Saturday, September 16, 2017

Rumors at TLT

Farce from the madding crowd
by Michael Dresdner
L to R: Jess Allen, Mark Peterson, Jeffery Swiney-Weaver, Matt Garry, Houston White.  Photos by Dennis K Photography

Tacoma Little Theatre opened its 99th season last night with Rumors, a genuinely hilarious farce from the redoubtable Neil Simon. Director Erin Manza Chanfrau assembled an outstandingly talented ensemble cast of largely experienced local actors to create a fast-paced farce layered thickly with both physical and verbal comedy. Think of it as several great episodes of a silly sitcom all stacked and interwoven into a two hour romp.

As is often the case with such properties, there is less of a plot than a series of set-ups designed for maximum laughs. The gist of act I is a collection of well-heeled, highly educated friends coming to a party that has obviously gone south before it started, hosted at the elegant home of the deputy mayor and his wife, neither of whom we ever see on stage.
L to R: Jill Heinecke, Matt Garry

The first to arrive are a pair of lawyers. Clair Gorman (Jess Allan) is an overwrought recently-quit smoker who is dying for a cigarette, and hubby Ken (Mark Peterson) who is upstairs trying to make sense of, and keep a lid on, the fact that they arrived to a sumptuous home with no food prepared, the deputy mayor in his room with a (minor) gunshot wound, and both his wife and the staff missing. Soon Lenny (Matt Garry) and wife Claire (Jill Heinecke) arrive having been in an accident with his brand new BMW on the way, and add to the confusion.
L to R: Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson, Jeffery Swiney-Weaver

Next up, Ernie Cusak (Jeffery Swiney-Weaver), a psychiatrist, and his wife Cookie (Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson), a TV cooking show host, add their mishegas to the mix. By now a second mostly harmless gunshot has rendered Ken Gormann temporarily deaf, so that he misunderstands pretty much everything that is said, adding another layer of misunderstanding to the already overflowing tomfoolery.  Finally, Glenn Cooper (Houston White), who is running for the State Senate and is understandably nervous about being involved in anything that the press could exploit, arrives with his wife Cassie (Kristen Blegen Bouyer), an elegant, new-age crystal-loving woman of somewhat spongy sexual ethics. As utter pandemonium reigns, TV host Cookie, in spite of her repeated debilitating back spasms, manages to make everyone an excellent dinner by the end of act I.
L to R: Kristen Blegen Bouter, Houston White 

By the time act II opens, Glen and Cassie have devolved into a fight just outside the house when the police arrive. Two cops (Neicie Packer and Andy Bravo) come to investigate both the car accident and the two gunshots. They get an assortment of obvious lies and cover-ups from everyone, capped off by a long, convoluted, hysterical nosebleed of a story from Lenny (posing as the host) “explaining” everything. Eventually the police give up, leaving us to hear just one more surprise from the addled and exhausted cast of characters.
L to R: Matt Garry, Andy Bravo, Neicie Packer, Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson

I know I’ve said this before in reviews, but this play, while completely engaging and full of rapid fire comedy, could benefit from some nuance. Let’s just say there’s a bit too much volume and angst for the number of players on stage.  

An absolutely gorgeous Mondrian-influenced set, the elegant home of the hosts, was designed by Blake York, and is worth staring at all on its own. It was magnificent, from the glass corner wall to the outside to the fabulous built in bar. Costumes by Michele Graves were excellent, as was hair, make-up, and props by cast member Jeffery Weaver (Ernie Cusak, the doctor.)  Spot-on set painting by Ana Bury and sound design (kudos for the superp “other side” of the cop’s walkie talkie conversation) by Chris Serface and lighting by Niclas Olson rounded out the production. Because they did such a great job, a special nod to the paint crew; Jen York, Gunnar Johnson, and Frank Roberts.

There’s not a dull moment, literally, in this well-crafted comedy, making it a welcome break from the daily slog of our current reality. Not surprisingly, the opening night audience ate it up with a spoon, and laughed their way through to the end.  

