Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fiddler on the Roof--Portland Center Stage—NW Portland

A Movable Feast

The classic musical is written/composed by Joseph Stein, Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick from the stories of Shalom Aleichem.  It is directed by Chris Coleman (PCS’s Artistic Director), music direction by Rick Lewis and choreography reproduced by Kent Zimmerman.  It will be playing at PCS at 128 NW 11th Ave. through October 27th.  For more information go to or call 503-445-3700.

What is tradition, but what was once, new ways, becoming old.  And what is a belief system but something that is ingrained.  Like a seed, it is sometimes rooted into the soil, or is blown by the wind to other parts of a fertile earth.  But it will never die, like the Jewish folks in this tale, even if they are sometimes precariously balanced like a…fiddler on the roof.  

The show opened with much acclaim on Broadway with the incomparable Zero Mostel in the lead.  The movie version had a somewhat muted Topol playing Tevye.  And the songs, Tradition; Matchmaker, Matchmaker; If I Were a Rich Man; To Life; Miracles of Miracles; Sunrise, Sunset; and Do You Love Me? being some of the best from Broadway.

The story takes place in Russia during the late 1800’s, as their Jewish citizens become more of a burden than an asset to the country.  On a smaller scale, the tale concerns a milkman, Tevye (David Studwell) and his wife, Goldie (Portland favorite, Susannah Mars) and their struggle to survive with five daughters, three of them marriageable age.  Tzeitel (Merideth Kaye Clark) is the eldest and must be married off first before the others—tradition.  And tradition also demands that the father, with the help of a Matchmaker, Yente (Sharonlee McLean) must pick a suitable (well-off) husband.

But, waiting in the wings is Hodel (Sarah Stevens) and Chava (Amber Kiara Mitchell).  The men they all end up with are not according to tradition, as one falls in love with a poor tailor, Motel (Drew Harper), another is smitten by a revolutionary teacher, Perchik (Zachary Prince) and the third goes for one of the enemy, and not of their faith, a Russian soldier, Fyedka (David Errigo, Jr.).  It is not so much that tradition is abandoned but that new traditions are born.  And so the cycle will continue and endure, as the people do.

This is a universal story, as all cultures have their changes and upsets, often caused by political or religious strife, or color of skin, or gender, or sexual preference.  The “beat goes on,” as we seek to evolve into a more tolerant and accepting civilization, and this story is a prime example of a capsulation of that process. 

The orchestra, under the direction of Lewis, does a super job of rendering the score, without overpowering the singers.  Tylor Neist, as the titled Fiddler, embodies the necessary bitter-sweet tones necessary for this moving tale.  And Coleman gives us an easy-flowing story that is constantly on the move, like its characters.

The scenic design by G. W. Mercier is simple but very effective, allowing the lighting (Ann Wrightson) to render much of the changes in setting and mood.  And the costumes (Jeff Cone) fit the period nicely.  Especially prominent are the dance numbers, faithfully reproduced by Zimmerman.

Studwell has a good voice and nicely underplays the lead character, but it seemed a bit too subdued to me.  Tevye should be a larger than life character and here, although he fits smoothly into the demands of the role, he seems to be at a cruising speed instead of full throttle.  Mars, on the other hand, gives us just the right amount of gusto as his wife, and is especially effective in their numbers together, such as Sunrise, Sunset and Do You Love Me?

The rest of the cast is in fine form.  McLean is wonderful as the matchmaker and the Grandmother.  And Corey Brunish, as the head of the military forces, allows us to see the conflicted nature of a leader of the conquering forces.  Nicely presented. 

Overall, I think the show needs to be ramped up a notch, as everything is there for a powerful show.  But, to be honest, it was an almost full house (even in such nasty weather) and they gave the show a standing ovation.

