Monday, December 8, 2014

Scrooge! The Musical at TLT

An upside down review
by Michael Dresdner

   The Scrooge! cast.                                photos by DK Photography

The set was amazing, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

See what I did there? I stole (and altered) the first two lines from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the endlessly performed and frequently re-imagined story that is the basis for Scrooge! The Musical now playing at Tacoma Little Theatre.

Granted, the first thing you see in any play when the lights go up is the set, but this time the set is so amazingly good that it set a high bar for the rest of the production. You know how some people go to see The Nutcracker each year in part because of the amazing Maurice Sendak sets and costumes? Well, I’d suggest that similarly, TLT keep this set. It’s that good.

I’ll get to the rest of the production, which, incidentally, was chock-a-block with talent, in a minute, but bear with me. This set, designed by Blake York and ably abetted with set dressing and props by Jeffery Weaver (who also did wigs) and painting by Jen Ankrum, was a marvel not only for how incredibly good it looked in every iteration, but also how cleverly it morphed. With actors very adroitly moving and rotating its various parts, it becomes about a dozen brilliantly convincing locations, some with wonderful special effects built in. 

I won’t say this is the first time I’ve seen a set outshine actors, but it is the first time a set was so good it gave really good actors a run for their money. In the past I’ve both praised and dinged Blake York for his varied sets, but this set a new high point for his talent. You really must see it.

Tight on its heels was the outstanding musical direction and keyboard work of Terry O’Hara and his quartet, filled out by Roxane Hreha, David Stedman, and Cal Neal. They did a superb job with the music, such as it is. More on that later as well.

And since we’re doing this review upside down, with production values lauded first, I’ll go on to say that the choreography (Alisa Merino with dance captain Julia Luna), lighting (Pavlina Morris), sound (Darren Hembd), and costumes (Michele Graves) were a worthy accompaniment to said set. Now, I could nit-pick and point out that Bob Cratchit’s costume – indeed his whole family’s garb – was way too new and flashy for one so poor, but that’s a minor point. 

And what of the cast? Quite good, as a matter of fact. The singing, dancing, and acting were all well above average, right across the board.

   L to R: Jeff Kingsbury, Chris Serface 

I could call out some of my favorites – Chris Serface, who was having way too much fun and was therefore quite enjoyable as Christmas Present; Derek Hall’s Bob Cratchit, shining both in song and acting; the charming and acrobatic Steven Walker – but that would detract from the rest of the cast. The truth is, from the lead, Jeff Kingsbury as Scrooge, down to the bit parts, this was an ensemble cast in the very best sense; they were all good enough to deserve mention, but blended so well as to not demand it. In short, it was a very good cast, top to bottom, individually and collectively.

   L to R: Audrey Montague, Derek Hall, Harrison Devlin 

Ok, so let’s recap; great set, great production values, wonderful actors, choreography, musicians. A perfect musical, right?

Not quite.

This is one case where the property itself pales in the face of so much talent both on and off stage, and no amount of effort can make up for a completely forgettable musical.

Act one, which is a grinding one and a half hours long, was often tedious (act two had much better pacing,) but that’s the least of the play’s problems. It’s a trite, gap-laden retelling of a story that, fortunately, everyone already knows (you’ll notice I did not even bother to give you a plot synopsis) with music that at best is uninspired and derivative. It’s songs sounded more alike than different, and none of them rose above the ranks of ‘failed show tune.’

Now, before you Scrooge! loyalists jump down my throat, stop and think about how easy it is to plant an earworm from any great musical. Why? Because the songs are inspired and divinely crafted. Here, I’ll prove it by planting a few earworms with just first lines. “All I want is a room somewhere,” “Maria; I just met a girl named Maria,” “Seventy six trombones led the big parade.”

See? Now try that with this musical.

I’m not saying the music isn’t pleasant. It is, but these musical offerings are to worthy composition what doggerel verse is to real poetry. I’m sorry, but that’s my call.

Nevertheless, there are people who love all iterations of A Christmas Carol, and for them, or anyone who appreciates the craft of theatre, this is worthy of its holiday time slot. Forget the lame music and go see this excellent production of an embarrassingly middling musical for its numerous merits. You’ll probably like it as much as the opening night audience, who gave it a standing ovation.

Scrooge! The Musical
Dec. 5 to Dec. 28, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Little Women at Lakewood

The Alcott Family Pablum …oops, …Album.
by Michael Dresdner 

  Cassie Jo Fastabend, Marissa Tate (hidden in shadow)               all photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

There are two groups of people who will absolutely love Little Women, now playing at Lakewood Playhouse; those who revel in Louisa May Alcott and her ilk, (surely an acquired taste, at least for males,) and those who appreciate the craft of theatre. It’s a rather mundane slice-of-life script, delivered up by a near perfect cast, director, and technical crew. In other words, all the sizzle, not much steak.

   L to R: Cameron Waters, Laura Strong 

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve filled the blank space above, where I’d normally tell you the plot synopsis, with a nice photo, since there really isn’t a plot to speak of. Instead, Alcott gives us a mid-19th century marriage minuet; a partially autobiographical account of a fairly normal family successfully marrying off its surviving daughters. Yes, one of them dies, but you probably knew that already.  

Now, you don’t need to take my word for it that this is not Indiana Jones or Harry Potter. We can listen to Alcott herself, who said, while writing it, “I plod away, although I don't enjoy this sort of things." After sending the first 12 chapters to her publisher, they both agreed that they were dull.

That being the case, let’s spend our time on the cast and crew, beginning with the director, the redoubtable Suzy Willhoft, who provides a veritable case study of how to do a theater-in-the-round production correctly. After skillful casting, she added dynamic blocking to an open-feel set to create convincing, well-paced scenes with no blocked lines of sight. Trust me, that’s way harder than it sounds, and she’s a master at it.

   Ashley Mowreader 

Now the cast, beginning with the “little women.” Jo is played, appropriately enough, by the thoroughly delightful Cassie Jo Fastabend, who delivers her lines with the  crisp clarity and machine gun pace of The Gilmore Girls. She’s the spritely Tigger of the family, a bouncy tom-boy with enough boundless energy to drive both her family and this production.

Meg, the “mature” sister, was calmly and convincingly created by Laura Strong, and her stalwart, even-tempered suitor John Brooke, husband material if I ever saw any, was nicely executed by Cameron Waters. Ashley Mowreader was Amy, the artistic and socially mobile sister who added much of humor in scene one with her frequent (yes, intentional) malapropisms. Then there’s Beth, just too sweet for words, whose Pollyanna persona was left to Marissa Tate to craft. Each sister did a wonderful job of fabricating separate, endearing, and very identifiable personas.

   L to R:  Marissa Tate, Joe Grant 

Our own Beau Brummel of the South Sound, Joe Grant, did a flawless job, as always, of  bringing his character, Mr. Laurence, convincingly to life while simultaneously making the costumer look good. No one wears costumes so well, though his “son” Laurie, played by the ever appealing Coleman Hagerman, is starting to give him a run for his money. Hagerman is one of those actors who is so comfortable on stage that you barely believe he’s acting.

Mrs. March was Carol Richmond, one of the more than capable old hands of this and other local theatres, and she was as refined and realistic as we expected from this very talented actor. Ditto for Syra Beth Puett as Hannah Mullett, the housekeeper, whose role, while wonderful, was way too small for such a skilled actor. Darrel D. Shiley, Jr. was Mr. March, playing a character a good bit nicer than the real life one he was based on, and Virginia Yanoff did a very credible job as cranky Aunt March. And let’s not forget John Munn as Professor Frederich Bhaer, who, like Marley, seems to be visited nightly by the ghost of accents past.

A lovely and very workable set by Dylan Twiner, lighting by Niclas Olson, and delicious costuming by Kelli McGowan and Diane Runkel, aided by wigs and hair (as well as props) by Jeffrey Weaver all contributed to this extremely well crafted production.

In other words, everything about this play is right except possibly the property itself. It’s like eating a meringue; it’s delicious, but you walk away without having gotten any real sustenance. Still, it is lovely to eat, so if you are female, home and hearth inclined, or simply an aficionado of fine theatre craftsmanship, put this on your attendance list for the season.

Little Women
Nov. 7 to Nov. 30, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, October 31, 2014

Tea at Dukesbay Theater

Shadows on the Rising Sun
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Kathy Hsieh, Susan Mayeno, Eloisa Cardone, Aya Hashiguchi, Joy Misako St. Germain         Photo by Jason Ganwich

 Dukesbay Productions opened its season last night with a flawless and gripping presentation of Velina Hasu Houston’s play Tea. With it, the fledgling company has definitively affirmed its credentials as a top notch theatre group, laying to rest any suspicion that last year’s Driving Miss Daisy was merely a fluke. Yes, they still dispense such candy floss as Java Tacoma, but clearly, they can deliver the goods as well.

The play opens as the lights go up on a beautiful, crisply serene teahouse with low table, sliding shoji screens, and a sweeping, sumi-e style backdrop. Foreshadowing the conflicts to come, Kate Smith sings “God Bless America,” followed by Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” which in turn gives way to a calming, traditional, Japanese samisen song. In spite of appearances, we are just outside Ft. Riley in Junction City, Kansas, and the year is 1968.

Himiko (Eloisa Cardone) steps out on stage, barefoot and bewigged, her forlornly slack kimono draped over her “American” dress. She launches into a powerfully heart-wrenching disgorgement of emotion, revealing years of pain, disappointment, and betrayal. Then, with dignity and hope both exhausted, she takes her own life.

From that moment on, the five women of Tea will hold you in thrall through an intimate, deeply evocative journey into the lives and travails of Japanese “war brides” striving  to survive in post-war America.

By the time the virtual curtain dropped some 90 minutes later, my stomach was clenched and my mouth parched. This play was that powerful.

While gathered to deal with the aftermath of Himiko’s suicide, four other brides, each with a decidedly different story and finely crafted characters to match, sip tea and recount the past so vividly it comes alive. All five, the living and dead, tell their stories through flashbacks, at times portraying their younger selves both here and in Japan, their very Americanized children, and even their occasionally boorish husbands.

All giddily in love at the time they wed, these five women had no idea what cultural bias and upheaval they’d face stateside once their military husbands brought them “home.” Aided by well-chosen costumes and props, they flesh out their stories.

There’s Himiko Hamilton, married to an abusive Southern redneck and trying to cling to her dignity in the face of egregious hurts, and magnificently brought alive in an absolutely stellar performance by Eloisa Cardone.

Like a still, deep lake, Teruko MacKenzie (Joy Misako St. Germain) is an anchor of serenity, so contentedly devoted to her husband that even her daughter feels some slight.

Setsuko Banks (Susan Mayeno ) copes surprisingly well, her Asian fortitude as her bulwark against the added disdain she had no idea would come from having married a “black” soldier.

Atsuko Yamamoto (Aya Hashiguchi) married a Japanese-American, and wears her haughty superiority proudly, seeing herself as therefore more Japanese than the others.

The most Americanized of all, Chizuye Juarez (Kathy Hsieh) wears slacks and has mastered not only English (replete with requisite nicknames,) but much of her accent as well, perhaps an overreaction to her Latino husband.

The entire ensemble cast is amazing, individually and together. These are all performances of the highest caliber, and every one of these women deserves the loftiest praise an actor can get.  

Technical support is no less. Adroitly directed by Randy Clark, the play unfolds on a wonderful set designed by Burton Yuen and built by Hector Juarez, with a divine bamboo and wood floor painted by Jen Ankrum and Blake York, and a sweeping sumi-e backdrop designed by Lois Yoshida and painted by Steve Chanfrau. Nicolas Olson and Bethany Bevier did the excellent sound and lighting design, and Jeffery Weaver assembled a flawless array of costumes and props. During one segue there’s a moving, period-evocative slide show by Mick Flaaen.

I really can’t say enough good things about this play, so I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say this is everything great theatre is meant to be; a gripping story, magnificent acting, and ideal technical support. In short, this is one production you really don’t want to miss. 
Oct. 30 to Nov. 16, 2014
Dukesbay Theater

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dial M for Murder at TLT

Jolly good show, chaps.
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

    L to R: Deya Ozburn, Brent Griffith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Not theatre, but the art of real living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos courtesy of The Goodtimes Project

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Spamalot at Lakewood Playhouse

The Tigger factor
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 13 to July 13, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, June 13, 2014

Moonlight and Magnolias at TLT

Sturm und Drang
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bye Bye Birdie at Tacoma Little Theatre

A fledgling flier
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Little Women at Tacoma Youth Theatre

Small wonder
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Syra Beth Puett, Madelynne Lumsden

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

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

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

L to R: Isaiah Resinger, Bianca Ponnekanti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Women
April 18 to 27, 2014
Tacoma Youth Theatre

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Odd Couple at Lakewood Playhouse

Oddly familiar
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Java Tacoma: The Merry Wives Americano at Dukesbay

A grab bag of gags
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Java Tacoma
March28 to April 13, 2014
Dukesbay Productions

Friday, March 14, 2014

Chapter Two at TLT

The second time’s the charm
by Michael Dresdner

    Brynne Garman, Robert Alan Barnett                                                       all photos by DK Photography

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

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

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

Kent Phillips, Holly Rose

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

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

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

Kent Phillips, Robert Alan Barnett

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

  Brynne Garman, Holly Rose 

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

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

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

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