Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Very Special Holiday Special by Changing Scene NW

A Jew’s-eye view of Christmas
by Michael Dresdner
L to R: Betzy Miller, Julie Cole 

Last night at the Dukesbay Theater, a newish group called The Changing Scene NW presented Pavlina Morris’ direction of A Very Special Holiday Special, a collection of very short plays by Mark Harvey Levine.

The cast, consisting of Chelsea Pedro, Larry Chandler, Carol Weltschnig, Douglas Ernst, Betzy Miller, Karen Noyes, and Curtis Beech tried valiantly to eke some comedy out of what I would call a very flawed property.
L to r: Carol Weltschnig, Chelsea Pedro

Admittedly, this series of vignettes about Christmas and Channukah were based on plausible ideas, the sorts of things that if you just read the set up, you’d say “Sure, that could be quite funny.” Little of it was.

Based solely on this collection, I’d call Levine’s work superficial, ham-handed, unoriginal, sophomoric, and more than a little insulting to a wide swath of the populace. That, combined with the much printed information that his work is so widely presented (“over 1500 productions”) makes me wonder why this was mounted at all, since The Changing Scene, the group behind this show, claims their mission is to show “…new, original, unproduced, or innovative works.” This was none of the above.

I won’t go into tech, costumes, set, acting, or directing critiques here, since I strongly suspect (and know for a fact in several cases) that this was very far from the best work done by the director, tech crew, or cast. Frankly, some considerable talent was wasted on this property.  

For example, the first play, “Oy Vey Maria,” has baby Jesus in a manger with his parents there, all being visited by the proverbial Three Wise Men, but also by Mary’s parents, a time-transplanted east coast suburban Jewish couple. Their portrayal is heavily laden with every trite Jewish stereotype, from a hokey New York/New Jersey accent to the mother whining incessantly, but bringing a brisket for the new parents. There’s a line between funny satire and insult, and this crosses it again and again.

“You Better Watch Out” is a riff on the so-called war on Christmas, with a Buddhist couple invaded by the Christmas police (in this case, military) who demand they decorate their apartment, and cringe whenever anyone says Happy Holidays. It ended oddly with Santa chiding the intruders for disrespecting the Buddhists, but then all three bowing with pressed hands and saying “Namaste,” which, as you probably know, is Hindu. Perhaps that’s supposed to be funny.

“A Very Special Hannukkah Special” has a Jew spinning a magic dreidle to make Hannukkah the dominant holiday instead of Christmas. Of course it all goes wrong, but not before the playwright slips in lines from classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” to make what I’d call a rather weak premise a bit more familiar. Some of the jokes seem aimed solely at other Jews, clearly not the mass audience in this area. For instance, the maker of the magic dreidle explains that to get your wish it must land on nun, prompting the line “Why would it land on a nun?” Nuun is one of the four Hebrew letters on a dreidle, and the joke relies on both knowing about dreidles and mispronouncing the letter as “nun.” Tell me honestly; do goyim (non-Jews) even get that joke?

Other vignettes have a talking Christmas tree who wants to go back to the forest, a lonely woman who can’t understand her dog and cat’s attempts to make her feel good, a drunk who accidentally destroys a child’s belief in Santa, and a parody of Les Miserables. See what I mean? These are potentially good topics, but most simply did not work.

What is most disturbing about this work, though, is the fact that it is childish humor that appears to be designed for sharing only among Jews, and only up until junior high. In short, it’s the sort of comedy that demeans both its targets and its creators.

A Very Special Holiday Special
Dec. 1 to Dec. 16, 2017
The Changing Scene (presented at the Dukesbay Theater)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Seussical the Musical at TLT

by Michael Dresdner

All photos by Dennis K Photography 

Oh, the things that you’ll see when you go to theater!
A cast of weird characters in costumes much weirder,
All singing and dancing with words that all rhyme!
I promise you’ll have a superbly good time.

Ok, ok, I’ll stop. I know – I’m no Dr. Seuss, but here’s the real lowdown.

Tacoma Little Theatre is easing into the Christmas season with Seussical the Musical, a joyously exuberant, fast-paced, unabashedly endearing offering laced with outstanding performances from top to bottom.

