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.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Brilliant Winter Kick-off at Broadway Rose

Malia Tippets, Jared Mack, Joe Theissen, Tim Blough, Sarah Maines, 
Jade Tate, Jackson Wells, and Jeffrey Childs. Photo by Sam Ortega

By Tina Arth

I love the holiday season, but the avalanche of shows around the beginning of December can be a bit overwhelming. Broadway Rose, not surprisingly, hit just the right note by opening A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol Thanksgiving weekend, at least a week ahead of the rest of the crowd. More importantly, from a pack of five in recent years, theirs is the most charming, touching, and musically thrilling (some of the harmonies gave me chills!) take on the “Radio Christmas Carol” genre I’ve seen – with no sacrifice in the quality of the comedy. The collaboration between director Dan Murphy and musical director Jeffrey Childs creates a seamless flow between the show’s musical, dramatic, and comic elements – with some unexpected twists that keep the audience on its toes.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1943, and the Feddington Players are more than a little cranky about their move from NYC to a hole-in-the-wall studio in Newark, NJ for their rendition of A Christmas Carol. The plumbing is loud, the signal weak, and the electrical system temperamental. Starring in the title role of Scrooge is veteran actor (but radio newbie) William St. Claire, who is not thrilled with the current trajectory of his career and has a woefully inadequate understanding of the different demands of radio (e.g., no need for costumes, much less costume changes!). Adding to the general malaise, the rest of the cast learns before his arrival that St. Claire has lost a son in the skies above WWII France.  However, the show must go on, and even when St. Claire’s heart-wrenching on-air breakdown drives it off the rails the rest of the cast’s “can-do” attitude brings it to a hilarious (but very bizarre) conclusion. Without giving too much away, let us just say that it’s the only time I’ve seen Tiny Tim and the Lindbergh Baby in such close proximity…

Tim Blough (as St. Claire) is an experienced and deft actor whose resonant voice and dignified affect stand in stark contrast to the frequently wacky performances of his cast mates. Much of the show’s emotional content comes from his gradual evolution from Scrooge to grieving father, done so smoothly that I really didn’t know what was happening until he neared his personal climax. The rest of the cast members offer multidimensional portraits of ordinary people (well, ordinary show people) carrying on in the midst of the grim realities of war. Jade Tate is hilarious as Sally Simpson, the living embodiment of Rosie the Riveter, and her lightning-fast transitions playing all of Bob Cratchit’s daughters are a wonder to behold. With little more than a few lines in Hebrew, Jared Mack uses his character, Cholly Butts, to gently remind us that Jews, even in America, have a special connection to the tragic events in Europe. I was impressed but confused by the skillful musical direction from “Toots Navarre” – until I read the program at intermission and realized that real-life musical director Jeffrey Childs, one of the best of the best of the local music men, had stepped downstage to let the audience watch him work his magic.

The 18 musical numbers are a nice mix of classic carols and new songs written for the show –delivered with a sly confession that the WOV Radio Network can’t pay royalties, so they have to rely on new material and songs in the public domain. Malia Tippets’ lively “That Cute Little Elf” starts the show with comic flare, and Sarah Maines’ haunting “Quiet Night” closes the show on a somber note that brings home the reality of war, especially poignant with the lovely monologue by Foley artist Buzz Crenshaw (William Shindler). The lush ensemble arrangements allow the entire cast to shine, and Mack’s lead on “All Through the Night” gave me goose bumps.

Robert Vaughan’s detailed scenic design and Sarah Marguier’s authentic costuming give the show period authenticity, immediately transporting the audience back 76 years and immersing us in the spirit of a tragic but hopeful era – so very different from our own in superficial ways, and so completely alike in the things that matter.

This show will sell out quickly (many performances are already full) – get your tickets asap for what may turn out to be the best show of the season!

A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, December 23d.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Mighty Inherit the Wind Blows at Lakewood

Ian Goodrich, Olivia Weiss, Jim Vadala, and Allen Nause.
Photo by Triumph Photography.

By Tina Arth

November 6, 2018 – what better day to reflect on a play that explores a time when American history was roiled by the 6-way collision of science, fundamentalist religion, education, politics, law, and the press? Lakewood Theatre Company’s production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s brilliant Inherit the Wind, first produced in 1955 as a direct reaction to the McCarthy hearings, propels us back to a time and place that, until recently, we thought we had left behind.

