Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Little Women at Tacoma Youth Theatre

Small wonder
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Syra Beth Puett, Madelynne Lumsden

If you go to Little Women at Tacoma Youth Theatre, what you will see is an excellent production of a one act, one hour morsel of this well-known story.

What you won’t see is both more remarkable and definitely more significant. I’ll get to that shortly.

As far as the story goes, this production covers only the skeleton of the first part of Little Women; enough for us to get to know all the characters and their personalities, witness some of their challenges, and see the beginnings of their growth toward maturity, replete with scares, self-discovery, and first loves. As you probably know, the book Little Women covers the challenges, expectations, and restrictions inherent in growing up female in New England during the latter half of the 19th century.

L to R: Isaiah Resinger, Bianca Ponnekanti

Ostensibly, this is children’s theatre, meaning the actors are all children, but in fact, this production is quite different. It is a typical, age-appropriate cast in which the roles of neighbor Laurie and the March children are played by student actors, and very good ones at that, while the three adult roles are played by much older thespians borrowed from the regular acting community.

Let’s start with the younger set, who are all, as I said, terrific. Madelynne Lumsden calmly and confidently plays the eldest, Meg, who the family relies on for her caring maturity. Aquene Kimmel is Beth, the second sister; quiet, gentle, and sweet, struck by illness as a result of time spent visiting the poor. Bianca Ponnekanti becomes the tomboy of the group, Jo, who’d rather pursue her reading and writing than her stalwart and lovestruck neighbor, Laurie, played by Isaiah Resinger. And last, but certainly not least, is Caroline Hall who is cute as a bug’s ear as the youngest sister, Amy, proving the theatre adage that if you share the stage with young children or animals, you’re bound to be upstaged.

Caroline Hall 
The three adult actors are all heavily experienced theatrical powerhouses who’ve garnered well-earned accolades in their long acting careers. Dana Galagan plays Marmee, the gentle, wise mother of the girls, Syra Beth Puett covers the haughty, sharp Aunt March, and the redoubtable Tom Birkland is Mr. Lawrence, their kindly, wealthy, avuncular neighbor.

Tom Birkland
The theater itself is an intimate 80 seat venue with audience on risers around three sides of the stage. A simple set of well-chosen furniture on a perfectly rendered fake wood floor (the work of Maggie Knott) was boosted by a series of absolutely stunning costumes. In short, it was the sort of production you expect from any serious theatre.

As I promised, I’ll spend a few words on what’s unseen. Long-time theatre experts Scott Campbell and Maggie Knott are the brains, brawn, and heart behind this venture that is much more than just theatre. They created Tacoma Youth Theatre not merely as a performance space, but as a school to use acting as a means to help young people develop both stage and life skills. Adding the three adult actors, who’ve given their time as guides and mentors, lends yet another dimension to the children’s theatrical lessons.

The play’s performance itself is but a small part of the good work being done in this building, a bit like parents’ day at school. Attending may be very rewarding, but that barely scratches the surface of the more important efforts that go on every day. Clearly, Scott and Maggie are doing a fantastic job at inspiring and training their young charges to do an equally fantastic job on the boards.  

Whether you enroll your children to become part of the acting, or simply want to see a well-oiled production, you won’t be disappointed with what goes on in this welcoming and welcome addition to the Tacoma theatre scene.

Little Women
April 18 to 27, 2014
Tacoma Youth Theatre

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Odd Couple at Lakewood Playhouse

Oddly familiar
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Chris Cantrell (Oscar), Jim Rogers (Felix)                             photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

The classic comedy The Odd Couple is one of Neil Simon’s funniest and well-loved plays. Lakewood Playhouse, through the efforts of a skilled director and polished cast, presents a solid, entertaining production of this theatre standby.

Though the basic story is widely known, in part because of the incredibly popular early 70s television series it spawned, I’ll give you a quick rundown. What is unusual about the play (as opposed to the TV series) is that it loops on itself; it ends up almost exactly where it started. Along the way it takes what amounts to a short detour into a more-or-less disastrous experiment in combined habitation.

