Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Happy Days Are Here Again at HART

Riley Irvine and Kieran Thomas with Ensemble
Photo by Carl Dahlquist

By Tina Arth

The more complex and scary the world gets, the more we all need a chance to occasionally sit back and revel in a mythical past when everything was just dandy – say, 1959? That’s exactly the experience director Chris Byrne set out to deliver with HART’s current production of Happy Days, a 2008 musical based on the iconic sitcom, and written by the sitcom’s creator, Garry Marshall (with music and lyrics by Paul Williams). For a couple of hours, “these happy days are yours and mine” and the audience is back in Milwaukee with the Cunninghams, Arthur Fonzarelli, Chachi, Arnold, Potsie, Ralph and the rest of the crew. As a work of theatre it’s not great art, but it’s a lot of fun, there’s plenty of singing and dancing, and the cast and production team pull it off with surprising panache.

As the show opens, everything is not “just dandy” in town – Arnold’s shake shop, mecca for the town’s teens, is facing the wrecking ball to make room for a proposed mall. The solution is to raise enough money to buy out the project by holding a dance contest (did they really think this through?) with additional funds expected from a titanic wrestling match between the evil Malachi brothers and The Fonz. Further complications: Richie Cunningham’s girlfriend Loribeth wants an engagement ring before the kids leave for college. Joanie loves Chachi, and Chachi loves Joanie, but neither one is brave enough to break the ice. Mrs. C bakes a mean pie, but she really wants to get out of the kitchen and help out at the hardware store.  Mr. C wants to do something great so that his lodge brothers will give him a plaque. Fonzie’s ex, Pinky Tuscadero, is coming back to town, and neither she nor The Fonz knows quite how they feel about each other. Worst of all, Fonzie has an old knee injury, and wrestling the Malachis could mean permanent damage – but of course The Fonz can’t admit to any weakness, so he’s in quite a bind. Of course everything works out in the end, and another generation of teens will be able to hang out at Arnold’s.

The show is built around Fonzie, and Nick Serrone was an inspired choice for the role. He’s an experienced actor who understands subtle parody, and he grasps the finer points of playing of The Fonz without going too far over the top – not an easy task with a character so completely associated with Henry Winkler.  Serrone’s timing, sardonic facial expressions, and overall physicality carry a lot of the show. Serrone’s principal co-stars are definitely Andrew Hallas (Richie Cunningham) and Elise Byrne (Pinky Tuscadero). Hallas plays Richie as stolid, sincere – not the most exciting guy in town, but the one you can always rely on – in other words, pretty much the same as the way Ron Howard played the role on TV. While audiences had a decade to watch The Fonz and Richie, Pinky Tuscadero only appeared in a few episodes, so Byrne has a bit more room to maneuver – she creates a hard-edged rebel with tons of attitude and a heart of gold. The role calls for a skilled dancer and vocalist, and Byrne comes out with both guns blazing as she belts out the show’s biggest numbers and dances up a storm.

Andy Roberts and Tanner Morton have a lot of fun as the Malachi brothers and in other cameos.  The rest of the cast aims for some level of restraint, but these two make no pretense of realism, and their burlesque-like performances add another element of fun to the show. Sarah Ominski and Woody Woodbury are a solid duo as Marion and Howard Cunningham, and Riley Irvine’s “Joannie” is cute as a button. Happy Days is in many ways a dancer’s show (I’d love to see it on a big stage with a huge cast for some of the dance numbers), and Kate Jahnsen’s choreography is imaginative and lively. In addition to Byrne, some of the best dancing comes from Irvine and Kieran Thomas (as Chachi), but the entire cast (even those who clearly have no dance training) manages the ensemble numbers nicely.

Sandy Libonati’s vocal direction has yielded a solid ensemble for more than 24 songs (not counting the oh-so-memorable Happy Days theme). Director Chris Byrne did triple duty (and more), and she has done a superb job of creating the ‘50s ambience with her set and costume design.  Ward Ramsdell’s lighting design nicely augments the relatively spare physical set with a series of projected images, and William Crawford’s “Arnold’s” storefront is so cute I really wished it could be center stage.