The play tells the semi-fictional story of Bertram Cates, a teacher in Hillsboro, Tennessee who is on trial for the crime of teaching evolutionary theory to his students.  While it is based on actual historic events (1925’s famous Scopes trial, in Dayton Tennessee) the names have been changed and the story modified to more explicitly make its point about the McCarthy era’s relentless attempts to suppress free speech, thought, and a free press.  Appearing for the defense and prosecution are well-known lawyers Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan), brought in to raise the trial to national attention as one of a handful of cases labeled a “trial of the century.” The drama is heightened by the presence of Cates’ girlfriend, fellow teacher Rachel Brown, whose father Jeremiah Brown is the heartlessly stern reverend of the local fundamentalist church. The trial ends with a Pyrrhic victory for Bryan – Cates is convicted, but in the process Darrow demolishes Brady’s arguments and sets the stage to move the debate to a national audience on appeal, while Rachel rejects her father’s blindly rigid faith and chooses to align her self squarely in the Cates camp.

The leading lawyers provide dream roles for serious actors, and director Antonio Sonera could not have chosen better than Allen Nause (Drummond) and Todd Van Voris (Brady) to fill these giant shoes. The contrast between Nause’s restrained, fiercely sardonic expression of agnosticism and the crowd-pleasing, bombastic histrionics of Van Voris’ creationist rants drives the story to its inevitable conclusion. Nause uses comic timing as a weapon to disembowel his adversary’s biblical literalism, and Van Voris smoothly injects into his absolute certainty a few moments of thinly veiled doubt when confronted with Reverend Brown’s unconscionably harsh brand of Christianity.

Another key battle in the show is between Rachel and her father. While David Sikking’s take on Reverend Brown could have been even fierier, Olivia Weiss’ approach as Rachel is heartbreaking, and vividly illustrates the cruelty of her father’s harsh world-view. The ensemble, especially when singing (there are a surprising number of hymns interspersed throughout the show), augments the picture by demonstrating Brown’s almost hypnotic power over many in the crowd. While the leads demand most of the audience’s attention, it is fascinating to watch the reactions of individual ensemble members at key moments as they respond to Brown, Brady, and Drummond’s arguments with varying degrees of blind faith and cautious hints of dissent.

John Gerth’s scenic design is really quite stunning. The use of rear projection for the town of Hillsboro, with a rustic foreground that can serve as a jail, town square, or courtroom by just shifting a few pieces of furniture, easily enables the audience to follow shifts in locale without time lost to extensive set changes – the most complex shift, erecting bleachers for the jury, happily happens at intermission.

While it would be unduly naïve to think that conflicts between religious faith and scientific logic will ever find a completely happy middle ground, it is still shocking in 2018 to see how little progress has been made in some large segments of American society. As Drummond says, with eerily prophetic accuracy, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?” For this reason alone, Inherit the Wind has earned its iconic place in theater – but Sonera’s staging of the show at Lakewood is rife with fine performances, humor, and subtle touches that make it fine theater independent of the message.

Inherit the Wind is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, December 9th.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dearly Departed – More Giggles Than Grief…

Lonnie Duran, Krista Gardner, and Jeff Ekdahl

By Tina Arth

Losing the clan’s paterfamilias is generally regarded as something to mourn, but as Mask & Mirror Community Theatre’s current production of David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’ Dearly Departed illustrates, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The show fits neatly into the mold of southern comedy often seen in community theater productions, and generally included once per season at Mask & Mirror. True to type, it’s loaded with eccentric characters, big hair, down-home accents, and sit-com like one-liners – but this one is a bit more fun, and much funnier, because it’s edgier and less overtly stereotypical than others from the genre that I’ve seen.  Kudos to director Rick Hoover for setting some limits on his cast, averting the kind over-the-top cheap performances that so often dilute a script’s inherent wit.

The story begins with the sudden demise of Bud Turpin, the seriously red-necked patriarch of a rural southern clan – wife Raynelle, sons Ray Bud and Junior, daughter Delightful, Bud’s sister Marguerite, and nephew Royce. From Bud’s demise through his burial, we watch the family and an unusually eclectic array friends and relations as they expose the universal bonds of love, community, family ties and humor of this dysfunctional horde. Raynelle quickly makes it clear to the preacher that she wants no whitewashed eulogy for a man she can only describe as “mean and surly” (in fact, that’s what she wants on his tombstone). The sons are at each others’ throats, Delightful is an obsessive eater – add in financial problems, adultery, miscarriages, sloth, and real Bible Belt fundamentalism – clearly, the story could go very dark, but the authors have chosen to offer a much lighter vision.

Pat Romans plays Raynelle with honesty and directness that belies any stereotypes about born again Christians – audiences are just not expecting that level of casual contempt from the newly-bereaved, but Romans makes it clear that we’ll have to look elsewhere for hypocrisy (or even a modicum of tact). The mantle of ostentatious grief falls on the shoulders of Francine Raften, a control freak who delivers a classic Bible-thumping dose of rigid morality. Two very solid performances come from Lonnie Duran and Kira Smolev (Ray Bud and Lucille), who create a believable, hard-working, sensible couple that contrasts neatly with the hapless Junior (Jeff Ekdahl) and his wife Suzanne (Shannon Coffin), a shallow harridan with anger issues and a penchant for Dairy Queen who redeems herself at the end with a lovely funeral hymn.

Krista Gardner is a hoot as Delightful – like Mr. Goldstone in Gypsy, she has almost no lines but eats continuously (corn dogs are a particular favorite). Gardner’s magically swift hands manage to snatch food from other cast members with lightning speed, and she is hilariously deadpan throughout. Ted Schroeder’s “Royce” could be found in any family – Schroeder plays aimless and shiftless to perfection, with a nearly unbreachable emotional wall to protect him from Marguerite’s maternal manipulation. We don’t see much of John Knowles as the Reverend Hooker – he spends much of his biggest scene offstage, dealing with intestinal issues – but when he appears he definitely steals the show.

The sets are minimal, which is a real blessing in a show with so many scene changes in Act I, and the costuming absolutely appropriate to the time, diversity of the characters, and place (wherever that might be – we are told only that we are below the Mason-Dixon line). The brief role of Bud Turpin is filled with a different local personality for each performance, which adds a little more fun to the evening.

While Dearly Departed is being performed in a church and is generally family-friendly, there are a few situations that might not be appropriate for younger children (assuming they are old enough to figure out what’s going on) or people with particularly delicate sensibilities. However, that leaves a lot of folks who will really enjoy an evening with the Turpins!

Mask & Mirror’s Dearly Departed runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through November 18th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Evil Dead: The Musical – TITG’s Love Note to the Season

Kate Barrett, Nick Serrone, and Stevo Clay

By Tina Arth

Other theaters offer boring options like front row seating, balcony seating, aisle seating – but for Halloween 2018, Theatre in the Grove offers the chillingly unorthodox options of splash zone and splatter zone seating. Thanks to director Zachary Centers and the Forest Grove troupe’s current production of Evil Dead: The Musical, audiences can get a few hours of  “mature audiences only” respite from trick-or-treaters, Disney princesses, and all the rest of Big Candy’s assault on our official spooky season. The show is definitely not great art, but it is definitely great fun for adults who love over-the-top farce and refuse to completely grow up – think Rocky Horror on steroids, or Little Shop of Horrors on crack.

Canadian author George Reinblatt’s 2003 musical is based on the Evil Dead film series, and offers the broadest of parodies of the whole teen horror bloodbath genre. Five college students – Ash, his sister Cheryl, best friend Scott, Scott’s girlfriend Shelly, and Ash’s girlfriend Linda go off to spend the weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods. With this classic horror set-up, what can go right? While there is plenty of action and dialogue, for the careful reader the song list tells pretty much what to expect, as the cast delivers 21 musical numbers from ”Cabin in the Woods” through “It Won’t Let Us Leave”, “Join Us,” “I’m Not a Killer,” “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” “It’s Time,” and finally “Blew that B**** Away.”  

The toughest role goes to Nick Serrone’s “Ash” who, when not wielding chainsaws and sawed-off shotguns, is a stock boy in aisle 5 of the local S-Mart where he met cashier Linda (Aubrey Slaughter). The role of Ash was originally played by Bruce Campbell, and Serrone definitely captures some of Campbell’s bizarre heroism.  The shamelessly campy “Housewares Employee,” gives Serrone and Slaughter a chance to shine as they deliver the quintessential love anthem, and it is impossible not to compare the infatuated pair to Little Shop’s Audrey and Seymour. From an overall impressive performance, I would pick the life and death battle between Ash and his hand as Serrone’s best scene – his athletic grasp of physical comedy is breathtaking.  Stevo Clay’s “Scott” is convincingly dumb as a box of lust-riddled rocks, yet his limited brainpower sparkles when compared to Jeananne Kelsey’s slutty “Shelley.” Kelsey is a fine dancer, and her choreography for “Do the Necronomicon” really sells Evil Dead’s homage to “The Time Warp.”  Kate Barrett’s mopey “Cheryl” is clearly the intellectual in the group; neither turning her into a zombie nor locking her in the cellar dims her IQ, and Barrett’s physical outbursts, wisecracks, and furious puns provide several of the show’s best moments.

Each of the other three key cast members get at least one great number.  Isabella Steele’s “Annie” completely nails the lead on the exquisitely clumsy “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” and Trevor Winder does a shockingly good job singing and dancing his way through the hen-pecked Ed’s “Bit Part Demon.”  Words cannot express my surprised glee at Travis Schlegel’s “Good Old Reliable Jake” – a good ol’ boy taking country music to dizzying heights of absurdity.

The set, special effects, lighting and sound are essential to express the kitschy wit of the show – director/set designer Centers and his crew pull out all the stops with a vibrating floor, demon-possessed props, severed but still-active limbs, misting and spurting blood, and a host of other high and low-tech touches.  A few blood pack problems and some muffled lines make very little difference, given the utter absurdity of the entire production.

