Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Lakewood Playhouse

A Minor Miracle
by Michael Dresdner 

Thanks both to the skills of director Marty MacKenzie and to an innovative partnership with LIT, the theatre’s educational arm, Lakewood Playhouse is offering a Christmas-themed play, both by and for children, that is surprisingly good. A strong cast and crisp, innovative directing, including some very funny physical comedy, make this worth watching on its own merits, beyond the obvious allure of cute kids. For once, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever may actually live up to its name.  

Why the surprise? First, any show with 20 children in the cast is already a challenge. On top of that, there’s the unlikely script. In it, characters so stereotypically evil as to be almost cartoonish go through jarringly rapid and unlikely personality changes.     

The story involves a town that mounts a traditional, crèche-inspired Christmas pageant every year at the local church. The same kids are always cast, but this year there’s a hitch. The usual director, Helen Armstrong (Cassie Cahill), is in traction with a broken leg, and she reluctantly turns over the production to Grace Bradley (MariClaire Schilling) and her comically grudging husband Bob (Mark Peterson.) Much of the exposition is provided in the form of narration by their daughter Beth (Kathryn Dunkelberger.)  

The naïve Grace ends up casting the town delinquents, a gaggle of hard-core young bullies who are all siblings from the same welfare family. They scare off the “good” kids and grab all the lead roles. Things go from bad to worse, and havoc ensues. All looks lost until the 11th hour, when said bullies inexplicably and instantaneously transform into caring sweethearts once the curtain goes up on the play. The moral is that if we only accept them, the mean will turn kind and the selfish compassionate. Hey, it’s a Christmas story; it’s supposed to be miraculous.  

MacKenzie started by casting three strong actors for the adult leads; four if you include the narrating elder daughter. Schilling did an excellent job of anchoring the play as the mother who reluctantly takes on the task of directing, while Dunkelburger more than held her own in the demanding and arguably adult role as daughter and narrator. Peterson was delightfully funny as the classic, put-upon father who’d rather hide behind his paper than be involved in a kids play, but who steps up, as expected, when needed.

Perhaps the funniest and certainly most over-the-top adult performance came from Cahill as the brash, outrageous Helen Armstrong. Dressed in outré outfits even though confined to a hospital bed and wheelchair, she deftly wields the phone as her chosen weapon of control, albeit unsuccessfully. 

Equally impressive was the large cast of children, which may in part be a credit to LIT. Two of the larger roles, Imogene Herdman  (Alexis Collins) and her kid sister Gladys (Rachel Wrede) stood out, but all the children were admirable actors. While children in plays are sometimes more trouble than help, these kids were attentive, motivated, hard-working, and skilled beyond their years. In short, they were not just kids, but real actors.

The pacing was excellent, with strong, sensible blocking, culminating in the high point of the physical humor at the end of act one. As a church rehearsal devolves into chaos with a fire scare, the stage erupts with streams of frantic, interlaced, running actors, both children and adults. It’s Keystone Kops meets Marx Brothers in a superbly choreographed melee worthy of Mack Sennett, and the long, frenetic scene went off without a hitch or a single collision. 

All this took place on a clean, efficient set designed by Blake York, replete with a stunning argyle-pattern painted floor, which seemed to have no mission beyond adding panache. As always, the lighting and sound, by Alex Smith, was both clever and well blended, while Marcie Hagerman’s costumes were believable and thoroughly appropriate. Between scene changes, Music Director Melanie Stevens treated us to iconic old Christmas songs, many of which were humorously and eerily appropriate to the action.

If you’ve seen this play before, trust me, this version is way better. In fact, it may well change your mind about the wisdom of attending shows where children hold the lion’s share of the roles. Give it a shot, even if you don’t know anyone in the cast. I suspect you’ll be delightfully surprised.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Dec. 13 to Dec. 24, 2012
Lakewood Playhouse

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sister's Christmas Catechism at Centerstage

Hark, the herald angel
by Michael Dresdner

Shh! Better be quiet and sit down! Sister is in the house.  

Yes, go ahead and rejoice, because Centerstage has brought Sister’s Christmas Catechism, the seasonal version of the deservedly popular Late Night Catechism, to its stage. And yes, it is every bit as hilarious, entertaining, and flat-out delightful as its, ahem… “sister” show.

You have not seen any of the Catechism series? Shame on you. Ok, sit up straight, hands in your lap, and I’ll explain what you’ve missed.

Sister is delightfully portrayed by Nonie Newton-Breen, a smart, sassy, schoolmarm in nun’s garb who transforms the theater into a Catholic classroom and the audience into her highly interactive class. Weaving a wealth of real and fascinating canonical history into a non-stop barrage of humor and faux cynicism, she finds willing victims in the audience to harass, reward and involve. The upshot is that everyone feels like part of the festivities (a few more than others) and we all have a wonderful time. 

Catholics get to relive their childhood experiences through a veil of spot-on humor, which I am sure is as cathartic as it is rib-tickling. Non-Catholics get the joy of peeking behind the veil of a world both strange and frequently lampooned. Either way, it is a win-win.  

Sister used the period before recess (or intermission, if you insist on calling it the first act) to locate her best victims and get everyone both laughing and caught up on the history of Christmas and Saint Nick. There were prizes for right answers and withering gibes for those who fell short of her high standards.

After recess, she set up a Nativity play. Using bags of often garish and always cleverly chosen thrift shop finds, she dressed a Joseph, a Mary, three Magi, a drummer boy, a shepherd, an ass, an ox, a sheep, and a small, halo-graced angel crafted from a child in the audience.

The sheep, for instance, was convincingly decked out in a white fuzzy throw rug, a matching toilet seat cover hat with office clip ears, black socks on her arms, and a black cup clenched in her teeth for a snout. Magi sported everything from table runners and brocade slip covers to a clever hat made of a blender cozy.

Watching her dress her audience assistants, and seeing their reactions, was a show in itself, but that wasn’t enough. She then had them go through the motions, accompanied by song and story, to recreate a living nativity scene, and ultimately solve the mystery of the missing Magi gold. The music, which Sister also controlled with an iron hand, came from an on-stage barbershop quartet in matching outfits made up, apparently, of people who just happened to be in the audience.

Every minute of the evening was joyous, hilarious, and captivating, thanks in small part to a good-natured audience, but mostly to Newton- Breen’s considerable skill.

In short, Sister’s Christmas Catechism is an absolutely delightful way to spend an evening. Now, here are the dates of future shows in which you can indulge, so pay attention; there will be rewards in heaven for those who get the answers right.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism
Dec. 5 through Dec. 22, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Miracle on 34th Street at TLT

 Elliot Weiner, Elena Easley 

A Believable Miracle
by Michael Dresdner

The stage version of Miracle on 34th Street now playing at Tacoma Little Theatre is a sterling example of how impressive theatre can be when all the elements click. A large, solid cast directed by Casi Wilkerson, very creative lighting, delightful music, a wealth of fine costumes, and an absolutely mind-blowing set combine to make this charming Christmas story of trust and imagination a worthwhile investment for the season.

I’m sure everyone has seen at least one of the movie versions of this classic so heavily aired this time of year. The play is fairly close to the movie, so I’ll keep the synopsis brief.

Kris Kringle, who claims to be the real Santa Claus, is hired to replace a drunken Santa by Macy’s’ event coordinator Doris, a pragmatic single mom with a cynical young daughter, Susan. Kris wins over customers and bosses, has a run in with a stuffy personnel wonk named Sawyer, and gets himself committed to a mental hospital. With help from Doris’ love-struck neighbor, a lawyer, Kris must get himself released, fulfill some promises, get the lawyer and Doris together, and convince Susan he’s the real deal, all before Christmas. (Yes, he does.)

Adysen Barkhurst, Elliot Weiner 

Throughout the huge and admirable cast are some wonderful portrayals, starting with the leads. Elliot Weiner is both charming and fitting as Kris Kringle. Gabe McClelland brings the perfect touch and convincing manner to lawyer Fred Gayley, who lives next door to, and has a schwarm for, Doris. Elena Easley is a solid and likeable Doris, but as good as she is, she is sometimes outshined by her perky factotum, Shellhammer, played superbly by Jefri Peters. Incidentally, Jefri’s infant son appears on stage several times doing a very convincing job of being, well… an infant. Last, and certainly not least, go kudos to young Adysen Barkhurst who is both adorable and outstanding as Susan, the non-believing daughter who hides a genuine hopeful streak inside.  

But it’s not just the leads who carry this. Michael Osier does an outstanding portrayal of a drunken Santa in the opening scene, then shows up later, just as convincingly, as a cigar chomping ward healer advising the presiding judge (Steve Lien) in Santa’s hearing. Perhaps my favorite portrayal, though, was Joseph Grant as the supercilious popinjay Sawyer, who tricks Kris into getting himself incarcerated.

It may be hard to believe with such a fine cast, but even they are a bit overshadowed by what I can honestly say is the best set I’ve ever seen in any community theatre production. Set designer Blake R. York, aided by props and set dresser Jeffery Weaver and set painter Brie Yost, pulled out all the stops and, taking advantage of the theater’s rotating floor, created four sets, each one so impressive and dazzling that one alone would garner accolades. There’s a snow-kissed store front street scene, an iconic Santa’s throne receiving area, a courtroom, and Doris and Susan’s apartment. In a fine choice by the director, when the floor is rotated through one scene for another we see people in each of the “unused” sets doing just what they’d be doing if it were the set in use. It was a clever and pleasant way to let the audience experience the set changes.

Excellent lighting by Niclas R. Olson, including the very clever use of some GOBOs for special effects, and delightful period era music from sound designer Joseph Kelly all added to the allure. Wrapping up the whole package were a huge array of fine costumes from Michele Graves, Diane Runkel and Marci Hagerman.  

Forget the fact that this is a tired old chestnut, and forget that you’ve seen it many times on film. Indulge once more and go see Miracle on 34th Street. This version at Tacoma Little Theatre is a feel-good experience that’s sure to make your holiday much more merry, no matter what you believe in.  

Miracle on 34th Street
Nov. 30 to Dec. 23, 2012
Tacoma Little Theatre


Monday, December 3, 2012

Cinderella at Centerstage

Thoroughly Modern Silly

by Michael Dresdner

Once again, Centerstage has mounted a traditional English Pantomime, an adaptation of Cinderella which debuted in 1804 at Drury Lane Theatre in London. This version, directed by Vince Brady, has all the zany elements you’d expect of Panto, but overlaid with very modern music.

Pantomimes, or Pantos are traditionally performed at Christmas for family audiences, and this one, with lots of audience and child participation, is especially family friendly. Even the music, most of it from the past decade, is aimed at endearing the younger members of the family.

Don’t let the word Pantomime fool you. Originally a dumb show preceded by a spoken section, audiences preferred the noisy part to the silent. Consequently, it morphed into the boisterous romp it is today, but kept the misleading name.

Along with song, dance, and general buffoonery, Panto incorporates a host of common elements. There are always inside jokes, topical and local references, a fairy godmother with unusual powers, and mild sexual innuendo, usually targeted to tickle the adults but go over the heads of the children. And there’s cross dressing; at least one man is played by a young woman costumed to show off her very female attributes, while one or more men dress as female hags.

But most of all, there is audience participation. Audiences cheer heroes, who enter stage right, and boo villains, who enter stage left, loudly warn cast members of trouble, point out which way someone went, and get into arguments with characters (Oh, no you can’t/ Oh, yes I can.) This one has all of that, plus sing-alongs and on stage tasks for volunteer children pulled from the audience, all of whom get rewards for helping out.

