Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dial M for Murder at TLT

Jolly good show, chaps.
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Jacob Tice, Deya Ozburn, Brent Griffith                  Photos by DK Photograpy 

Just in time for Halloween, Tacoma Little Theatre is presenting the classic, satisfying thriller Dial M for Murder with a very solid, very enjoyable ensemble cast.

I say thriller rather than mystery because you, the audience, get to know everything and see everything as it happens. The suspense comes from the various characters, including the police, trying to figure out what really happened while others are actively trying to hide the truth.

The plot is simple and classic. Charming tennis star Tony (Brent Griffith) married Margot (Deya Ozburn) for her money, and now that he’s discovered she is having an affair with Max (Jacob Tice), he decides to kill her and inherit it. He maneuvers Captain Lesgate (Christopher Rocco), an old acquaintance with a shady past, to agree to do the deed through a combination of bribery and blackmail. Things go awry, but the resourceful Tony redirects things to his advantage. The fly in the ointment is police inspector Hubbard (Robert Geller) who isn’t content to accept the situation at face value.

    L to R: Deya Ozburn, Brent Griffith

Directed most capably by pug Bujeaud (yes, that’s lower case p and upper case B, and no, I don’t know why,)  Dial M for Murder was a solid, satisfying thriller. With crisp, realistic pacing and clever small room blocking, she even managed to prevent the front end of the play, overburdened as it is with exposition, from being dull or boring, and that’s no mean feat.

There were no poor actors in this production; it was a well-meshed and quite competent ensemble cast. In particular, I found myself rooting for Griffith’s very appealing Tony probably more than I should have, seeing as he is supposed to be a villain. Geller, as the somewhat Columbo-like inspector, also endeared himself, playing the crisp, quintessential British CID man with just the right balance.

There were, let’s say, choices (a nicer word than weaknesses) that I might have imagined a different way. Between scene changes were noticeably long, though the sound designer (Darren Hembd) managed to fill them with very pleasant and appropriate music. The killing scene (yes, there’s a killing – come on, people, the word murder is in the title) was more Capoeira than Terminator; more artistic dance than straight brutality. Captain Lesgate, almost excessively fidgety and on edge, never crossed into menacing, but was rather easily cowed into agreeing to Tony’s scheme.

Perhaps most surprising was the lack of romantic chemistry between illicit lovers Max and Margot. Granted, she’s British, but he’s American. I’d have expected something a lot closer to raw lust. Again, these are all choices, and everyone has his or her taste.

All this played out on a beautiful and perfectly appointed set by Blake York (who is also credited as the fight choreographer) with equally good props by Jeffery Weaver. Costumes by Michele Graves were unobtrusive but fitting. Lighting design by Pavlina Morris really shone (groan!) during the dusky death scene, with cleverly positioned flashes of illumination coming from an open bedroom door.  

The final analysis? As the Brits say, “Good show!”

Dial M for Murder
Oct. 24 to Nov. 9, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Friday, August 1, 2014

Not theatre, but the art of real living

The Dulcitar project – Camp Goodtimes -- June and July, 2104
by Michael Dresdner

In a heartwarming scene worthy of a well-scripted movie, eager high school students plop down on the ground, matched up with much younger campers, with a kit of what looks like guitar parts in front of them. Then, with the patience and care of classic big brothers/big sisters, they adroitly guide the youngsters’ hands into building their own little musical classics.

It’s “build day” at Camp Goodtimes, a refuge for children affected by cancer, and the team of students from Rogers High School in Puyallup has already been at it since 6 am.

What is Camp Goodtimes? To quote The Goodtimes Project website, “Camp Goodtimes was established in 1984 to provide a no-cost camp environment for children affected by cancer where they can recapture the joys of childhood.” More accurately, it is a special haven, a hallowed ground that goes a long way toward helping the afflicted rebuild and restore what’s been lost. 

Once at the Vashon Island campground, eight or nine high school student volunteers pile out of a school-provided van loaded with instrument parts, and explode onto camp. They unload the van, set up all the tools and parts, stage the work area, and wait for the campers to arrive. It will be a long day; they’ll be hard at it for about 12 hours, but today is only the finale. For them, work started on this project many months earlier.

This is the the third straight year that a team of woodshop students from Rogers High School, working with a small cluster of like-minded adults, helped almost 100 youngsters per year at Camp Goodtimes build a musical instrument. This time it was a child-size travel dulcimer with a guitar-shaped body; a Dulcitar, if you would. The pictures should give you a good idea of what both the kit, and the finished instrument each one gets to take home, looks like.