I do recommend this production, as it has some classic songs, well rendered, and a universal story.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Richard III—Northwest Classical Theatre—Shoebox Theatre—SE Portland

Family Feuds
Shakespeare’s historical tragedy, Richard III is being presented at the Shoebox Theatre space, 2110 SE 10th Ave., by the Northwest Classical Theatre Company.  It is directed by Barry Kyle and will be performed through October 13th.  For more information go to their site at

“What little family doesn’t have their ups and downs.”  A line from A Lion In Winter (this company’s next show in December) but it seems appropriate in summarizing the theme of this play, both in reality and tone.  A play that is normally a vicious drama is now, still vicious, but often a dark (very dark) comedy.  No, it’s not played for laughs, but it is often said that comedy and tragedy are both on the same coin, just reverse sides from each other.

This concept works as this oily, paranoid, mis-shapened (more in soul than body) son of York, Richard (Grant Turner), a few layers removed from the Crown, succeeds in scaling his way over relatives’ bodies to become King of England.  His first order of business is to marry Lady Anne (Brenan Dwyer), to increase his status.  (A trifling matter that he killed both her father and her husband.)  The current King, Edward (Jason Maniccia) is on his death bed and Richard’s other direct rival, Clarence (Tom Walton) must also be removed, so is drown in a vat of wine.  And, after that, smothering a couple of little cousins (also rivals) is child’s play.

But the fun is not yet over.  It seems his closest friends, Hastings (Pat Patton) and Buckingham (John San Nicolas), are beginning to develop scruples, and so, must be eliminated, too.  And, to add insult to injury, he needs to rid himself of his wife and marry Edward’s wife’s, Elizabeth’s (Melissa Whitney) daughter (Tiffany Groben), just a girl, to cement his position further.  Finally, it dawns on the couple remaining allies he has left, that they best switch sides, or face the chopping block themselves, and aid Richmond (Steve Vanderzee) in his bid for the throne.  Was ever a man so misdirected or a populace so misguided.

Richard, himself, is portrayed as a man that is clever, devious but also a charmer when he has to be, a true political animal.  Turner plays him as a tormented, haunted man, feeling that he must act in accordance with his physical ugliness.  But the physical mold is slight in comparison to his ugly soul.  In appearance, he is rather handsome, and his deformities more of the mind than body.  Grant is exceptional in his layered performance and, when peeled away, like an onion, is really just a spoiled child underneath.  Only during scoldings from his mother (Susan Nelle) do we see the true, frightened, pitiful boy.  A remarkable performance!

This is done in modern dress (mostly black clothing) on an essentially bare stage, with a cast playing multiple roles.  And it is never boring.  The macabre interplays between Buckingham and Richard with the children gives one goosebumps.  And the scenes between Richard wooing Lady Anne and then Elizabeth are truly despicable.  The way Richard manipulates his friends, then, like a cornered predator, attacks without mercy.  It is an evening alive with excitement, as you marvel at the twists and turns of the plot.

All the cast is outstanding but some that are spot on are Paige Jones as Margaret, giving us a character that appears mad but might but the sanest of them all.  She is wonderful.  Whitney and Dwyer are both exceptional as the women deceived by Richard’s weaving of webs that capture his flies.  And Patton, as an old friend who finds he has a conscience after all, is noble and sad in his portrayal, especially when he is at death’s door.  Nicolas is likewise effective, as he is deceived, and in a bid for freedom, also loses his head.  A calm and deliberate performance.  As is Walton, as he explains his disturbing dream before drowning.  Both powerful in their underplaying of these characters.

Kyle, a guest artist from England, has directed this show in a conversational style of speaking, wherein you understand the text, as well as being able to appreciate the beauty of it.  He has also done an exceptional job is using such a small space to great advantage, always keeping the action moving but, also, well aware that the audience must understand what’s going on.  A supreme achievement!

I do recommend this show.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Mountaintop—Portland Center Stage—NW Portland

The Dream

The production is written by Katori Hall and directed by Rose Riordan.  It is performed at PCS’s space at 128 NW 11th Ave. and runs through October 27th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-445-3700.

“I have a dream…” speech is as famous as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Both orations speak of a better tomorrow; both men came from humble beginnings; both shared a kinship as to slavery; and both were assassinated.  And this is the “stuff that dreams are made on,” and heroes and legends are hatched.

