Monday, September 24, 2012

Sweeney Todd - Portland Center Stage, Portland, Oregon

“A Hole In The World”

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, opened last weekend at Portland Center Stage and plays through October 21st. The music is by that superb composer, Stephen Sondheim.  It is directed by PCS's, Artistic Director, Chris Coleman.

You should be warned, this play is not for the squeamish nor faint-of-heart.  It deals with, in fairly graphic ways, murder-most-foul (slitting of throats), cannibalism, madness, and other forms of disagreeable lifestyles.  It even had the audience hiding their heads at times and vocalizing, “oh,no” at one point.

But, that being said, it still has a strong musical score but a somewhat familiar story of revenge, albeit, rather bloody.  Sweeney Todd (Aloysius Gigl), away at sea for years, returns to Lon
don to seek revenge on those who had driven his wife mad and kidnapped his daughter.  He opens a barber shop above a tavern that makes and sells “the worst (meat) pies in London,” run by Mrs. Lovett (Gretchen Rumbaugh).

They strike up a union to exploit their unique “talents” for the benefit of both of them.  Mr. Todd will be able to extract his revenge through very close shaves in his shop and Mrs. Lovett will improve the quality of her meat pies.  I think you get the idea…

The story also involves finding his daughter, Johanna (Rita Markova), who has allied herself with his best friend, Anthony (Louis Hobson).  Johanna is also the ward of his sworn enemy, Judge Turpin (Matthew Allan Smith), who lusts after the girl.  And Mrs. Lovett has found a simple, but a little too curious soul, Toby (Eric Little), as a helper.  Into this mix are the various inhabitants of the underbelly of London.

The story borders on more of an opera or operetta, than a musical, as much of the dialogue is sung.  The best of these are the amusing “The Worst Pies In London,” the odd ditty “Pretty Women,” and the haunting “Johanna.”  But the highlight for me was, “A Little Priest,” a lengthy, but very funny song, embodying in puns, what some of the many professions might express about their experience as victims.

The set is wonderfully rendered by William Bloodgood, and is designed in such a way that the locations are quickly changed, giving an immediacy to the flow of the story.  The orchestra, under Rick Lewis, is terrific in tackling a very difficult score.  And the trick chair is a morbid delight.  The direction, by Mr. Coleman, is quick-paced and adds to the excitement of the story, giving an adrenaline rush to the audience’s sensitivities.

The Chorus in this production is quite splendid.  Mr. Gigl, as Sweeney, has the right chiseled looks and strong voice that this part demands.  The complexities of the character shine through, as he struggles with conflicting emotions.  Mr. Little, as Toby, is wonderfully na├»ve and sinister in the role.  And, in the small, but crucial role, as the Beggar Woman, Michele Ragusa, will shift your feelings for her from humor to pity.  Well done, Ms. Ragusa.

But the crowning performance is Gretchen Rumbaugh as Mrs. Lovett.  She is easily equal to the Tony-winning, Angela Landsbury, who originated it on Broadway.  Exploring the range from humor, to pathos, to ghoulishness and even to a creepy sort of love, Ms. Rumbaugh does it with ease.  And her command of the music and songs is outstanding!  I can see an award for this performance in her future.

This would probably be rated R, mainly for the language and violence.  For further information on PCS go to
www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700 for tickets.  Tell them Dennis sent you!

Animal Crackers - Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon

"Makers of Madness"

ANIMAL CRACKERS
is on its final weeks (through November 4) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has been selling out, so best get your tickets soon, if you’re planning on making the trip.  It’s based on an early play/movie of The Marx Brothers and the actors impersonate the Marx Brothers, doing the parts in the play.


As a friend of mine said, you either love the Marx Brothers style of humor or you hate it.  There is no middle ground.  As it happens, I’m in the former group, so we’re off to a good start.

There is a plot, as such, but it is so inconsequential to the antics, it is barely worth mentioning.  It takes place at a cocktail party of a rich lady, Mrs. Rittenhouse (the Margret Dumont character, as played by K. T. Vogt).  Part of the purpose of the party is to reveal a painting by a famous artist.  But it so happens there is also a fake copy, which replaces it but…don’t worry about the rest.