After some design and prototyping, things take off at the school’s shop, where students under the guidance of Jon Cerio and his brother David use standard woodworking tools, specialized equipment, CNC tooling, and even lasers to make hundreds of parts. They do a production run to create enough pieces to form about 110 instruments, with the excess to allow for glitches during assembly. Operations that require equipment the school lacks are done outside, in my shop or that of Warmoth Guitars. Strings, tuners, wood, and other needed items are bought with money donated by soft-hearted locals, including my own local woodworking club, the Evergreen Woodworker’s Guild.

When it is over, a batch of delighted campers is “rocking out” on the instruments they themselves made, and a weary but elated gaggle of some of our finest high school students is heading home, replete with a handful of fond memories and well-deserved accolades.

All photos courtesy of The Goodtimes Project

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Spamalot at Lakewood Playhouse

The Tigger factor
by Michael Dresdner

    Steve Tarry, Gretchen Boyt, (foreground) and the Spamalot cast.  All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

“They're bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!”

Tiggers? No, the energetic cast of Spamalot at Lakewood Playhouse.

Perhaps the biggest tipoff to how much you’ll enjoy this maelstrom of comedy is the fact that the cast seems to be having just as much fun creating it as the audience has trying to drink it all in.  

In case you weren’t aware, Spamalot is a stage musical adapted from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and is pure Monty Python at its best. If you don’t know what that is, imagine a group of unrestrained, picaresque comics bedecked in a stream of ridiculous costumes and toting outrĂ© props launching pell-mell into irreverent and silly songs and dances while using the background of Arthurian legend to skewer every sacred cow they can find, all while dancing on the very precipice of political incorrectness. It’s what vaudeville wishes it could be.

I suppose at this point I could tell you the storyline, but to be honest, worrying about the somewhat elusive plot is like asking how many beans it took to make your morning latte. It just doesn’t matter.

For instance, the introduction has a narrator talking about England, after which the troupe, in Scandinavian garb, launches into a lively, comical song and dance about Finland while slapping one another with fish. This inanity is halted when the narrator clarifies “…England, not Finland” and they all slink away. See what I mean?

L to R: Coleman Hagerman as Patsy, Steve Tarry as Arthur
 What does matter is that a large and energetic cast under the obviously capable (and enthusiastic) direction of John Munn did an excellent job of bringing this joyful insanity to life. There are too many actors to mention, and most handled several roles very adroitly. I will call out Coleman Hagerman, the rubber-faced, Gumby-limbed, half human/half Muppet whose creation of the character Patsy was so spot-on and outstanding that I found myself always focused on him when he was onstage.

He was hardly the only shining light, though. Timothy McFarlan as Sir Robin (and others), Xander Layden as Sir Lancelot (and others), Gary J. Chambers as Sir Glalahad (and others), Steve Tarry’s King Arthur, Kyle Sinclair as the Historian, Gretchen Boyd, Brandon Ehrenheim, and the entire male and female ensemble all shone in their turns. And let’s not forget the tech support people, Dylan Twiner, Stephanie Huber, and Kara Zink, dressed in backstage black, who not only hustled a myriad of props and set pieces, but also controlled the obvious “special effects” and even joined in the ensemble for some of the bigger numbers.  

    L to R: Xander Layden, Tim McFarlan, Gary Chambers, Brandon Ehrenheim, Tarry, Hagerman  

With this sort of production, the unseen are as important as those on stage, and the support group was well worth a pile of kudos. Music director Deborah Lynn Armstrong and her excellent pit orchestra, choreographer Cassie Wilkerson, who managed to make the admittedly less than professional dancers look good, scenic designer Lex Gernon , and costume designer Diane Runkel, who, like Corky St. Clair of Waiting for Guffman, created miracles out of a non-existent budget, all deserve high praise.

There’s more. Let’s not forget lighting designer Amanda Sweger, sound designer Dylan Twiner, scenic artist Carrie Foster, and the ubiquitous and scandalously hard working stage manager Nena Curley who kept the whole madcap skirmish on course. Finally, a special nod to props manager Hally Phillips whose challenge was more than reasonable. You all did a great job.

I suppose I could whine about the few weaknesses, like singing that was just north of karaoke, but like the coffee beans, it just doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this cast and crew are offering you one thoroughly delightful and very funny evening of non-stop tomfoolery, and you’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.