Rumors
Sep 15th to Oct 1, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Wait Until Dark at Lakewood Playhouse

A Whole Lotta’ Actin’ Goin’ On
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Deya Ozburn (Suzy), Mari Dowd (Gloria)   All photos by Tim Johnston 

For their 79th season opener, Lakewood Playhouse chose the genuinely scary and viscerally upsetting psychological thriller Wait Until Dark. If the phrase “fright night” appeals to you, this play is just the ticket. 

As the plot is rather convoluted, the play, set in the mid 60's, spends the first act explaining the set up. As a result, it comes off as a bit tedious, especially compared with what is to come in act two. Since it is a thriller, I can’t tell you much about act two without giving away surprises, but that’s where the thrills and chills are, along with the inevitable deaths this somewhat grisly play serves up.

John Munn (Roat)

Roat (Lakewood’s Artistic Director John Munn) is a genuine bad guy (we know this because, among other things, he wears black) on the trail of a heroin-filled doll that was passed off to an unsuspecting man named Sam (Ben Stahl) at the airport. Sam takes it home to a dark, basement flat in NYC where he lives with his recently blinded wife Suzy (Deya Ozburn). The doll disappears, but when Sam leaves town for work, three shady characters show up to con, search, and bully Suzy into giving up the doll.

Jed Slaughter (Mike)


Roat, the ring leader, has hired two ex-cons, Mike (Jed Slaughter) and Carlino (Kerry Bringman) to help find it. The three men take on various roles in a good guy/bad guy set-up designed to con Suzy into giving them the doll. Their attempts fail, in part due to a somewhat petulant young girl named Gloria (Mari Dowd) who lives upstairs and, at her best, helps Suzy with chores and observations.

Mari Dowd (Gloria) 

With Gloria’s help and eyes, Suzy figures out the con, finds the heretofore missing doll, and hides it. She then darkens her apartment to level the field before Roat, her true adversary and tormenter, returns. It’s a cat and mouse game played out in the dark in which both parties trade off having the upper hand.

The role of Suzy casts Ozburn as arguably the hardest working actor in the South Sound. As the lead, she not only has to constantly play blind, but is put through as rigorous a physical workout as you are likely to see onstage, and a range of emotions to match, from meek and trusting to gutsy and wary, with relieved and terrified thrown in for good measure. It’s a tough role, and Ozburn deserves kudos for her exhaustive work.

Kerry Bringman (Carlino) 

That’s not to diminish the work of the rest of the ensemble, mind you. Bringman, for instance, is charged with playing a role within a role as a small time hood called on to portray a police sergeant.

Interestingly, Ozburn and Munn, the denouement antagonists, have a prior history of playing the bully male and disadvantaged but courageous female, and they work very well together. They brought to mind a recent run of Oliver in which she adroitly played the bullied, eventually killed Nancy to Munn’s abusive lover Sykes.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank two actors, Slaughter (Mike) and Dowd (Gloria), for bringing some much appreciated normalcy to a stage filled with acting extremes. Their convincingly realistic and endearingly understated characters were a welcome contrast to the angst-filled proceedings.  
  
All this takes place on a set designed by Jonathan Hart with set dressing and props by Karrie Morrison. It was a believable basement apartment in NYC, in spite of a handful of anachronisms and anomalies that true theatre buffs will have no doubt noticed. Costumes by Diane Runkel and Virginia Yanoff were as good as expected, as was lighting by Aaron Mohs-Hale and sound design by the play’s director, James Venturini. In a very physical, action-filled play like this, the fight choreographer, Casey Brown, also deserves a call out.

At its core, this play is all about heart-pounding terror, and while it’s a bit early for our annual Halloween rush, it should be gripping and upsetting enough for any fright fan. 

Wait Until Dark
Sept. 8 to Oct. 8 2017
Lakewood Playhouse


Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at TLT

Dark Horse Opera
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Bert (Chris James), Ransome (Jacob Tice), Hallie (Jill Heinecke)  All photos by Dennis K Photography

A classic western called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, but this play is far more complex and nuanced than the famous movie version of the tale.