But, in this production, we see a different Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Rodney Hicks).  The setting is his motel room the night before his death.  It is raining, he is alone, and the loud thunder from the heavens unnaturally unnerves him.  We see him as an ordinary man who is comfortable with fear as his best friend, who realizes that if he wakes up with fear, he knows he’s alive.  He is pondering over his next speech, calling his wife and kids because of loneliness, and dying for a cigarette and, maybe, companionship.

Into this setting appears Camae (Natalie Paul), a maid who could satisfy some of those needs.  She is a no-nonsense type of person, straight-talking and part of that silent majority that all political figures refer to.  They share stories about the degradation at the hands of the white man.  He sees marches and discussions as the means to unite all brothers.  She favors a more active, forceful participation of brethren. 

But when she calls him Michael, his birth name, his paranoia surfaces and he senses she may be a spy from the government.  In a way, she is, but not for any earthly entity.  She is an angel and is there to prepare him for his journey home.  He asks for an extension in time as he feels his work is not yet done.  Even after arguing over the phone with her Boss (and She is black and proud of it), it gets him nowhere. 

But, as a consolation prize, he is permitted to see visions of the future and to know that his “Dream” will be fulfilled, even though he will not be able to enter the Promised Land himself.  “So close and yet so far way,” he intones.  A plateau has been reached, the baton is passed and “the Mountaintop” may be within sight.

Hall’s play has its power in the relationship between these two individuals and the differing viewpoints.  But it also has the task of presenting more than one theatrical genre in this story, mostly successful.  It almost slips into silliness with the phone call to God but redeems itself by the end with the powerful visions of roads traveled.  And the might of the two performers gives it the necessary creditability, in which was manifest in a well-deserved, standing ovation from an almost full house.

Hicks, as King, has the unenviable role of presenting us the Man, not the Myth, of this powerful icon of American history.  And, he does it well, giving us not the saint, nor the sinner, but an ordinary human being, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  And Paul has an equally difficult job of presenting a mystical character and doing it creditably.  She is totally committed as the impassioned maid, giving us a working-class outlook on life and her times.  And she is equally convincing in role of the novice angel trying to do her job well.  Both are experts at playing off each other and always keeping us involved.

Riordan has varied the pacing of the actors to such an extent that we never lose interest in the story.  And she keeps the setting simple, so as not to distract us from her exceptional cast.  Well done on all counts.

I would recommend this play but it does have occasional rough language, in case that offends you.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Big Meal—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

The Last Supper

This comedy-drama is written by Dan LeFranc and directed by Dámaso Rodriguez (Artists Rep’s Artistic Director).  It is the West Coast premiere and is playing at their space at SW Alder St. & 16th Ave. through October 6th.  For more information go to their website at or call 503-241-1278.

Any resemblance to the Bible’s rendition of Christ’s last supper might be intentional, as it leads to death.  Or, the title, The Big Meal, might have something akin to the ancient Egyptians method of furnishing their royalty’s tombs with food, to nourish their spirits on their way to the hereafter.  And, certainly, meals have significance as a way of gathering couples/families together as a ritual for, not only feeding the bodies, but also instituting and/or inciting relationships.

Explaining the story is more of a challenge than figuring out the theme.  To put it simply, it is the story of five generations of a family, played out in one setting, a restaurant, and enacted by only eight actors, so the names/roles change in an instant with barely a costume addition or deletion.  It is to the credit of all the actors, who are exceptional, in keeping any sort of order at all.  But, as mentioned in the program, “…the time-lapse actor switching can be confusing…sometimes you have to play catch-up…but you do catch-up.”

Perhaps the best way of explaining it is that Allen Nause and Vana O’Brien play the roles of the older folks in the story; Val Landrum and Scott Lowell play them at middle ages; Britt Harris and Andy Lee-Hillstrom enact them as young people and Agatha Olson and Harper Lea are the characters as children.  On a blind date, two people meet at an unnamed restaurant and from there, they marry (with the consent of their parents), have two children who, in turn have children, until finally, the surviving member of the original clan is a great-grandmother.

The family, like all families to some degree, is dysfunctional.  There are affairs; partings, new beginnings; children being born, some never surviving; old age dilemmas, new age challenges; and always the bickering, bawling, brawling, blessings and beauty of an ordinary family bearing their souls and saying, perhaps, do you know these people?  Are they your neighbors?  Are they…you?!

