Friday, February 27, 2015

"Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical"


Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical
Anthony Wayne & Kendell Bowman
Brava Theatre Center (AnthonyKen, LLC, Producer)

Entering Brava Theatre lobby, audience members feel an electricity and excitement that continues its meteoric rise once inside the auditorium up until the moment the first blast of overture music finally erupts from the onstage band.  The big “Sylvester” lights across the stage; the huge, three disco balls; and the audience members who are decked in boas, leather, and ‘minks’ only add to the anticipation and expectation that ‘This is going to be a very special night.’

When an echoing voice booms that “I want one more night” and is followed by Anthony Wayne’s grand entrance down the center steps as the magnificent Sylvester, the audience is clearly ready to ‘funk’ and party.  But when Mr. Wayne and his excellent back-up singers begin to deliver “Down, Down, Down,” there develops a total community of folks who are enthralled and thrilled to live once again in those glorious years of disco.  The falsetto heights, the clarity of tone, and the sheer volume of sound emitting from this reincarnated Sylvester clearly exceeds the expectations of each of us so lucky to be present.  Mr. Wayne is not impersonating Sylvester.  He is for this moment everything we as audience want the iconic star of gender-bending disco to be in real life. 

But, Sylvester is not the only star of this show.  Jacqueline Arnold, Deanne Stewart, and Anastacia McCleskey each deliver diva-worthy solos of the Motown era as well as serve as singing and dancing back-ups to the great Sylvester.  (Ms. McCleskey and Ms. Arnold transition into the roles of the famous “Two Tons of Fun,” singers who were discovered by Sylvester and become his musical bookends for most of rest of his career.)  Rahmel McDade rounds out the back-up troop with a beautiful baritone sound that also rings forth in solo and duet numbers.  And excellence abounds in the five-member band, each of whom get to shine in spotlight moments during the show.

While the concert part of this musical is what eventually gets all audience members on their feet to dance at their seats and in the aisles, there is a moving and important story that Sylvester imparts in between his explosive musical numbers.  The messages of his life’s journey are calling for us to recognize and honor who we are at our genuine core, to reach out to connect with others who will support that expression of our true selves, and never to let anyone suppress our pursuits of personal dreams.  Mr. Wayne delivers this story in a deliberate, often emotion-filled manner, pausing often for the audience to take in what he is saying and to understand the depth of feeling behind the memories he is imparting.  The book certainly is not as strong as the musical portion of this production, but it is still strong enough to leave its intended imprint.

This cast of New York and touring veterans gives everything that could be expected in one evening’s entertainment … and even more.  Audience members leave smiling ear-to-ear, shaking heads in amazement, hugging strangers, and just standing in the lobby a while to take it all in – reluctant to leave the still-electric atmosphere they felt 90+ minutes before upon entering.

Rating: 5 E’s

Monday, February 9, 2015

"Aunt Lakie's Not Coming to Dinner"


Aunt Lakie’s Not Coming to Dinner
Susan Rabin
Windy City Productions at The Phoenix Theatre

The table is set for company, and cookies are coming out the oven as two, elderly, Jewish sisters prepare to welcome an aunt and uncle for dinner.  However, that is not to be since Aunt Lakie has just left this world for the beyond; and it is that unfortunate surprise that springs open Pandora’s box (or more accurately, a music box that will play a front and center role during much of Aunt Lakie's Not Coming to Dinner).

Our sisters, we soon learn, co-exist through ongoing, daily explosions of accusations; emotional outbursts; and dramatic, door-slamming exits to their respective bedrooms.  Claire, the younger of the two, is actually the one who is trying her best to keep their meager household afloat financially and her sister Iris on her meds for her increasing dementia.  Iris is an eccentric-dressing free-spirit who is sure her aunt was murdered by her uncle, who knows that their wicked mother always loved Claire the best, and who is sure that Claire is trying to control her every move and make her life totally miserable.  And she knows Claire is keeping hidden away the music box their mother meant for her. 

An unexpected delivery by an extremely hunky mailman ignites Iris’ wild imagination into a world where she and the postman become co-plotters of how to outsmart Claire.  In this dream, the sexy postman becomes her lover and her protector; and his advice/commands we soon see are her own split personality playing out the scenes as she imagines they should be.  As often happens in family-oriented plays, there are big, ugly secrets these two have kept from each other for many years.  They will not be secrets for long as the music box, the postman, and the dead aunt spawn a flood of blames and confessions.

Zoe Conner brings us a Yiddish-speaking, funny and sad lady who wears ugly bows in her hair and outrageous animal slippers on her feet.  Her Iris is often just on the edge of being too over-the-top; yet she pulls her back just in time for the audience to empathize with her aging illusions and her feelings of life as an unfair journey.  Carolyn Compton as Claire fools us into thinking she is the sane and sacrificing caregiver as she ever-so-slowly peels away a veneer to show us a sadder core.  Ms. Compton had trouble in our performance delivering all her lines without numerous stumbles, but she actually pulled the moments off without real mishaps.  Scott Gessford as the friendly mailman turned-by-Iris into a lust-filled, hairy chested dreamboy, adequately struts the part but not with total polish.

This world premiere production is a low-budget affair, and the various scenes have too many pregnant pauses between them.  But the ninety minutes are absolutely enjoyable.  What would be really fun would be to see what a few more bucks in the budget could bring to the next iteration.

Rating:  3 E   

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Harbor"


Harbor
Chad Beguelin

Sometimes, an unexpected event stimulates further events that probably are going to happen anyway but maybe not as quickly and not quite in the way that the trigger ignites them.  In this West Coast premiere of Beguelin’s Harbor, the seemingly bucolic life of two gay men -- Ted the architect and Kevin the writer -- is abruptly disrupted by surprise house guests to their very proper, New England house .  Entering the scene are Kevin’s younger sister whom he has not seen in years and her almost fifteen-year-old daughter.  They arrive in their home, an old van, and they arrive with a plan to stay much longer than the gay couple can imagine.  Sister Donna is a swearing, often out-of-control ‘child’ whose very mature daughter must often assume the parent role.  But, Donna’s ‘madness’ is well-calculated in a plan to plop into this wonderful gay home a yet-unknown-to-anyone-else baby that she is soon to deliver, fathered by one of her many one-night flings.

As tensions rise, secrets tumble; pent-up frustrations boil over; and new bonds among the four begin to take hold.  We soon find out that not all is so perfect in the gay home.  Our writer has been working on a novel for ten years that he cannot even describe in one sentence.  Our architect is in fact tired of being the only breadwinner for a guy who rarely leaves the house.  And Sister Donna is eating this up because she is so sure a child is exactly what will make this home once again the dream spot she believes it to be.

Teri Whipple is strong in her portrayal of this eccentric, drinking, pot-smoking sister who sees herself as a singing star on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, if only she does not have to raise another child who has no known father.  Scott Cox and Andrew Nance are good in bringing Kevin and Ted to life; but they unfortunately too often play into gay stereotypes in their portrayals to get laughs that actually do not come very heartily from the audience.  Jenna Herz, a sophomore in real life, is really the star of the show.  Her Lottie is the thread that ties this story together as she maturely plays the one ‘adult’ among the four even though her character so wants just be a normal teenager guided and cared for by a real and normal adult.

Ed Decker’s direction and Devin Kasper’s scenic designs are also stars of this show.  There are a lot of scene changes that could bog down the pace; but through the use of a living room picture window that becomes a scrim mirror into many other venues (café, shopping center, parking lot, the van/home, etc.), there is never a moment’s pause as various pairs escape the mounting havoc of Ted’s and Kevin’s home.

While not perfect and a bit soap-opera-ish, this comedy/drama is highly engrossing and enjoyable.  Its unexpected beginning leads eventually to an unexpected ending, but an ending that makes a lot of sense now that we have gotten to know these four so well.

Rating: 4 E’s

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Tree"


Tree
Julie Hebert

Walking into the auditorium, all eyes immediately notice the scores of multi-sized, tied cardboard boxes that litter the entire two-level, modest home before us.  We then notice a front porch with a rowboat docked in what appears to be the dry road in front.  Mystery?  Secrets?  Revelations?  What else could be in store for us, given these visual cues?

The family tree of this play is one whose roots and limbs are not as obvious as they first appear.  A knock on the door soon brings two adult siblings – one black and one white -- face-to-face for the first time.  The ensuing uneasiness and confrontations initially lead us as audience to think we are seeing a play that explores racial stereotypes and relations in America. However, a few taut, precisely directed scenes later, we realize that this play goes much deeper, taking us past alleys and byways of lives that are intertwined in ways that only those stacks of boxes know.  Memory becomes a core issue of the play; deciding what memories of family and self to reveal and what ones to leave stored in some anonymous box becomes crucial for each of the people we meet.

Susi Damilano and Carl Limbly bring tremendous emotional depth and character credibility to the half-siblings Didi and Carl.  With a delicious Louisiana drawl, Didi persists like a bulldog as she literally invades this Chicago household of Carl and his mostly locked-away, upstairs mother in order to discover more about her recently deceased father’s life.  Carl, on the other hand, is very reluctant to engage too deeply with this pushy, white woman and seemingly only wants to protect and care for his Alzheimer-suffering mother.  (Or is he trying to protect himself for some reason?). As the aging mother Mrs. Price, Cathleen Riddley hauntingly presents us with a ghost of a woman tormented with twisted memories.  In her sometimes delirious, sometimes sane state, we become transfixed with her rants, songs, and pleas to an unknown ‘Ray.’  We as audience begin to see pieces of a puzzle that only come together fully with the help of Carl’s 20-something daughter, JJ, played assertively and lovingly by Tristan Cunningham.  Who is family and who is not?  Who knows and who hides?  Are memories blocked and gone forever, or are they just waiting to be relived?  We as audience and they as actors ride a roller coaster of emotions through more and more discoveries toward a moving, even surprising resolution.

What was striking in leaving the auditorium is that a large portion of the audience did not choose immediately to head out the door.  Yes, there was a happy hour at the beautiful lobby bar; but clearly people also just needed to talk, to hug actors, and to say ‘thank you.’  Something happens during this play at a visceral level as we each think about what does family mean for us. We each begin to wonder what do we really know and what do we try too hard to ignore or even forget.  It is difficult to sit through such a play as Tree without beginning to open some of our own boxes that have stayed stacked and sealed way too long in some corner of our past.  Tree truly digs its roots into our own minds and lives.

Rating: 5 E's

"Candide"


Candide
Music, Leonard Bernstein
Book Adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in New Version by John Caird
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur (& Sondheim, Latouche, Hellman, Parker & Bernstein)

After being worked and re-worked for 33 years with many collaborators coming and going (and some now dead) and with some 97 total musical numbers/revisions having been created for it, Candide holds a unique place in great American musical theatre as a never-quite-right but altogether magnificent classic.  This Lamplighters’ semi-staged, 2005 version with full orchestra on stage with the 40 actors is a soaring success; every minute of the three-plus hours is full of fun, frivolity, and fabulous music.

Candide sends its title character on a many-year, wild, emotional journey across two continents and the ocean in between as he encounters a circus-load of native innocents, villains, soldiers, royals (past and present), ladies of the night, and buffoons of all sorts.  Guided by his mentor’s, Dr. Pangloss,’ philosophy of  “optimism,” Candide tries his best to continue to believe that “everything that happens or exits is for the best” even though every calamity and misfortune known to humankind seems to happen to him and to everyone he meets.  His wanderings are peppered with usually hilarious, often heart-felt, and mostly disastrous encounters in this version’s well-wrought book.  They are enlightened by clever lyrics (so thoughtfully highlighted for this audience on the superscript above the stage) and are threaded together by Bernstein’s beautiful, majestic, and compelling music.

A young, wide-eyed, tenderly naïve Samuel Faustine so ably takes on the title peasant character of Candide; his sweet, clear, and yet powerful-when-needed voice hits its mark in delivering every song he sings.  The focus of his love, the to-be-baroness, Cunegonde, is double-cast in this production (due probably to the requirements of her aria-like numbers). Amy Foote is both Lucy-like funny when required and diva-like perfect when called upon to sing.  She so well switches her Cunegonde from ingénue to mistress to lady of the night to practical breadwinner as she too gallops the globe.  Cary Ann Rosko, her “Old Woman” servant (with only one buttock, “Don’t ask...”), also double cast, brings the house down in laughter time and again as she recounts her life’s woes.  Other stock characters who appear here and there as friend and foe are equally adept in comedy and voice.  Together with another couple dozen in the ensemble (whose initial white costumes by Melissa Wortman become a cornucopia of international outfits with additions of scarves, hats, tops, etc.), this total cast is just about as good as it can get for a locally based production.

In the end, it is the music that soars to the heavens in Candide.  From the first notes of this fine orchestra’s Overture to the entire company’s final a cappella “Make Our Garden Grow,” Bernstein’s music captures and elevates the soul.

Rating: 5 E’s