Directed most adroitly by David Domkoski, this is a play that goes well beyond both the scope and quality of the thin plots and stereotypical characters in many horse operas. What really made it exceptional was the outstanding ensemble cast.

Scene one opens with Senator Ransome Foster (Jacob Tice) returning to the small western town of Twotrees for the funeral of a man he obviously admires, but hadn’t spoken to in 20 years. It then goes quickly to flashback for the bulk of the play, triggered by the questions of a reporter (Margret Parobek in a sadly small role.)
Burt Barricune (Chris James)

Decades ago, Foster, an educated east coast greenhorn, arrived in the town after being beaten and left for dead on the road by Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn) and his gang. He’s hauled unconscious into the saloon by a tall, strong, capable cowboy and crack shot named Bert Barricune (Chris James) who plops him on the bar. There he’s revived and tended to by saloon owner Hallie Jackson (Jill Nicole Heinecke), aided by her longtime close friend and employee Jim Mosten (Nick Butler), a black man (yes, that’s key to the plot) who everyone calls The Reverend.
 

L to R: Sheriff (Ben Stahl), Hallie Jackson (Jill Heinecke)

The lackadaisical, play-it-safe sheriff, Marshal Johnson (Ben Stahl), arrives with his scruffy, taciturn deputy (Curtis Beech) and quickly decides to do nothing about the situation. After discovering Ransome’s satchel full of books and hearing some lines of Shakespeare, Hallie decides to let him stay at the saloon, but only after he offers to teach The Reverend, a savant with perfect recall, how to read.

L to R: Ransome (Jacob Tice) , Bert (Chris James)

Soon more of the town, including Hallie, are learning to read, something that does not sit well with quintessential bully, murderer, and classic bad guy Liberty Valance. He shows up with his sidekicks and kills a beloved character to get the town’s attention. When Foster straps on a gun bent on revenge, then asks Barricune to teach him to shoot, Valance returns to town for a shootout. Though it sounds thoroughly formulaic, don’t be fooled; there’s a turn of events you don’t expect, and a love story (or two) that you do.

L to R: The Reverend (Nick Butler), Ransome (Jacob Tice), Bert (Chris James) 

I really can’t say enough good things about this cast – all of them – for creating real, convincing, three-dimensional characters, something you don’t always find in a western. Tice plays Foster with just the right range of fear, bravado, and doubt; a complex man in a trying situation. Heinecke’s Jackson ranges from almost unapproachable tough gal to a woman with real love and feelings to offer, changing both accent and mannerismns to reflect the civilizing changes of two decades back east.

Chris James as Barricune is the classic adept cowboy with few words, but more than the expected dose of honor, who hides a soft heart behind a brawny exterior. Stahl’s sheriff is annoyingly uninvolved, exactly who the character is supposed to be.

L to R: The Reverend (Nick Butler), Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn)

There’s a scene in act one where Liberty Valance corners and intensely bullies The Reverend, and Quinn and Butler play it so well you can feel the tension and discomfort in your gut. In act two, a confrontation between Ransome and Liberty becomes a captivating exchange when both men outline and defend their life philosophy. Along with adding dimension and nuance to Valance’s character, it also reveals his disarmingly logical outlook and justification for who he is and what he does. That turns the lead up to the big showdown scene into a much more layered, and more interesting, encounter.

L to R: Ransome (Jacob Tice), Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn) 

As I find myself saying again and again during reviews, the set by Blake York, dressed by Jeffery Weaver and painted by Ana Bury, was absolutely perfect – exactly what we would envision for Twotrees’ saloon. Costume designer Michele Graves did a bang up job, obligingly putting the good guy in a white hat, the bad guy all in black, and making the tough saloon keeper look as masculine and dowdy as her character, no mean feat when you begin with Jill Heinecke.

L to R: Hallie (Jill Heinecke), Ransome (Jacob Tice)

Lighting, by Niclas Olson, was excellent, meaning too natural to notice. Similarly, gentle cowboy guitar music held sway both in the background beforehand and during scene changes. If you have your heart set on hearing the iconic movie theme song, you’ll have to wait until after final curtain.

To sum it all up, this play is good enough to captivate even those who don’t like westerns, and is an above and beyond treat for those who do.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
June 2 to June 18, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Pirates of Penzance at Lakewood Playhouse

An ebullient fromage
by Michael Dresdner

Major-General Stanley (Gary Chambers)   all photos by Tim Johnston 
Last night, in place of the typically understated British comedy, Lakewood Playhouse served up a bouncy, slightly cheesy homage to the well-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

Energetic, a bit goofy, and definitely colorful, it was a bit far afield from the well-known D'oyly Carte version. For instance, the pirates in the opening scene were clad not in makeshift seafaring garb, but in a piebald tableau of costumes (Rochelle-Ann Graham) ranging from the ridiculous to the expected. Even the Major-General carried a riding crop instead of the expected swagger stick. Fight scenes and dance movements were on the whole more picaresque than realistic, and often comically exaggerated, as if Monty Python snuck in during rehearsals.

The rather motley pirates 

For those needing it, the convoluted story line opens with Frederic (Fune Tautala), the male lead, on the day his indentured servitude on board the pirate ship ends – when he turns 21, though being a leap year baby, he’s had only five birthdays, a real sticking point later. Valuing obligation above all else, he says he was a loyal pirate but now that he’s free, his hatred of their criminal ways means he vows to destroy them, but not before he points out to the Pirate King (John Munn, who also directed) why they are such unsuccessful pirates. You see, they won’t fight anyone weaker, they lose to those who are stronger, and won’t harm orphans. Yes, you get it; their savvy victims all claim to be orphans.

L to R: Ruth (Sawrey), Frederic (Tautala), Pirate King (John Munn) 

His nurse, Ruth (Kathy Sawrey), the only female he’s ever seen, (hey, he’s been at sea with pirates!) assures him she is in fact beautiful as any woman. That works until he meets the daughters of Major-General Stanley (Gary Chambers), and in particular daughter Mabel (Allyson Jacobs-Lake), the female lead of the play. Ruth also explains Frederic was meant to be a pilot, but she misheard, and apprenticed him to pirates instead, the first of several intentional word association misunderstandings. (This is nautical and before airplanes, so a pilot is the person who steers a ship, not a flying ace.)
 
The Major-General's daughters 
The Major-General orders the police, led by Sergeant Edward (Derek Hall) to arrest the pirates, (they fail, but no matter) and all manner of mayhem, dancing, and silliness ensues until the lovers unite and everyone turns good, bound by their mutual loyalty to Queen Victoria.

Sergeant Edward (Hall) and his cops 
Technically, the production was excellent, from the deft control of the stage manager (Nena Curley) to such subtle touches as the lighting (Aaron Mohs-Hale) during fades ending with a final spot on the queen’s profile. The unusual set (Blake York) had a generously raised (three steps up) platform thrusting out from a fake traditional proscenium background replete with the obligatory cameo portrait of Queen Victoria in the center top. Inside the arch were several background paintings (Carrie Foster) that slid aside like curtains to change the location scenery.  

What was odd was that the orchestra, an outstanding three-piece group (musical director Deborah L. Armstrong, Gus Labayen, and either Tai Taitano or sub LaMont Atkinson) was in a large square pit smack in the center of the thrust stage. Though possibly a bit distracting, being in the center of the action meant they were able to perfectly monitor both pace and volume. On the other hand, it meant that most blocking, fighting, and dancing was restricted to a veritable catwalk surrounding them.

The singing was, on the whole, stronger when the ensemble joined in, though there were some highlights among the leads. Tautala (Frederic), while more of a musical comedy vocalist than an operatic one, was strong, clear, and easy to understand. Ditto for Sawrey (Ruth) and Jacobs-Lake (Mabel,) though all struggled with the occasional false notes and weaknesses, especially in the lower ranges.

Mabel (Jacobs-Lake) 
Chambers (the Major-General) did a fine job with his signature tongue-twisting song, though his character, with his stuffed teddy bear and slightly mincing ways, was more Brideshead Revisited than Col. Blimp. Throughout the cast English accents came and went more or less as needed, such as during the confusion about the words orphan and often, both pronounced “ah-fin.”

