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