June 13 to July 13, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, June 13, 2014

Moonlight and Magnolias at TLT

Sturm und Drang
by Michael Dresdner

  L to R: Jacob Tice, Katelyn Hoffman, Tedd Saint-James, Blake R. York      photo by: DK Photography

Moonlight and Magnolias is considered a second stage production at Tacoma Little Theatre, which means that it opens tonight and closes in only nine days. That’s a shame, since there’s obviously been a whole lot of love, talent, energy, and creativity poured into it, and the result is well worth your time. To get a jump on things, I went to the preview last night.

The conceit of the play, supposedly based on a real event, is that producer David O. Selznick, in the midst of making the film Gone With the Wind, has fired his writer and director and instead brought screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming to his office. He bullies them into being locked in his office for five days with nothing but bananas and peanuts to eat in order to, in that short time, write a credible screen play for the stalled movie.

To make matters worse, Hecht has not even read the book, so the other two men decide to act it out for him, scene by scene, while he types up dialog. Their intentionally cheesy acting, especially when the two men play the roles of Scarlett and her maid Prissy, creates easily the funniest scenes in the play.

As they get more exhausted and tense from endless coddling, arguing, bombast, sniping, and yes, bouts of humor, they eventually emerge with a script, and the rest is history. All in all, the direction by Pavlina Morris is well-paced and realistic, and the acting very solid.

At the low end of the office food chain is Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul, played to a fare-thee-well by Katelyn Hoffman. Her costume, posture, demeanor, and responses are all spot on and perfectly create the iconic 1930s secretary, from the top of her disciplined red hair to her appropriate stacked-heel shoes. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better.

Tedd Saint-James ably plays the put-upon playwright Ben Hecht as skeptical, largely unconvinced, and torn between the words of the book, about which he seems to care little, and his own ethical imperatives. One can almost imagine a voice from beyond chiding “silly rabbit; you want movies to be ethical teaching tools?”

Jacob Tice covers the role of director Victor Fleming with his usual energy, style, humor, and hair-trigger emotional responses. Tice is an excellent actor who routinely makes the most of whatever the script has to offer him, as he does here.

Doing the bulk of the heavy lifting as David O. Selznick is Blake R. York. The past few years have seen him mostly designing and creating sets for the theatre, but in this play he emerges onstage to remind us that, though we may think of him as a behind-the-scenes artist, he is first and foremost an absolutely terrific actor. York inhabits his character convincingly. No, I don’t know what the real Selznick was like, but it hardly matters; this one is certainly real enough.

Speaking of sets, this same Blake R. York designed and built the set as well, and it’s amazing. It boasts a completely convincing, high-end Hollywood office of the period, replete with grand symmetry, Art Deco styling, shiny leather diamond-tufted couch and matching chair, and the obligatory commanding desk and window. Amplified by Jen Ankrum’s very capable painting skills, the set alone is worth going to see.

The play is further amplified by spot-on costumes (Michele Graves), especially Hoffman’s, unobtrusively correct lighting (director Morris), sound (Darren Hembd), props (Katelyn Simpson) and a very hard working backstage crew (Briana Osborne, RuthAnn Saunders) who “age” the set between scenes to reflect its descent from order to chaos.

However, in spite of grand acting and directing, a flawless set and costumes, and all the rest, the property itself gets in its own way. While this is not what you would call a fluff piece, it is nevertheless a light, or less than significant, work. To quote the Scottish play, it is “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Granted, the play raises high emotions with repeated cycles of angst-ridden philosophical arguments about “the Jewish question,” the reason for movies to exist, and the opinion that the ultimate control is in the hands of hoi polloi who buy tickets. However, none of these high-minded discussions are resolved; there’s no grand conclusion or moment of discovery. By the end, you may emerge a bit worn out from the emotions, but you won’t have gone through any significant catharsis that changes your views on life, the universe, or anything.

Fortunately, none of that is required for a night of good theatre. Come see it for what it does offer; an interesting insight into the movie making process, a fine cast and crew, and a compelling swirl of drama and comedy. But remember, Moonlight and Magnolias runs only this week and next, so don’t wait or you’ll miss it all.

Moonlight and Magnolias
June 13 to June 22, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bye Bye Birdie at Tacoma Little Theatre

A fledgling flier
by Michael Dresdner

  Conrad Birdie (DuWayne Andrews, Jr) and his fans photo by DK Photography

The popular 60’s era musical Bye Bye Birdie, directed by Chris Serface, opened at Tacoma Little Theatre last night to a very full and warmly enthusiastic house.

It’s a play often done by high school thespians, perhaps because the bulk of the ensemble chorus is made up of a whole lot of teenagers, and perhaps because high school audiences are willing to accept a performance that is more charming than polished. This production is definitely charming.  

Just in case you were not around back then, Elvis Presley, at the height of his career, got drafted into the Army in 1957, and that was the trigger for crafting this musical comedy.

Teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie (DuWayne Andrews, Jr.) gets drafted, so his woeful, songwriting, mama’s-boy of a manager, Albert Peterson (Steve Barnett), aided by his long-suffering and adoring assistant, Rose Alvarez (Ashley Ortenzo), decides to capitalize on it. Choosing an adoring fan club member at random, they decide Conrad will bestow one last kiss on Kim MacAfee (Melissa Maricich) of classically suburban Sweet Apple, Ohio. She’s just been pinned by her boyfriend, Hugo Peabody (Steven Wells) and this upcoming kiss, to be aired on the Ed Sullivan show nation-wide, throws her, her new steady, and all her many friends into a chattering quandary. 

Eventually, everything works out and returns to normal, but not before plenty of other comic scenarios play out. Albert strives to cut the apron strings with his overbearing, passive –aggressive, mother/business partner Mae Peterson (Diane Lee Bozzo), a character based on every comic’s favorite Jewish mother persona. Rose tries to get Albert to profess his long suppressed love for her, leave the impresario business, and follow his dream of being an English teacher. Kim’s father, Harry MacAfee (Jeffery Weaver), bemoans the state of today’s teens while Conrad, like a hip-swinging pied piper, lures the town’s teens into a night of partying, a conceit to allow yet another flashy song-and-dance production number. Meanwhile, Kim takes a step toward maturity while recognizing, with Rose’s help, just how problematic men are as potential mates.

Sometimes secondary characters burst out with performances that overshadow their leads, and that happens here. Gloria Rasputin (Shelleigh Ferguson) is a distraction brought to Albert by his mother, but her over-the-top introduction dance number was an absolute show-stopper and unquestionably the high point of this entire production. Harvey Johnson (Chris Campbell), a bit part in the telephone scene, shines at being exactly what he’s supposed to be, a dorky nerd who stands out by being remarkable at being unremarkable. The Mayor’s wife (Aya Hashiguchi), a “blink and you’ll miss it” role, did a fine turn as the easily shocked fainting matron.

That’s not to say the primary characters did not have their strengths and high points. To name just a few, Maricich’s Kim was thoroughly convincing as a fifteen-year-old playing at budding maturity. Anderson, as Conrad Birdie, did a solid job of singing and fancy footwork, but I wish he’d been given costumes worthy of his very impressive dancing and moves. Weaver as Harry MacAfee was delightfully middle American, especially when he was photo-bombing his way onto the Ed Sullivan Show. As for the mothers, Ms. Bozzo did a fine turn as Albert’s mother Mae, and Carrie Sleeper Bowers was solid as the stalwart and even-handed Doris MacAfee.

Overall, the large ensemble song and dance numbers worked best, and the younger actors who made up the bulk of them were, to an individual, quite good at singing, dancing, and convincing teen characterizations. In some of the smaller group numbers, what should have been tight three and four part harmonies often came up short, but all the large ensemble song and dance numbers were always solid and enjoyable. A good example is the impressive telephone scene, where the teens, aided by excellent lighting design (by Pavlina Morris) and a set composed of various levels and sizes of brightly patterned blocks (by Blake York), form a phone tree to discuss the fact that Kim is going steady.  

Sadly, the set, which worked so well for the telephone number, did not do much for the other scenes. Costumes (Michele Graves) were reliably period, though lacking the flash that often accompanies broad comedies like this one. Terry O’Hara was both the musical director and the very solid keyboard presence leading an otherwise passable quartet. Props (Karrie Nevin) were unobtrusively appropriate, which is a good thing, and choreographer Elizabeth Richmond Posluns, who certainly had her work cut out for her, did an outstanding job of pulling together such a large and diversely talented set of cast feet.

When all is said and done, Bye Bye Birdie at Tacoma Little Theatre offers a chance to indulge in a rose-colored review of 1958 by watching the solid singing and dancing of a group born long after that era had passed. With luck, this pleasant bit of mid-century nostalgia will provide a welcome vacation from the reality of today, and at least for older patrons, may take you back to a fondly remembered period in history.

Bye Bye Birdie
May 9th to June 1st, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

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