Finally, conductor Cory Sweany and his five-person orchestra are beautifully placed upstairs and upstage, where they do full justice to an eclectic score by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and playwright Reinblatt.

The show is clearly not for all audiences, and utterly inappropriate for children, the blood-averse, or people who dislike campy musicals.  However, the rest of the theater-going public should seriously consider spending a few hours at Theatre in the Grove – may I suggest the midnight showing on October 31st?

Evil Dead: The Musical is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through November 4th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., and a special midnight Halloween showing on October 31st.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Twilight Theater Company Plumbs the Depths of Marat Sade

Jennifer Madison Logan, Greg Prosser, and Randy Patterson.
Photo by Alicia Turvin
By Tina Arth

As we trudge, wary but hopeful, toward the 2018 midterm elections, trust our good friends at Twilight to bring us that ever-popular ray of theatrical sunshine, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, familiarly known as
Marat/ Sade. With its impossibly perky subtext: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” (or, if you prefer, the less tasteful “vote out the bastards, vote in the sons of bitches”), Director Dorinda Toner’s massive 24-person cast explodes across the stage, bringing playwright Peter Weiss’ dark 1964 play to life in a grim reminder that even the most enlightened and progressive political revolutions rarely yield lasting positive change, especially for the downtrodden.

For those of you who, like me, might not have a clue what to expect when walking into the theater, here’s some basic intel about stuff we learned in school but may have since filed away under “irrelevant”: the French revolution started in 1789, and initially ran through 1799. The French monarchy was replaced with a shaky and thoroughly bloody republic, there was lots of turmoil, and ultimately the revolutionary hero Napoleon Bonaparte (having conveniently sidelined some of his more liberal republican impulses) took the reins in 1799, created The Consulate, and then in 1804 began a 10-year reign as French emperor. Each step in this complex process was justified, at least in part, by the argument that making France a more liberal country that would bring a better life to the oppressed masses (we all remember Marie Antoinette and “let them eat cake,” right?). While they succeeded in abolishing the monarchy, attempts to create an egalitarian, poverty-free society were notably less successful. All of this info is key because Marat/Sade is a play within a play, ostensibly written by the infamous Marquis de Sade (funny how we all remember him, right?) exploring the 1793 assassination of radical republican Jean-Paul Marat. The only other thing you need to know is that the action takes place in the (insane) Asylum at Charenton, circa 1808 while Sade was an inmate – as part of their therapy, the inmates are performing Sade’s play, with the asylum director and other members of the bourgeoisie as their audience. Oh – and resist the urge to sit in the middle of the second row. Unless you are very, very tall, the seat directly behind Coulmier, the asylum director, yields a limited view of center stage, and things happen there!

Twilight newcomer Randy Patterson (the Marquis de Sade) is one of the few actors portraying himself (as opposed to being a character within the play he has written). He gives the role a controlled menace, with just tiny bursts of mania, and the slightly creepy effect is enhanced by his makeup, strong and expressive features, and daunting physical presence – as his “play’s” director he is mostly silent and still, but always worth watching, and when he does speak everyone listens. Patterson plays primarily off two other key characters, Greg Prosser’s Marat and Stan Yeend’s Coulmier. Yeend clearly has fun, and is fun to watch, being quintessentially bourgeois. He’s well-dressed, full of bluster and condescension, leaping to his feet and loudly objecting with lightning speed each time Sade’s play begins to tread on dangerous turf, and quietly comforting his daughter when the action on stage gets a mite too raucous.  Prosser is tougher to read – although he’s playing a paranoid schizophrenic tormented by chronic skin disease playing a bloodthirsty rebel, he spends almost the entire play seated in a large bathtub wearing only a beige diaper (the role is often played fully nude, but I appreciate Toner’s directorial choice to provide minimal cover).  Because of the tub’s placement  (upstage, and not well lit), the audience does not get close enough to Prosser to really feel his performance – and one of the great strengths of Twilight is the immediacy that comes with audience proximity to the stage.

The vocal ensemble is powerful, and does full justice to Lola Toner’s fine original music. Among the resident lunatics, a few are particularly noteworthy for their ability to commit consistently to their roles, even when they are not the center of attention, in particular Chris Murphy, Samuel Alexander Hawkins, and Tony Domingue. Skye McLaren Walton turns in an unforgettable performance as the incredibly libidinous Duperret, and Eva Andrews is stunningly focused, and totally oblivious to Duperret’s constant rape attempts. Props to almost all of the women for gracefully letting it all hang out during the final orgy, with special recognition to Kaitlynn Baugh for confidently providing a moment of tasteful downstage nudity. Jeff Giberson’s Herald is nicely sardonic, but perhaps a bit too glib to mesh cleanly with the rest of the cast – I found myself wondering whether he was actually present in the asylum or simply a one-man Greek chorus.

Marat Sade is not performed often, and it is rank understatement to say that it’s a challenging show to direct, perform, and watch. I suspect that most audience members walk out (as I did) wondering exactly what they have seen. However, it’s worth the trouble – see it, ponder at length, reflect on the currency of the topics in a world that seems no closer to getting it right than the rebellious French of the time. Do not, however, take your kids along, unless they are at least 18!

Twilight Theater Company’s Marat/Sade is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through October 28th, with performances at 8 P.M. on Fridays–Saturdays, 8 pm, Sundays, 3 pm & Thursday, October 25, at 8 pm.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Bag&Baggage’s Deathtrap Ushers in the Scary Season

Andrew Beck and Lawrence Siulagi
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

It’s that time of year again – trust Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage to take their Halloween offering well beyond “Boo!” with playwright Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap. Levin made his name with three iconic horror novels – Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil before hitting the theatrical jackpot in 1978 with the hugely successful Broadway run of Deathtrap. Forty years later, the play still has the power to make its audience gasp and giggle at Levin’s brilliant marriage of wit and terror, and director Scott Palmer doesn’t miss a trick (or treat).

The show is set in the study of a down-on-his-luck playwright, Sidney Bruhl, in Westport, Connecticut.  The walls are covered with fierce looking weapons, many representative of past successful stage thrillers on which Bruhl’s career and fame are based. Now at the end of a long dry spell, he’s living off his wife Myra’s largesse and has been reduced to teaching dramatic writing to a new generation of aspiring playwrights. Bruhl is reading a manuscript sent to him by one of his students, and is dismayed by the utter perfection of the tyro’s script – so much so that he even jokes about killing the student and claiming the script as his own. Myra proposes a less lethal scheme, where Sidney can offer his services as a (completely unnecessary) script doctor/collaborator and then convince the author, Clifford Anderson, that they have actually co-written the play – thus letting him in for a share of the glory, and more importantly, the gold that is sure to follow the play’s publication. From here, the plot takes off on a series of unexpected twists and murderous turns involving Sidney, Myra, Clifford, Porter Milgrim (Sidney’s lawyer), and the mysterious Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic who lives nearby. Levin’s script is frequently hilarious – self aware and self-deprecating – and there is a strong element of play-within-a-play as the plot develops and we are shown repeatedly that all is not what it seems to be.

Lawrence Siulagi’s sly, dour, and cynical Sidney Bruhl is the play’s centerpiece, and perhaps most completely captures Levin’s actual voice. At every turn, Siulagi manages to convince us that his urbane exterior houses at least one part psychopath, which keeps us on the edge of our seats. Morgan Cox as Myra is proper, cold and rigid (physically and morally), and her occasional overtly theatrical leaps into hysteria mirror the audience’s own reactions at startling turns of events. Most interesting to me was watching Andrew Beck as Clifford. In previous shows Beck has often played the knowing sophisticate, so it was really fun to watch him initially play the part of a likeable dumb Kopf, and even more fun watching his eyes as he gradually and subtly telegraphed his evolution into a significantly more knowing and complex character.

Mandana Khoshnevisan’s outré psychic, Helga, provides a solid dose of comic relief, especially in Act II where she goes over the top, but never out of control, and Eric St. Cyr provides a nice contrast in his button-down, cautiously lawyerly take on Porter Milgrim.

Palmer’s production team is flawless – in particular, Jim Ricks-White’s lighting, Tyler Buswell’s mace, sword, hatchet and handcuff filled scenic design, and the fight choreography by Signe Larsen. I have been promised that the unexpected opening night (fake) blood spatter was a one-time event, so there’s no need to avoid front row seating!

Early in Act I, Bruhl avers that Clifford’s script is “So good that even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.” This is abundantly true in the case of the current production, and it makes a perfect way to honor and welcome the scariest season of the year.

Bag&Baggage’s Deathtrap is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through October 31, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees, and special pre-Halloween shows at 7:30 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday October 29, 30, and 31.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

BCT Presents a Lively School House Rock

Brittain Jackson and Michael Cook

By Tina Arth

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production is a blast from the past that rings the bells of nostalgia for a generation of adults who grew up in the seventies and early eighties, and the live version offers an abundance of lively music, dance and song to charm today’s kiddos, too. Director Terri Kuechle her amazingly adaptable six-person cast, and music director Sandy Libonati’s pianist and bassist deliver a fast-paced series of 21 songs drawn from the best-loved numbers from the original School House Rock cartoon shorts first offered as part of ABC’s Saturday morning TV lineup in 1973.

The plot (really just a skeleton on which to hang the individual segments) is this: it’s the night before new schoolteacher Tom is scheduled to begin his first day as an elementary school teacher, and his anxiety makes for sleeplessness, bad dreams, and bizarre (but highly educational) fantasies peopled by three women and two men, all of them representing the various voices in his head. Each segment calls for different costuming (lots of hats and other quick-change garments) and represents a specific topic from elementary education – predominantly math, English grammar, biology, astronomy, and social studies. Tom quickly learns that in order to be effective in the classroom, he’ll have to make learning fun and infuse his messages with music and rhythm to engage his young charges and help them retain the material.

As someone who completely missed the Schoolhouse Rock television phenomenon, I had no idea what to expect, and was for the most part pleasantly surprised. The actors were fully committed to their roles (which cannot have been easy in some of the sillier segments), vocal ensemble harmonies were powerful and clean, there was some fine dancing, the musicians did a fantastic job with the upbeat melodies and were well enough modulated that they did not, in general, drown out the vocals – and vocal leads, while not of operatic quality, hit exactly the right note for the show (“Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” does not require Beverly Sills). My principal concern is that two numbers in the second act (“Great American Melting Pot” and “Elbow Room”) are a bit tone-deaf in light of 21st century sensibilities – reinforcing a Eurocentric narrative that was ubiquitous throughout my childhood, but that has (one hopes) been supplanted by a broader view of how we got to where we are today. When I queried BCT about this, I found (as I suspected) that they are contractually obligated to adhere to the original script, and thus did not have the option of replacing these numbers with less socio-politically fraught songs. I was, however, delighted to learn that the cast and production team had spent considerable time discussing the issue, and would be specifically addressing it in the audience  “Talk Back” offered after the October 7th show. For adults simply seeing the show for its nostalgia value it’s no big deal, but I hope that parents and others who see Schoolhouse Rock with children take the time to discuss these numbers.

In a strong (and delightfully uninhibited) cast, I was especially impressed with Brittain Jackson’s dancing, and he totally nailed “Just a Bill” (which seemed to be a particular audience favorite from the old days).  Jordan Morris displayed a comic sensibility sometimes missing from professional geoscientists, and his fast-talking “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” was a total delight.  Despite some early problems with vocal projection, Jemi Kostiner Mansfield made the most of her fluid body and mobile face and turned in an overall first-rate performance.

Any adult with fond memories of Saturday mornings spent with Schoolhouse Rock will love this show, as will boatloads of young children. With the caveat that the two “problem” numbers be acknowledged and discussed in the appropriate time and place, I can heartily recommend this show to all comers.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Schoolhouse Rock runs through Saturday, October 13th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Broadway Rose’s ExtraOrdinary Days

By Tina Arth

I was utterly unprepared for the impact of Broadway Rose’s production of Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days. What little I knew about the show left me expecting a muddled tale four oddly paired, shallow millennials seeking what passes for meaning in modern-day NYC, punctuated by a series of self-absorbed and often irrelevant songs. Saying my expectations were off the mark would be gross understatement. What I saw was a beautiful, intensely moving (and often hilarious) show as relevant to an aging West Coast hippie chick as it was to the sophisticated big city theater fiends who comprised its early audiences when it made its 2009 New York debut.

In about 90 minutes, the show’s 20 songs tell a story of Warren, Deb, Claire, and Jason – four people searching for meaningful lives and connections while navigating the complex culture of post-911 New York City. Claire and Jason are a couple, but their attempt to co-habit leads to a host of problems as they try to cram their combined physical and emotional baggage into a small apartment. Deb comes from a modest, confining background and has fallen into a graduate program in her search for a larger world, but she’s frantically going through the motions of writing her thesis on Sylvia Plath with no real sense of purpose. Warren is an earnest nebbish – an aspiring artist cat-sitting for his mentor, who is serving a sentence for sharing his philosophy through unauthorized tagging (apparently, one person’s art is another person’s graffiti). The almost invisible Warren, who picks up abandoned junk from city streets while offering his and his mentor’s “art” (a series of sweet, helpful maxims) to the passing horde, finds Deb’s mislaid thesis notes. The two awkwardly connect – he has visions of a platonic Kismet, she’s just annoyed (and stunningly ungrateful!). In one of those miracles that only make sense in musicals, Warren and Deb find common ground, and while they never actually meet Jason and Claire, they end up having a profound effect on their lives. The poignant and beautiful revelations at the end left me, and much of the audience, near (or in) tears – exactly what I wanted, as it lifts the show from rom-com to art.

There is nothing ordinary about Quinlan Fitzgerald (Deb), Seth M. Renne (Warren), Kailey Rhodes (Claire), and Benjamin Tissell (Jason). Ably supported by musical director/pianist Eric Nordin, each actor creates a memorable character, and each is able to take full advantage of several beautiful opportunities to shine. The characters played by the women are initially sufficiently difficult that our sympathies naturally migrate to the men. Fitzgerald’s cynicism and Rhodes’ bursts of anger are unpredictably fierce at times, but as the tale unfolds the two women allow us to empathize with their disaffection. Fitzgerald’s “Beautiful” and Rhodes’ “I’ll Be Here” reveal their evolution, and we ultimately celebrate the insight and healing that they find.  Tissell’s performance is a subtle treat – his vocals evoke the sincerity of a man who has truly found “the one” and doesn’t know how to keep her. Renne is just fabulous – goofy, naïve, persistent, so oblivious to the negativity around him that he is able to transform his little corner of the world.

Director Isaac Lamb has given what could be seen as a “little” show all of the sensitivity and perception needed to present a pointillist tale of how meaning can be found in the seemingly trivial, ordinary events of Ordinary Days.

Ordinary Days is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, October 14th.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Outer Space Mikado of Planet Pitiyu Stops By Planet Earth

 Sheryl Wood, Lindsey Lefler, and Mandee Light

By Tina Arth

Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) made a tough decision this year – the local group has performed much of the canon of Gilbert & Sullivan over the past several years, and it was difficult to imagine them slighting the duo’s wildly successful 1885 comic opera The Mikado. However, The Mikado has become controversial in recent years, as the show’s inherent (if unintentional, by standards of the time) racism has been acknowledged by the broader community. The cultural and ethnic insensitivity of the show has been exacerbated by a long history of offensively stereotypical productions – typically including all white casts wearing yellow makeup, long pigtails, even exaggerated eye makeup to simulate “slanted” (Asian-looking) eyes. Like many other modern companies, LOoP has opted to re-set the show far from Japan, and to remove allusions to Japanese culture from the dialogue, music, costuming, and sets. LOoP took it a step further, by removing the story to a different planet. Hence, The Mikado, or the Town of Tipiyu has become The Outer Space Mikado of Planet Pitiyu.

If you are not already a Gilbert & Sullivan fan, do not expect the show to make sense – just read the synopsis below, then sit back and enjoy the witty songs and absurd conundrums that plague the inhabitants of the isolated (and very humid) Pitiyu.  The planet’s feudal structure includes the Emperor, the Lord High Executioner (Co-Co, who has never performed an execution), and the Lord High of Everything Else (Pooh-Bah), plus an assortment of nobles, wards, and attendants. Co-Co is determined to marry one of his young wards, Yum-Yum, but she is enamored of an itinerant musician named Nanky-Pu. Nanky-Pu admits to Yum-Yum that he is actually the Emperor’s son, but fled in disguise rather than marry the enamored, elderly Catischa. Tired of his ineffectual executioner, the Emperor decrees that Co-Co must behead someone within 30 days or be executed himself. Co-Co essays to save his own life and rid himself of a rival by executing Nanky-Pu, but then agrees to allow Yum-Yum and Nanky-Pu to marry and live in connubial bliss for 30 days before the groom is beheaded. Co-Co discovers he is utterly unable to actually kill anyone, so he sends Yum-Yum and Nanky-Pu away and, with the assistance of Pooh-Bah, convinces the Emperor that he has executed Nanky-Pu.  When the Emperor learns that Nanky-Pu is actually his long-lost son, he is enraged, but Co-Co’s life is saved when Nanky-Pu and his bride return, obviously in excellent health. Co-Co reluctantly agrees to marry the now lovelorn Catischa, and the unlikely pair discovers that they have a lot in common.  Everyone is very, very happy, we applaud, and meet the cast in the lobby before wandering over to the ice cream parlor for a little post-theatre indulgence.

The LOoP production is literally littered with high points. The tiny orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Linda Smith, is perfectly suited to the scale and tone of the production. Lucy Tait’s costumes are simply marvelous – bright, colorful, flowing, and awash with extraterrestrial style. The set is studded with wildly alien flower and mushroom shapes, lit to create almost an underwater aura. Leads and chorus members have all mastered the fine art of snapping Spanish fans to accentuate their moods and ward off Pitiyu’s relentless humidity. Both men’s and women’s vocal ensembles are in perfect harmony; when the full company sings the power is stunning.

That said, the show’s real stars are, well, the stars. As Yum-Yum, Lindsey Lefler’s exquisite soprano sets a high bar, but Sheryl Wood and Mandee Light are not far behind.  Tenor Tom Hamann (Nanky-Pu) and baritone Laurence Cox (Pooh-Bah) help to anchor the men’s chorus, and Cox’s unbelievable sneer is a constant delight. The surprise standout for me, however, is Carl Dahlquist (Co-Co) – for both the power of his voice and his amazing comic chops. By Act 2, I was cackling so enthusiastically that I would have been embarrassed had my neighbors not been just as loud.

LOoP’s innovative Mikado is long – almost three hours including intermission – but it never drags, and I was unaware of the passage of time until the final bows. There are only five more opportunities to see this carefully crafted revision that showcases the fabled Gilbert & Sullivan wit while deleting hurtful stereotypes, so I recommend that you work it into your plans for next weekend.

LOoP’s The Outer Space Mikado of Planet Pitiyu is playing at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (September 27-28-29) and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (September 29-30) at the Alpenrose Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

Lakewood Takes a Fresh Look at Pippin

Jessica Tidd, Kelly Sina, Theo Curl, Paul Harestad, Joan Freed, 
Stephanie Heuston, and Dan Murphy

By Tina Arth

Beneath the dazzling costumes, brilliant choreography, and winning pop score in Lakewood Theatre Company’s current production of Pippin lurks an ambitious, rewardingly thought-provoking allegory about nothing less than the meaning of life - and it works! My favorite kind of show is one where I enjoy myself in the moment, but walk out contemplating a rich menu of themes and interpretations; while I saw the show a few times many years ago, Steven Schwartz and Roger Hirson’s 1972 musical play within a play never triggered this reaction in me before. Director Paul Angelo, his production team, and cast captured my attention in the moment and beyond, and it was a revelation to see so much more in the show than I have seen before.

Part of the shift in my attitude comes from a small change added in the late ‘90s, well after the last time I saw the show – what is known (thanks, Google!) as “The Theo Ending.” Without going into detail that might give away too  much, I will just say that this Pippin always ended with a hefty dose of The Wizard of Oz, but now has an added dash of Camelot that was quite unexpected and casts the whole evening in a new light.
The show is a play within a play, where a group of traveling actors (appropriately led by the Leading Actor) presents the tale of Pippin, a son of Charlemagne who has been raised to believe that he is exceptional, and who goes out into the world seeking his glorious destiny. (As I write, yet another revelation – Pippin may have been “born” as a baby boomer, but he is in many ways a millennial!) He tries to find meaning and happiness on the battlefield, through sensual excess, and in the high drama of political intrigue, but all to no avail. The disheartened prince is taken in by Catherine, a widow in need of a man about the place to manage her estate and help raise her son, Theo. Pippin gradually slips into the routine of domestic life, then flees in dismay when he sees how very ordinary his life has become. As the Leading Player loses control of her troupe, the line between play and play-within-a-play gets blurred, giving more power to the allegorical nature of the story.
Jessica Tidd’s long, sinuously flexible body, powerful voice and unshakeable confidence give the Leading Player a captivating mixture of charm and menace that evokes Joel Grey in Cabaret. She is a directorial dominatrix who tolerates no theatrical monkey business  – she snaps like a whip at the least sign of rebellion, using a quick and venomous tongue to keep the rest of the cast in line.
Audience favorite (at least in my row) Dan Murphy as a befuddled and thoroughly cowed Charlemagne is just plain fun, and his jolly delivery of “War is a Science” stands out in a show filled with snappy tunes. And then there’s Stephanie Heuston as Charlemagne’s second wife, Fastrada. Heuston is probably a lovely woman in real life, but on stage she creates the seductive, manipulative stepmother of nightmares, and her “Spread a Little Sunshine” provides another show highlight. With Fastrada as Pippin’s wicked stepmother, of course we get her son Lewis as all three of Cinderella’s stepsisters rolled into one sneering, bullying, singing, dancing package of evil, and Erik Montague plays it to the hilt.
One of the most enduring numbers from Pippin is the snappy pop tune “No Time at All” delivered by Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe (Joan Freed). Freed gives her “Berthe” a feisty, free-spirited buoyance that belies granny stereotypes – when she belts out “it’s time to start living” she clearly reminds us that life ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and even the Leading Player’s taunts cannot quench her spirit.
The two most important roles are the widow Catherine (Kelly Sina) and, of course, Pippin (Paul Harestad). Both actors play it just right – so modest and self-effacing when compared to the razzle-dazzle flamboyance of the rest of the cast that we initially underestimate them, and only gradually realize that they are the real story. Harestad’s performance is perfect – seemingly a bit naïve and self-effacing, he holds back his full power so that his singing and dancing quietly fill the demands of the role. Sina’s performance is subtle, too, but in a more mature way that demands our attention when she is on stage.  Her vocals with Harestad, like “Love Song,” are especially compelling, and I really loved the adult resignation in her delivery of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” Theo Curl (as Theo) captures the essence of a young boy (which, conveniently, he is) – sometimes spoiled, whiny, demanding – a kid you, like Pippin, have to learn to love – but also a kid who earns the significance of “The Theo Ending.”
It’s quite possible to love this show without digging into its gentler themes – the overall production is every bit as extraordinary as the life Pippin thinks he wants. The set is sparse and flexible, just what’s needed for a traveling troupe, but Erin Shannon’s often-acrobatic choreography is over-the-top dazzling, and Pippin offers unquestionably the best dancers I’ve seen in years. Music director Valery Saul’s work with the vocal ensemble does full justice to the rich score, and the orchestra is not only flawless, but also a lot of fun to watch. Finally, Signe Larsen’s makeup design and Melissa Heller’s costumes add immeasurably to the carnival atmosphere that forms this show’s flamboyantly spectacular exoskeleton.
Pippin is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, October 14th.