L to r: Kathy Kluska, Olivia Zamira, Sharry O'Hare, Alexandria Bray, Micheal O'Hara, Gunnar Ray, Andrew Fry

Much to her credit, director Jen York has put together the perfect cast, and backed by Terry O’Hare’s buoyant musical direction and the more than impressive choreography talents of Eric Clausell, has unleashed a high-spirited, thoroughly enjoyable show that hits the mark in every category.

All this plays out on a stage, by Blake York, that looks for all the world like it came directly from Seuss’ own hand, with an eye-popping array of colorful and outrageous costumes by Michele Graves, magnificently comical props, wigs, and makeup by Jeffery Weaver, and an ever-changing panorama of lighting by Niclas Olson. And let’s not forget stage manager Dana Galagan and her ASM Alyshia Collins who somehow managed to keep the non-stop whirligig of sight and sound moving apace flawlessly.

Steve Barnett (Horton the Elephant) 
As far as the plot content goes, it's a mash up of a dozen and a half of Dr. Seuss most dearly loved characters and stories (the Grinch and Whoville, Horton Hatches an Egg, The Butter Battle Book, The Circus McGurkus, and many more,) so it is comfortably familiar, yet refreshingly new. 

And the actors? Ah, what a delight.

L to r: Alexandria Bray (Jojo) and Christopher Sweet (The Cat in the Hat )

The Cat in the Hat, the emcee of the action, is played by Christopher Sweet, a tall, lanky, rubber-limbed marionette reminiscent of Joel Gray’s amazing Cabaret portrayal. Assisting him is Jojo (Alexandria Bray,) the young, vivacious daughter of the mayor of Whoville with a personality that fairly bursts off the stage and a talent to match. They are, like absolutely everyone in the cast, classic triple threats, able to sing, dance, and act with practiced ease, often all at the same time.   

L to r:  Smantha Lobberegt  (Mayzie)  and Brittany Griffins (Gertrude)
Rarely have I seen a cast with so many serious, obviously trained singers, which in case you were wondering, is a big step above mere musical theatre singers. Leading the pack are two ruby-throated warblers, the birds Gertrude (Brittany Griffins) and her nemesis Mayzie (Smantha Lobberegt.) They are ably backed by a singing, dancing bird quartet (Caiti Burke, Emma Konop, Jayda Slack, and Maddie Fry) who bring to mind the “Dinettes” of Pump Boys fame.

The Bird Girls: Emma Konop, Caiti Burke, Maddie Fry
Equally powerful in voice is the Sour Kangaroo (Courtney Eggert) assisted by her charmingly diminutive sidekick, Young Kangaroo. That role alternates between Caleb Corpeno and Evie Merrill. The night I was there I was lucky enough to watch Evie, a precocious pixie whose photo must surely be in the dictionary under “indescribably adorable.” And let’s not forget Horton the Elephant himself, who is ever so sweetly played by rich-voiced Steve Barnett.  

L to r: Micheal O'Hara (Mayor of Whoville), Sharry O'Hare (his wife), Alexadria Bray (Jojo)
Tucked away in the cast like an Easter egg waiting to delight us is Tacoma’s own version of the Lunt-Fontannes; that redoubtable pair, Micheal O'Hara and Sharry O'Hare, playing the mayor of Whoville and his wife. And that’s just the leads; the rest of the ensemble is right up there with the reigning talent on stage.  

The bottom line is that I can’t say enough good things about this play. If you are one of the many of us buffeted by the gruesome reality of politics, the state of the world, and the impending onslaught of holiday stress, this may be the best chance to leave it all behind and let pure joy wash over you.

So please, go to see it as soon as you can.  
I assure you, like me, you’ll become a true fan.
(Uh oh. I’m sorry. I did it again,
but it’s easy to slip into rhyme now and then,
especially after a night such as this
when the theatre just gave you two hours of bliss!)

Enough already. Buy tickets. Reward yourself. This is a truly wonderful theatrical offering.

Seussical the Musical
Dec. 1 to Dec. 24, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre