Monday, February 8, 2021

Streaming Now -The Story of My Life

 


By Tina Arth

To fill the seemingly endless months until local stages are able to commit to full theatrical productions for live audiences, Broadway Rose has chosen a different path from most local companies. By selecting small-cast shows (2 to 4 characters), simple sets that create the illusion of close interaction while keeping the actors nicely distanced, minimizing the number of musicians on stage, and capturing it all with a carefully edited three-camera shoot, they are managing to stream a solid, if unorthodox, season safely into the homes of their loyal fan base. So far, the results have been gratifyingly spectacular. Their newest offering (third in the series, with two more planned in coming months) is The Story of My Life, a quiet, quirky little musical about friendship and love by Brian Hill (book) and Neil Bartram (music and lyrics).

The story revolves around Thomas Weaver (Alec Cameron Lugo) and Alvin Kelby (Andrew Wade), childhood friends who, when they were twelve, made a pact that when the first of them died the other would write his eulogy.  Alvin has unexpectedly died, and Thomas, now a prize-winning author, returns to their small home town to fulfill that promise – but is suffering from a serious case of writer’s block and just cannot find the words. Alvin appears and, with a nice mixture of dialogue and song, guides Thomas through the stories that defined key moments in their relationship and their lives. The script is sometimes sentimental, sometimes witty, sometimes dripping with irony – but under the careful direction of Sharon Maroney, Lugo and Wade deliver 90 minutes of a consistently engaging show that delivers a nice emotional punch.

While the relationship between Thomas and Alvin is distinctly non-sexual, it is clear that they love each other (despite Thomas’ horrified response when Alvin asks him to write “how much I love him”). As the stories they recall move them through adolescence, the utterly conventional Thomas starts to criticize Alvin’s dreamily fey, unorthodox style. In one of the show’s pivotal songs, “Normal,” Thomas ultimately asks him (as they enter high school) to fly under the radar and try to fit in – but of course that’s just not an option for a kid like Alvin. The authors’ intentional ambiguity about their characters’ sexuality spares The Story of My Life from being boxed in as a single message play – the pressures of conformity have sadly driven most of us into leaving friends behind who should have been cherished rather than rejected.

On first viewing Wade’s “Alvin” is immeasurably more appealing than Lugo’s “Thomas” – not a criticism, as the characters were written that way. However, one of the advantages of Broadway Rose’s 48-hour viewing window is that the shows can be seen more than once – and this play really demands a second visit. I watched it first on a big-screen TV, where I got a macro-view of the characters and the story – but the second time I watched it up close on a my Mac and, knowing what was coming next, caught a huge range of nuance in each character’s performance. Both actors are utterly convincing when portraying their childhood selves – there is none of the awkward overacting sometimes seen when adults play children.

The show’s 17 musical numbers are not really songs – they are more dialogue essential to the story, fully integrated with spoken word but delivered with musical accompaniment.  Both Lugo and Wade are strong vocalists, but it is really their ability to intersperse word with song, mastering the timing to flow seamlessly between the two, that sells the numbers. For a study in contrast, watch Lugo’s character develop from the eccentric, Charley Brown-like delivery of “1876” vs. his adolescent plea in “Normal” and the imaginative “The Butterfly.”  Nowhere is Wade’s powerful voice demonstrated more than in the pivotal “Independence Day” – a complex number that carries unmistakable overtones of Sondheim.

In deference to the pandemic, the “orchestra” consists of Jeffrey Childs on piano – and with someone as deft as Childs, there is no point where more is needed. The camera work is beautiful, and the editing so seamless it looks like the show was all filmed in one take.

Because of mature themes and mild profanity, the show is recommended for ages 13 and up. With that small caveat, I can recommend this production to anyone who loves and misses musical theater – it may not be live, but it’s much better than Memorex.