Yes, the story is difficult to follow at times, so you have to focus.  But, as mentioned, you do figure out most of the who is who and the relationships in the end.  All the actors are amazing in keeping the story flowing at a break-neck pace.  How they can keep it straight for themselves is beyond me.  The two youngest performers, Olson and Lea, are quite good and keep up easily with their grown-up counterparts.  And the ole pros, Nause and O’Brien, are always a welcome sight on the stage.  Their years “on the boards” have raised the level of Portland theatres up several notches.  “May they live long and prosper.”  And Landrum, Lowell, Harris, and Lee-Hillstrom are their equals in this show.  They mix and match, rise and fall as their characters in a seamless way.  Bravo!

And Rodriguez had the hardest task, as he had to keep all the roles straight in his head, as well as coaching the actors as to fine-tuning each individual character.  He was also finding moments of calm in the storms, which slackened the pace just enough to give a scene emphasis, the actors a breather and the audience a moment to sort things out.  His expertise shows through, as he managed to present it all with ease and style.

I would recommend this show but it might not be for everybody, as it employs rough language at times.  If you do choose to go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Kiss of the Spider Woman—Triangle Productions!—NE Portland

A Lethal Combination

This dramatic musical by Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb (from a book by Manuel Puig) is an Oregon Premiere and is directed by Don Horn.  Musical Direction is by Jonathan Quesenberry and Choreography by Sara Martins. It is presented by Triangle Productions! at 1785 NE Sandy Blvd.  It runs through September 29th.  For more information, go to or call 503-239-5919.

The non-musical, film version starred William Hurt (winning an Academy Award for it) and Raul Julia.  The Broadway show starred the unstoppable, Chita Rivera and won seven Tony awards.  This production features the unbeatable, Margie Boule’ (Aurora/Spider Woman), Bobby Ryan (Molina) and Nicholas Rodriguez (Valentin).  It is the story of commitment, pain, brutality, friendship, death and love.  And, it is about how one might find warmth in the coldest of places and heroes in the most unlikely of shells.

If magic could be woven into a carpet and a kiss, awaken dreams, this production is the platform for such a journey!  Aurora is the dream and the vehicle to temporarily transport one from a hell-on-earth to a heaven-like place.  But, beware of the deadly, sweet kiss of the Black Widow, the Spider Woman, the inevitable contact we must all face to transport us from this “mortal coil.”  In the meantime, we have a revolution, both sexual and political, imprisoned, a threat to the “normal” rules of “civilized” society.  Any identification with current world affairs is entirely…intended.

This particular prison is in South America and the focus of the story is two cellmates, Molina, a sexual deviant, and Valentin, a terrorist.  The rules of the games are simple.  Molina is to spy for the military to get the names of the other revolutionaries from Valentin.  If he’s a good boy and does what they say, he will be released to take care of his ailing mother (also, Margie Boulie’).  But Molina has a saving grace, that transports him out of his hellhole, in the guise of Aurora, a movie star (akin to a Rita Hayworth) that he dreams of and is his passage out of the iron bars. 

Soon, he ensnares Valentin into this web and he, too, becomes entranced with visions of other worlds and possibilities.  They fall in love, which compromises Molina’s desire to be free, versus his intense feelings for his friend.  And the ever-present, deadly kiss is just around the corner, to free all from their troubles.  Will he betray his friend?  Will the dark, feline fatale’ become a companion to one, or both, of them?  No, I won’t be a spoiler and reveal the ending but, let’s just say, it’s bittersweet.

The songs are totally integrated into the story and become, in many ways, the passages outside the prison.  And the dance numbers, seemly could be confined because of such a small space, are well-choreographed by Martins and become quite effective.  And Quesenberry’s musical direction and his band, are very good, and do not overcome the singers, a common mistake in many musicals.  The sound (David Petersen) and lighting (Jeff Woods) are particularly important in creating the variety of changes needed for the different settings to the story.  And Horn, as always, has added his expertise in the set and costume (w/Darren Pufall) designs, also simple but very effective for these changes.

Boule’ is an icon of musical theatre in this area and she shows why she deserves those accolades.  She easily weaves from one character to another so successfully that she is almost unrecognizable.  And her rendering of the songs is top-notch, to the point that this space seems too small to hold her enormous talent. 

And to complement her in two songs (Dear One and I Do Miracles) is Crystal Muñoz as Marta, Valentine’s gal, who is a terrific match for her in them.  Muñoz has already proved herself as an actress and director in other theatres, now she can add singing and dancing to those honed talents.  An actor to be followed in future shows, I believe.

And the two leads are sensational!  Rodriguez gives us the passion as the revolutionary but also the vulnerability of a man in love with his cause, his woman and his country.  And he has the power in his voice for the conviction needed in the songs and one can see him slowly evolved into a world of sensitivity.  A touching portrayal.  And Ryan is masterful as the seemingly, more fragile, Molina.  He is not the stero-typed, foppish gay we sometimes see on stage and screen, but a true human being, full of hopes and desires, like all of us.  It is to his credit (and Rodriguez’s) that we see the full scope of human interaction and the entire range of hues on a human palette, all colors of the rainbow.

Horn has, again, given us a complex, thoughtful production, one that, in another’s hands, might have just been a slick show.  Just the suggestion of changes, adds greatly to communicating to us the fact that they are still in prison and the world/memories they seek are only a dream away.  Reinforcing, for me, how important imagination and the Arts are for individuals to become complete beings.  And he has one of the strongest chorus’ I’ve seen, adding to the strength of this production, Ron Harman, Matthew Brown, Alexander Salazar, Gabriel Mikalson, and Muñoz.

I do recommend this show but, keep in mind, it does have nudity and concerns adult subject matter, so may not be to everybody’s taste.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

SPARKLE Recognition 2013

As I See It . . . Over the past year, I have reviewed about 85 plays in Portland, Ashland and SW Washington.  They have occurred at colleges; at Equity and non-Equity theatres; in small, black box sites and large, cavernous spaces; musicals and non-musicals; classical, original and modern pieces; one-person exchanges to big cast productions; “children’s” shows to all-adult events…and all in the name of a Performing Art called, Theatre.

Being only one person, I have been unable to see all the shows and all the theatres that exist in these areas.  I’m extremely grateful for all those theatres who have given me Press Passes to see their shows.  You are very kind and I appreciate it! 

So, in return, I have invented a SPARKLE Recognition acknowledgement for the shows I’ve have seen from the inception of my theatre review blog (June, 2012) through August, 2013.  These are Productions that have impressed me and, I believe, deserve a Special Recognition for their contributions.  And, if you read my reviews, there are a lot of very admirable shows out there and, in reality, everyone should be applauded for their efforts.

One notable exception, unlike other award ceremonies, I have not picked a winner in a category.  I believe, as did Brando and Scott, who refused their Academy Awards because they believed that it’s like comparing apples and oranges when choosing who is best.  How do you decide who is the best in one production over someone else in a totally different role and production.  It just doesn’t gel to me, as well.  Nor do I have any set number of Recognitions.

So I have picked those that stood out as significant to me, meaning they have moved or impressed me, above and beyond a normal good performance.  And so, these Recognitions were invented.  The only lines I drew were between Musical and Non-musical productions, because the skill sets/dynamics are different, and between larger cast productions over one/two person shows, for similar reasons.  And I did not distinguish between Equity vs. Non-equity, teens/children vs. adult performers, large theatre companies vs. small, and original vs. adapted productions.  A good performance/production is a good performance/production, regardless of pedigree.

I have also chosen not to include the plays I reviewed as a Guest Reviewer for Greg and his blog that covers SW Washington at  Since that is his territory, I will leave it up to him as to determine how he presents his blog.

Also, because of the cost factor, there is no actual award or ceremony.  But if anyone would like to sponsor that for next Season (9/13-8/14), I would be happy to partake.

Visit me anytime at

Enjoy, and Congratulations to all Artists everywhere.  May our light burn bright…forever!  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Two Gentlemen of Verona—The Playmakers at Disjecta Arts Center—N. Portland

"Love is Blind”
This is the inaugural production of this company in the DISJECTA Contemporary Arts Center in their outdoor courtyard at 8371 N. Interstate Ave.  The Shakespearean comedy is directed by Avital Shira and produced by Amir Shirazi and Katie Farewell.  It runs through September 8th.  For more information go to

Ah, yes, the heart rules when Cupid slings his fateful arrow.  And, therein, lies this tale.  The story is simple and related, in many ways, to some of his other comedies with star-crossed lovers, comic servants, mistaken identities, disguises, and loves won and lost, then won again.  It is not just the story of this age but, of and for, all ages. This one is set in the early 1900’s, with music & songs as an underscoring to it.  And, all-in-all, in modern clothes, stripped of any set, with minimal props, and a cast of eight playing about twice as many roles, it is really quite lovely!

The plot is quite simple, with two young gadflies on the outlook for that elusive thing called love.  Proteus (Zach Virden) has cemented his love with Julia (Kayla Lian) but seems intent on also wooing his best friend’s, Valentine’s (Colton Ruscheinsky) main squeeze, Silvia (Foss Curtis), who he is in lust with.  Silvia’s father (Tony Green) is less than enthusiastic with her interest in Valentine and would rather she turn her attentions toward a wealthier suitor, Sir Thurio (Josh Gulotta), a fool in fop’s clothing.

So Proteus hatches a plan to expose Valentine’s proposed plot to abduct Silvia and elope with her, thereby getting him banished from the area.  And, thus, leaving the field open for him to woo fair Silvia.  Only problem is that Silvia cares not a wit for him and, complicating matters further, patient Julia disguises herself as a boy, Sebastian, and allies herself with Proteus, so that she is apprised of his nefarious doings.  Meanwhile, Valentine and his servant, Speed (again, Josh Gulotta) are accosted by outlaws and, because he is a criminal now, too, is made their leader.

But, all is made right again, when dirty dealings are exposed and lovers trysts come to a close (all in the right beds this time).  Of course, one must ask why Julia, or Valentine, for that matter, would take back, into their good graces, such a rat as Porteus but, as mentioned, “love is blind,” and so to happy endings, one and all.  It is the age old dilemma, the battle between heart and mind…what one knows vs. what one feels.  The secret, perhaps, may be to be not so concerned about what you want but what the other person needs.  Just a thought…

The idea of adding music from this period is quite a stroke of genius.  Not only does it illustrate the feelings of the characters but it quite entertaining in itself.  Gulotta, Max Maller (Lance, et. al.) and Kate Berman (Lucetta, et. al.) do most of the singing/music and are quite talented in that area.  And Berman, who does the lion’s share of these interludes, has a lovely voice and does well in the characters she portrays.  She’s a real treat.

All four of the leads are very competent in their conversational style and delivery of the dialogue.  You really see the complexity of Lian’s Julia, as she becomes a boy and your heart goes out to her.  You admire Foss’s Silvia, as she’s nobody’s fool and is smart enough to see through Proteus’s ruse and is constant in her love for Valentine.  Ruscheinsky’s Valentine is the true blue hero of the piece and he portrays it well, as you root for him all the way.  And Virden’s Porteus is a real stinker as he valiantly tries to woo the audience into thinking that his methods are sincere.

Green, in all his incarnations, seemed to be the most precise in his diction when playing his parts.  And the comic servants are always a favorite with audiences from a Shakespearean play.  Gulotta, as Valentine’s wise servant, Speed, has the necessary ingredients for the role, part wit, spit, with a musical niche.  And Maller as Lance, Proteus’s not-so-bright servant, is wonderfully underplayed.  His ruminations with, and about, his dog, Crab, are quite a delight.

And, probably the most important member of the team, the director, Shira, gives us a solid production.  It is fluff but done with style.  Her actors are all on board with similar methods of delivery and, as mentioned, the addition of music (w/Shirazi) is the icing on an already deliciously layered dessert.  To create a recipe for art on a bare space is no small feat, but in the hands of a professional baker, it seems like…a piece of cake.

I recommend this production.  If this is a sign of things to come from them, it will be a real pleasure to watch them develop.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.