Oscar is the quintessential divorced slob who hosts the weekly buddies’ poker game in his trash-strewn NYC apartment. When one player, his old pal Felix, shows up late and depressed after being tossed out by his wife, Oscar invites him to live there. Felix is Oscar’s polar opposite; organized, fastidious, thrifty, and at least around women, rather timid. It’s tough blend, and it ultimately crashes after Oscar invites their British-born neighbors, the Pigeon sisters, down for a double date that goes horribly, but hilariously, wrong.

Ultimately, Felix and Oscar dissolve the living arrangement, but manage to keep their friendship intact. The upshot is that Felix learns to loosen up a bit, and Oscar learns to clean up a bit. Through it all, even during their contentious arguments, the lines come fast and funny.

   L to R: Joseph Grant (Roy), Jim Rogers (Felix), Gabriel McClelland (Speed)

Director Steve Tarry has assembled a fine cast of very experienced actors who work together well and know how to deliver comedy. Chris Cantrell is the cocksure, blustery, Oscar to Jim Rogers’ surprisingly likeable Felix. The card playing buddies include Murray the plodding cop (Jed Slaughter), the impatient Speed (Gabriel McClelland), Oscar’s curmudgeonly accountant Roy (Joseph Grant), and Martin Goldsmith as the meek, slightly henpecked, gentle Vinnie. The Pigeon sisters are the well-paired duo of  Kadi Burt as Cecily and Palmer Scheutzow as Gwendolyn . (Yes, you are correct; Cecily and Gwendolyn are the names of the two young women in The Importance of Being Earnest.)

It’s not without its quirks. Cantrell’s accent was, from the view of this expatriate New Yorker, a bit odd, as was the intentional gape-mouth facial expression of Slaughter, since his lines are not those of a dullard at all. Still, these are surely director’s or actor’s calls, and reflect personal style rather than any important substance.

The pacing starts a bit slow in act one, no doubt intentionally in order to express the “same old, nothing ever changes here” feeling of the weekly card game, but picks up decidedly during the more contentious and flirtatious act two.

Pay special attention to the stage hands who come out in a very clever and funny costumes in the act one scene change, and keep an eye on them in the act two scene change as well when they “clear” the dining table. Rarely do you see a scene change that’s as entertaining as the show, but both these are.

Costumes, simple 70s period clothing, was ably done by Cyndi Hjembo, lighting by Daniel Cole, and sound (including lots of period light jazz) was by John Burton. The set (actually designed by John Munn) along with its painting, props, and set dressing was fleshed out by Larry Hagerman, Carrie Foster, Jeffery Weaver, and Hally Phillips.  

I know you are familiar with this play, and I know this is not going to present any new story lines or plot twists, but it remains a very enjoyable light comedy. With each new cast it becomes a new entertainment, and that’s certainly a strong reason to keep going to see it.

The Odd Couple
April 18 to May 11, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Java Tacoma: The Merry Wives Americano at Dukesbay

A grab bag of gags
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Aya Hashiguchi, Marie Tjernlund, Chevi Chung                          Photo by Jason Ganwich

In her curtain speech, Aya Hashiguchi described this play quite accurately, though perhaps unintentionally, as “63 minutes, just like television.” Java Tacoma: The Merry Wives Americano at Dukesbay Theater is the fourth installment of a series set in a fictional coffeehouse called Perky’s, and true to Aya’s words, it had more in common with a TV sitcom, or gentle improv, than a true play.  

Leave your expectations of story arc, plot build, and denouement at home. You won’t find them here, but that’s not to say you won’t be entertained. In spite of less than ideal pacing, a dearth of ensemble cohesion, and a storyline that barely exists, this turned out to be a very pleasant hour, with the laughs sprinkled liberally throughout like the nuts in a good almond bark.

Oh, there’s a plot bit about a cop (Micheal O’Hara) named Frank Coppola (get it? Cop, Coppola, Francis Ford… oh, never mind) trying to shake down the coffee shop owners after an accidental death, but it’s silly, easy to see through, pointless, and completely unrelated to its namesake Merry Wives of Windsor. Forget all that and instead enjoy the unexpected mix of funny non-sequiturs, low puns, impressions, charmingly exaggerated characters, and Tacoma-based inside jokes.

This is a world where people and props show up for no apparent reason other than to be a conduit for gags. Thus, a karaoke machine with no plot relevance whatever allows several cast members, individually and in groups, to indulge in intentionally amateurish but surprisingly enjoyable bouts of show tunes and oldies. It also lets two characters argue for no apparent reason about how to pronounce karaoke. See what I mean?