I can definitely recommend Happy Days as a fun, completely family-friendly show that rings lots of nostalgia bells for those of us who were fans of the sitcom, but that will also appeal to younger audiences who just want to have a good time watching a lively, upbeat show.

Happy Days is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, June 17th with 7:30 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

B&B’s Cast, Tech Pass Blithe Spirit Test With Flying Colors!

Cassie Greer, Andrew Beck, and Jessi Walters
Photo by Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

Bag&Baggage’s 2018-2019 season officially focuses on love, “LOVE. THRILLS. MAGIC. WONDER. CHANGE.”  At The Vault, the Hillsboro theater company’s final production of the current season jumps the gun with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, show that’s just loaded with thrills, magic, wonder, and change (if, courtesy of Coward’s jaundiced view of life, somewhat bereft in the “love” department).  Director Scott Palmer is no stranger to Coward’s style of cheerful cynicism, and is thus perfectly suited to shepherd his cast and crew through a fast-paced telling of this supernatural farce that has been raising spirits (literally and figuratively) on stages around the world ever since its debut in war-torn London during the darkest days of World War II.

In the Bag&Baggage production, the story has been moved to the 1980s. Like the playwright who created him, novelist Charles Condomine is skeptical about psychic phenomena; to learn more about the language and tricks of the trade for his next book, he invites local medium Madame Arkati to give a séance to entertain himself, his wife Ruth, and two friends.  Much to the surprise of all, there are definite supernatural manifestations, and Charles is visited by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira. No one else can see Elvira, and the next morning Ruth writes the whole episode off to Charles’s inebriation until Elvira proves her presence by moving a bowl of flowers around the room. Eager to be rid of her deceased rival, Ruth asks Madame Arkati to get rid Elvira, but the medium is unable to dematerialize the spirit. The story only gets more arcane (and funny) through succeeding acts (there are three, but packed into a relatively short 2½ hours).

Arianne Jacques gets the first laughs as the Condomine’s new maid, Edith, frantically hopping up and down the stairs trying to please her new mistress. She lurks, wide-eyed, as events unfold around her, and sometimes leaves the room only in response to meaningful glares from her employers. Ruth (Cassie Greer) is utterly oblivious to Edith’s confusion, and her complete self-absorption tells us all we need to know about the brittle lady of the house. Greer’s Ruth is coldly, archly uptight, and the performance radiates suppressed rage that explodes nicely when she has finally had enough. Jessi Walters’ Elvira provides a delicious contrast – she may be a ghost, but she’s so flamboyant and mischievous that she actually seems much more colorful and vibrant than the still-living Ruth.

Andrew Beck’s portrayal of Charles Condomine is delightfully effete  – stuck between two wives and passionate about neither. He is bright and witty, but ultimately clueless about how to extricate himself from the drama of married life. When Ruth asks him if he found Elvira more attractive, his perfect, languidly delivered retort? “That’s a very tiresome question, darling. It fully deserves a wrong answer.” Kymberli Colbourne’s Madame Arkati is a stunning reinvention of the character. Instead of a ditzy, fluttering British psychic in brightly flowing clothes, she’s a hilariously energetic, somewhat androgynous American with definite overtones of Foghorn Leghorn, bringing unexpected ferocity and physicality to the role.

Melissa Heller’s costumes are perfect – from Colbourne’s quasi-menswear to the flashing lights on Walters’ gaudy gown - and Tyler Buswell’s scenic design creates a nicely 1980s version of an upper-class British drawng room. However, it’s Jim Rick-White’s lighting and technical effects that move the show from well acted and funny to mind-bending. The show is propelled by a combination of mechanical and electronic effects that capture the real magic of Blithe Spirit, constantly surprising the audience with The Vault’s capabilities in the right hands.

Blithe Spirit tickets will sell out quickly, so fans of Coward’s beautifully crafted, witty farce and Scott Palmer’s theatrical ingenuity should buy tickets soon.

Bag&Baggage’s Blithe Spirit is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through May 27th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The 100 Dresses

Annika Sadowski, Summer Schroeder, Gracie Morinishi, Isabella Villagomez, Nic Gantzer, Les Ico

By Tina Arth

A few months ago, I got a phone call from an old friend. She was doing a 12-step program, and had reached the step where she needed to apologize to people she had hurt in the past. Despite the passage of so many years, I knew before she said anything else that she was going to talk about a time in junior high when she was part of a group that ostracized and mocked me for several months – my only real experience as a victim of bullying. The whole thing somehow passed away and we resumed our friendship, but I never forgot the sense of inexplicable shame – and she had obviously never forgotten the shame she later felt for her behavior.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of The 100 Dresses, adapted by Mary Hall Surface from Eleanor Estes’ original book, quietly but powerfully explores the way bullying affects all of us – the victim, the family, bystanders, and perpetrators. While the show is clearly aimed at children, it is equally clear that its timely messages about cruelty, and xenophobia in particular, are appropriate for audiences of all ages. Director Sarah Ominski understands the show’s themes and draws solid performances from her cast.

The story is set in a small New England town, circa 1938. A family of Polish immigrants, the Petronskis, have moved to the outskirts of town. They are poor, and they talk funny – worst of all, young Wanda Petronski only has one dress, which she wears to school every day. Challenged by a clique of local girls, Wanda claims to have 100 dresses, which triggers “the game.” Goaded by ringleader Peggy Thomas, the girls constantly demand information from Wanda about her dresses, and she haltingly gives them details about the beautiful gowns she claims to have at home. Peggy’s best friend, Maddie, is a reluctant participant in the game – she, too, is poor, and she is afraid to speak up for Wanda for fear that the wealthier girls will turn on her, too. One day Wanda does not show up at school, and the girls learn that her father has suddenly moved to a larger city in order to protect his family from the hostility with which they have been met in the small town. The show concludes by delivering its ultimate message, as Maddie courageously attempts to atone for her previous silence by apologizing and by speaking out against mindless cruelty.

Young Annika Sadowski is unforgettable as Wanda, the sad-eyed outsider who patiently endures the girls’ taunting. Every child in the audience (and every adult) who has ever stood on the outside looking in can relate to her misery, and respond to the mixture of despair and a powerful optimism that she can somehow fit in. Summer Schroeder’s casually vicious Peggy also rings true, with a thoughtless arrogance that never lets down for even a moment.  Right in the middle is Isabella Villagomez’ lovely portrayal of Maddie. Villagomez’ transition from the conflicted bystander and reluctant participant to fierce social justice warrior is paced perfectly, and she brings the audience with her through the character’s evolution.

Ted Schroeder is surprisingly effective as Wanda’s dad – he manages not only the Polish accent but also the attitude of the downtrodden but protective father flawlessly. Les Ico and Nic Gantzer do a fine job of portraying mischievous bad boys Jack and Willie, and the children in the audience clearly responded to their over-the-top hijinks. However, I found it a bit jarring to watch two adults playing roles as peers of the four young girls – even if the acting had been a bit spottier I would have preferred to see the roles played by a couple of rowdy pre-teens.

While the costumers are not called upon to provide 100 actual dresses, designers Jamie Hellerman and Sandi King have captured the spirit of the late Depression and expressed through costume the class differences that so starkly divided society during that troubled time.  The set, like most at Beaverton Civic Theatre, is detailed yet simple enough to allow for rapid scene changes; Alex Woodard’s set design maximizes the small space available in the auditorium.

It is tempting, and to some extent appropriate, to view a show like The 100 Dresses in the context of the current concern over cyberbullying – and it certainly gives the kids in the audience a framework through which to view the story’s multiple themes. However, a secondary but critical message must be the foolishness of xenophobia in a rapidly changing world, where children need to grow up embracing, rather than fearing, diversity.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The 100 Dresses runs through Saturday, May 19th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 8:00 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday, May 13th.

Mask & Mirror’s Living Out – Insightful, Moving, Current

Naiya Amilcar, Laila Mottaghi, and Eleanor Amorós

By Tina Arth

When playwright Lisa Loomer’s Living Out debuted in Los Angeles 15 years ago, its themes of class distinction, economic inequality, racism, and illegal immigration were all relevant – but the importance of these topics has ballooned since (what now seem like) the “good old days” of George W. Bush. Mask & Mirror’s choice to produce this play is inspired, and director Linda Talluto and assistant director Jayne Furlong have done a fine job of bringing the show to local audiences.

The title Living Out refers to the status of nannies “living out” as opposed to living full-time with the families whose children are placed in their care. The Los Angeles setting lends itself well to the basic set-up: wealthy white families hiring Hispanic immigrants, most of them undocumented, to provide child care and other household services for their families while the mothers either work at high-powered jobs or exhaust themselves with a nonstop regimen of tennis, shopping, luncheons, charity functions, and yoga. Loomer creates a memorable tale that combines fast-paced, sitcom style humor with genuine pathos and a hefty dose of social commentary. Salvadoran immigrant Ana Hernandez needs work – her husband Bobby’s construction work is sporadic, the pay too low to support a wife and son plus Ana’s other son who lives with his grandmother in El Salvador. Ana is determined to bring her older boy to the U.S. but until she and Bobby achieve legal status this just a dream. After two unsuccessful interviews, Ana realizes that employers don’t want to hire a woman with children of their own – she is hired by lawyer/new mom Nancy Robin by pretending that both of her sons are in El Salvador.  Naturally, things go very wrong, and not in a comfortably wacky I Love Lucy way.

Eleanor Amorós makes an extraordinary theatrical debut in the role of Ana Hernandez – had I not been told that this was her first time on stage I would have looked for an extensive resume. She has mastered the art of timing and delivery, so her emotional, resolute, and humorous moments all ring 100% true. It is clear that her character’s strength is drawn in part from a quiet desperation that draws the audience in as her allies from the opening scene. Amorós is well matched with David Cabassa as her husband Bobby. The Puerto Rico born actor dances on the edge of a stereotypical machismo but holds back at all the right moments. The character he creates is straddling two worlds, trying to maintain a sense of primacy within the relationship yet able to cede some power to his woman without bitterness or violence. As Nancy Robin, Yelena King walks a similarly fine line, shifting smoothly from the very real anxiety of the new mom to the drive to avoid the “mommy track” in her law firm – we may not always like her (the nanny cam is over the line!) but we can relate to her struggle – she is seriously trying to do the right thing. As Nancy’s husband, a card-carrying Santa Monica liberal lawyer, Jordan Fugitt is appropriately clueless yet eager to relate to his disadvantaged nanny. Just as Cabassa subtly alarms the audience with the prospect of domestic violence, Fugitt sends out nascent vibes of sexual harassment – and like Cabassa, Fugitt reels it back in – reminding us (and Nancy) that an employer and an employee should be able to share an amicable moment with raising the specter of Harvey Weinstein.

A lot of the play’s ironic humor comes from the rapid shifts between four terrific supporting women, moms Lydia Ellis-Curry and Aurea Taylor and nannies Naiya Amilcar and Laila Mottaghi. The sarcasm, simmering hostility, and casual racism of the nannies creates a perfect counterpoint to the even more racist, entitled, pampered moms who cherish, but cannot be bothered to raise, their offspring. Taylor gives her character enough warmth that we are only slightly surprised that in the final crisis she actually considers the welfare of Ana’s child – Ellis-Curry’s character is supremely oblivious to such niceties.

Both lighting and set are key to staging this show, as its many brief scenes need to be separated by little more than a blackout. Jayne Furlong’s set uses the same basic living room/dining room/kitchen for all scenes – changes in lighting tell us when we are in upscale Santa Monica and when we are in Huntington Park, just 20 miles (but  depending on traffic, sometimes a critical 2 hours) away in Ana and Bobby’s home. One suggestion would be to find a way to utilize the audience level area just below the stage as an apron for the park scenes, eliminating the need for all scene changes.

Living Out has a currency that demands reflection and conversation – I would have loved to participate in an audience-talk back with the actors. It may not show up again on local stages for quite awhile, so by all means see it now and take the time to read Talluto’s Director’s Notes!

Mask & Mirror’s Living Out runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through May 20th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

It’s Only a Play…Yet So Much More!

Stan Yeend and Adam Randall
Photo by Alicia Turvin

By Tina Arth

I am sometimes annoyed when “loud laughers” at comedies seem to be overdoing the frequency and volume of their merriment.  Last Saturday night at Twilight Theater Company’s It’s Only a Play I was forced to rethink this reaction when I realized that the noisy broad in the front row was…me. The combination of a beautifully written and updated script (nice job, Terrence McNally!), a director with an eagle eye for comedic casting (nice job, Jason A. England!), a theater company with the reputation to draw the finest (nice job, Twilight!), and, well, the finest (nice job, cast!) means that once again audiences should flock to North Portland for an evening (or two) of superb entertainment.

In keeping with Twilight’s 2018 theme, “The Play Is the Thing,” the show is all about theater. It’s set in the Manhattan bedroom of a first-time Broadway producer – a huge opening night party is going on downstairs, but the bedroom is occupied (in fits and starts) by the director, one of the stars, the producer, the playwright, the playwright’s best friend, a critic, and an aspiring actor temping as a waiter. An unseen terror of a terrier lurks in the adjoining bathroom, ready to mangle even the largest ego in its tiny teeth (having already allegedly torn Kelly Ripa’s face to shreds – and who hasn’t considered doing that at least once?).  As the various characters wait for the first reviews, we are treated to two acts of smartly scripted angst and loving parody delivered with laser-like precision at everyone involved in theater that leaves no one untouched – even a heaping side-helping of scorn for television.

First among equals is Jeff Gibberson, playing best friend/sitcom star James Wicker. From the moment he appears on stage his timing and bearing create an unforgettably delicious character. When I checked out YouTube videos of the show’s Broadway production, I found myself (silently, so as not to upset the dogs) yelling “No! Do it like Gibberson!” at star Nathan Lane.  Jennifer Logan’s take on producer Julia Budder leaves no comic stone unturned – she is sweetly dumb as only a very, very rich woman can be, and her unique pronunciation (in particular, “theatruh” and “Irvine Berling”) tell us everything we need to know about first-time producers. I had to check last year’s review to confirm that she really is the same actor whose powerful performance rocked The Normal Heart last year – but that’s what acting is all about.

Adam Randall as the star-struck wannabe actor Gus P. Head is the first person we see. His eager-to-please attitude and vaguely Midwestern twang speak volumes about a character whose IQ seriously rivals that of the producer, especially when combined with his olfactory obsession with the coats of New York’s rich and famous – in fact, the coats play such an integral role that they should probably get their own bios. I nearly lost it (for about the twentieth time) when he leapt on the settee to deliver his own special a cappella take on “Defying Gravity.”  It’s sometimes difficult to look away from Conor Nolan as British director Frank Finger, and it’s not just his startling suit or obsessive kleptomania. Whether center stage or not, his anxious eyes and tense frame express a rivetingly controlled neurosis that lead inexorably toward his final meltdown.

Deone Jennings finds a lot of humor in washed up actress Virginia Noyes’ frantic attempts to control her anxiety attacks with baggies of magic pills, and her best moments are the ones when her ankle monitor behaves like a shock collar on steroids – the sunburned legs, while perhaps unintentional, just make it funnier. As misanthropic critic Ira Drew, Stan Yeend is a nice mixture of venom and vulnerabilty – clearly, he has an agenda of his own and more than a touch of most un-critic-like insecurity that gradually humanize him.  Finally, there’s Rick Barr as playwright Peter Austin – a bit of a thankless role, as he comes closest to playing the straight man, but he manages to make us care a little – not an easy task on a stage dominated by swirling eddies of high and low farce.

Scott Miler’s set and Mikaela Gladstone Saucedo’s costumes are perfect for the locale and personas – Broadway glitterati and nouveau riche décor appropriate to any era. Do not miss the portrait of Julia and her dog – one of those small touches that make the whole thing even funnier! Time permitting, I may have to go back to this one, and I hope to see many of you there.

Twilight Theater Company’s It’s Only a Play is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, May 13th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sunday.