Saturday, June 8, 2019

Hay Fever at Tacoma Little Theatre

A family affair
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Judith Bliss (Jane McKittrick), Simon Bliss (Rodman Bolek)    All photos by Dennis K Photography

Noel Coward’s 1924 comedy Hay Fever opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, deftly directed by Rick Hornor and starring an outstanding ensemble cast. Quick paced and erudite, its language is riddled with comic comments and observations that spin by so quickly you’d need to watch it several times to get it all. In spite of being almost 100 years old, this study of family, ethos, and actions holds up quite nicely, thank you very much, thanks in large part to a frightfully skilled cast.

L to R: Simon (Rodman Bolek), Judith (Jane McKittrick), Sorel (Deya Ozburn) 

While a synopsis of the play may sound like a mix of Midsummer Night’s Dream and a foreshadow of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it’s actually a subtly crafted reveal of a surprisingly close family who cherish one another more than anyone else. Even while arguing, they clearly care deeply for one another. By contrast, even while seducing their guests they have little real use for them.    

Such complex interrelationships are not easy to convey, but this cast manages to blend the intricate layers of their characters with one another flawlessly. It’s like watching gears mesh perfectly.

It’s time to meet the Bliss family in their elegant country house.

The father, David Bliss (John W. Olive) is a writer who spends much of his time, and much of the play, hidden away in his study. He emerges mostly to complain, seduce, or to employ his family as a sounding board for his latest writing efforts. Judith Bliss (Jane McKittrick) is his wife, and the real force majeure of the family, commanding both the household and the stage whenever she appears. She’s a former actress who still seeks the adoration of her fans, a counterbalance to the eye-rolling she suffers from her children.

L to R: Sorel (Deya Ozburn), Simon (Rodman Bolek) 

Her son, Simon (Rodman Bolek) is breezy, artistic, headstrong, energetic, and light-hearted. He fairly reeks of the airiness that comes from one raised in privilege. Daughter Sorel (Deya Ozburn) shares much of her brother’s freewheeling nature and stubborn streak, but also has a bit of neediness borne of a twinge of self-doubt. She’s much more like her mother than she probably cares to admit.

Finally, there is Clara (Adrianna Littlejohn Roland,) the sassy, barely capable housekeeper/maid who is kept on because she was Judith’s dresser back in her theatre days.

L to R: Jackie Coryton (Jill Heinecke), Richard Greatham (W. Scott Pinkston) 

Unbeknownst to one another, each family member has invited a guest of the opposite gender for the weekend, each apparently a potential tryst. David opts for Jackie Coryton (Jill Heinecke,) a young woman who admires his writing, and seems confused from the outset at getting such an invitation. Judith invites Sandy Tyrell (Frank Roberts), a too young, but very star struck devotee of the actress’s onstage work. For Simon it’s Myra Arundel (Devan Malone,) an elegant family acquaintance who has her own agenda in mind. Sorel chooses Richard Greatham (W. Scott Pinkston,) a dignified and reserved older diplomat who actually fancies Judith more than her daughter.

L to R: Sandy Tyrell (Frank Roberts), Judith (Jane McKittrick)

The family soon engages the guests in a game of adverbs and acting that is clear and fun to them, but leaves their guests feeling befuddled and awkward. No matter; in short order they all pair off, but each guest is whisked away to be wooed by a different family member than the one who invited them. By morning the guests are all so rattled that they decide to sneak away back to London, which they manage while the family is in the living room arguing senselessly about street names in Paris. The family barely notices their disappearance, and frankly cares less.

L to R: Judith (Jane McKittrick), Sorel (Deya Ozburn)

The final tableau of the family together in the living room sums it up sweetly; these are folks who love and depend on one another more than the outside world.

The family at home: Simon (Bolek), Sorel (Ozburn), Judith (McKittrick), David (John W. Olive) 
Though some see the play as a slanted view of English insouciance, it may hit closer to home. Coward wrote it in just three days shortly after returning from a trip to America where he was a house guest of Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners. Thus, it may well be less of a commentary on British mores than a Brit’s-eye view of American self-indulgent flippancy in the Roaring Twenties.

And the name? You know how city folk might suffer atypical sneezing and itching in the pollen-laden country air? Perhaps it's a nod to the unwitting Bliss guests who are, quite unintentionally, made to feel uncomfortable during their country visit.

