Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Lakewood

by Michael Dresdner

   Photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

At the outset, you need to know that The Mystery of Edwin Drood , the final show at Lakewood Playhouse this season, is not, as its name would imply, a dark, Dickensian piece, or even, for that matter, much of a murder mystery. It’s a campy, boisterous romp of a musical with elements of vaudeville, Gilbert and Sullivan operatic melodrama, English Panto, and old style music hall.

For instance, there’s a lead male played by a female (touted as a renowned “male impersonator”), a set of “identical twins” of different genders who could not possibly look less alike, and magnificent flashy costumes, all of which are common Panto elements. There’s a classic vaudeville “set” consisting of word play insults, a thousand-word-per-minute song a la Gilbert and Sullivan, and lots of music hall flummery.

Heather Malroy
In other words, it’s jolly, exuberant, in-your-face gaiety with a completely crumbled fourth wall. That’s right; expect the cast to talk to you, beg your participation, and all but climb into your lap in an effort to get the audience to be part of the show.

The basic conceit is a play within a play; the regulars of The Music Hall Royale are going to put on a murder mystery, so all the diverse and wacky characters who populate the venue will try to put aside their competition, squabbling, and insults for long enough to mount a semi-serious play. Obviously, that’s doomed to comic failure. Oh, they manage to eke out a bit of the story in between scene stealing, ego trips, and unrestrained song and dance, but when they come to the unfinished part of the story, they ask the audience to vote on who the killer is and who should play the various roles needed to finish the performance.

Before I get into individuals, let me say that the entire cast is excellent, though too big to name them all. All the ensemble singing and dancing was top notch, and the exuberant dance hall girls particularly compelling. The music hall troupe launched into their numbers with the eagerness of a tumble of puppies being let out into a dog park whenever they got their cue, and sometimes (intentionally) before. Ditto for the acting, and though there are too many for me to name them all, I will say that the entire cast deserves kudos before I indulge myself and call out a few of my favorites.

Steve Tarry 
First and foremost there’s Steve Tarry, who plays the role of The Chairman of the Music Hall Royale, the chief fourth wall violator. Smooth, glib, and funny, with the perfect demeanor and a snarky mien, he blithely insults both audience and fellow troupe members with his slick, non-stop patter. He is the quintessential music hall emcee, and does such a bang-up job of the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever doing it as well. 

There are solid leads who play characters who, in turn, play other characters in the play-within-a-play. They include Gary Chambers as John Jaspers, Allyson Jacobs-Lake as Rosa Bud, and Brynn Garrett as Edwin Drood.

However, some of the color roles were so enchanting they caught my eye and my heart. Christopher S. Cantrell plays an absolutely delightful reprobate and sot named Durdles, while his other persona does a perfect vaudeville-style insults-with-word-play routine with Tarry in his emcee role. Jed Slaughter is wonderfully understated as the reserved Reverend Chrisparkle, while Derek Hall is charmingly pitiable as Phillip Bax, who desperately wants some day to be cast in a lead.

                   L to R: Derek Hall, Steve Tarry 

Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson did a hilarious turn full of innuendo and bawdy charm as Miss Angel Prysock (who then plays Princess Puffer.) DuWayne Andrews Jr, and Heather Malroy play the thoroughly unlikely set of  “identical” twins from Ceylon. Since no one in the cast or audience is supposed to know what someone hailing from that part of the world is really like, they are free to endow their characters with clueless absurdity. He tended toward the lead in The King and I, and she reminded me of Princess Caraboo, with her self-described comic accent of “unidentifiable geography” and the constant gyrations of a Balinese dancer.

And the production values? Amazing. Costumes too good to be believed were, not surprisingly, thanks to the redoubtable Alex Lewington. A superb orchestra was led by Deborah Lynn Armstrong and paired with excellent choreography by Heather Malroy. Lighting by Jerry Clausen and sound by Nena Curley (who is also the stage manager) blended beautifully. Lex Gernon’s elaborate set included an entire theater view with wings, curtained proscenium, audience boxes, and a stage that slid to and fro.

Incidentally, this production, directed by Chris Serface, the artistic director of Tacoma Little Theatre, is the other half of the director swap between him and John Munn, who directed Cabaret at TLT. 

Here’s what you need to take away from this: Forget the title, and forget that it is (very loosely) based on an unfinished but typically grim Dickens tale. Go expecting a no holds barred, flashy, high-spirited musical comedy with more than enough audience participation and you won’t be disappointed.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
May 29 to June 28, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Cabaret at Tacoma Little Theatre

Everything… is beautiful.
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Kathy Kluska, Mauro Bozzo           All photos by DK Photography

For their last major show of the season, Tacoma Little Theatre has pulled out all the stops to mount an absolutely magnificent production of the musical Cabaret. With brilliant directing by John Munn and jaw-dropping performances by what can only be called the perfect cast, a packed house watched an opening night presentation so flawless you’d swear they’d been doing it for weeks. I’ll bet once the word gets out, tickets will be rare as hen’s teeth, and that’s just as it should be.

From the very second Mauro Bozzo steps out onstage and opens the show as the Emcee, he grabs the audience in the palm of his hand and never lets go. Looking glorious, his singing, acting, and movement is pure perfection, his oversized personality reaching everywhere like the tentacles of an octopus. You can’t ignore him, and you can’t avoid loving him as he gets under your skin and drags you into the seedy reality of his haunt, The Kit Kat Klub. It’s Berlin’s hottest nightclub in all possible definitions of the word, where every iteration of hedonism is indulged, its patrons largely oblivious to the dark shadow of Nazism creeping through the rest of 1931 Germany.

   L to R: Amanda Jackson, LaNita Hudson, Elise Campello, KathyKluska, Haley Kim
Backing him up are the no less amazing Kit Kat girls (Amanda Jackson, LaNita Hudson, Haley Kim, Kathy Kluska), whose stunning singing, dancing, posing, and gyrations go beyond hot, beyond sexy, and deep into titillatingly lewd. With terrific voices, downright athleletic dancing, and barely-there costumes they provide the supremely talented flesh in this fleshpot of a night spot that sets the stage for all that follows.

What follows is a group of interwoven tales of diverse denizens trying to cope. Clifford (Niclas R. Olson) is an aspiring writer from Pennsylvania, na├»ve and sweet, with an equally sweet singing voice. He’s soon befriended by two very different characters. First there’s Ernst (Kyle Sinclair), an affable and outgoing smuggler willing to adapt to the changing political tide like one changes his shirt, as long as it is to his advantage. 

                   Elise Campello 

Then there’s Sally Bowles (Elise Campello) the gorgeous, talented, singing and dancing headliner of the Kit Kat Klub, who pushes Clifford’s comfort zone by moving into his flat and offering more than just friendship. Campello creates a Bowles who is sizzling hot on stage and yearningly needy off; a soul adrift seeking sex and admiration to buoy her.

     L to R: Rosalie Hilburn, Joseph Grant
Their digs are owned by landlady Fraulein Schneider (Rosalie Hilburn), who along with her adoring suitor, Herr Schultz (Joseph Grant), make absolutely the sweetest old couple imaginable. But like so many human relations in this dark time and place, they, too, will be affected by the hot Nazi breath on their necks. Rounding out the tenants is Fraulein Kost (Rachel Fitzgerald), a sassy, delightful, and completely endearing prostitute who, shall we say, patriotically gives her all to the Navy.

   L to R: Rachel Fitzgerald, Rosalie Hilburn

The rest of the cast (Stephen Nishida, Addison Daniels, Derek Wisher, Jeremy Thompson, Charlie Stevens) play a variety of roles, all expertly executed. To a person, this is an amazing ensemble of triple threat actors, with more than admirable singing, dancing, and acting chops to their credit.

John Munn’s directing choices are also brilliant; variously chilling, extravagant, sizzling, and heartfelt. The final stunningly powerful scenes in both the first and second acts will take your breath away.    
This is a Kandor and Ebb musical, so of course the songs are beautiful, meaningful, and elucidating. Musical director Pamela Merritt Caldwell also leads the excellent onstage Klub band consisting of Robbie Marx, Keely Freudenstein, Tommy Hawthorne, Benjamin Marx, and even Mauro Bozzo, when he’s not onstage as Emcee.

Credit for the amazing choreography, which deserves a bow all by itself, goes to Lexi Barnett. Both the wonderful set and sound design are thanks to Blake R. York, with props, set dressing, and wigs by Jeffery Weaver. Lighting design is by Niclas R. Olson (Clifford in the cast) and a superb array of dazzlingly perfect costumes comes from designer Michele Graves. And for such a flawless opening night, we need to get stage manager Bethany Bevier and assistant Abby Lund to also take a bow, even though these jobs usually hide in the background.  

As part of a “Director’s Exchange Program” to reinforce the cohesiveness of the theatre community, Munn, the artistic director of Lakewood Playhouse, swapped places with TLT’s artistic director Chris Serface. While Munn directed Cabaret here, Serface is directing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which opens next week at Lakewood.

There you have it; an amazing musical perfomed by a devastatingly talented cast and backed up with equally top notch production values. You’d be an utter fool to miss this show.

May 22 to June 14, 2015
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, May 2, 2015

For All That at Centerstage

Somme time
by Michael Dresdner

For All That, which debuted last night at Centerstage, is an epic musical as judged by a host of criteria. Written by the theatre’s artistic director Alan Bryce, it is big, bold, and evocative, with strong musical support, powerful technical backup, and a gripping subject.

Set during WWI, the story revolves around a small group of  Seaforth Highlanders from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. Andrew (Joshua Williamson) has been away at school, a rarity, and returns to his homeland of simple farmers with eyes for Mairi (Katherine Jett) only to see her marry his brother, Donald (Cooper Harris-Turner.) The wedding celebration is cut short as all the men are called up to fight in the war. Only Andrew, as a conscientious objector, refuses to go, an act that earns him the distain of both is brother and Mairi.

We go with the men/boys as they head to basic training, then to the war. There’s bravery, comeraderie, desperation, breakdown, and ultimately, widespread death at the battle of the Somme. One by one they come to see something quite different than the superficial patriotism they reveled in at the outset. Ultimately there’s the realization that the other side is also human, that your own leaders lie, and that the war itself  brings little more than pain and destruction. Those still living, largely the women of the island, are left with the task of  picking up with life after such stunning futility and loss.

The production values, from the dramatic raked stage (Craig Wollam) and varied period costumes (Janessa Styck) through eye-popping lighting (Christina Barrigan) and copious choreography (Amy Johnson) are all outstanding. And though I mentioned only a few of them, the talented triple-threat (singing, dancing, acting) ensemble cast was more than worthy of this grand production, with almost all responsible for convincingly covering a range of varied characters. They, to a person, deserve kudos for a tough job well done.

This is a true musical in the sense that songs are varied, new, appropriate, and are demanded by the story, as opposed to being tacked on as an afterthought. From the upbeat folk songs danced to at the opening, through a range of patriotic, dark, heartfelt, and resolute offerings as the story progresses, the music is consistently excellent. Billed as by Many Hands, the program lists Joshua Zimmerman for musical direction and arrangements, and John Forster for additional music and lyrics, arrangements, and musical supervision. Live musicians are credited (Joshua Zimmerman, Ian Hughes, Andrew Pang, Matthew Goodin), paired with a complex, realistic, and varied sound track (Andy Swan.)  

By now you should have concluded that this is an excellent production that will drag you through mood changes and emotional responses, but not the sort of musical that ends with upbeat happiness. In fact, it rather leaves one with more questions than answers. Generally, with something so moving, one expects a message; some strong theme or statement that helps make sense of the experience. I’m at a loss as to exactly what Bryce means that to be.

Though billed as a love story, it is really not. Yes, there’s love, but is hardly the dominant theme, and is left largely undeveloped. So, too, is the brotherly love aspect; alluded to but again never really evolved. Sadly, the inner humanity of several key characters, the sort of thing that makes you really bond to and root for a person, is often left undeveloped and unrevealed until right before they die, or until the end of both the war and the play.

If anything, the strongest emotions one comes away with are cynicism about war itself and an overarching sadness over what we do in the name of honor and patriotism. Perhaps that’s the point.

At any rate, Bryce and company have given us a new musical that is both a moving experience and something truly worthy of  its existence. I hope it sticks around, and like most properties, goes through development and refinement as others pick it up and interpret it. At very least, it’s worth your time. Do go see it.  
For All That
May 1 to 24, 2015