The Story of My Life is available on video from the Broadway Rose website.  Purchase now to stream through February 28th - $25 buys you 48 hours of unlimited viewing within a single household.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

CHRISTMAS MY WAY – A SINATRA HOLIDAY BASH


By Tina Arth

I’ve been treated to Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s annual holiday musical for most of the past decade, and this year’s offering, while still a video rather than live, injects a bit of seasonal “regular order” into the end of this jarring, and sometimes heartbreaking, year. As with their last production, the holiday show combines fine camera work, solid musicians, and an excellent cast, all produced in a way that ensures the safety of the whole Broadway Rose family.

Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash is a straight musical review, developed by David Grapes and Todd Olson and first performed in 2003. There is little pretext of a wraparound story, other than a series of expository moments that shine some light on a time when Frank Sinatra and his legendary “Rat Pack” dominated the popular music scene. Using 31 songs (about evenly split between standards and holiday favorites, all recorded at some point by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself) vocalists Charles Cook, Courtney Temple, Joe Theissen, and Malia Tippets recreate the ambience of a time when superstars seemingly were never without a glass of bourbon, a Lucky Strike, or both. With no formal intermission, 90+ minutes of song (leavened only by a few funny stories and some of the world’s worst jokes) might be a bit much – but, as Broadway Rose icon Dan Murphy points out in his curtain speech, you can hit the pause button and take a break any time you want to!

The show moves smoothly between powerful solos and meltingly lovely harmonies, and each of the performers gets ample time in the spotlight. Watch for the lighthearted choreography in Malia and Joe’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (and enjoy the fact that since they are a real couple, they can actually touch each other when they dance!). Speaking of Joe, settle back and enjoy his effortless “Come Rain or Come Shine” – it’s right down the middle of his range, and smooth as glass. Courtney is rock solid in her plaintive “I Get a Kick Out of You” – I’d love to see her play Reno Sweeney! Malia’s “Old Devil Moon” is a showstopper, but despite her chops as a vocalist, the place in the video that I returned to over and over was her utterly hilarious retelling of an O. Henry Christmas favorite – which should go down in history as “Malia’s Mangled Maji.” The camera’s ability to bring us close-ups is a real plus in many parts of the show, but nowhere is the technique used more effectively than in in this dryly comic bit of story-telling.

Wayne Brady fans (if you’re not one, you should be!) will appreciate Charles Cook’s vocals and styling, especially in “Witchcraft” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” The foursome bring some of their best harmonies to “The Christmas Song” and their spine-tingling a cappella “I Heard the Bells” – but for sheer nostalgia, nothing can touch their encore performance of the quintessential Sinatra ballad, “My Way.”

Costumes, lights, a few props, the simple set, and the three-camera video (with some great editing) combine to give the audience a series of memorable moments. There’s the clever use of a cocktail shaker as maracas, the subtle touch of an actual tip jar on music director/pianist Darcy White’s piano, the retro lighting on the huge Christmas tree. Malia looks great in the first half with her form-fitting red dress, but she moves to drop-dead gorgeous when she changes into the off-the-shoulder green number, and Courtney’s second-half red gown is a stunner. Subtler fifties touches include the men’s jackets – a subtle windowpane check for Charles and a truly snazzy plaid jacket on Joe.

While some of the musical arrangements have been updated, the show is definitely aimed at an audience old enough to remember Sinatra’s heyday, and may need to be seen in context by younger viewers. Be prepared for an avalanche of corny jokes – while Joe (who comes closest to representing Sinatra) gets the lion’s share, Courtney gets one real groaner. Luckily, even those not familiar with some of the standards should still appreciate the often-spectacular vocals, and the holiday classics come at a time when we all need a little Christmas!

Christmas My Way – a Sinatra Holiday Bash is available on video from the Broadway Rose website.  Purchase by December 24th to stream through December 31st - $25 gets you 48 hours of unlimited viewing, so you can share it with the folks in your bubble (household) for two days!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Daddy Long Legs – Welcome This Spider into Your Home!