Though the plot is fairly thin, pulling off these complex relationships is a Herculean effort, a real challenge even for very good actors, housed in a play that requires a genuinely tight ensemble. Fortunately, that’s just what we have. I could call out each one individually for accolades, but to be honest, there wasn’t a weakness in any of them. This is an excellent chance to watch a finely integrated group of very talented people crafting a slice of life offering.  

As usual for TLT, it’s all backed by an excellent support crew. Blake York, who also did sound design, created the elegant country home set, lushly painted by scenic artist Jen York. An outstanding array of period costumes comes from Michele Graves, while props, hair, and wigs are thanks to Jeffery Weaver. Lighting is by Niclas Olson, and the action is herded by stage manager Nena Curley, assisted by ASM Courtney Rainer.

This is a wonderful play that admittedly presents challenges not only to the cast and crew, but to the audience as well. Nuanced, complex, funny, and revealing, it requires close attention, but is well worth your time and effort.

I am married to one of the cast members.
This is my last review. As it is the end of TLT’s 100th season (and Lakewood’s 80th) I am hanging up my pencil. Thanks for taking this journey with me.

Hay Fever
June 7 to 23, 2019
Tacoma Little Theatre

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Producers at Lakewood

Über the top
by Michael Dresdner

Roger DeBris (Dorset) and ensemble        All photos by Tim Johnson 
Lakewood Playhouse is closing out its 80th season with the magnificent Mel Brooks musical The Producers, and what a show it is! Director Cassie Pruitt and choreographer Ashley Roy have created a rollicking, toe-tapping, colorful extravaganza that explodes onto the stage with such éclat that the modest theater’s walls can barely contain it. With an absolutely stellar cast, from the leads through every single ensemble performer, this one is a truly epic experience.  

Bialystock (Wolff) and Bloom (Johnson)

Max Bialystock (Chap Wolff, standing in last night for Brad Cerenzia) is a once mighty Broadway producer who, of late, has slid into a string of flops. But when dweeby accountant Leo Bloom (Will Johnson) suggests he could make more money by over-subscribing a play, as long as it is guaranteed to fail on opening night, the two set out to get rich.

Franz Liebkind (Sinclair)
They find the worst script, a sympathetic musical about Adolph Hitler written by a loony, pigeon-loving, Nazi sympathizer named Franz Liebkind (Kyle Sinclair). Next, they hire the worst director available, a flagrantly swish, cross-dressing hack named Roger DeBris (Henry Talbot Dorset) whose constant shadow is his equally outré gay lover/aide Carmen Ghia (Erik Davis).

Front: Bialystock (Wolff), DeBris (Dorset), Bloom (Johnson),  Rear: Carmen Ghia (Davis) and ensemble. 
Once they have a sure-fire flop lined up, a musical called Springtime for Hitler, Bialystock starts to court his stable of rich, lustful, old women investors to cover ten times the actual production costs. Max calls them not by their names, but with an epithet describing what they demand in exchange for checks, like the short, coy Hold Me Touch Me (Betzy Miller), who crafts hilarious sexual fantasies to subject him to.

L to R: Svaden Svanson (Ewerz), Bialystock (Wolff), Bloom (Johnson)

But even before auditions start, who should show up but a classic, drop-dead-gorgeous Swedish blonde bombshell named Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yonsen Tallen-Hallen Svaaden-Svanson (Hayley Ewerz). They hire her on the spot as both actress and office help.

It all goes wrong when the opening night critics see it not as crassly tasteless, but wonderfully camp. The play is a hit, and the fraudulent producers end up in prison.

Bloom (Johnson) with ensemble and Hold Me Touch Me (Betzy Miller -- far right) 

Small wonder the play is a hit. We get to see it in act two, staged by a large, extraordinarily talented ensemble cast. From dancing pigeons to a geriatric Zimmer frame hoedown, the whole musical-within-a-musical bursts forth in a fast-paced, non-stop explosion of colorful, high-stepping absurdity that fills every inch of the theater. For the audience, it’s a veritable three-ring-circus of fun.   

As for the cast, I hardly know where to start. The leads were all amazing, but then so was the entire ensemble. What do you say when absolutely everyone deserves a call-out for excellence? There simply are not enough superlatives to do them justice.  

