriately awkward and tongue-tied as the clumsy, shy Willard Hewitt – then steals the limelight with his dazzling footwork in Mama Says.

The band, sometimes invisible in Broadway Rose productions, is completely integrated into the staging. Music Director Mak Kastelic and Conductor Alan D. Lytle are clearly going after the feel of an eighties rock band, with volume to match, but the sound is nicely modulated when the material demands a softer touch. Costume Designer Allison Dawe has done an admirable job of capturing an eighties feel without succumbing to the temptation to parody the worst excesses if the decade’s fashions.

Footloose sold out before opening night, so there’s little chance of scoring tickets for this powerhouse production. However, Broadway Rose has just announced its next season – given the consistent quality of musical theater coming from this amazing company, it’s pretty safe to buy tickets now for anything you might want to see in the next year – don’t wait for the reviews!

Footloose is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, September 1.

Friday, August 2, 2019

How I Learned to Drive – Disturbing Truths Told Beautifully

Adria Malcolm and Michael TeufelPhoto by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

The defining theme of Twilight Theater Company’s 2019 season is “In the Buff” – defined by Artistic Director Dorinda Toner as “What are our innermost thoughts and feelings? Who are we when we get really, really honest with each other and have nothing to hide?” Of the Twilight shows I’ve seen this year, none embrace this theme as honestly and powerfully as the current production of playwright Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Admittedly, it’s not an easy show to watch – but its riveting, multidimensional examination of the genesis and effects of pedophilia/molestation is one of those theatrical experiences that stay with you long after the stage goes dark.

The show is somewhat stylized and non-linear, using the process of a young girl literally learning to drive as a metaphor for inappropriate sexual awakening.  It follows a rural Maryland girl (called Li’l Bit by her seriously dysfunctional family) from earliest adolescence in the 1960s through adulthood in the 1990s.  Li’l Bit shares the stage with her overly attentive Uncle Peck and three chorus members – the teen chorus, female Greek chorus, and male chorus. The chorus members portray a variety of roles, including Li’l Bit’s grandmother, mother, grandfather, aunt, and schoolmates. I despair of describing the show in a comprehensible and inviting way – you just have to take my word that Vogel’s 1997 play is a really important and honest work; happily, Dorinda Toner’s direction (and casting) are completely up to the challenge of bringing it to the stage.

I am told by people who know him better than I that Michael J. Teufel, who plays Uncle Peck, is a thoroughly nice guy, and nothing like the seemingly cool, slightly creepy character who teaches Li’l Bit to drive (starting ominously, with her sitting on his lap when she’s 11 years old). Teufel manages to make his character somewhat attractive, even as he emits the sleazy vibes of the predator – exactly what one would find in a real life abuse situation, but with an undertone of caring and love that colors every interaction. What impressed me most (in an overall stunning performance) was his ability to walk a fine line between pretense and sincerity that left me wondering if he had also been a victim at some point in his life – a possibility opened up in the scene where he teaches an unseen young boy to fish, and then some. It’s a shame that there aren’t enough front row seats at Twilight to accommodate the entire audience – the closer you are to Teufel’s facial expressions, the greater the appreciation of his artistry.

Twilight newcomer Adria Malcolm’s Li’l Bit is the perfect foil to Teufel’s Uncle Peck. She shifts seamlessly from scene to scene, expressing the character’s jumps in time and maturity, and somehow making us believe her at each age and stage. Innocent, needy, curious, tough, flirtatious, grieving, emotionally dead, heartless, lascivious, sometimes smart and witty beyond her years – Malcolm captures each of these as we watch her interact with Uncle Peck, Aunt Mary, Mother, Grandmother, school acquaintances, and her Neanderthal grandfather, Big Papa. Malcolm is brilliant in the final scene with Uncle Peck, with her anger and pain overlaid with honest grief for what she and her uncle have lost – that was the scene I discussed most with my guest as we drove home from the theater.

I cannot overlook the contributions of the superbly cast chorus. Chris Murphy delivers an abrasively ignorant and macho Big Papa; soon after, he is a quiveringly insecure but persistent adolescent, and I hated the former as much as I empathized with the latter.  Noelle Guest (Mother and Aunt Mary) has the challenge of creating sisters and, without the aid of costume or makeup, allowing us to experience each of them as individuals.  Her bitter Aunt Mary blaming Li’l Bit for the sins of her husband is classic “blame the victim,” and her descent into inebriation as the mother has just the right level of restraint – both scenes carried out to perfection. Last but not least there’s Kaylee Hawkins’ “Teen chorus” – it is no accident that the youngest cast member is asked to play the oldest woman, and she makes the audience share her experience of being Big Papa’s 14-year-old bride in an earlier era.

Staging and costumes for the show are minimal – lots of black, a few props (boxes, a table, eventually a bed) to create the family kitchen, the car, outdoor rural nights, the fishing hole, the high school dance. and a motel room while maintaining the show’s slightly surreal air and moving the audience firmly into their imaginations. The selection of music is impeccable – having come from exactly Li’l Bit’s era, I found the songs exquisitely evocative of the era and the adolescent mood. This is a great show, one I highly recommend. However, victims of molestation or other childhood sexual abuse should be warned that some of the situations my trigger anxiety – be forewarned, and use your own judgment.

Twilight Theater Company’s How I Learned to Drive is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through August 11, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.