Some characters fill the same ad hoc role. John (John Pfaffe), a mostly irrelevant but charming customer, breezes in, complete with makeshift costumes, to do rapid-fire impersonations of classic lines and characters from popular movies, from Darth Vader and Princess Leia to Clint Eastwood and Jimmy Cagney. And you know what? He’s thoroughly entertaining! So is Kate, perfectly overplayed by Marie Tjernlund, flaunting a garishly “stylish” costume and all the haughty superiority of Miss Piggy, sniping in turns at her hapless rivals, vegan baker Jeri (Susan Mayeno) and cafe owner Bert (Jack House).  

Rounding out the coffeehouse regulars are Bert’s wife Linda (Aya Hashigughi) and daughter Anna (Chevi Chung), and the highly irregular Sharry O’Hare as a delightfully inept employee who’d rather be working at Bluebeard, another local reference that is trotted out enough times to make you wonder if they paid for product placement.

Although there is no costumer listed, costumes were very solid, adding to both the humor and character identity. Pay particular attention to the shoes, some of which are simply wonderful.

Changes in lighting (by Ali Criss) are used to direct our focus on this simple but effective set (by director Randy Clark), and included the unusual use of a gobo “window light,” instead of the more traditional blue lights, to allow safe scene changes. Sound design was by Joe Kelly with original music by Allan J. Loucks. Though I don’t usually mention the set painter, this time it’s worth a nod. Take a long, close look at the superb fake wooden floor painted by Jen Ankrum.

For whatever reason, this tossed together collection of random silliness actually works, and along with some delightful characters, creates a funny and worthwhile night of featherweight theatre.

Java Tacoma
March28 to April 13, 2014
Dukesbay Productions

Friday, March 14, 2014

Chapter Two at TLT

The second time’s the charm
by Michael Dresdner

    Brynne Garman, Robert Alan Barnett                                                       all photos by DK Photography

Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play Chapter Two, now at Tacoma Little Theatre, is in turns a funny, tender, anguished, poignant story of love the second time around. The script is reputedly based on the playwright’s meeting with and marriage to Marsha Mason shortly after his first wife died.

Under the direction of Alyson Soma, an ensemble cast of four outstanding actors soars in this superbly written play. Simply put, this production is magnificent, all the way around.   

George Schneider (Robert Alan Barnett) is coming off the perfect 12-year marriage after losing the love of his life to cancer. He’s not ready to move on, but that doesn’t stop his well-meaning brother Leo (Kent Phillips) from arranging dates for him. Across town, Jennie Malone (Brynne Garman), recently divorced after a bad six year marriage, is similarly pushed into dating by her friend Faye Medwick (Holly Rose). Curiously, the two matchmakers, Leo and Faye, are in unhappy marriages and exorcise their demons with an extra-marital dalliance or two.

Kent Phillips, Holly Rose

When George and Jennie reluctantly meet, the sparks are immediate. We get to watch the awkwardness, joy, and witty repartee of a clever, well-matched couple doing the mating dance while dashing headlong into almost immediate wedding plans.

However, George’s baggage soon catches up with him. He begins to derail this near perfect love out of fear that embracing this joy means being untrue to his mourning, and to the memory of his equally perfect deceased wife. As his anguish engulfs him, stalwart and loving Jennie tries to find the right words, and the right way, to prevent this new love from shattering.

An ideal ensemble cast, and this surely is one, contains actors who are excellent at crafting their characters on their own, but who also have seamless and dynamic chemistry with one another.

Kent Phillips, Robert Alan Barnett

Barnett convincingly goes through the ups, downs, and doubts of coping with both loss and love, pairing beautifully with Phillips, as his adroitly played, upbeat, somewhat cavalier brother Leo. Similarly, Garman and Rose, each ideal in their individual characters, share an almost sisterly bond that rivals that of the men.

  Brynne Garman, Holly Rose 

Barnett and Garman, as the newly enamored couple, are thoroughly convincing and a delight to watch together. Truth be told, there is more than a trace of Marsha Mason, on whom the character is based, in Garman’s strong and deeply devoted Jennie.