 By Tina Arth

We’ve all missed live theater – but I didn’t realize just how much until last Saturday morning, when I started watching Broadway Rose’s beautiful, witty, and utterly charming video production of Paul Gordon and John Caird’s 2009 musical version of Daddy Longlegs. OK – still not live theater seen in person (with the exception of a small, presumably well-distanced audience) but SO much closer than any of the (impressively creative) Zoom productions I have seen since last March when the world of live theater collapsed around us. The unsinkable folks at Broadway Rose achieved their miracle by (1) finding a play that only requires two cast members, and (2) finding, within their amazing talent base, two performers ideally suited for these roles and who already live in the same Covid-19 bubble, eliminating the need for on-stage masks. With those elements in place, and the New Stage as an ideal venue, the work began – sets, costumes, music, lighting (oh, the lighting!), direction – plus one additional element: a team of skilled videographers to pull of a multi-camera shoot of the live performance. The end result is a production that comes close enough to the experience of live theater that, by intermission, I was feeling positively euphoric – and the warm fuzzies didn’t fade… 

The musical is based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster. Set in turn-of-the-century New England, it tells the story of Jerusha Abbott, “the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home.” A mysterious benefactor, trustee Jervis Pendleton, agrees to send her to college under the condition that she write him a letter once a month - but she is never to thank him, and never to expect a response. Through this correspondence, she shares her experiences of discovering literature, adventure, freedom, self-esteem, and love. Not knowing her patron's name, she dubs him "Daddy Long Legs." There is a touch of Annie, with a wealthy benefactor who normally prefers boy orphans but finds himself enchanted by this one girl, and an enormous helping of Little Shop Around the Corner/She Loves Me/You’ve Got Mail in this play that revolves around letter-writing and concealed identities – but to be fair, the original 1912 novel precedes any of these more recent classics.

Broadway Rose mainstays Malia Tippets and Joe Thiessen, a real-life couple (in fact, she proposed and they were wed on-set during tech week!), play Jerusha and Jervis with a deft touch, bringing lots of humor to the irony of Jerusha’s misperceptions about her benefactor and to Jervis’ jealousy as he reluctantly, then eagerly, falls head over heels in love despite his intent to remain a confirmed bachelor. The show is essentially an operetta, with limited dialogue interspersed among almost non-stop vocals. Tippets’ broad range is tested by countless solos and harmonies requiring solid soprano chops and immunity to vocal fatigue, and she handles the challenge with aplomb. Thiessen’s smooth baritone provides a perfect compliment – strong in his solo numbers, and the two voices blend beautifully in some complex duets. However, it is the acting that really sells the show – especially their body language as a raised eyebrow, toss of the head, longing gaze or dismissive glance tells the story of the couple’s developing relationship. Tippets’ combination of naivety, intellect, and independence is charming, and her explanation of Fabian Socialism may be my favorite moment in the whole show! 

Neither the individual songs nor the melodies are terribly distinctive, but as befits an operetta they move the story along nicely. However, Jeffrey Childs’ music direction is flawless, and complements director Sharon Maroney’s careful timing and pacing. Sean O’Skea’s set design is simple but effective – a couple of chests and a bed create Jerusha’s bare-bones environment, while the more complex and detailed desk and bookcase give the right touch of opulence to Jervis’ world. Phil McBeth’s lighting design adds immeasurably, taking full advantage of the New Stage’s rich array of lighting options and creating a series of sometimes grim, sometimes idyllic scenes.

I urge you to give Daddy Long Legs a try – the price is minimal (only $25 for 48 hours of unlimited viewing) and, since the show can be shared with everyone in your particular bubble, a great bargain. My only regret is that the production has rekindled a longing for local theater – I hope that Broadway Rose and other local companies are able to bring more of this kind of entertainment to Portland-area audiences until we can all get together again, both on-stage and off.

Broadway Rose’s Daddy Long Legs is available for streaming through Saturday, October 25th. For more information visit www.broadwayrose.org or call 503.620.5262.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

B&B’s Measure of Innocence a Timely Reminder


Anya Pearson, Donovan Mahannah, Phillip J. Berns
By Tina Arth


Franklin Delano Roosevelt (well, at least in the musical Annie), once said, “when people are starving, there is no long run.” In other words, when people’s lives are in crisis, it is neither reasonable nor fair to ask them to step back and look at the big picture. In this vein, Bag&Baggage Productions has picked a perfect time and vehicle to remind us that all politics is truly local and many people’s lives are always on the edge of crisis – for such people, the day-to-day challenges of real life must take priority over the big national and international issues that dominate the headlines. Our concern over COVID-19 and presidential primaries, no matter how justified, often serves to distract us from the fundamental injustices in American society that place some groups, particularly people of color, at risk every day of their lives.

Playwright Anya Pearson’s Measure of Innocence is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it is the second of Bag&Baggage’s Problem Play Series playing at The Vault. The program provides a commission to an “Oregon-based playwright of color to adapt one of William Shakespeare’s problem plays with a diversity/inclusion lens.”  Wednesday Sue Derrico’s Director’s Notes say it better than I can: “This play is about the injustice and structural racism that guides the judicial and prison systems in America today…through a diversity of character and story lines, it sheds light on the residual effects these broken systems place onto all of us.” While Measure for Measure is generally classified as comedy, Pearson’s adaptation would never be described that way (although there are certainly some funny moments).

Give or take 500 years and some rather profound cultural and racial differences, most of the principal characters and some principal story lines reflect their Shakespearean antecedents – there’s Claudio and his pregnant fiancĂ©e, Juliet, Claudio’s very religious sister Isabel, his good friend Lucky (Shakespeare’s “Lucio”), his fellow prisoner Barnadine, and the morally corrupt prosecutor, Angelo.  Claudio is wrongly accused and imprisoned, Isabel subjected to Angelo’s sexual assault as she pleads for her brother. However, Pearson’s work is much darker – Measure of Innocence does not end with truth, compassion, and justice triumphing over systemic corruption; suffering, even death, come to characters we care about. The addition of pussy hat wearing social justice warriors, a talk show host, the playwrights themselves (both Will and Anya), and a nonsense spouting President break the tension with an element of surreal humor, but do not interrupt the play’s essential narrative.

About half of the cast comprises Bag&Baggage veterans, but most of the principal roles go to accomplished performers who are new or have made just one previous appearance at The Vault. I was deeply moved by Donovan Mahannah (Claudio) and Curtis Maxey Jr. (Lucky), the actors who fully express the terror, anger, and ultimate helplessness of the unjustly accused in a corrupt, racist system where the state holds all of the power. Kayla Dixon creates a frustratingly religious “Isabel” – I wanted to cheer when she set aside her blind faith in an all-knowing God and stood up for herself and her brother. Janelle Rae (Juliet) grabbed me in their first scene and never let go – they create the quintessential strong Black woman, fighting every moment of their life to protect and enlighten their peers. As Barnadine, Eric Island captures the essence of a prison’s version of an elder statesman, guiding Claudio in the ways of survival in an unremittingly hostile universe by keeping his head down and staying out of trouble.

James Luster is appropriately horrifying as the corrupt and lascivious Mike Angelo, but it is his brief interludes as the unnamed, yet clearly identified President, that really allow him to shine – he captures that unmistakable voice and diction without going over the top. Bag&Baggage Associate Artist Phillip J. Berns’ “Shakespeare” sparkles throughout, lending a note of levity with his mobility and agility while reminding us that we are watching an adaptation.

The starkly white, modernistic set creates a nice contrast with the darkness of the story, and Blanca Forzan’s scenic and lighting design creates the surreal atmosphere that allows the audience members to use their imaginations to fill in between the lines. The movable staircase cuts quickly through changes of scene, allowing the actors’ slow progress up the steps to the prison’s bars to illustrate the separation between the imprisoned and those on the outside.

The thematic intensity means that The Measure of Innocence is not a fun show for the actors or the (primarily white) audience – but both the author and director prioritize enlightenment over entertainment. The close-minded, and those who are unwilling to think about the role that privilege plays in their lives, might well be offended, and there is a level of violence and assault that may trigger the fragile. It is the kind of theater that calls for intellectual and emotional unpacking – if you go, see it with a friend and spend some time discussing the content and your reactions.

Bag&Baggage’s The Measure of Innocence is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 22nd, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.