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 cafĂ©, 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.