And let’s not forget the crew. An ambitious set by Blake York created a stepped thrust stage protruding from a classic proscenium background, complete with curtain and hidden cubbyholes. Add a dizzying number of hilarious, colorfully eye-searing costumes by Lauren Wells, complex and adroit lighting by Aaron Mohs-Hale, and sound design by Nicolas Roycroft with sound engineer Ed Jacobs. There were acres of creative props and wigs on this one, all thanks to Jeffery Weaver. And let’s not forget the stunt coach, Cara Hall, dance captain/cast member Kira Leigh Vega, and making this monstrously complex play run smoothly, stage manager Heather Hinds and ASMs Calvin Beekmand and D J Johnson.

There’s no way I can convey this experience in mere words, so please, trust me; go see it.

The Producers
June 7 to July 7, 2019
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Laura at TLT

All the unusual suspects  
by Michael Dresdner

Rodman Bolek as McPherson    All photos by Dennis K Photography
Tacoma Little Theatre has been showcasing its 100th year by offering plays they’ve done in the past. This time it is one that has lain fallow for 70 some years, the 1940’s noir classic Laura. Director Randy Clark assembled an excellent cast to unwind this classic murder mystery, one well-larded with great characters and all the requisite surprises of a fine whodunit. To set the mood, he relied not only on perfect props, set, and costumes, but also chose to use the main curtain, something TLT rarely does.  

As the curtain draws back we see a gorgeous city apartment with a large portrait of a beautiful woman over the fireplace. It’s the home of Laura, a successful advertising exec who was found dead there, with much of her face blown away by a shotgun. Staring lovingly at the portrait is detective Mark McPherson (Rodman Bolek), who while investigating the case has rather fallen for the victim. He’s so taken with her that at one point he believes he sees Laura (Victoria Ashley) walk through the door in the flesh. Or is he just dreaming?

L to R: Victoria Ashley, Ben Stahl 
Meanwhile, he must sort through the cast of potential suspects. They largely consist of a handful of men who have pursued the beautiful Laura with varying strategies, and varying degrees of success. There’s her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Randon Welch), a somewhat smarmy gold-digger who is clearly losing Laura’s devotion. From downstairs in her building is Danny Dorgan (Joel Thomas), a young man who visits Laura frequently on the pretext of a shared taste in somewhat avant-garde music, but who secretly pines for the older woman. Then there’s the tall, suave, erudite journalist Waldo Lydecker (Ben Stahl) who fashions himself as Laura’s Pygmalion and showers her with gifts and opportunities as he tries to craft her into someone who might adore him in return.  

Rounding out the cast is Danny’s mother, the building super, Mrs. Dorgan (Robin McGee), her cook Bessie (Valeria Sanchez-Jimenez), and another detective, Olsen (Steve Tarry) in a one minute, end-of-play walk-on role.

L to R: Randon Welch, Victoria Ashley 
This is a classic mystery where the clues are doled out piecemeal throughout the play, so I really can’t tell you much about the plot without ruining the mystery. You’ll have to trust me that it is well done and adroitly directed, with the action and pacing increasing as the play unfolds.

All the leads are quite admirable. Stahl is outstanding as Lydecker, commanding the stage with his air of self-assured elegance and wealth. Bolek handles the love-struck but focused detective quite convincingly, and Welch is fully believable as the rather oily fiancée. Thomas also does nicely as the slightly awkward young lothario, while Sanchez-Jimenez completely inhabits the role of Bessie, the cook, with just the right body language and mannerisms. And of course, it was nice to see the venerable Steve Tarry back on stage after a recent hiatus.

L to R: Rodman Bolek, Valeria Sanchez-Jimenez
By now it should come as no surprise that the technical aspects were well up to TLT’s exceptionally high standards. A gorgeous set by Blake York and scenic artist Jen York was graced by wonderful period props by Jeffery Weaver, who also handles hair and make-up. Michele Graves once again did a superb job on the period costumes, and Niclas Olson provided the lighting design, which in this play does its own share of heavy lifting, providing both mood and time cues. And let’s not forget stage manager Courtney Rainer who handled a fairly complex show smoothly and flawlessly.

All in all, Laura is an easy to watch, very enjoyable stage version of a classic noir murder mystery, steeped in period delights, and bound to please anyone with a fondness for this popular genre.  

L to R: Victoria Ashley, Rodman Bolek
One final note: Last season’s The Pillowman has made it to the national finals of the AACT theatre competition and will be traveling to Gettysburg, PA for the last leg of the competition. Along the way they’ve garnered awards for best set, best director, best actor, and best ensemble cast. Now they need our help to raise money for travel expenses. They have less than two months. Please consider pitching in (via the website) to send this fine cast back east to represent our state, county, and favorite local theatre.

April 26 to May 12, 2019
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, March 9, 2019

A Little Night Music at TLT

A Lot of Messing Around
by Michael Dresdner

L to R:  Casi Pruitt, Jonathan Bill       All photos by Dennis K Photography
The Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music, guest-directed by Lakewood Playhouse artistic director John Munn, opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre to a crowd that was both appreciative and, I suspect, familiar with the play.

Set in fin de siècle Sweden and based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around the dalliances of several disenchanted and unfaithful couples. By the end, couples get together, get back together, or rearrange themselves into new unions. There’s plenty of bed-hopping and jealously inducing game playing, but ultimately they all end up happier than when they began. This is the main difference between theatre and real life.

L to R: Juliet Hollifield, Hayley Ewerz
Fredrick Egerman (Jonathan Bill) is a middle aged lawyer who has a 19-year-old son, Henrik (Will Johnson), and is married to an 18-year-old trophy wife, Anne (Juliet Hollifield.) After 11 months, she’s still a virgin, and is secretly lusted after by her sexually unsophisticated stepson Henrik. No worries; Fredrick solves his frustration by reconnecting with an old flame, actress Desiree Armfeldt (Cassi Pruitt) who is, if not the town pump, at least liberal in her bedroom affections. She has a daughter (Julianna Guzman-Ferreira) who is somewhat suspicously named Fredrika. Desiree frequently dallies with a married Count (Jamey Cheek,) which inspires his wife (Alyssa Hersey) to craft a jealousy-inducing plot to end his roving.

L to R: Dominic Girolami, Rosalie Hilburn, Grace Wilkerson, Julianna Guzman-Ferreira
All is brought to a head when the whole gang shows up at the estate of Desiree’s mother, the wise, wheelchair-bound matron Madame Armfeldt (Rosalie Hilburn). Here among the trees they are all free to romp and play, and eventually sort themselves out into happier pairs.

L to R: The Greek Chorus: Erik Davis, Kira Leigh Vega, Heidi Walworth-Horn, Caryl Dowd, Chap Wolff
Singing was generally excellent throughout the entire cast, with both leads and ancillary cast members, like the Greek chorus, exhibiting the vocal chops of well trained singers. While musicals often sacrifice acting for voice, this one offered some performances worth noting, including Julianna Guzman-Ferreira as young Fredricka, Hayley Ewerz as the lusty maid Petra, Rosalie Hilburn as the reserved but wise Madame Arnfeldt, Jonathan Bill as Henrik Egerman, and last, but certainly not least, Casi Pruitt as Desiree. She also gets a nod for doing such an excellent job on the one song everyone comes to hear, the haunting and beautiful Send in the Clowns.

Since much of Act II takes place in the woods, the set, by Blake York, was minimalist, consisting almost entirely of white-painted movable hanging panels with adroit cutouts to make them look like stands of birch trees. Those, like me, who are given to pareidolia (go ahead – click on it – I’ll wait) will be delighted to find random faces in the woods. When rooms were needed, they were created by furniture moved on and off stage.  

L to R: Alyssa Hersey, Jamey Creek
Costumes by Michele Graves were extravagant and superb. Niclas Olson’s lighting was spot on (pardon the pun), as were hair, makeup, and props by Jeffery Weaver. Choreography was by Lexi Barnett, and stage manager Courtney Rainer, assisted by ASM Grace Wilkerson, who also had a small on-stage role, kept the busy show running smoothly.

Music, under the direction of Deborah Lynn Armstrong, was provided by an adept onstage orchestra (Kelly Marsh, Alonso Tirado, Kailee Wright, Erika Fiebig, Rose Nicholson) peeking out from behind the trees.

Curiously, the program’s aptly named director’s note, which is often about the play or the experience creating it, was instead about the director himself. It’s a choice.

This 1973 classic will delight Sondheim fans with its complex music and equally complex set of relationships. There’s plenty afoot to keep your attention, and some damned good singing and acting to boot.

A Little Night Music
March 8 to 31, 2019
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A Doll's House at TLT

Small World 
by Michael Dresdner 

L to R: Annie Katica Green, Sean Neely    All photos by Dennis K Photography
Last night the celebrated 1879 Ibsen play A Doll’s House opened to a most appreciative crowd at Tacoma Little Theatre. They had good reason to feel that way. Director Marilyn Bennet assembled an outstanding ensemble to create a well-paced, superbly acted play, frequently substituting more streamlined and accessible language without losing any of the impact of the original. Well done all.

Much analyzed and dissected over the years, Ibsen’s play was scandalously radical in its day for promoting the idea that women were more than simply working accessories for a male-oriented society. What’s different today? Depending on your vantage point, either “there’s no comparison” or “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same.)  
L to R: Patrick Gow, Nigel Kelley, Jillian Littrell, Annie Katica Green
Nora (Annie Katica Green) is the naïve, insular wife of prim, upright banker Thorvald Helmer (Sean Neely). With the help of her own former nanny Anne Marie (Robin McGee) and a housemaid named Helene (Marleyne Hernandez), she dutifully cares for the house and her three young children, Ivar ( Patrick Gow), Bob (Nigel Kelley), and Emmy (Jillian Littrell.) Her loving but patronizing husband treats her like a child, continuing a tradition started by her father. She does her best to please him, as she did with her father, and outwardly, it looks like a happy arrangement all around. But for nine years, she’s been carrying an awful secret.

L to R: Annie Katica Green, Jason Sharpe 
To save his life when he was ill, she secretly borrowed money to take him to Italy to recover by forging her father’s signature on a loan from a lawyer turned bank clerk, Nils Krogstad (Jason Sharpe,) who is now her husband’s subordinate. He, too, was guilty of forgery, and both Thorvald and the family’s best friend, Dr. Rank (Mark Peterson) are therefore revolted by him. When Nora’s girlhood friend Christine Linde (Kristen Moriarty) shows up to ask that she convince Thorvald to hire her just as he decides to fire Nils, he offers her the disgraced man’s job. What none but those two know, Christine and Nils have a painful but unresolved past together. The actions of those two, separately, ultimately triggers both the meltdown of this happily clueless home and a resolution of the core threat. This results in a life-changing epiphany for Nora and a rude awakening for Thorvald.

L to R: Kristen Moriarty, Annie Katica Green, Mark Peterson 
The women, Nora, Christine, and Anne Marie, have all made massive personal sacrifices in their lives for the sake of others, including parents, siblings, and spouses, and have all paid dearly for it in one way or another. Yet all are relatively stoical about it, deftly keeping the beneficiaries in blissful ignorance. Such were (are?) the demands of society.

L to R: Robin McGee, Annie Katica Green 
As I said, the entire cast was exceptional, right down to the three children who, along with the nanny, maid, and Christine, brought surprising realism to what might have been mundane roles. Green (Nora) did much of the heavy lifting, almost never leaving the stage and handling a massive line load and a physically demanding range of emotions and actions most skillfully. Sharp (Nils) neatly balanced his character’s desperate scheming with the broken spirit of a jilted lover, while Peterson (Dr. Rank) provided a constant anchor as the stalwart friend who unselfishly conceals both his terminal illness and his unrequited love for Nora. As for Neely (Thorvald), it’s the final scene where he truly shines, unleashing a perfectly nuanced and deftly executed portrayal of a man dutifully trying to remain in control while experiencing a shattering emotional upheaval.

As usual, the technical support was flawless, from the beautiful period set by designer Blake York and scenic artist Jen York, through wonderful period costumes by Michele Graves, lighting by Niclas Olson, sound by Dylan Twiner, and props, hair, and make-up by Jeffery Weaver. These outstanding people make up the resident technical team that consistently shines in TLT productions. Also listed, and certainly due theirs, is an assistant director and dramaturg, Lydia K. Valentine, stage manager Dana Galagan and her ASM Alyshia Collins, and Chevi Chung as fight choreographer.

So, can a circa 1879 play that’s been analyzed to a fare-thee-well still have relevance today?
How, exactly?
You really want to know? Eschew all the analysis and explanations. Just go see it.

Lagniappe: The play was based on the real life story of Ibsen’s friend Laura Kieler. Needing money to help find a cure for her husband’s tuberculosis, she asked Ibsen to recommend her to his publisher, thinking that would give her an avenue for needed income. He refused to help, after which she forged a check for the money. When it was discovered, her husband divorced her and had her committed to an asylum. Astonishingly, she returned to him and her children two years later, at his urging. You may make of that what you will.

A Doll’s House
Jan 25 to Feb 10, 2019
Tacoma Little Theatre