A clever and well-designed split set, built by Blake R. York and designed by Curt Hetherington and Bill Huls (who also did lighting and sound design, respectively) lets us see George’s and Jennie’s apartments side by side, merging as if by magic in a shared sofa, with lighting used to focus our attention on wherever the action is. Michele Graves does a fine job with costumes (the 1977 play is moved to more or less the present time) using them to help delineate the personalities of the characters. Ditto for Jeffrey Weaver’s props, again, deftly expressing the personalities of the apartments’ owners.

The last word? A great script, a terrific cast, and unfailing offstage support have joined to create a completely delightful theatre experience, and one you definitely should not miss.

Chapter Two
March 14th to March 30th, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

12 Angry Men at Lakewood Playhouse

 Zoo Storyor Fear and Loathing on the Acting Trail
by Michael Dresdner

    The cast of 12 Angry Men                                                                       Photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

Here’s the good news/bad news, folks. I won’t be reviewing 12 Angry Men at Lakewood Playhouse (you decide whether that’s good or bad news) because I am in the cast.

Instead, I’ll supply a peek behind the testosterone curtain and reveal what it is like to be in a man-cave of this magnitude; a play with nothing but men in the cast, and thirteen of them at that. 

But first, I need to deal with the fear and loathing comment.

Truth be told, the normal theatrical fear has been eliminated in this play thanks to one cast member who shall remain nameless. I’ll get to him in a minute.

By fear, I refer to every actor’s greatest dread: “going up.”  It means being on stage in front of an audience with no earthly idea what your next line is. The silence is deafening.

This is the stuff of literal nightmares for most actors. My own personal version, which I normally have at least twice with every show I do, has me in the wings, knowing my entrance is nigh, not only with no idea of my lines but no clue as to the nature of the play itself. I grab other actors and ask them “Can you at least tell me what this play is about, so I can make something up?” About that time I usually wake up and quickly remind myself that someday I’ll grow up to be a reviewer and will no longer have to suffer these night sweats.

At any rate, that can’t happen in this show. Why? Because one cast member has, remarkably, memorized THE ENTIRE PLAY and adroitly inserts the correct line whenever anyone goes up. We all love him for it, but most of us think he’s actually a flesh-toned robot, since no real human could do this. He’s like the Deep Blue of live theatre.

The best part of any all-male cast is the notable lack of backstage drama, something that varies with the composition of the cast. At the “way too much drama” end are plays heavily populated by a mixture of both sexes of hormone-infused teenage actors. Plays like that should issue seatbelts, because trust me, they’re a rocky ride, replete with the angst-ridden lovelorn forever donning sack cloth and ashes because of the fickle affections of fellow thespians.

In the middle are the normal mixed-gender plays, with their olio of mild flirting, awkward conversations, and dressing room fights over whether it’s way too hot or way too cold, who owns the makeup that eight people have now used, and whether or not you have a legal right to a particular spot at the mirror simply because you’ve adorned it with something of yours in a theatrical version of peeing on one’s territory.

This play has none of that. Instead, there’s an odd mix of helpfulness and the obligatory male, insult-laden banter, delivered with more affection than vituperation. We may be 12 Angry Men on stage, but we’re frighteningly amenable in the green room. Perhaps the contrast is part of it; several people, notably jurors #3 and #10, release plenty of rage on the boards in what must be a very cleansing ritual, and almost everyone gets to pop off at least once.

Maybe that’s the real secret behind creating good theater; balancing the natural lunacy of actors with a healthy outlet for their mishegas. (It’s a Yiddish word meaning “craziness.”) That and plenty of air freshener.

At any rate, what has emerged onstage is a surprisingly good version of a surprisingly good play. Although I have a hard time seeing it fairly from the inside (I see mostly warts and flies), I’m told by those I respect that it is a damned good play indeed.

Perhaps you should take their word for it and come see for yourself. Hey, you can always come back to this blog and post your comments if you disagree too vehemently.

12 Angry Men
Feb. 21 through March 16, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, February 7, 2014

True Love: The Cole Porter Love Songbook at Centerstage

The Perfect Valentine 
by Michael Dresdner  

This year, David Duvall, in the guise of Purple Phoenix Productions, has come up with the perfect concert/performance for Valentine’s Day weekend. 

Four outstanding Seattle-based singers – Laurie Clothier, Connie Corrick, Hugh Hastings, and Eric Polani Jensen – backed by Duvall’s outstanding 9-piece Purple Phoenix Orchestra will present True Love: The Cole Porter Love Songbook at Centerstage.

This is a perfect pairing; Porter is the ultimate writer of love songs, and Duvall’s arrangements are consistently superb. In fact, this is Duvall’s tenth tribute to Cole Porter.

Struggling to remember some of the Cole Porter songs you adore? Let me help. In this heartstring-tugging concert you’ll hear, among others, It’s De-Lovely, At Long Last Love, I Get a Kick Out of You, Easy to Love, Let’s Do It Let’s Fall in Love, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, What is This Thing Called Love?, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, Just One of Those Things, Begin the Beguine, From This Moment On, Night and Day, and of course, the title song, True Love.

There are only two shows being offered; one on Saturday evening at 8 pm  on February 15th, and the other a matinee on Sunday afternoon at 2 pm on February 16th

If you’ve been to other concert performances staged by Duvall, you already know that they are a divine, exhilarating, non-stop tidal wave of amazing music performed by equally amazing musicians. If you haven’t been to one… well, what are you waiting for? Take advantage of this Valentine’s Day treat and experience one of the finest performance juggernauts the Puget Sound has ever produced.   

True Love: The Cole Porter Love Songbook
Feb. 15th and 16th, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Nerd at Centerstage

It’s all geek to me

by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Chip Wood, Brandon Brown, David Gehrman, Jenny Vaughn Hall

The Nerd is one of the funniest plays ever written. It’s frequently performed by local theatre groups, but rarely this well. Centerstage has put together a terrific director and an absolutely superb cast. It is laugh out loud funny, fast paced, and totally delightful, but there’s only one week left to see it.

The play was written by Larry Shue and is directed by John Dillon, who directed the first production of it. According to the program notes, he also helped convince Shue to write this tale of a nerd who comes to visit and comically upends several peoples’ lives. 

Willum Cubbert, a dejected architect, is unhappy with his current job and about to lose his girlfriend, Tansy McGinnis, who wants to move east for a job as a TV weathergirl. His friend and neighbor, Axel Hammond, wants to prod Willum out of his rut, apparently by constantly peppering their three-way conversations with barbs of hilarious, snarky sarcasm. 

Years before, Willum was wounded in Vietnam and his life was saved by one Rick Steadman, who disappeared before Willum awoke in the hospital. A grateful Willum wrote to the elusive hero telling him he’d do anything for him at any time.  When Rick eventually shows up, he turns out to be a loud, hilariously annoying, clueless doofus. Homeless, Rick moves in, and in short order his antics drive everyone to distraction, ultimately causing Willum to do something rash and life-changing.

L to R: David Gehrman, Brandon Brown (in bag)
The play needs the perfect actor to play the nerd, and David Gehrman is it. With pants pulled up to his chest, a pocket protector in his shirt, and glasses repaired with adhesive tape over the bridge, his rubber-faced expressions, loud braying voice, gawky posturing, and absurdly illogical actions were both hilarious and cringe-worthy. He makes the audience roar while making life hell for the grateful but hapless Willum (Brandon Brown) and the sweet, patient Tansy (Jenny Vaughn Hall). Adding spice to the mix is Axel, played with delicious acidity by Chip Wood, who comes off like a youngish Tony Randall blessed with the wickedly well-timed humor of Paul Lynde.

Then there’s David Natale as Warnock Waldgrave, Willum’s boorish, bombastic hotel-building client, and his obnoxious son Thor (Shane Collins). Dealing with both, largely by breaking dishes, is his angst-ridden wife, Clelia, played by Elinor Gunn, who with her very first line made us laugh out loud and love her at the same time.

The set, by Michael Ward, was spacious and spot on, as were the props by Trista Duval. Outstanding  period and character-defining costumes by Rachel Wilke were wonderful. Added support came from lighting designer Amy Silveria and sound, including lovely between-set songs, from Johanna Melamed.  

By the way, be sure to read the director’s notes in the playbill. They are very illuminating.

As I said, there’s not much time left to see this production of The Nerd at Centerstage, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a smoother, funnier iteration of this gem anywhere.

The Nerd
Jan. 24 through Feb. 9, 2014