There are also songs and young lovers but the production belongs to the merry mischief of the Marx’s.  Of course, it is crucial, that the actors portraying, in particular, Groucho (Capt. Spaulding, as played by Mark Bedard), Harpo (the Professor, as played by Brent Hinkley) and Chico (Ravelli, as played by John Tufts) are exceptional in their performances of theses famous comic actors.  They are.

The play takes place in the late twenties/early thirties period of time.  And the set by Richard L. Hay is perfectly in line with this, as might be seen on an Agatha Christie film.  The costumes by Shigeru Yaji are equally as good.  And the musicians, onstage throughout, lend a believable presence to the proceedings.

The Marx Brothers were known for their ad-libbing and improvisational techniques onstage and with the audience.  This production is no exception.  If an actor flubbed a line or missed an entrance, Groucho would make a comic bit out of it, taking the audience into his confidence.  And viewers are not immune to their antics, either.

When a cell phone went off in the audience, Groucho immediately came off the stage, grabbed her phone and began talking the person on the other end.  If bedlam, humor and a dose of music excites your pallette, this will be a feast for you.  And I haven’t even told you about the dancing, mechanical Grouches that invade the stage.  It’s that kind of show, folks.

Mark Bedard as “Groucho” is extraordinary!  He has the comic timing down to a tee.  He rips, roars and rears around the stage as if he were gliding on skates.  His looks and gestures are pure “Groucho.”  This is a show I could see more than once, as long as Mr. Bedard were the Captain of the helm.

Mr. Tufts and Mr. Hinkley, as well as Ms. Vogt, do well in their impersonations, too.  The looks, the timing and the madcap frivolities onstage will take you back to the, perhaps, simpler, more innocent days.  Those “hazy, lazy, crazy days,” gone forever, except these wonderful footnotes of it onstage.

With all the attention to the Marx’s, you’d think that nobody else would get noticed.  Not true.  Jonathan Haugen, playing duel roles, is excellent in both of them.  He is so good in these contrasting characters that you’d think he were two different actors.  And Mandie Jensen, as Mrs. R.’s daughter, sings and dances her way into your hearts.

The director, Allison Narver, has her work cut out for her.  Not only did she have to immerse herself into Marx and Vaudeville lore, but she had to convincingly recreate a bygone era for an audience, in which, some of them, might detect a false note, having lived through it.  But she has worn all these hats very well.
At times, some of the skits went on a tad too long, but with a full house and a rousing standing ovation for the show, who’s going to argue with that.  For young hearts, this is an entertaining history lesson.  For the oldsters, a time to travel to the good ole days.

For tickets and membership information call 1-800-219-8161 and for more information on their shows contact their website at www.osfashland.org  Tell them Dennis sent you.

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella - Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon

"Three For One"

This show plays matinees at 1:30pm, and 8pm in the evenings (through November 3) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, at the indoor Bowmer Theatre.  Best get there early, as parking can be a problem.


Weaving three full-length stories into one is an amazing feat by itself.  One question a person should ask themselves in this case is, Why.  According to the co-adapters and directors, it is not only because of the similarity of tales, but also because they represent the three main genres of theatre:  The Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare and the American Musical.

This can be argued, of course, but the thesis they purport is quite intriguing.  And, accept this premise you must, if you are to gain anything from this very complex tale(s).  It may make your brain swell from following these interwoven stories but it, ultimately, is worth the effort.

Media is the classic tale of a wronged woman and the extent she will go to in order to avenge herself.  Her husband, Jason (Lisa Wolpe), has decided that he tires of her and decides to marry another woman.  This, of course, does not sit well with Medea (Miriam A. Laube) and she extracts a horrible and painful revenge.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or the Scottish play, is the familiar story of how ambition can give way to greed, jealousy, and murder.  Macbeth (Jeffery King) is told by three witches that he will be king.  Only problem is that there are a few people in line before him.  The solution seems obvious to him and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Christopher Liam Moore):  Eliminate the competition in a most bloody fashion.

The third play, Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, Cinderella, does seem a bit of a misfit by comparison.  Cinderella (Laura Griffith) is surrounded by misery because of her wicked siblings.  But a Fairy Godmother (K. T. Vogt) comes to the rescue and, via magic, transforms her into a princess for an evening, where she meets her Prince Charming (Jeremy Peter Johnson).

Now comes the tricky part.  How do you interweave these stories without driving an audience crazy, trying to keep things straight?  Answer—not easily.  Some will get lost along the way.  But for those who survive the journey, the trip will be worth it.  For the play is expertly presented by an outstanding cast and directors.

The most realized and best executed of the stories is Macbeth.  The cast is so good they could all easily be part of a full production of it.  It should be noted that the cast is mostly men (as it was in Shakespeare’s day).

Jeffery King is a magnificent Macbeth.  And, even better, is Christopher Liam Moore as his wife.  They are fully realized characters, as are the Witches (Daniel T. Parker, U. Jonathan Toppo & Eddie Lopez).  They all scheme and scream deviously to get their individual needs met.

Cinderella seems at odds with the rest of the mix.  True, it is also the story of a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world, but the fluffiness seems a bit out of place in this weaving of plots.  But the songs are well rendered, especially by the truly, lovely Laura Griffith in the title role.  She makes you believe in her and, thusly, in the world of magic and romance.

Medea is played by a mostly female cast.  Lisa Wolpe as Jason is very good as the wayward husband.  And Miriam A. Laube takes command of the stage as Medea.  You truly understand her anguish as she attempts to finds other means, without success, of dealing with the pain of losing the man she deeply loves.

Another added attraction is the Usher (Mark Bedard) who is the connecting tissue, narrator and oft-times, a character in the play.  He performs this complex duty very efficiently.  The music is well presented.  And the costumes by Deborah M. Dryden are exceptional, adding beautifully to this production.

Of course, Mr. Rauch (Artistic Director for OSF) and Tracy Young as the concocters of this complex stew must be duly congratulated for raising the bar a notch or two for playwriting and staging.  Bravo!

For tickets and membership information call 1-800-219-8161 and for more information on their shows contact their website at www.osfashland.org. Tell them Dennis sent you.

Henry V - Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon

What Manner Of A Man Is This?

Henry V
is playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Elizabethan outdoor Theatre in Ashland, Oregon at 8pm (through October 12).  It’s now in its final weeks, so you must hurry if you want to catch it.  And best bring a sweater, as the nights are cool, and a cushion, as the seats are hard. 


Henry, in my opinion, is probably the best written of the Shakespearean History plays.  It is also based on a true incident, where England sought to regain territory they felt belonged to them, in France.  The English troops, vastly out-numbered, finally won out over them, on their own French soil.

And, to solidify the alliance, Henry (John Tufts) marries the King’s daughter, Katherine (Brooke Parks).  It would be a short-lived victory though, because, as we know, the French did regain their land back.  And that, in a nutshell, is the groundwork for the play.

The production at OSF is a stripped-down model of the story.  This is not a bad thing, as it allows the actors to relay the plot in more of a storytelling fashion.  And the actors in this production, for the most part, rise to the occasion.  Even the Chorus, normally played by one person, is shared by many in the cast.  This device lends well to the “black-box” approach to this play.  And the music, played deftly by Kelvin Underwood, underscores the many moods of the show.

The costumes and settings are stark and the pacing is quick, moving the play along rapidly to its conclusion.  A very nice special effect, the rain, will please audiences.  And the capable cast deals beautifully in playing several roles.  This is something most productions at OSF pride themselves on.

OSF is very open to cross-gender and cross-cultural casting.  And they have a deaf actor (Howie Seago) playing, with ease, the Duke of Exeter, Henry’s uncle.  Bravo, OSF, for giving a platform to all artists in any role!

Much of the strength of this story lies with the actor playing Henry.  This is the only snag in which the show stumbles a bit at times.  John Tufts, as King Henry, has some good moments, e.g. the famous Crispin Day speech is well spoken and his comedy-of-manners scene with Katherine is very amusing and touching.  But he fails, at times, to give the story its sense of urgency that must be in every leader, if they are to rally the troops.

Henry is by no means a saint.  He abandons his faithful friend, Falstaff, who, in essence, dies of a broken heart because of this betrayal by his ole buddy, Prince Hal.  The King also must discipline another drinking buddy, Bardolph (Brent Hinkley) by strangling him for theft.  And he must marry a woman he’s never met, simply to cement the relationship between two countries.

A mark of a great leader, perhaps, but, not necessarily, of a good man.  He does cruel things for noble reasons.  Henry is a complex creature and this turmoil must show through.  Mr. Tufts only occasionally rises to the occasion.

But there are some really outstanding performances and scenes.  In particular, Christine Albright as the Boy, proving, once again, “there are no small parts…” She shines in her few scenes, giving the play its needed dash of energy.  Ms. Parks as Katherine is wonderfully funny in her scenes where she is trying to master the English language.

And Judith-Marie Bergan as her attendant, Alice (and also Mistress Quickly) polishes her acting chops in these two diverse roles.  U. Jonathan Toppo as Pistol, Cristofer Jean as Montjoy and, especially, Daisuke Tsuji, as the Dauphin, are pretty amazing to watch, also.

The play, directed by Joseph Haj, is presented in a streamlined fashion, allowing for his strong cast to carry the burden of the story.  Too often the pageantry of a production gets in the way of the story.  This is not the case here, as Mr. Haj weaves this ambitious tale with stunning simplicity.

For tickets and membership information call 1-800-219-8161 and for more information on their shows contact their website at www.osfashland.org  Tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

And So It Goes - Artist Repertory Theater, Portland, Oregon

Romantic Notions

And So It Goes... is playing at ART through October 7th. Evenings at 7:30, and 2pm matinees on Sundays, too.  It is based on the writing of Kurt Vonegut and adapted and directed by Aaron Posner.

The title of the play is derived from Vonnegut’s way, in many of his stories, of dealing with extraneous information, kind of like we use, etc.  Mr. Vonnegut died recently and his fresh words on our current human condition will be solely missed.  He spoke for an Age and his insights were remarkable.
 
But his words (as do Bradbury’s) are hard to express in a visual setting.  Only PBS’s with their From Time To Timbuktu (with one of his favorite actors, Kevin McCarthy) and Who Am I This Time? (with Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon) were worth the effort.  And his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (again with McCarthy) fell short of the mark.  But now Posner attempts this transition, too.

This play is not the usual Vonnegut fare, playing with Time and creating Sci-Fi like atmospheres.  It deals with Love, “pure and complicated.”  The first story is true, describing the story of how he married his wife, based on his beautiful, seven-page short story, A Long Walk To Forever.  The young soldier, Newt (Andy Lee-Hillstrom), arriving on the wedding day of his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Kayla Lian) to another man.
 
His determination to convince her to marry him is unflappable.  And his proposition to her is simple, just take a walk, “putting one foot in front of the other…and so it goes.”  Ah, were Romance really that simple.  Perhaps the best love story ever written.  It well may be that Life is really not all that complex, perhaps we just make it that way.

The second story is one of the best theatre stories ever written, based on Who Am I This Time?  An unassuming little man, Harry (Alex Hurt, son of the terrific actor, William Hurt), who works as a clerk in a store in a small town, becomes transformed when he appears onstage into, almost literally, becoming another person.
 
He meets his match in a mousy little lady, Helene (Kayla Lian), who also becomes consumed by her role.  And the current play they are to perform is Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with the two as Stanley and Stella.  Their passion grows as long as there are characters for them to become.  A little sad, perhaps, but it works for them.  And is not that the point of Love?

The third story is the weakest of the three.  It also comes from Vonnegut’s book of short stories (as do the other two), Welcome To The Monkey House.  It is views of two, inter-related stories of marriages on the rocks.
 
One has to do with the relationship of Gloria (Sarah Lucht), a movie star, to George (Leif Norby), a failing writer.  She is looking for success with successful people.  He is looking for a way to patch up his relationship with his son, John (Andy Lee-Hillstrom), from a former marriage. 

The other marriage has to do with Tom (Tim True), an absorbed salesman, but neglectful husband, and his strained relationship with his wife, Katy (Valerie Stevens).  During the flow of the story, the two husbands connect with each other, revealing some of their innermost feelings and how to survive Love.  As they say, “Adults are just kids with more body hair and taller.”

The stage is bare with only incidental props and set pieces and lighting to reveal locations.  And, as noted, the small cast plays many roles, and are well-suited for this task:  A black box or Our Town sort of atmosphere.  The direction by Posner works well in this arena, keeping things flowing throughout the story.  As I said, only the last story seems weak, as compared to the other two.