The packed house on opening night seemed to enjoy the production very much, either because of or in spite of its departure from the norm. It certainly served up a healthy dose of bright, enthusiastic energy, and that may be just what we need in these trying times.

The Pirates of Penzance
May 26 to June 25, 2017
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Exit Laughing at TLT

Cotton candy
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Richmond, O'Hare, Ferguson     All photos by Dennis K Photography

Last night, Paul Elliott’s comedy Exit Laughing, superbly directed by Rick Hornor, opened at Tacoma Little Theatre to a packed house simply roaring with laughter from beginning to end.

Densely packed into this brisk, airy comedy are enough zingers and one-liners to fill at least three episodes of your favorite TV sitcom to bursting. If you are looking for pure, rib-tickling diversion, go out and buy tickets now. This show will sell out.

L to R: Richmond, O'Hare, Ferguson

The plot, which exists mostly as a platter on which to serve up classic humor, involves three women who’ve played cards together for years and, somewhat in absentia, their fourth who has just died. I say “somewhat” because her urn of ashes joins them for one last hurrah.

Connie (Carol Richmond) is the sensible, somewhat repressed mother of a 22 year old daughter, and the host of tonight’s gathering. Leona (Sharry O’Hare) is a classic, snarky, quick-witted and sharped tongued inebriate who loves her friends, though possibly not as much as her booze.

L to R: O'Hare, Richmond

Then there’s Millie (Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson), the quintessential clueless ditz who brings along the dead Mary’s ashes, which she has stolen from the funeral home. Why? Because Mary’s white trash relatives, whom we never see, are violating what this trio knows were her disposition wishes.

L to R: Parobek, Ferguson

Rounding out the cast of archetypes are Connie’s daughter Rachel Ann (Margret Parobek) beautifully filling the role of a volatile young woman with all the explosive passion and fickle heart of a stereotypical teen, and her missing date, who stood her up, showing up instead in the guise of ‘Officer Grayson’ (John Naden), a handsome young man working as a stripper but hiding a challenged past and the requisite heart of gold.

Naden 

The small cast of five were all excellent, but far and away the most entertaining is the pairing of  O’Hare and Ferguson. These two, both outstanding actors separately, are pure comic gold together, and worth the price of admission all by themselves. They play off one another alternately setting each other up to show off their flawless punch line deliveries. Damn, they’re good.

All this plays out in one room of Carol’s house on a perfect set (by Blake York) right out of Golden Girls, only slightly more northern, and festooned with appropriately awful wall art (set dresser and props man Jeffery Weaver). Even Mary’s urn of ashes is a character in itself, a paradigm of the abhorrently tasteless. 

Ferguson, with an urn full of Mary's ashes 

The otherwise spot-on costumes (by Michele Graves) were all overshadowed by those of stripper Grayson (you’ll see what I mean). Predictably solid were the sound design by York and Chris Serface, and lighting by Niclas Olson. Oh, and let’s give a nod to stage manager Nena Curley and (temporarily absent but just as vital) assistant Noelle Shai Edlin for keeping it all running smoothly.

Bottom line: I’m willing to bet that you will find this silly, fluffy romp funny, thoroughly enjoyable, and over too soon.

Exit Laughing
April 21 to May 7, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre 
https://www.tacomalittletheatre.com/




Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead at Lakewood

“It insists upon itself, Lois.”
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Paul Richter, Frank Roberts    All photos by Tim Johnston 

Lakewood Playhouse is currently presenting a long Tom Stoppard double feature of Shakespearean bent; The Fifteen Minute Hamlet followed by Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead.

Both plays are quite well done, with strong individual and ensemble casts, good direction by Beau M. K. Prichard, a thoroughly appropriate set (Blake York) and props (Karrie Nevin), and excellent sound (James Venturini), lighting (Aaron Mohs-Hale), and costumes (Rochelle-Ann Graham). In short, the theatre did a fine job with both these plays, but let’s look at them more closely, one at a time.

The Fifteen Minute Hamlet 
  
The Fifteen Minute Hamlet is a thirteen minute, lickety-split, highly truncated, comic version of Hamlet, followed by a two minute version of the play as an encore, and in this iteration, another one minute encore of the same.

I assume it was presented beforehand merely as a refresher for those who are shaky on their Shakespeare, since it does not go into enough depth to explain Hamlet if you don’t already know it. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are not actually in The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, but we’ll ignore that.

Led by a very impressive and physically adept actor playing Hamlet (Dylan Twiner), the ensemble cast did an excellent job. The same actors appear in both plays, and appropriately, in the same roles.

My one complaint was with the signs actors wore with their character’s names on them. Because they were written in fine lines on white cardboard under strong lights, we could not read them from where we sat. (Yes, I know who they were by their lines, but then, I know Hamlet.)

L to R: Paul Richter, Dylan Twiner, Frank Roberts 

Once over, it is followed immediately, without intermission, by the main event, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead. As you probably know, Rosencrantz (Frank Roberts) and Gildenstern (Paul Richter) are two very minor characters in Hamlet. Old friends of Hamlet’s, they appear briefly, are enlisted as spies against their old friend, accompany him to England, and conveniently disappear, only to be announced as dead at the end of the play.

Here they become the main characters, spending much of their time where the actors playing them really would be; backstage waiting for their entrance. This explains the brick wall set, that looks, appropriately, like the wings of a stage.

L to R: Frank Roberts, Paul Richter 
While waiting around, they engage endlessly in games, deep and largely directionless philosophical discussions, and various contemplations of the purpose of their existence. This is ironic because they are, after all, merely fictional characters.

They meet a troupe of actors (led by the excellent Nathan Rice, who is also the fight choreographer) heading onstage to do the “play within a play,” meant to trigger guilt in Hamlet’s murderous uncle. This inspires yet another foray into the meaning of life, theatre, and the universe.

Nathan Rice (foreground) and his troupe of actors

As I said, the entire cast and crew are worthy of praise, with a special nod to Roberts and Richter for doing the heavy lifting with massively wordy line loads. Kudos to everyone involved, on and off stage.

Now for the tough part, where I have to give you enough information about the nature of the play to decide if it is something you would enjoy, or at least want fervently to see.

Sigh. Here goes.

This is a long, and more pointedly, a long-winded and very wordy play, heavily larded with the sort of philosophical musings reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. To be honest, it reminded me of the many endless nights I spent at college in just such meandering discussions with my fellow philosophy majors. Of course back then, we were often – oh, who am I kidding – ALWAYS stoned.

Was it well executed? Yes, absolutely.

Is this sort of thing going to be compelling for you? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead and The Fifteen Minute Hamlet
​April 14th through May 7th 2017
Lakewood Playhouse

http://www.lakewoodplayhouse.org/

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Gypsy at Tacoma Little Theatre

Bijou
by Michael Dresdner

Cassie Jo Fastabend as Gypsy   Photos by Dennis K Photography

Musicals, I think, are best during times of stress. Letting the sparkling ├ęclat of the swirling music, singing, and dancing wash over you is just the sort of delightful distraction we need to forget the daily news.

Gypsy, the musical currently at Tacoma Little Theatre, does that perfectly.

Based loosely on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, it chronicles the rather sad story of Rose, the quintessential stage mother relentlessly pushing her two daughters into the spotlight. Along the way she blithely uses anyone who can further her goal, from underpaid young (and not so young) backup performers, to her long-suffering admirer and reluctant agent, Herbie (Jed Slaughter), a veritable prototype for Chicago’s Mr. Cellophane.

L to R: Stephanie Leeper as Rose, Jed Slaughter as Herbie  

Eventually, Rose alienates both daughters; Louise who became the famed stripper, and her younger sister who became actress June Havoc. It’s not until the song "Rose's Turn," in an iconic scene toward the end of the play, that Mama Rose finally voices the truth; that it was really all about forcing her daughters to fulfill her own frustrated stage desires.

L to R: Julia Wyman as June, Cassie Jo Fastabend as Louise

Brimming with great music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this version, superbly cast and directed by Chris Serface, is a delight. And typical of good musicals, their songs, in this case numbers like "Everything's Coming up Roses", "Together (Wherever We Go)", and "Let Me Entertain You” endure long after we’ve forgotten the play they came from.

The cast is too large to name separately, and there are too many sterling scenes to  tag individually, so permit me if I just call out a few of my favorites. Know, though, that from top to bottom, this wonderfully paced musical has an amazing cast, and all the top notch technical support such a fine group of actors deserves.   

L to R: Alex Koerger, Allie (as Chowsie, the dog), Stephanie Leeper, Summer Mays, Alexandria Bray

At the outset, the talented singing, dancing, acrobatic, baton twirling Baby June (Alexandria Bray, an outstanding dancer/acrobat with an adorably penetrating Betty Boop voice,) and her overshadowed older sister Louise (Summer Mays) are at an audition. Onto the stage bursts their mother, Rose (Stephanie Leeper), a brazen, hall-filling persona with all the brassy insistence of Ethyl Merman, who was both a producer and the lead in the original 1959 musical. Leeper nails it precisely, with boundless energy, a powerful voice, a far better figure, and better moves than the original.

In one of the most clever on-stage segues I’ve seen, Baby June, Louise, and their backup retinue of surprisingly good young dancers (Caleb Corpeno, Kepler Koerger, Liam Loughridge, Gunnar Ray) launch into their stage routine. Partway through, the lighting changes to strobe, and during the visual confusion, the young troupe is gradually replaced. When the strobe lights go off, the number ends with the now much older version of June (Julia Wyman), Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend)  and their backup group (Charlie Stevens, Kyle Yoder, Jeremy Schroeder, Rico Lastrapes) having replaced the originals on stage. It was slick. 

"All I Need Is the Girl" is another wonderful but bittersweet scene, where a clearly smitten but soon to be disappointed Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend) looks on as Tulsa (Rico Lastrapes) sings of his need for a female partner, all while doing a complex tap dance routine. Latrapes excels at tap, and Fastabend excels at conveying the sadly one-sided chemistry between them.

But my favorite scene was one in which three strippers give Louise the lowdown that the way to make it in burlesque is by choosing a gimmick. Each in turn does her own unique act.

There’s Mazeppa (Emilie Rommel Shimkus,) strutting her flawless voice and sinuous sexuality, the ‘elegant, refined’ Tessi-Tura (Kathy Kluska) with her veils, and the most surprising of all, Electra (Caiti Burke), fully wired with her… well, you’ll see. All three were spot-on accurate portrayals of the denizens of that class of seedy burlesque houses. (DAMHIKT)

Director Chris Serface deserves kudos not only for the excellent pacing and clever scene staging, but also for his unerring ability to put together an outstanding cast. Where he found all those very talented young (and not) triple threat dancers is a true puzzlement. And then there was Chowsie (Allie), Rose’s perfectly behaved lap dog.

In lieu of a live orchestra, Serface opted for a sound track, kept perfectly balanced without ever overshadowing the singers. It was a wise choice. Michele Graves provided the vast range of excellent, and often quite amusing costumes, though I’m guessing props master Jeffrey Weaver supplied the wealth of varied wigs.

Choreography, and there was a lot of it, is thanks to Lexi Barnett, aided by dance captain Jill Heinecke, who also played the role of Agnes. Musical direction was provided by Debra A. Leach with sound design by Dylan Twiner.

As usual, Niclas Olson did a fine job lighting the complex, rotating set by Blake York, above which hung a monitor displaying old time placards used to clarify location and scene changes. And with a play this complex, we need to acknowledge the fine, and unending, work of the stage manager, Nena Curley, and her assistant, Alyshia Collins.  

In short, Gypsy was a fast-paced, dazzling, thoroughly delightful evening of musical theatre that belies its two and a half hour run time. There’s a whole lot of wonderful here, and it’s well worth your time.

Gypsy
March 10 to April 2, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre