Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ring of Fire at Centerstage

It Sizzles, but Doesn't Quite Burn

by Leslie Youngblood

   L to R: Cayman Ilika, Jared Michael Brown                    photos by: Michelle Smith Lewis

Greetings, faithful readers of Dresdner's Theatre Reviews. As Michael is performing in a concurrent production, I was tasked with seeing Ring of Fire at Centerstage. Well, not so much “tasked” as I begged him to let me have his tickets, as I am a huge fan of Cayman Ilika. Ergo, I will try to emulate Michael's voice to the best of my ability, but please send any flowers or hate mail to me.

Ring of Fire, a toe-tapping jukebox musical, is the quasi-biographical story of Johnny Cash. Instead of using dialogue to focus on Cash's life, Richard Maltby, Jr. created a piece that lets the music tell the tale of the man in black. Short monologues weave together classic songs detailing Cash's childhood, rise to fame, romance with June Carter, and drug habit. Orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby turn one man's solo work into a harmonious feast for the ears. It's easy to follow if you are a true Johnny Cash aficionado, but a bit muddled if you are just starting to “Walk the Line”.

    L to R: Tom Stewart, Jack Dearth, Jared Michael Brown, Sean Tomerlin

The multi-talented six person cast (slash band!) is helmed by Gregory Award nominees Cayman Ilika and Jared Michael Brown. Brown, while youthful and lacking a certain gruffness, demands the audience's attention as the lead on most of Cash's songs. His range, charisma, and energy are the glue that holds the show together. Ilika, the only woman, doesn't shy away from the spotlight; her June Carter is ready to spar with the best of them. While her vocals soar on every number, the true testament to her musicianship are the diction and phrasing she uses in crowd favorite “I've Been Everywhere”. Harmonies and a handful of solos were relegated to the band: Sean Tomerlin on bass, Zack Summers on drums, Tom Stewart on acoustic guitar, and Jack Dearth on electric guitar. A nod to the original production, these gentlemen were required to be triple threats – singing and acting while playing an instrument. While all could handle two of the tasks presented, a true trifecta was not achieved.

The high energy numbers were the most enjoyable. One felt they were watching old friends doing what they loved most; almost an intimate peek into a garage band rehearsal. However, the rehearsal element never truly left the production. With flubbed lyrics, out of tune instruments, and missed cues, the cast persevered, but didn't bring the level of polish associated with a professional production. Proof that opening night jitters can happen no matter how seasoned you are.

   L to R: Tom Stewart, Jack Dearth, Jared Michael Brown, Cayman Ilika 

Ring of Fire presents a directorial challenge. There isn't much of a script and Cash's music doesn't lend itself to large production numbers. Enter Amy Johnson, choreographer turned director. She takes what could be a stagnant, park-and-bark product, and jazzes it up with guitar-wielding movement that utilizes the entire stage and interactive set, designed by Richard Lorig. Johnson worked in tandem with music director Jeff Bell, making sure that any movement didn't overshadow the lyrics and harmonies. Costumes by Rachel Wilkie helped set the scene and add pops of color to a monochromatic background.

In short, come for the crooning, not a history lesson, and be prepared to have as much fun as the cast is at any given moment.

Ring of Fire
Jan 23 to Feb 14, 2016

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Second Samuel at TLT

Baby Ruth
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Diana George, Jill Nicole Heinecke, Ellen Peters, Neicie Packer   
    Photos by DK Photography 

Tomorrow is the opening of Second Samuel, directed by Chris Serface, and playing at Tacoma Little Theatre. Don’t tell anyone I told you, but tonight there’s a free preview for those in the know (or in the red.)

I’m not going to review this play. I can’t. I’m in the cast, so it would not be ethical for me to tell you how good (or awful) it is. However, my primary job as a reviewer is to give you enough information about the play itself to help you decide if it is the sort of thing you would enjoy (or hate), and I can still do that. Here goes.

   L to R: Jimmy Shields, Bob Yount 

Contrary to what the name might suggest, this is not a religious or biblical play at all, but a surprisingly funny day-in-the-life glimpse of a clatch of folks who’d fit in perfectly in Mayberry RFD. Second Samuel is the name of the town, and it’s a little slice of heaven, but with a teasingly delicious twist.

Barely 90 minutes long, the play is like a Baby Ruth candy bar; short, sweet, and chock full of nuts.

   L to R: Neicie Packer, Ellen Peters, Aaron Mohs-Hale, Jill Nicole Heinecke 

Nuts, you say? Yep, just look at the character names: Mozel, Mansel, Marcella, Ruby, Jimmy Deanne (female!), June (male!), Frisky, Omaha Nebraska, US (pronounced ‘you ess,’) a doctor named (wait for it…) Doc, and a sweet, mentally slow youth called B Flat, who, as the play’s lead and narrator, neatly threads together both the story and the town.

It’s 1949 in a small Georgia burg where all the women hang out at the beauty parlor and the men at the Bait and Brew. Miss Gertrude, beloved by everyone, has just died, and warmth and caring flood the stage, mitigated only by the ever present comedy.