All the performers do well in their assigned roles.  But outstanding is Tim True as the Narrator and characters within the stories.  His casual delivery and relaxed manner make one feel quite at home in the theatre, as if it were just a conversation between friends.  (Much like the character of the Stage Manager in Wilder’s Our Town).

Alex Hurt as Harry (and Stanley) is extraordinary in this complex role.  He is totally believable as both characters, as if he were two different people.  And Leif Norby is organically rooted as Verne, a nerdy, wanna-be actor in the Streetcar… tale and as George, the conflicted husband in the final story.  The characters are polar opposites of each other but Nordy pulls it off beautifully.  And Kayla Lian does well in her duel roles as Catherine and Helene.

This production is well worth seeing. For further information go to their website at artistrep.org and/or call for tickets at 503-241-1278.  Tell them Dennis sent you.

Avenue Q - Triangle Productions, Portland, Oregon

A Walk on the Wild Side

Avenue Q is playing at Triangle Productions! Thursday - Satursdays at 7:30pm and Sunday matinees at 2pm, through September 30th, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR.

One can certainly say one thing about Avenue Q, it’s an “Equal Opportunity Offender.”  But to give it some status, it should be remembered that his little, Off-Broadway production took the Tony away from the flashy, big-budgeted Wicked for Best Musical (and score & book).  In my opinion, it was well deserved.
           
A thumb-nail description would be a walk on the dark side of Sesame Street, as if written by the creators of TV’s South Park.  In fact, one of the writers is connected with The Book Of Mormon, a sell-out musical, currently on Broadway, another “offensive” story.  I had the pleasure of seeing the Off-Broadway production of Q and, to be honest, this compares favorably to it.
           
It is “a typical day in the neighborhood” with the folks of a run-down apartment complex in NYC.  A newly arrived, recent college grad, Princeton (Bryan Kinder) moves into this area, eager to make his mark on the world.  While here, he meets the girl-next- door, Kate Monster (Meghan McCandless—super in ART’s Next to Normal, earlier this year), a substitute teacher, also with dreams. 

Into this mix are added Rod and Nicky, roommates with a secret (Norman Wilson and James Sharinghousen); Brian (Jonathan Quesenberry) a wanna-be stand-up comic and his main squeeze, Christmas Eve (Sarah Kim); Lucy (Chrissy Kelly-Pettit), a torch singer of questionable morals; and Gary Coleman—yes, that Gary Coleman, from past TV fame--(Tyler Andrew Jones) as the Super for the building.

It should be strongly noted that this show is not for those easily offended, or those faint of heart or weak of mind.  It addresses harsh language, Gay issues, Internet porn, sex, prejudice, politics, religion, ethnicity, relationships and even has a graphic scene of puppet promiscuity. 

Why the in-your-face approach?  Perhaps, because, as the story goes, a traveler, was trying to get his stubborn mule up a hill with kind words (which wasn’t working), finally resorting to hitting the animal over the head with a two-by-four, in which the mule finally went forward.  His explanation for such an action?  You have to get their attention first.  ‘Nuf said.

The songs are terrific and really move the story forward.  My favorites:  If You Were Gay, Purpose, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, The Internet Is For Porn, Special, There’s a Fine, Fine Line, The More You Ruv Someone and I Wish I Could go Back To College.  With those titles, it will also give you an idea as to whether it’s your cup of tea or not.

And the cast is uniformly excellent, with not a weak link in the ensemble.  My favorites in the singing department were Chrissy’s belting rendition of Special, Norman’s strong voice in My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada, Sarah’s heart-felt The More You Ruv Someone and my personal favorite (both song and cast member), who one can’t help but fall in love with, Meghan’s perfect voicing of There’s A Fine, Fine Line.  Only question remains, does one’s affection go toward the performer, or their alter-ego, the puppet?

Not to be ignored are the very workable set from Actors Cabaret of Eugene; Darcy White and her marvelous band; Don Horn’s (Leader of the Triangle Pack) intricate direction and, especially, the puppet makers—Darrin J. Pufall, designer, with the collaboration of the unequaled, Tears Of Joy Theatre.  My hat’s off to these magnificent Magic Makers!

For information on this company and the show go to www.tripro.org or triangleproductions1@gmail.com or call 503-239-5919.