An absolutely delightful fairy godmother (Rosalie Hilburn) introduces the play while forcing the audience to join into what will become non-stop vocal interaction. She breaks the ice by sweetly ordering everyone to cheer for her whenever she enters the stage, and repeats her entrance until you get it right. Once caught up in the interactive mood, it’s easy to keep it going.

Cinderella (Erin Herrick) is the sweet songstress you’d expect, but hangs with a clownish friend, Buttons (Erik Gratton) who secretly, and fruitlessly, pines for her. Don’t worry; he eventually finds a girlfriend (Lissa Bak) who sings as well as her rival.

   Dandini (Alex Blouin) and Prince Charming (HIlary Heinz Luthi)

Both Cinderella’s object of affection, Prince Charming (Hilary Heinz Luthi) and “his” sidekick/body guard Dandini (Alex Blouin) are played by women in drag, both showing plenty of leg and dancing up a storm. On the distaff side, played by men in drag, are the very funny and genuinely ugly stepsisters, Kourtney (Roger Curtis) and Khloe (artistic director Alan Bryce.) Baron Hardup (Sam Barker) is Cinderella’s oafish and henpecked father, and they’re all amplified by seven more ensemble cast members who, like the leads, sing, dance and play a variety of roles.

Music is a big part of Panto, and as usual, it was adroitly led by Musical Director David Duvall on keyboards with Andrew Carson on guitar, Larry Leggett on bass, and Troy Lund on percussion. As I said, the music in this one is modern, borrowing songs from Michael Buble, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Adele and Avril Levigne, and Lady Gaga plus a few chestnuts we old timers will recognize.

For me, the musical highlight was “If I Were Not In Panto Land,” a successive telescoping song. The first actor sings a verse accompanied by hand and body motions illustrating it. The next joins in and sings a new verse, with new motions, and so on down the line. By the end, there’s a long line of actors singing and miming verses simultaneously to the same tune with movements all flawlessly synchronized to interact with one another. It’s hard to describe, but a true delight to watch.

There’s plenty of energetic dance, choreographed by Amy Johnson, a wide range of bright and sometimes silly costumes by Ron Leamon (with wigs by Johnni Whitby), and the usual great sound and lighting design by Amy Silvera. Set designer Sarah Sugarbaker went with very simple and unobtrusive moveable backgrounds, but the one standout was an amazingly elaborate carriage by Stephen Moody that must have eaten up the bulk of the set budget. It was pulled by two actors in a horse costume, another Panto convention.

To be honest, the show I saw on opening night suffered from common first-audience problems and delays. As we say in theatre, it needed a lot of air squeezed out of it, and it ran longer that I felt it should have. As that’s not uncommon for opening night, and typically goes away quickly, odds are very good that the version you see will be crisper and shorter.

Again, make sure you bring the whole family to this one. There were plenty of kids in the audience, even very young ones, and I watched them for their reaction. They were thoroughly entertained, fully involved, and were clearly having a great time.

Nov. 30 to Dec. 23, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

Twelfth Night at Lakewood Playhouse

Tights, fights, and very funny sights

by Michael Dresdner

It’s challenging to make a Shakespearean comedy as genuinely funny to modern audiences as it was meant to be, but thanks to an absolutely stellar cast under the excellent direction of Rachel Fitzgerald, Lakewood Playhouse has done it. Twelfth Night is a gem; a fast-paced, delightfully hilarious romp.

Left to right: Clifford Peddicord, Russ Coffey, Brittany D. Henderson 

There’s a plot, of course, which is as convoluted as you can imagine and loaded with characters, too numerous to mention, who help connect the dots. Fortunately, the plot does not get in the way of the real hilarity, most of which comes from sub-plots and irrelevant hijinks. Here’s a relatively brief overview.

Viola (Maggie Lofquist) lands on Illyria convinced her twin brother Sebastian (Alex Smith) has died in a shipwreck. She dresses as a man named Cesario to get employment with Duke Orsino (Mason Quinn), and soon falls in love with him. But the Duke is in love with Olivia (Angelica Duncan), who won’t have him. She instead falls for Viola/Cesario, who is acting as the Duke’s messenger, thus creating an interesting love triangle. However, the Duke also has what he sees as an unexplainable homosexual attraction to his new servant Cesario.

Eventually, a very alive Sebastian, who likewise believes his sister is dead, shows up with his friend and protector Antonia (Kait Mahoney.) While she gets arrested for prior offenses, he meets Olivia, who mistakes him for his cross-dressing twin Viola/Cesario. She pours out her love to him and he marries her on the spot, conveniently ignoring the fact that she calls him by the wrong name.

Meanwhile, lots of other shenanigans are going on in the household of the high born Olivia. Anchoring the hilarity are two screamingly funny drunken reprobates; Olivia’s brash, besotted uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Clifford Peddicord), and his clueless, clumsy sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Russ Coffey). Aiding and abetting them are their female counterparts, Maria (Deya Ozburn) and Fabian (Brittany D. Henderson.) Granted, women of the time had to be more restrained, and less inebriated, but they do a wonderfully nuanced job of keeping up their end of the craziness. Whenever these four outstanding actors come on stage you are in for a rollickingly delightful time.

In fact, the only one who could edge them out for “steal the show” credits is their chief victim, Olivia’s pompous, stuffy steward Malvolio (Ian Lamberton). The comic gang of four convince him Olivia will fall for him if he acts and dresses as a complete fool. They get him incarcerated and coax the town’s troubadour/fool Feste (Steve Tarry) to taunt him while captive. Lamberton plays Malvolio way over the top, and it is absolutely hilarious, creating far and away the best and funniest Malvolio I’ve ever seen.   

There are a few more side plots, but eventually, Antonia and Malvolio get released from their separate incarcerations, and both go off in a huff. Sebastian and Viola discover each other alive, which allows the latter to reveal her true gender. She agrees to marry the Duke, who finally understands his strong affection for this “man” he’s been calling Cesario. Olivia discovers her husband’s real name and his connection to Viola/Cesario, and in what must create the ultimate troublemaking couple, Sir Toby marries Maria.  

Of course, nothing is ever perfect, and there was one thing that rankled a bit. The director switched the male character Antonio to a female Antonia. The heterosexual Sebastian is supposed to be confused and repulsed by Antonio’s homosexual advances, but that reads differently when they come from a stunningly beautiful Antonia.  

Aiding the cast was a very adept support group. Blake York provided a simple and appropriate set, beautifully painted by Jen Ankrum and crew. Alex Smith (Sebastian in the cast) handled sound and Brett Carr designed lighting. Costumes by Marcie Haggerman were certainly interesting and attractive, though not always consistently in period, and sometimes marred by expansion panels in the back. Still, that’s the challenge of dressing a large cast with many changes in community theatre.

Admittedly, Shakespeare continues to scare some away. “It’s the language,” they say. “I won’t understand Elizabethan jargon.” Thanks to adroit directing and very skilled acting, you don’t need to worry about that. Through exaggerated body movement, facial contortions, and very expressive vocal work, all the actors make it abundantly clear what is being said. As one of the cast assures you in her blog, “We are doing the work FOR you.”

That said, go, and go fearlessly, to see Twelfth Night at Lakewood Playhouse. You’ll be treated to a top-to-bottom outstanding cast, an excellent, fast-paced production, and an evening of guaranteed laughter.  

Twelfth Night
Nov. 9 to Dec. 2, 2012
Lakewood Playhouse

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Unforgettable Nat 'King' Cole

Comfort Food
by Michael Dresdner

Once again, the redoubtable David Duvall, acting as musical arranger, director, and all around impresario, brought a divine musical experience to Centerstage. This time this musical genius took up the art of the late, great crooner Nat ‘King’ Cole.

Unfortunately, it was a one night only performance, but fear not. It’s part of a series, and I promise I’ll give you a shot at what’s coming at the end of this review. First, let me tell you what you missed, so you’ll be loath to miss another.

Sheldon Craig
The all Cole evening featured Sheldon Craig, a singer dripping with great talent, a beautiful voice, and a personality that rivaled both. A smoothly polished night club performer, he brought the best of the stage to a sold out audience; every one of the 234 seats was filled, and every one emptied into a standing ovation when he was done.

It was well deserved. Craig was a delight, lifting the room with bubbling, bouncing strains of classics like Route 66 and Papa Loves Mambo. During the infectious Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer, he even got his audience to sing along. Balancing it were the warm notes of songs like Mona Lisa and An Affair to Remember, where his lush voice wrapped around you like a wooly blanket.

The evening was, from start to finish, a pure delight, with Craig covering dozens of the great Cole songs those of us long enough in the tooth fondly remember. In between, there was the comforting patter of one who clearly loved his subject, and the pure enthusiasm of one who clearly loved what he was doing. So, too, did the audience.

Backing Craig was one of Duvall’s wonderful pickup groups. As usual, Duvall arranged, conducted and covered piano and other keyboards. With him were nine other multi-instrumentalists (Eric Brewster, Rick Cole, Dr. Ron Cole, Bud Jackson, Bill Branvold, Margaret Thorndill, Milo Petersen, Cary Black , Don Dietrich) who, in various iterations, offered a range of sounds from something akin to a small jazz group to the feel of a respectable pit orchestra. And behind them, a draped chiffon backdrop (Amy Silvera) acted as a lighting palette, changing colors to match the mood of each song.

Granted, you missed this one (it was sold out before the doors opened), but the good news is that Duvall will be bringing similar evenings, showcasing other vocal greats, to Alan Bryce’s wonderful Centerstage theatre in the near future.

Here’s what’s in store:

Believe in Yourself: The Lena Horne Songbook  -- with Stacie Calkins, Laurie Clothier and LaVon Hardison
Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013

It’s a Good Day for Miss Peggy Lee -- with Lindsey Larsen
Saturday, April 13, 2013

Reflections of The Supremes
Saturday, July 13, 2013

As before, these are ONE NIGHT ONLY, so take my advice and reserve your tickets early. Missing one is sad. Missing the others (now that I’ve warned you) would be a real pity.

The Unforgettable Nat King Cole
Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Night Watch at TLT

Does she or doesn’t she? Only her therapist knows for sure.

By Michael Dresdner

L to R, Nicole Locket, Gabriel McClellend, Jenifer Rifenbery 

A few minutes in, rumbling sound effects and a piercing scream let you know right off the bat that this will be a mystery thriller. Night Watch, a Lucille Fletcher play with decided Hitchcock overtones, has shown up at Tacoma Little Theatre just in time for Halloween.

The scream comes from wealthy heiress Elaine (Nicole Locket), who’s seen a bloody dead body in a chair through a briefly raised shade on the window of a vacant building across the way. No one else in the house sees anything; not her husband John (Gabriel McClellend), her visiting best friend Blanche (Jenifer Rifenbery), or the housekeeper Helga (Ziggy Devlan).

To complicate matters, Elaine is an emotionally fragile insomniac whose first husband, whom she says the aforementioned dead body resembled, died in a car wreck along with his illicit paramour. As is usually the case in this story genre, the police find no evidence of anything having happened, so by the time she sees a second body there, one resembling the blonde paramour, everyone, audience included, is starting to doubt her sanity.

As odd evidence mounts, like a blonde wig and a local who also looks like the dead man, we’re left wondering if she’s crazy, or is being played by her assumed friend and husband. Before long, her husband, aided by a psychiatrist who makes house calls, has convinced her to go to a mental hospital in Europe.

Through a sizeable chunk of both acts, the play lurches clumsily along like a sloppy jalopy with various secondary characters wandering through. Some will be key to the plot, but others seem merely to distract or add comic relief. Be patient, though, for ultimately the conclusion arrives with a very surprising twist that, while some might find a bit unsettling, I found to be quite satisfying.

Whether by accident, design, or direction, Locket and McClellend, both very skilled actors who’ve done superb and finely nuanced performances in the past, come off a bit two dimensional in this outing. That distracts from the inexorable building of tension that should be more gripping than it is. Rifenbery, by contrast, is quite convincing in a pleasantly understated performance as Elaine’s two-faced best friend.

John Pfaffe, a consistently reliable and skillful actor, plays the trench-coated police lieutenant Walker to a tee. Even more delightful is the flamboyant neighbor Appleby, played by another theatre mainstay, Joe Grant. He’s so compelling and likable that I wished he had more stage time.

The set, designed by Burton Yuen with props and set dressing by Becca Heines, deserves its own accolades. There’s obvious wealth behind the spare, modern 1970’s NYC apartment, which includes a perspective painted checkerboard floor, fine art on the walls, a Caldor mobile, an Eames chair, and a Mondrian inspired back wall skinned with a semi-transparent scrim. Throughout the play, the wall morphs and pulsates with a wide range of colors and lighting effects (Niclas R. Olson), adding both visual pleasure and mood.

Adding to the pleasant setting were the costumes (Francis Rankos), especially the iconic ones on Blanche and the hilariously outré ones worn by Appleby. The aforementioned sound effects (Joe Kelly) included eerie songs, street sounds, and the rest of the needed stage noises that bring realism to theatre.

If for you, October is just not complete without a foray into the eerie, you should add this play to your to Halloween to-do list.

Night Watch
Oct. 19 to Nov. 11, 2012
Tacoma Little Theatre

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Turn of the Screw

Breath Taking

by Michael Dresdner

The Turn of the Screw at Centerstage pairs a deservedly famous, century-old psychological ghost story with surgically precise direction and an absolutely perfect cast in order to twist its audience through 90 riveting minutes of non-stop crescendo, leaving them dry-mouthed and spent. It’s a theatre experience you should not miss.

The story, if you don’t already know it, was written as a novella by Henry James in 1898, and has long been debated thanks to its delicious ambiguity. It’s liberally laced with overtones of religious and sexual repression, pedophilia, projection, fear, protective instinct, and the occult.  

A young woman is hired as governess for two children, by an uncle who wants nothing to do with them and quickly exits the picture. She finds a homebound mute girl, Flora, and her older brother, Miles, who was just permanently expelled from boarding school for something apparently too disgusting to discuss. They occupy a country estate tended by housekeeper Mrs. Grose, who piecemeal fills in some of its chilling past. Their last governess, Miss Jessel, and a hired hand, Peter Quint, had carried on a torrid and unconcealed sexual affair before both died under somewhat odd circumstances.

Soon the governess starts seeing the ghosts of Jessel and Quint, and becomes convinced they are either in league with, or worse, manipulating the children for some nefarious, possibly sexual, ends. The pace builds to a gripping climax with another death and the complete dissolution of the household, but there is much left for the audience to decide. Did the children, or Mrs. Grose, also see the ghosts? Who was manipulating whom? Or for that matter did the governess actually see the ghosts and earnestly try to protect the children from them, or was she simply descending into her own destructive madness?

Director Alan Bryce crafted this superbly as a one-act play with a gripping pace that never lets up, nor lets go of the audience. A simple set (Ben Baird), mood enhancing lighting (Amy Silveria), a pair of ideal costumes (Rachel Wilkie), and some ghostly special effects (Christina Barrigan) supply the seamless underpinnings. What brings it all home, though, was Bryce’s choice of just two sterling actors to cover all the parts.

The governess is played by Helen Harvester, beautifully and adroitly filling out a most demanding role. She goes from innocent and exhilarating anticipation through the entire gamut of emotions to fear, aggressive determination, and quite possibly, pure madness. Throughout, she keeps it completely convincing, and eminently compelling.

Terry Edward Moore plays all the other parts; a narrator, a doctor, and the uncle, who all appear only briefly, as well as the major roles of young Miles and Mrs. Grose. He does it without ever changing costume, slipping quickly and seamlessly in and out of the various roles with attendant physical gestures and voices. His performance is so convincing that you quickly forget what he’s wearing or what his true gender is. It’s the epitome of great acting. Like the governess, he, too, traverses a huge range of emotional states and character aspects, from coolly detached to cripplingly overwrought. The last character, Flora, is not played, but rather her presence is implied by the actions and words of the two real actors.

The Turn of the Screw is but the opening salvo of Centerstage’s new season, and if this is any example of the quality we can expect, it’s going to be an amazing theatrical year.

The Turn of the Screw
Oct. 6 through Oct. 31, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sherlock's Last Case

Not your father’s sleuth

by Michael Dresdner

Lakewood Playhouse often opens the season with a classic whodunit by Christie or another major writer. If you think that’s what they’re doing again this year, disabuse yourself of that notion. Sherlock’s Last Case, written not by A. Conan Doyle but by Charles Marowitz, is a far cry from a classic Sherlock Holmes story.

Yes, it contains deception and mystery, and offsets it with humor, mostly of the one-liner variety. But while it is overlaid upon the familiar Doyle characters and Baker Street set, the resulting play is not typical.

Where most mysteries dole out clues and let you discover them along with the detective, this one has almost none of that. In fact, except for the opening dialogue, a recap of a former case that includes a clear foreshadow of one of the play’s surprises, there is little true sleuthing to be found.

Instead, the mystery involves not a case per se, but a dark corner in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes (Steve Tarry), Dr. Watson (John Munn), and the specter of nemesis Moriarty in the guise of his offspring (Rachel Gamello/Mark Adam Rud). The small cast is rounded out nicely by the familiarly brusque Inspector Lestrade (Terence Artz) and ditzy housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Cassie Cahill).  

The clues we’re given are for deciphering what is really going on in front of us, rather than to unravel a crime that has already taken place. And what is really going on is very unusual indeed, at least to diehard Baker Street fans.

That’s in large part because the author redefined both Watson and Holmes as very different people than the ones Doyle created, at least insofar as director Christian Carvajal has interpreted him. The agreeable, stable Watson is replaced by a seething, scheming factotum more resentful than convivial. Holmes, usually a coldly focused genius who blithely but benignly dismisses anyone not pertinent to the case at hand, becomes a more likeable fellow on the surface, but one saddled with a disturbing streak of petty vituperation.

The acting is what you’d expect from a very seasoned cast, and all cover their parts well. Tarry’s Holmes is charming and believable, while Munn’s Watson is stolidly consistent, except perhaps for a limp that hasn’t decided whether to come or go. For better or worse, both inject good bit of their own personas into their respective characters. Cahill creates a notable contrast to what one expects of a housekeeper, adroitly executing Mrs. Hudson as a delightfully batty, easily inebriated charmer.

The set, done in deep thrust, is lovely; an artful combination of the skills of designers Larry Hagerman and John Munn, props master Jeffrey Weaver, and set dresser Hally Phillips. They managed to create a Baker Street that is both comfortably familiar and brimming with delightful eye candy. Much of it does not get used as part of the play, so take time to drink it all in before the opening curtain. Blocking is done so that there’s no advantage or disadvantage in any of the three seating sections surrounding the action. No matter where you sit, you’ll see it all.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t outline the plot, since figuring out the plot itself is mostly where the mystery lies, and I don’t want to ruin it for you. Instead, I’ll just say that nothing is completely what it seems to be, but then, isn’t that true of all mysteries?

Sherlock’s Last Case
September 14th to October 14th, 2012
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/All in the Timing

Something familiar, something peculiar
by Michael Dresdner 

One cast, two days, seven plays. That’s what’s afoot in Federal Way this summer, and if you’re smart, you’ll hoof it down there and take advantage of it.
Centerstage, a bastion of great theatre, has teamed up with the drama department of Central Washington University to stage a Summer Theatre Festival reminiscent of classic summer stock, where one group of actors puts on different shows on alternating weeks or nights.

In this case, a combined cast made up of three Centerstage and five CWU actors stages a fairly familiar and well-loved musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and alternates it with a rather peculiar set of six, short, one act comedies, dubbed All in the Timing, from playwright David Ives. Based on the results, it’s pretty clear that CWU’s talent pool can easily hold its own with the very admirable Centerstage troupe.

From the Centerstage side comes DuWayne Andrews, Jr., Bob De Dea, and Caitlin Frances. If you’ve been lucky enough, or wise enough, to be a regular patron, you’ll recognize them from past successes. Hailing from CWU comes a similar group of young talents; Ben Sasnett, Sierra Tinhof, Brandon Walker, Alicia Renee Burch, Alex Smith, and Chauncey Trask. There were too many great characters created by this universally talented troupe to call out a string of high points. I’ll simply say that this is an outstanding ensemble, and you’d be crazy to miss it.

As is so often the case at Centerstage, the top notch actors were abetted, on both nights, by clever and simple scenery, spot on costumes and lighting, excellent directing and choreography, and in the case of Spelling Bee, the best musical support around. 

Spelling Bee, a popular and often performed musical, has a pair of quirky moderators proctoring a spelling bee peopled with a gaggle of peculiar and socially out-of-step savants, with a useless and suspect grief counselor in attendance. There’s a wealth of great music and dance numbers, both as a group and individually, as each of the off-center contestants exposes his or her odd back story and personal angst, and trots out an affectation or two used to make it through the competition. 

The musical teems with word plays, sight gags, and often masquerading as awkwardness, some fine dancing to go with the singing and acting. It’s a perfect vehicle for classic triple threat (singing, dancing, acting) performers, and this was, top to bottom, a perfect cast for it.

As usual, Centerstage pulled in an excellent production team consisting of director/choreographer Chris Nardine, musical director/keyboardist David Duvall (abetted by percussionist Troy Lund), set and lighting designer Christina Barrigan, and costume designer Jessica Pribble.

The next night I saw All in the Timing, a sextet of very funny, often very odd, comedies. All six were short but engaging, and the evening sped by.

 Sure Thing is the classic boy meets girl in a café, and each tries to say the right thing so that a date ensues. However, there’s a delightful twist. Each time one says the wrong, or less than ideal, thing, a service counter bell dings. That’s the signal, often used in improv, to back up a line or two and try again. The result is a hilarious sequence of alternate offshoots that, after enough mulligans, finally gets the couple together.

Words, Words, Words has the classic “three monkeys at typewriters will eventually create Hamlet” conjecture, but in this case, we hear the monkeys’ point of view as they caper about and expound on their take of the situation. The Universal Language is another boy meets girl story, but this time with an entrepreneur offering lessons in an Esperanto-type universal language. It’s wonderful wordplay, and yes, you’ll understand everything they say, even though it is not, strictly speaking, in English.

Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread takes a couple of simple sentences by four people in a bakery and deconstructs them into a collage of song, movement, and rhythm. In The Philadelphia, a man explains to his hapless friend that everything is going awry because he is stuck in a Philadelphia, a day were you can only get what you want by asking for the opposite. Variations on the Death of Trotsky, is just pure silliness, with a buffoonish Trotsky, a climbing axe firmly imbedded in his head, dying, over and over again in slightly different ways, after his wife clarifies events for him by reading about his death from an encyclopedia clearly written in the future.

Cynthia White did an excellent job of directing Timing, backed up by costume designer Lacy Halverson, and choreographer/stage manager Kate Gregory.

As an actor myself, I was impressed – make that amazed – that one cast can manage to do what amounts to seven totally different plays, one of them a full length musical, and create some 25 diverse characters, without getting them all mixed up. As a reviewer, I was simply delighted to be able to beat the heat in air conditioned comfort while I got to indulge in two back-to-back nights of non-stop fun.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
August 18th and 19th at 2 pm,
August 22nd, 24th and 25th at 8 pm.
All in the Timing
August 18th and 23rd at 8 pm,
August 25th and 26th at 2 pm.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Love Letters

Sentimental Journey

Because each performance of Love Letters has a different cast, Alec Clayton and I decided to go on three different days and then share our reviews on one another's theatre blogs. Here’s my take; if you haven’t read it yet, Alec’s is below.

If you have read Alec’s review you know the basics. Yes, it is a “play” consisting of two people sitting side by side, reading 50 years worth of letters to one another recounting lives that are largely out of sync. And yes, it is often done, as it is at Lakewood, with revolving casts.

If you are lucky enough to see it with the right actors, (and I was,) you understand immediately why; it is hard to imagine a cast being able to make it through the powerful and heart-rending Act II more than once in a year, much less several times a week.

At its core, Love Letters is a long and winding road; a lifetime journey of two people who meet at age seven, and through letters and a few rare personal contacts, follow each others lives as they unfold in very different directions. Yet through it all, they remain bound by a thin, unbreakably strong, spider-silk strand of affection.  

Act one is laugh-out-loud funny; from the giddy silliness of two seven-year-olds passing notes through the awkward and exaggerated tweens and teens, and on into the confusing absurdity of early adulthood. The actors imperceptibly age, through voice and mannerisms, as they grow into their lives.

Act two takes us through their successes, challenges, and for one, desultory destruction, and by its end, leaves us emotionally drained and decidedly tear stained.
Granted, with different casts, each performance will be different, and some may be stronger, better, or differently skewed. I saw two, and they were, admittedly, much different. Clearly, there’s no way to review all nine, but I will say this about one pair. 

I’m one of those people who abhor frivolous standing ovations, but Sunday’s performance, a complete tour de force by the outstanding team of Micheal O’Hara and Sharry O’Hare, was one of those rare times it was truly earned. It made me glad to be a reviewer, proud to know the actors, and grateful to have experienced those two hours of my life.

In short, done well, this is powerful theatre, the true measure of what great theatre can be, a journey that will make you laugh, and will make you cry.

Alec is right. Go see it. It’s an experience worth having.

Alec Clayton’s review
Friday, Aug. 10th 2012
Jen Davis and Alex Smith

There are many degrees and types of intimacy, but it is rare to have experienced a theatrical performance as intimate as Love Letters at Lakewood Playhouse. And what a sweet and original concept: nine performances of the same two-person play, each performance by a different couple who, off stage, are actual lovers, spouses or partners.

Since it opened off-Broadway in 1989 Love Letters has traditionally been performed with revolving casts. The unique twist to the Lakewood Playhouse presentation is that each of the performing couples met and fell in love while working in theater.

 As written by A.R. Gurney, the play is not to be “performed.” The couple is introduced. They sit side-by-side in chairs and read a series of letters to each other. Theater-goers will notice that no one is credited as director or costume designer. The only thing theatrical about the show is the lights come up at the beginning of each act and go down at the end. Otherwise it is just two characters reading letters written to one another over a lifetime. That sounds boring, but it is anything but. It is fascinating. It is one of the most personally engaging bits of theater I have ever witnessed.

The characters are Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, a boy and girl who met in the second grade and whose first correspondences were notes passed back and forth in school, and who continued a relationship, mostly through letters, throughout their lives. They grow up. They experience the pangs and hopes and disappointments of puberty and adolescence and young adulthood. They go their separate ways, both physically and psychologically, yet keep getting back together mostly through the letters as they build careers and family and grow into middle age and old age.

Alex Smith and Jen Davis were Andrew and Melissa opening night. Smith is a South Puget Sound favorite who has performed in a slew of plays in
Olympia and Tacoma, most recently turning in an amazing performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Lakewood Playhouse. He has endeared himself to audiences primarily through wild physical comedy. In this show he is much more restrained physically, but his facial expressions offer a look into the soul of Andrew Ladd. Davis is not as well known to me. This was my first time to see her on stage, and according to a curtain speech by Playhouse Artistic Director John Munn it may be the last for quite some time, because she is leaving the area soon for California. I’m glad I got to see her in this show. She absolutely becomes Melissa Gardner, frustrated artist and lover.

The amazing thing about Smith and Davis’s performance is that they each seem to thoroughly inhabit their characters yet remain most definitely themselves. Smith has a favorite hat that he wears everywhere he goes, and he wears it throughout this performance as if saying, “Look folks, no costume. It’s just me.” Having gotten to know him a little over the past year I felt like I was watching Alex Smith be himself, opening his own heart for the world to see inside and revealing that Andrew was as real as Alex. That is what we call acting. I suspect everyone in the audience opening night felt the same way — privileged to be invited into their lives. I’m sure the experience will be much the same at each succeeding performance as audiences are given a chance to see many of their favorite actors perform this show, so this is one show that would be good to see more than once because it promises to be different each time.

The actors are:

Friday, Aug. 10 -  Jen Davis and Alex Smith
Saturday, Aug. 11 - Jen Ankrum and Blake York
Sunday, Aug. 12 - Sharry O’Hare and Micheal O’Hara
 Friday, Aug. 17 - Stephanie and Jarod Nace
Saturday, Aug. 18 - Terri and Robert Puett
Sunday, Aug.19 - Aya and Randy Clark
Friday, Aug. 24 – Samantha Camp and Bruce Story
Saturday, Aug. 25 – Rachel and Alan Wilkie
Sunday, Aug. 26 – Bethany Bevier and Niclas R. Olson

Love Letters is sweet, poignant, funny and revealing. I not only recommend it, I recommend seeing as many performances as possible.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 26

WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: All tickets $15
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Community Theatre Critics Choice Awards

Community Theatre Awards
The best of the 2011/2012 season of community theatre

Disclaimer: Alec Clayton and I shared the review duties this year, so I only reviewed 15 plays. For the most part, we did not see the same plays, so you really must take both sets of reviews together as one. His choices are posted right below mine.

Here are my choices, and again, bear in mind there were many plays I did not see, so don’t feel slighted if you are not in this group.
Michael Dresdner

Best musical: Pinocchio at Centerstage, directed by Vanessa Miller, takes the prize with a staggeringly talented cast, great sets, costumes, direction, and of course, the best musical treatment.

Best drama: Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Tacoma Little Theatre, directed by Doug Kerr. Very powerful.

Best comedy: Much Ado About Nothing at Olympia Little Theatre, directed by Terence Artz, would also take most unusual and successful reimagining of Shakespeare, by setting this play in New Orleans just after WWII.

Best actor(s) in a drama: Luke Amundsen and Scott Campbell were both brilliant in the two person play Zoo Story at Toy Boat Theatre.

Best actress in a drama: Danelle Jaeger for a beautifully nuanced performance in Proof at Tacoma Little Theatre.

Best actor in a comedy: Brian Jansen as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Olympia Little Theatre.

Best actress in a comedy: Kathryn Philbrook, a delightful Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at Olympia Little Theatre.

Best young or up-and-coming actor: Coleman Hagerman crossed the line from “child actor” to real actor, and a damned good one at that, with his portrayal of The Artful Dodger in Oliver at Lakewood Playhouse.

Best supporting actress: Annie Coleman, who turned in her finest performance in all the years I’ve watched her on stage, in Proof at Tacoma Little Theatre.

Best character actor(s): Alyssa McElfresh and Priscilla Zai playing Dogberry and Verges, bit roles traditionally done by men but way funnier by these two, were outstanding in Much Ado About Nothing at Olympia Little Theatre.

Best dramatic ensemble: An amazing job by Tim Samland, Tim Shute and Marty Mackenzie, the three man cast of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Tacoma Little Theatre.

Best comedic ensemble: The entire cast of Pinocchio at Centerstage; every blessed one was a great dancer, comic, and actor.

Best professional actor: Late Night Catechism’s Nonie Newton-Breen at Centerstage was superb, but to be fair, it’s not, strictly speaking, community theatre, but rather a professional touring show.

Best director of a drama: All three of these deserve recognition for great direction. Zoo Story at Toy Boat, directed by Brie Yost, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Tacoma Little Theatre, directed by Doug Kerr, and The Farnsworth Invention at Lakewood Playhouse, a cleverly constructed, beautifully paced, fascinating production of a very complex and difficult play, directed by John Munn.  

Best director of a musical: Vanessa Miller for Pinocchio at Centerstage. Every part of that was perfect; cast, dancing, pacing, presentation.

Best director of a comedy: Terence Artz for Much Ado About Nothing at Olympia Little Theatre.

Best musical direction: David Duvall earned this three times over for I’m Into Something Good, Pinocchio, and Tenderly, all at Centerstage.

Best season/best artistic director: Alan Bryce of Centerstage produced a consistently outstanding crop of musicals, comedies and revues; every one was noteworthy.

Best costumers: Ron Leamon and Johnni Whitby jointly created marvelously inventive eye popping costumes and wigs for Pinocchio at Centerstage.

Best choreography: This one will have to be shared between Casi Wilkerson for great production numbers in Oliver at Lakewood Playhouse, and the unnamed choreographer of Pinocchio at Centerstage. You were amazing, whomever you are.

And now, here are Alec's choices. 

Alec Clayton’s selections for Critic’s Choice of the best in community theater in South Puget Sound. 

These are selected from performances I have reviewed in this column over the past season. My point in doing this is to acknowledge those who are commendable without making it into a winner-takes-all competition, so in many categories I have chosen more than one person or show.

Best Actor in a Musical (male): Michael Self as Scrooge in “Scrooge” at Capital Playhouse.

Best Actor in a Musical (female): Stacie Calkins as Celie in “The Color Purple” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Best Direction of a Musical: Jon Douglas Rake for “The Color Purple” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Best Musical: “The Color Purple” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, “The Who’s Tommy” at Centerstage

Best Dramatic Actor (male): David Wright as Richard Harken in “The Seafarer” at Harlequin Productions

Best Dramatic Actor (female): Samantha Camp as Tamora and Priscilla Marie Zal as Lavinia in Theatre Artists Olympia’s “Titus Andronicus.”

Best Direction of a Drama: This honor shared by Pug Bujeaud for Theatre Artists Olympia’s “Titus Andronicus” an Scot Whitney for “The Seafarer” at Harlequin Productions.

Best Drama: “The Seafarer” at Harlequin Productions

Best Comic Actor (male): Christopher Cantrell as Pseudolus  in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Lakewood Playhouse. And if I was choosing a best supporting actor in a comedy that honor would go to Alex Smith as Hysterium, also in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Lakewood Playhouse.

Best Comic Actor (female): Alison Monda in “The Love List” at Harlequin Productions

Best Comedy: “The Love List” at Harlequin.

Best Supporting Actor in a drama: Daniel Guttenberg as Ivan in “The Seafarer” at Harlequin Productions.

Best Youth Actor in a Drama: Jackson Jones as Eugene Morris Jerome in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Capital Playhouse.

Best Youth Actor in a Musical: Nicholas Hayes as Tiny Tim in “Scrooge” at Capital Playhouse.

Best Ensemble: “Seafarer” at Harlequin Productions

Best Fringe Theatre: The Space in Tacoma for “Terminus,” directed by David Domkoski.

Best Choreography for a Musical: Jon Douglas Rake for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
This year I’m picking the same play for all the major technical awards: Best Set Design, Linda Whitney; Best Lighting, Kate Arvin; and Best Costumes, Darrin Mills, all for “Enchanted April” at Harlequin Productions.