     L to R: Bob Yount, Marc Carvajal, Kerry Bringman, Tom Birkeland, Jimmy Shields 

There’s a challenge they must deal with, of course. There always is. This one shakes up the close-knit little town’s core beliefs like one of James Bond’s martinis, but they deal with it just like everything else; with way more wit and humor than a small hick town had oughta be able to muster.

  Back row: Mansel, Marcella, Jimmy Deanne, US, Omaha Nebraska, Frisky 
  Front row: June, Ruby, B Flat, Mozel, Doc   

The play’s ultimate message, though, is one of understanding and tolerance, wrapped up and delivered as neatly and quickly as an after school special, albeit with more exclamation points.  

As I said, I can’t tell you to go see it (remember – ethical considerations) but IF you decide to go, here’s a few bits of production values to be on the lookout for.  

Walk around and look at the set designed by Lex Gernon, built by Blake York, and painted by Maggie Knott. Make note of the lighting (very important) by Chris Serface, sound by Stacia Russell, who is also the stage manager, and Michele Graves’ costumes, which may start a trend to make overalls the next de rigueur hipster togs. 
    L to R: Michael Dresdner, Tom Birkeland, Kerry Bringman, Jimmy Shields

And before the play starts, walk close enough to the stage to look at the props by Jeffery Weaver, including my favorite, a period box of Baby Ruth candy bars. (Yes, they actually have real Baby Ruth candy bars inside the wrappers, and there’s a few half eaten ones inside the dressing room too.)

Ok, that’s all I can say. You’re on your own now, but if you do come, let me know what you think.

Second Samuel
Jan 22 to Feb. 7, 2016
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Arcadia at Lakewood Playhouse


by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Ozburn, Tice       all photos by Tim Johnston 

Lakewood Playhouse has taken a big risk with the current production of Arcadia, a Tom Stoppard play directed by Steve Tarry. Granted, they’ve pulled together some truly fine actors dressed in lavish costumes on a stunning set, but the play itself is nonetheless a challenge, and may be a hard sell.

Wordy, fast paced, and laced with some seriously funny lines and reactions, it’s a play that is very demanding on the actors. Like Shakespeare, thanks to layers of nuance, it may very well be a lot more fun for the actors than for the audience, some of whom seemed either lost or overwhelmed on opening night. 

Stoppard writes for the intellectual elite and lets everyone else either keep up or fail to do so. Thus, there are scientific theories, mathematical proofs, and a brace of poets set against the incongruous contrast of lustful and amorous urges. Perhaps it is intentionally abstruse, written for the sort of theatre goers who are fascinated and invigorated by things they don’t understand.  If that’s you, make sure you see it, but even I know that’s not the majority of the typical community theatre audience.

The plot, such as it is, unwinds in fits, so you really don’t see the whole picture with any clarity until the end. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I can’t offer you too much of a synopsis, but I can describe the set up.  

   L to R: Quinn. Stahl, Michael Christopher (Capt. Brice)

Two different generations of the Coverly family and associates occupy the ancestral manse, one group in 1809, the other in the present. The parallel scenes hop back and forth between the time periods, and eventually culminate in a final scene where both widely spaced generations reach their climax on stage simultaneously.

The main characters in both time periods are serious scholars, presenting their theories, sparring with fellow intellectuals and, inevitably, engaging in romantic escapades. In 1809, it’s 13-year-old math and science genius Thomasina Coverly (Kait Mahoney), her tutor Septimus Hodge (Mason Quinn), and the sorry object of Hodge’s critiques, Ezra Chater (Ben Stahl.) The present offers us Hannah Jarvis (Deya Ozburn), Valentine Coverly (Jacob Tice), and Bernard Nightingale (Jed Slaughter.)

There are other characters in both time periods, but the modern scholars, trying to peel back the layers of the history and ancestors, are the ones who help us understand both the nature of the former inhabitants, and the mystery of what happened to them. Perhaps the quirkiest secondary character is Gus/Augustus Coverly (Charlie Stevens), who in his present persona is a rather comically lovelorn mute, silently pining for Hannah.

   L to R: Mahoney, Stevens 

In general, the acting was quite good, though I will admit I connected more with the modern troupe, led by Tice and Slaughter, in part because they added the most clarity to this convoluted story. Overall, the pacing felt rushed a bit, doubtless to keep what is already a three hour theatre night from going even longer. It is, after all, a very wordy play.The set, by Blake York, was impressive, and costumes, by Rochelle-Ann Graham, were suitably lavish and period, though at times ill-fitting, a common community theatre curse of too many body types and too few costume options.

All in all, it’s an admirable undertaking, and a night of theatre that will certainly challenge you, if only to keep up. Don’t expect a simple, spoon-fed, linear story. Come looking for a bit of mental challenge and you’ll fish your wish.

Jan. 8 to Jan. 31, 2016
Lakewood Playhouse