‘Heidi Chronicles’ asks questions about women’s role in society
By Steven J. Smith
The changing role of women in modern society from the 1960s through the 1980s is the subject of “The Heidi Chronicles,” a heady play written by Wendy Wasserstein, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award back in 1989. The show — now playing with mixed success at Asolo Rep — asks such questions as are current day women truly happy, are their lives more fulfilling since the dawn of equal rights, and where is their place in society now after decades of male domination?
Pertinent questions all, and to Ms. Wasserstein’s credit she addresses them with intelligence and humor through her autobiographical character Heidi Holland (Elizabeth King-Hall), an art historian who strives to balance a successful career against romantic bliss in a male-dominated society. A successful love life appears unlikely as she falls in love with Scoop Rosenbaum (Zachary Fine), a pseudo-intellectual lout, while pediatrician Peter Pattrone (Brian Sills), who would make a better match for her, turns out to be gay.
The play follows Heidi from 1965 to 1989 as we see her and her best friend Susan (Gail Rastorfer) grow into adulthood against the emergence of the Womens Rights Movement and its trappings — rap sessions, encounter groups, public protests, and the fostering of career women who “want to get married in their twenties, have their first baby by thirty, and make a pot of money.” Where Asolo Rep’s production falls short is not in the proffering of Ms. Wasserstein’s savvy agenda, but in the casting of many of her play’s key roles — save one.
Elizabeth King-Hall is an admirable Heidi and hers is the performance of the evening. Brilliant in her career but unsuccessful in love, she seems to want the men she can’t have only to find herself bored by the ones available to her. This, along with recognizing the deterioration of her peers who began as women’s rights activists then devolved into materialism, evokes a sad realization of disparity in Heidi’s own age group. “We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women,” she says, near the end of the play. “But I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together.”
The other women — and the men — don’t fare as well. Part of it might be in the writing, as they all verge on caricature: Scoop as the fast-talking, unattainable lothario, Peter as the equally unattainable gay best friend, and Susan as the frustrated TV executive who has lost her femininity while carving out a successful career in a man’s world. It doesn’t help that Laura Kepley’s direction and the performances of Fine, Sills, and Rastorfer simply don’t bring enough color into those characters to give them the dimension they need to coexist as equals with Ms. King-Hall’s Heidi.
Kris Stone’s set design and Jennifer Caprio’s wonderfully period costumes perfectly set us in the time and place of Heidi’s era. Unfortunately, in the end we don’t see quite enough substance in the direction and performances to live up to this production’s style.
‘The Columnist’ lacks heart, substance
By Steven J. Smith
The fall from grace of the fiery and influential journalist Joseph Alsop is the subject of David Auburn’s biodrama “The Columnist,” the latest offering from Florida Studio Theatre which, although occasionally illuminating, ultimately falls short as a satisfying evening of theatre.
Auburn won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “Proof,” which used the fascinating and complicated world of mathematics to tell its compelling story. However “The Columnist” feels more like a stodgy term paper on this remote literary figure of a bygone era — who used his typewriter to exert political influence in Washington, D.C. for four decades — rather than a compelling story of a man whose dichotomous nature makes him a truly interesting character study. And Auburn — along with FST director Kate Alexander and Jeffrey Plunkett in the title role — does not quite master his central character’s contradictions to the point that his life is worth watching for two hours.
Alsop was a fervent New Deal liberal with an obsessive anti-Communist agenda, who urged an all-out hawkish agenda in Vietnam while attacking anyone who disagreed with him as cowards, Communists, or both. This brazen and ruthless public figure — who had the ear of several presidents and commanded as much fear as respect in D.C. circles — masked a closet homosexual who lived in a sham marriage with his wife Susan (Rachel Moulton) and her daughter Abigail (Marie Claire Roussel).
The play begins in 1954 with Alsop having a tryst in a Moscow hotel room with a KGB-backed hustler (John Keabler), which culminates in an unsuccessful blackmail attempt by the Soviets. Fast-forwarding to 1961, we’re in Alsop’s D.C. home on the night of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He toasts JFK’s administration with his brother and fellow journalist Stewart (Robert Gomes) as the long-awaited end of the Eisenhower era, which he says, “was like going to bed with a glass of warm milk and a woman in curlers.”
JFK’s assassination marks the beginning of the end for Alsop’s reign as Auburn builds much of his play’s action around the Vietnam War, which Alsop vociferously supported, bolstering defense secretary Robert McNamara’s agenda long after public opinion had turned against the war. Alsop’s rigidity and vitriol ultimately damaged his journalistic viability, especially in his efforts to bully such emerging reporters as David Halberstam (Michael Zlabinger) of the New York Times. Towards the end of the play Alsop is virtually alone after Susan leaves him and Stewart, who has urged him to soften his political stance, succumbs to illness.
This intriguing character needs dimension, and Mr. Plunkett ably relates Alsop’s rage and temper, but — save a brief scene with Abigail, in which he genuinely expresses his feelings of the loss of his brother and longtime writing partner — he does not give us the amiability and wicked sense of humor needed to round out the role. Even in the end, as Alsop shows he will exercise some restraint in a column that would damage the life and livelihood of one who has done him harm, the result lacks sufficient punch and feels tacked on. In addition, the supporting characters all come off as underwritten and under-realized, more like annotations in a theme paper than flesh-and-blood people, a fault that goes more to the playwright than this cast, which does its best to little avail.
Brian Prather’s sets try to keep the action moving through multiple venues, but due to the Keating Theater’s lack of stage space, too often we’re waiting for a stage crew to clear away one setting to create a new one, rather than having a turntable that could do the job more speedily. Sarah Bertolozzi’s costumes aptly put us in the play’s time and place.
Ultimately “The Columnist” is a play that feels unfinished — more like a work in progress than the polished gem one expects from Mr. Auburn, or from Florida Studio Theatre.
Dated ‘You Can't Take It With You’ feels trapped in another time
By Steven J. Smith
Balancing a happy and carefree life against the stresses and demands of the material world is the theme of the occasionally enjoyable but ultimately dated play “You Can’t Take It With You,” now playing at Asolo Rep, which originally opened on Broadway back in 1936 and won an Oscar for best picture in 1938.
Featuring David Howard as the patriarch of the Sycamore family — a household of free spirits — this production gives it the old college try, but falls short in the end. Director Peter Amster’s pacing is sluggish throughout and he simply does not mine from his cast as much of this iconic family’s delightful quirkiness as I’ve seen done in other, more successful productions.
Part of the problem is the material, which comes from the 1930s. Although the play occasionally touches on a currently relevant subject — such as the general worthlessness of Congress, for example — too much of it rings from a far-distant era. For example, an internal revenue agent (Jesse Dornan) seeks out Martin Vanderhof (Howard) about payment on his back taxes, the old man asks what he gets from the government for his money. When the agent replies that the government protects him from foreign invasion, Vanderhof says, “Oh, I don’t think they’re going to do that.” When the agent reminds him of the necessity of funding the Army, Navy, and battleships, Vanderhof responds, “Last time we used battleships was the Spanish-American War.” Obviously, we don’t live in that kind of world anymore.
The crux of the play centers on the romantically linked Alice Sycamore (Brittany Proia) and Tony Kirby (Brendan Ragan), two young people from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds. When Tony and his parents (Douglas Jones and Gail Rastorfer) accidentally come to dinner one day early and see the chaotic and eccentric bohemian lifestyle portrayed by their would-be in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby are horrified. Alice offers to break the engagement, but we all know things will work out in the end — especially after Vanderhof reminds Kirby of what is important in life. (Hint: it’s not money.)
The cast must walk a fine line between the realistic and caricatured characters found in the script. Some are more successful at this than others. Mr. Howard is a fine, wise, and understated Vanderhof, although his vocal powers were somewhat lacking the night I saw the show and it was occasionally quite difficult to hear him. Mr. Jones gives us an honest and insightful portrayal of the burned out Wall Street executive while never failing to find the comedy in his role. I also liked Eric Hissom’s frenzied Boris Kolenkhov, a frequent Russian visitor to the household, who capably — and comically — serves multiple functions for the family from music critic and ballet instructor to wrestling coach and goodwill ambassador for excommunicated members of the Russian aristocracy. Other cast members unfortunately give bug-eyed, over-the-top comedic portrayals or overreaching drunk takes.
Then there were some bizarre casting decisions. Asolo Conservatory student Kelly Campbell comes off far too young as the washed-up, middle-aged actress Gay Wellington and Peggy Roeder, who actually does a nice job as the daffy playwright/painter Penny Sycamore, is simply too advanced in years to be believable as wife to David Breitbarth’s Paul. Once again, it boggles the mind that the Asolo braintrust decided to import Ms. Roeder from outside of the area when there are so many capable Sarasota actresses that would have been far more age appropriate for the role. A regional theatre must cast its professionals regionally. To do otherwise is to thwart its mission. One hopes that Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards will one day understand this.
Jeffery Dean’s set depicting the Sycamore domicile is in a word outstanding, serving almost as yet another oddball character in this quirky play, and Virgil C. Johnson’s costumes fit the characters — and their eccentricities — to a tee. But in the end I felt the cast and director could not deliver a knockout punch on this one.
‘Glengarry’ still resonates
By Steven J. Smith
The world of shyster real estate salesmen and their dog-eat-dog rivalries is the setting for Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner, which is enjoying a mostly successful revival right now at Asolo Repertory Theatre as the latest offering in its American Character series.
These fast talking hucksters, who heartlessly victimize each other as much as they do their unwary clients, remind us of recent Ponzi scheme swindlers Bernie Madoff and, more locally, Arthur Nadel and Marian Morgan, who extricated millions from investors. Things haven’t changed much in the last 30 years.
When it first opened three decades ago, Mamet’s play received a lot of notoriety due to its frequent usage of four-letter words. Contemporary audiences, however, should find themselves a lot more tolerant to that language in today’s world of R-rated movies, reality shows and cable TV. In truth, if you look past the vulgarity you’ll find Mamet’s writing almost operatic. Some of the salesmen’s longer speeches sound like virtual arias of cruelty in a variety of workplace power plays — notably those involving grizzled veterans vis-à-vis their ambitious protégés. And the wild, anxious, angry free form jazz riffs we hear between scenes aptly accentuate the hostile and constantly shifting world in which these cold-blooded sharks operate.
Director Carl Forsman does an excellent job of orchestrating the plot — which, on the surface, is something of a robbery whodunit — while taking full reign of Mamet’s text to explore the underpinnings of his dark, yet fascinating characters. While some performances soar, however, others sputter.
Douglas Jones’ Shelly Levene is a gritty portrait of a man morally drowning in a gathering sea of slipping sales skills, overarching avarice, and unbridled ego. His performance is matched — maybe even exceeded — by Eric Hissom’s cunning and ruthless Ricky Roma, who deftly strips the resolve of a hapless James Lingk (Francisco Rodriguez), nimbly using philosophical banter to sell him worthless Florida real estate. David Breitbarth also shines as the spineless George Aaronow, whose meekness makes him a mark for Dave Moss’ (Jay Patterson) plan to steal sales leads — a plan that goes awry once office manager John Williamson (Jesse Dornan) and Detective Baylen (Jacob Cooper) begin to piece together the particulars of the burglary.
After Jones, Hissom, and Breitbarth, the performances sadly tail off, becoming mannered rather than authentic and stilted rather than breathing the fire of Mamet’s staccato prose. One wonders why so many actors are brought into Sarasota from the outside our area, when the talent pool here is so rich. Asolo brass needs to seriously address this chronic problem. A regional theater needs to cast regional professionals. In addition, entrusting pivotal roles to Asolo’s conservatory students, although laudable, can sometimes adversely affect a play’s impact — especially a play such as this one, that depends so heavily upon the advanced skills of more seasoned actors.
Lee Savage’s sets properly place us in the seedy surroundings of a Chinese restaurant (Act One) and the claustrophobic confines of the shabby sales office (Act Two), while Jennifer Paar’s costumes, Josh Bradford’s lighting and Kevin Kennedy’s sound give us just the right feel of time and place.
But the real star of this show is unquestionably Mamet himself. His words have a way of delivering their own unique brand of thunder and lightning, throwing a searing light into the shadowy underworld of corruption and greed — a world that is just as roiling and fetid today as it was in 1984.
‘Best of Enemies’ examines racial relations
By Steven J. Smith
“A true sorry isn’t something you say, it’s something you show.” So says Ann Atwater, the embattled neighborhood activist whose struggle with racist neighbor and Ku Klux Klan member C.P. Ellis serves as the grist for this turgid — yet true — story, currently playing at Florida Studio’s Gompertz Theatre, detailing how desegregation was achieved in the town of Durham, N.C. in the early 1970s.
It would be hard to believe this story if it didn’t actually happen: two hate-filled extremists finding a way through their vitriol to fight for the same cause and befriending one another in the process. But it did happen. They were thrown together in 1971 during a crisis involving court-ordered desegregation in their town. A federal mediator, identified in this play as Bill Riddick (in a wonderfully even performance by Kevyn Morrow), was assigned with the towering challenge of forming a steering committee designed to represent Durham’s diverging viewpoints.
I had a difficult time getting into this one initially, because the two main characters started out so steeped in their mutual wrath and fury that it all came off over the top. Perhaps it was in the writing. Sheffield Chastain’s C.P. started off as a bigot right out of Central Casting, loudly and frequently spewing the “N” word and praising the murder of “Martin Lucifer King,” while Stephanie Weeks’ Atwater initially came off so stilted that even her body movements looked pretzel-like and cartoonish.
As the story progressed, however, the two began to exhibit more three-dimensional traits and in the pivotal scene where C.P. rejects his fealty to the Klan by tearing up his membership card at a public meeting, we could even begin to feel some sympathy and endearment for him.
The two were supported nicely by the aforementioned Mr. Morrow and Amanda Duffy as C.P.’s wife Mary, who rejects her husband’s initial racism to pay a visit to Atwater with a bag of vegetables from their garden. Ms. Duffy had a hard row to hoe, trying to find how her character could love someone as odious as C.P. But she succeeded, with the exception of an accent that seemed out of place in Durham, N.C.
Richard Hopkins’ direction moved the proceedings along at a decent pace, although Mark St. Germain’s script calls for so many scenes that for me the play felt episodic and jarring at times. Just as a scene got going, it ended — and we found ourselves watching the capable and overworked stage crew come out and set up for yet another. Plus, one must wonder why Mr. Hopkins feels it necessary to bring in so many actors from out of town when these roles could have just as easily been filled with any number of highly talented local performers that grace our local theater scene. This is a practice he really needs to rethink.
Kudos also to Bill Clarke’s set design and Rob Perry’s lighting design, which helped fill in the gaps between those innumerable set changes.
“The Best of Enemies” continues at the Gompertz through Jan. 27. For more information or to order tickets, log on to FloridaStudioTheatre.org or call 941-366-9000.
‘Viagara Falls’ rises to the occasion
By Steven J. Smith
The Golden Apple is alive and kicking again with “Viagara Falls,” an entertaining geriatric sex comedy fresh from its Off-Broadway run and featuring three well-known TV performers — Lou Cutell (“Off Their Rockers”), Robert Pine (“CHiPs”), and Teresa Ganzel (“The Tonight Show”) — and directed by Don Crichton (“The Carol Burnett Show”).
Sure to find an enthusiastic audience within our region’s abundant elderly population, the plot centers on widowers Charley (Cutell) and Moe (Pine), who decide to celebrate Charley’s birthday with the help of prostitute Jacqeline Tempest (Ganzel) and some little blue pills. What follows is a barrage of jokes aimed at every malaise of old age, from constipation and memory loss to hemorrhoids and erectile dysfunction. The three talented cast members mine plenty of laughs from the occasionally wanting material — certainly enough to provide a full evening of good-natured fun.
Cutell, who also co-wrote the script with Joao Machado, does a nice job of giving us a spritely and spirited Charley — a lover of life refusing to surrender to the infirmities of old age. Pine’s Moe is an amusingly reluctant curmudgeon who, thanks to Charley’s urging, learns how to let his hair down and overcome his inhibitions. And Ganzel is an absolute delight, displaying terrific comedic timing and a playfully sexy disposition guaranteed to charm the most unmovable theatergoer.
Sydney Litwack’s terrific set has been painstakingly reconstituted from the New York production, and Bob Mackie’s costumes get the job done for the men while highlighting Ms. Ganzel’s generous attributes. Under Mr. Crichton’s steady pace, this titillating sex farce has plenty of moxie — and even a little tug on your heart at the end.
For more information on the show or to purchase tickets, call 941-366-5604 or log on to www.thegoldenapple.com.
Spirited ‘1776’ opens Asolo season
By Steven J. Smith
Initiating its five-year mission to explore the American character, Asolo Repertory Theatre has begun with a rousing production of the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone musical “1776,” which is based on the events leading up to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Although the musical either overstates or omits some of the more interesting aspects of our founding fathers’ personalities and proclivities — such as John Adams’ vaunted obnoxiousness or Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings — it nevertheless remains an effective and moving retelling of the birth of a nation.
The story mainly centers on John Adams’ (Bernie Yvon) attempts to convince the Second Continental Congress to officially declare independence from the British throne. Mandated by Congress President John Hancock (Patrick Clear) to obtain a unanimous consensus from his colleagues in order to pursue his goal of independence, Adams must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Pennsylvania’s John Dickenson (Jeff Parker) heads a coalition of conservative Tories that support King George III, and South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Jarrod Zimmerman) refuses to sign a declaration that recognizes slaves as anything but property.
Adams is buoyed with the support of Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer), however, and convinces Jefferson (Brandon Dahlquist) to compose his masterpiece only after sending for Jefferson’s wife, Martha (Andrea Prestinario), who soothes his loneliness — and sexual longings. Adams’ own wife, Abigail (Abby Mueller), communicates with him in touching letters through which their own frustrations, yearnings and love are musically expressed.
It is disheartening to note that director Frank Galati has once again chosen to import the bulk of his principals — and far too many supporting players — from Chicago, rather than cast them from the talent-rich area of Sarasota. Mr. Yvon’s Adams is effective and engaging, but I found his vocal mannerisms largely borrowed from William Daniels, who originated the role on Broadway and repeated it in the 1972 film. Mr. Boyer is more successful as Franklin, portraying him as the energetic and intellectual septuagenarian whose wit and wisdom guides Adams to his goal. Mr. Dahlquist’s Jefferson is most effective when he stoically watches his colleagues carve offending passages from his declaration like a Thanksgiving turkey. “Why don’t you say something?” Adams challenges him. “I had hoped the document would speak for itself,” Jefferson replies.
Special mention must go to the ladies, Ms. Mueller and Ms. Prestinario, whose powerful and beautiful singing voices — in the numbers “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “He Plays The Violin” respectively — raise the musical level of this piece dramatically. Mr. Zimmerman does fine justice to “Molasses To Rum” as an anthem to the northern colonies’ hypocrisy on the slavery issue, and Zachary Kenney stops the show with his soulful rendition of “Mamma, Look Sharp,” a ballad to the soldiers who bore the brunt of the Revolutionary War.
Mr. Galati’s staging is marvelous — as is Russell Metheny’s phenomenal set and Maria Blumefeld’s costumes, which make us feel we are indeed present in that congressional incubator, “waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp of an eaglet being born.” Last, but certainly not least, musical director Michael Rice leads his nine-member pit orchestra unerringly through the stirring score.
“1776” plays through Dec. 22. Next up at Asolo Rep is “You Can’t Take It With You,” the Pulitzer Prize winning Hart and Kaufman play that chronicles the escapades of the Sycamore family — a joyous madhouse populated by lovable eccentrics, artists, and anarchists. “You Can’t Take It With You” opens on Jan. 4 and runs through April 20. After that is “Clybourne Park,” a wickedly funny comedy that spins the events of “A Raisin In The Sun,” which opens March 15 and plays through May 2. Following that is the regional premiere of Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot,” a farce with double-crosses, triple crosses, deceit, disguises, and sex, which opens March 29 and plays through May 12. Next is “Venus In Fur,” a seductive comedy blending love, lust and literature, which runs from April 5-28. Then “Pulse,” a new dance musical opens on May 23 and runs through June 16, followed by “My Brilliant Divorce,” a one-woman play about a woman who suddenly finds herself single again. That runs June 26-July 14. For more information on these shows or any of Asolo Rep’s season line up, call the box office at 941-351-8000 or log on to www.asolorep.org.
'Waist Watchers' offers belly laughs and food for thought
By Steven J. Smith
Anyone facing the frustrations of trying to shave pounds off their middle-aged body can surely relate to the very funny and entertaining revue “Waist Watchers The Musical,” written by Alan Jacobson, playing at the Ramada Waterfront through Jan. 6.
Set in Miss Cook’s Women’s Gym, four determined ladies (Cara Herman, Helen Holliday, Sharon Lesley Ohrenstein, and Jillian Godfrey) wrestle with the pains and hardships of improving their physiques and maintaining their sexual appeal, singing melodies of well-known pop and show songs with lyrics revised to fit the situation. For example, “Maria” from “West Side Story” becomes “Viagra,” “If I Were A Rich Man” from “Fiddler On The Roof” becomes “If I Were A Size Two,” and “If I Had A Hammer” morphs into “If I Had A Bagel.” The format echoes that of “Menopause: The Musical” and should hit home with a large percentage of our area’s demographic.
Although Mr. Jacobson’s plot is paper thin, it doesn’t really matter. His lyrics are very amusing and director/choreographer Kyle Ennis Turoff’s charming cast works quite well together, often huffing and puffing as they doggedly — and endearingly — transition from one rousing musical number into the next. Ms. Godfrey’s Carla is a stern but lovable and supportive trainer to her challenged workout class. Ms. Holliday expertly handles her role as the sadder but wiser Cindy, whose husband left her for a younger and shapelier lass. Ms. Ohrenstein touchingly and comically deals with an unexpected pregnancy, while Ms. Herman’s rendition of “I’m Fat and I’m Okay” — modeled on “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl” — just might be the highlight of the evening. Ms. Turoff’s direction and choreography move things along at a sprightly pace, on a health club-themed set adroitly executed by Trez Cole.
This show is the first offering of PLATO in its intimate new venue, at the Ramada Waterfront’s ballroom on 7150 N. Tamiami Trail. PLATO stands for Professional Learning And Theatrical Organization, Inc., and was formed earlier this year as a new nonprofit entity that formerly called the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre its home. If opening night was any indication, “Waist Watchers” promises to send audiences home with a bounce in their step, all through the upcoming calorie-heavy holidays.
Next up is “Rumplestiltskin,” a modern twist on the classic fairy tale. For more information about either show or to order tickets, call 941-363-1727 or visit them online at www.platoarts.org.
Smokin’ ‘Smokey Joe’s’ tears it up at FST
By Steven J. Smith
Nowhere else in Sarasota — or all of Southwest Florida, for that matter — will you find a show packed with more talent and energy than in “Smokey Joe’s Café,” currently playing at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre through Jan. 3.
The show is a musical revue comprised of some 39 compositions of songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who helped to redefine the landscape of R&B, Rock & Roll, Soul, and even Country music from the postwar era up through the turbulent sixties. Now I must admit I’m not a fan of revues, as they’re pretty much a string of unrelated songs loosely tied together. But these songs are so iconic and so firmly tied to the fabric of our country’s popular music culture, I must wholeheartedly recommend you see this show — if for nothing more than a hugely entertaining history lesson. And I haven’t even mentioned the cast yet.
Nine incredibly talented singer/dancers make up the cast of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and it would be a disservice to them all to praise one over another. Suffice it to say each has his or her own moment to shine in the spotlight and they make the most of it. I thought they were all terrific, which is why I’m listing their names here: Britany Avery, Karen Burthwright, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Lianne Marie Dobbs, James Harkness, Arthur W. Marks, Thomas Rainey, Deven Roberts, and Jason Veasey. Together, they light up the sky over the Keating Theatre, belting out such classics as “Falling,” “Don Juan,” “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” (inventively staged by director/choreographer Kevyn Morrow), “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “I’m a Woman,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion Number 9,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” and “Stand By Me,” and many, many more. These were my favorite songs from the show. I’m sure you’ll have others.
In addition to Mr. Morrow’s razor-sharp direction and choreography, kudos must also go out to music director Corinne Aquilina, scenic designer April Soroko, lighting designer Jeffrey Cady, and costume designer Lynda Salsbury for making this show a treat of the highest order to the eyes and ears. Guess I’ll have to redefine my standards for musical revues from now on!
Next up at FST is “The Best of Enemies,” by Mark St. Germain, about a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan pitted against an African-American civil rights activist over the desegregation of schools. That plays from Dec. 5 through Jan. 27 in the Gompertz Theatre. And don’t forget “Let’s Twist Again: with the Wanderers,” playing through Jan. 13 in FST’s Goldstein Cabaret. For more information on these or any other shows on FST’s calendar, call the box office at 941-366-9000 or visit them online at www.floridastudiotheatre.org.
Sarasota Opera offers engaging ‘Rigoletto’
By Steven J. Smith
In Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi’s ongoing mission to produce all of the works of Giuseppe Verdi, the Sarasota Opera has mounted a stirring production of “Rigoletto,” running through November 12.
The popular Verdi masterpiece, about a court jester who tragically seeks revenge for his raped daughter, features some familiar faces and some new ones to Sarasota audiences. Sarasota Opera stalwart and tenor Hak Soo Kim offers a fiendishly duplicitous Duke of Mantua, whose ruination of Gilda, touchingly portrayed by newcomer soprano Eleni Calenos, marvelously sets the stage for the opera’s disastrous ending as court jester Rigoletto, in a bravura turn by baritone Marco Nistico, sees his vengeful plans come to naught.
The opera’s numerous highlights were punctuated by two memorable moments for me. Its most famous aria, “La Dona e mobile” — performed by Mr. Kim as his Duke is about to seduce Maddalena (in a deliciously sexy turn by mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson) — comes off delightfully playful, despite the fact that he so heartlessly betrays Gilda’s love. And Ms. Calenos performs her notable aria “Caro Nome” with deftness and confidence. Also worth mentioning are the wonderful interpretations of bass Young Bok Kim as the murderer-for-hire Sparafucile and baritone Matthew Hanscom as the Count of Monterone, whose bone-chilling curse on Rigoletto sets the tragedy in motion. Finally, the men’s chorus provides a forceful underpinning to the piece, keeping the action moving relentlessly forward through several key ensemble scenes.
As usual the Sarasota Orchestra, under the sure-handed leadership of Maestro DeRenzi, soars in its execution of Verdi’s immortal score, and Stephanie Sundine’s stage direction complements the magnificent sets, costumes, and lighting created by David Gordon, Howard Tsvi Kaplan and Ken Yunker respectively.
Be sure to put Sarasota Opera on your cultural must-see list for upcoming productions of “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” “Turandot,” “The Pearl Fishers,” “A King for a Day,” and “Of Mice and Men.” For more info on these operas, as well as other opera-related events, call the box office at 941-328-1300 or visit them online at www.sarasotaopera.org.
Fill ‘er up at ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’
By Steven J. Smith
If you’re looking for a hell-raising, toe-tapping, high octane good time, look no further than “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” currently playing at the Manatee Players through Nov. 11.
This Tony Award-nominated show, which started Off-Broadway back in 1981 and transferred to Broadway for a successful run of over 500 performances, is a crowd-pleasing revue of four guys working at a gas station and two gals waitressing at the Double Cupp Diner next door, just off I-95 between Frog Level and Smyrna, North Carolina. There ain’t much to do all day but sing a lot of country-style songs about the trials and tribulations of the redneck, easygoing life in this backwater paradise.
Memorable songs include “Taking It Slow,” “Fisherman’s Prayer,” “Catfish,” “Farmer Tan,” “Vacation,” and my personal favorite, “Mamaw,” a moving ditty sung by Jim (in a winning, down-home, good ol’ boy performance by Adam Baker) as a tribute to growing up around his grandmother. Mr. Baker’s cast mates all get a chance to shine as well. Rodd Dyer’s rendition of “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” as gas station owner L.M. was a rock-solid treat, while Dawn Dougherty (Rhetta) and Tara Collandra (Prudie) crooned a touching tribute to the loving “Sisters” they are. Hats off as well to William Hellem Brusso (Jackson) and Nick Spagnuolo (Eddie), whose guitar strumming and bass playing kept things rolling at a nice country pace.
It was very apparent that director Preston Boyd is comfortable with this show, having performed the role of Jackson at Asolo Rep in 1987. His sure hand and easy handling of the material put the audience at ease from the start.
The set, comfortably designed by Donna Buckalter, blends the combined gas station/diner seamlessly into a comfy place where you can fill your tank — and your belly — before heading on your way. And Georgina Willmott’s costumes provide just the right touch of country.
So what’re ya waitin’ fer? Lock up yer double-wide, grab yer honey, hop in the truck, ‘n head on over to the Manatee Players fer a slice of pie, a cup of coffee, an’ some finely picked tunes. You’ll be glad you took some stress out of your life. As Jim so aptly puts it, “Worry’s like a rockin’ chair. Gives you somethin’ to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Next up at the Manatee Players is “Forever Plaid” (Nov. 29-Dec. 16), followed by “Anything Goes” (Jan. 17-Feb. 3), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (Feb. 21-Mar. 10), “Miss Saigon” (Mar. 28-April 14), and “Fiddler on the Roof” (May 2-19). For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.manateeplayers.com or call 941-748-5875.
‘Nunsense’ will bring you to your knees
By Steven J. Smith
You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the madcap humor of Dan Goggin’s “Nunsense,” a musical-comedy phenomenon running at the Players Theatre through Nov. 4.
Just five of the 19 surviving Little Sisters of Hoboken discover that their in-house cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has accidentally poisoned the other 52 residents of the convent with tainted vichyssoise. Sister Mary Regina (Kathy Abney) has an idea: start a greeting card company to raise funds for the burials. It works, except the Reverend Mother, thinking there was enough cash, bought a flat screen TV for the convent, with four sisters still awaiting burial in the walk-in freezer — and the Health Department is due any day for an inspection.
To make up the lacking funds, the sisters decide to put on a show in the Mount St. Helen’s School auditorium. What ensues is a charming, wacky, and definitely off-center evening of hi-jinx that gently jabs the Catholic faith while putting a smile on your face. Each member of this talented cast has her own moment to shine. You’ll love ‘em all, but Maria Wirries as Sister Mary Leo was my favorite. Her Act One solo, in which she shows her determination to become the world’s first ballerina nun, is charmingly priceless. Ms. Abney stops the show as well, when she mistakenly ingests part of a bag of cocaine. Worth mentioning is Sue Cole as Sister Robert Anne, whose song “Playing Second Fiddle” illustrates her desire to shine as a performer. Phyllis Banks does a good job as Sister Mary Hubert, the second in command, and Nikki Maack-Schuster’s Sister Mary Amnesia is a whacked-out, would-be Nashville country singer who harbors a secret that just might save them all.
Kudos to director/choreographer Michelle Teyke, who keeps the madness spinning out of control, and musical director/keyboardist Alan J. Corey, who makes the small pit band sound like a heavenly orchestra.
Next up at the Players is “Annie” (Dec. 6-16), followed by “Sunset Boulevard” (Jan. 10-20), “Harvey” (March 18-April 7) and “Side Show” (April 25-May 5). For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.theplayers.org or call the box office at 941-365-2494.
Zombie Town brings a delicious taste of the macabre to Players Theatre
By Steven J. Smith
As one character in Tim Bauer’s “Zombie Town: A Documentary Play” so aptly puts it, “Zombie attacks are all fun and games — until they happen to you!”
Billed as “a play that has brains … and eats them, too,” this ferociously funny and irreverent comedy that director Linda MacCluggage discovered at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre’s festival of new plays last year is the perfect Halloween trick or treat, playing Oct. 11-14 and 18-21 at Backstage at the Players — an intimate 60-seat black box spinoff space, accessed through the south side rear door of the theater’s main building.
Tautly directed by Ms. MacCluggage, the show is a parody of so-called “eyewitness theater,” which tells the story of a San Francisco actors’ collective that travels to Harwood, Texas — the scene of an unexpected and hilariously grisly zombie attack. The wonderful five-person cast, Ren Pearson, Chuck Conlon, Christine Alexander, Adam Garrison, and David Tyler Murrell, comprises the theatre troupe — and by extension the town’s citizenry — in telling the story of reanimated corpses that wreak havoc on the sleepy backwoods town.
It’s too hard to praise one cast member over another. Suffice it to say they all do a phenomenal job of embodying the wonderfully diverse and hysterically funny Harwood denizens. Just hang on to your seat as they throw you head over heels into the mystifying developments that have led to the reawakening of several hundred of Harwood Cemetery’s occupants. What caused it? Was it a delayed after-effect of radiation released from the Manhattan Project? Is Harwood a “Hellmouth” — an inter-dimensional portal known to exist only in one or two other cities, including Cleveland, Ohio? One thing’s for sure. Things are not normal in Harwood.
A word about Backstage at the Players. If you haven’t seen a show there, you should. Its goal is to produce challenging and compelling contemporary work in a spirit of adventure for actors and audiences alike. Be prepared, however. The plays are edgier than the more family-friendly fare offered on the Players’ mainstage. The language can get a little rough, too, so be forewarned. But if you enjoy a theatre experience that challenges, pokes, and prods you — as I do — you’re going to love it. I saw their production of “Three Tall Women” last season and it was just marvelous. Kudos to the Players for taking this stimulating and trailblazing step forward.
So go see “Zombie Town.” Then be sure to tell your friends. And remember: Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul!
Ahead on Backstage at the Players’ schedule is “Kimberly Akimbo,” a twisted comedy about a teenager who ages five times faster than normal, which runs from Jan. 31-Feb. 10. Following that is David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” a gripping adult drama about sexual harassment, running from April 11-21. Tickets are $15 and season tickets are available for $45. For more information call the box office at 941-365-2494 or visit www.theplayers.org.
Players opens its season with mild “Applause”
By Steven J. Smith
The Players Theatre’s season opener “Applause,” based on the 1950 film “All About Eve,” offers a sardonic glimpse at what goes on backstage in the theater world and although it provides several solid performances and a host of terrific costumes, it lacks the punch it needs in its star part and in its staging.
Kathryn Parks is just right as Eve Harrington, the plotting protégé who plans to upend the career of her mentor, aging actress Margo Channing (Kaylene McCaw). She begins as a supposedly naïve waif who soon reveals the kind of ruthless treachery that would make Iago blush. But in her song “One Halloween,” she convincingly demonstrates what drove her to become an ambitious schemer in the first place, and we almost feel compassion for her. George Naylor is deliciously slimy as Howard Benedict, the Broadway producer who uses blackmail to satisfy his selfish wishes.
I especially liked two other musical numbers, “Welcome To The Theatre” and the rousing “Applause” — led by the always engaging Jennifer Massey as Bonnie — which this production infuses with an imaginative nod to such Broadway hits as “Annie,” “Wicked,” “Rent,” “A Chorus Line,” “Cats,” “Chicago,” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Director Berry Ayers also evokes an interesting sense of style by invoking a black-and-white theme to the production’s sets and costumes — nicely designed by John C. Reynolds and Fred Werling respectively — but too often he steers his actors downstage to play directly to the audience, which diminishes their opportunities to effectively interrelate.
Then there’s Margo. Ms. McCaw looks the part and gives us a nice sense of the declining star’s theatricality and vulnerability, but she ultimately holds back too much on Margo’s delicious, toxic bitchiness, making the “bumpy night” homecoming party for Bill little more than a grumpy rant on the couch. Jason Macumber’s stereotypically campy Duane Fox opts too often for easy, cheap laughs rather than giving us a savvy veteran of the theatre who is the first of Margo’s friends to suspect Eve’s real motives. And Mr. Westlake has a fine singing voice, but comes off a little wooden in his movements and characterization.
Finally, Deidre Reigel does a nice job as orchestra director, but is limited to too few musicians to effectively communicate the score. What can I say? I certainly gave this show applause, but I wanted to give it much, much more.
Next up at the Players is “Nunsense,” which runs from Oct. 25-Nov. 4, followed by “Annie” (Dec. 6-16), “Sunset Boulevard” (Jan. 10-20), “Harvey” (March 18-April 7) and “Side Show” (April 25-May 5). For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.theplayers.org or call the box office at 941-365-2494.
Triumphant ‘Evita’ debuts at Manatee Players
By Steven J. Smith
I’m going to say this once. Run, don’t walk, to the Manatee Players box office to get your tickets to “Evita,” a towering version of the hit Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the life of Eva Peron, playing through Oct. 7. To call this show a mere community theatre production is to do it a vast disservice. Every moment of “Evita” — the story of a chorus girl who married a dictator and captured the imagination of Argentina in the process — sparkles with the touch of star quality reserved for shows currently playing on Broadway or on national tour.
Director Rick Kerby scores with this one. Big time. And he does it with imaginative, savvy staging and by casting the radiant Dianne Dawson as the title character and her phenomenally talented husband Steve Dawson as the wry Che Guevara, who serves as the story’s narrator. The Dawsons have long adorned the area’s community theater circuit — last appearing at the Manatee Players in “Sunday in the Park With George” — but they have never been better, as the dynamic engine that sustains this heady musical. Their singing is spot on and their performances lift this show to dizzying heights.
But to go on and on about the Dawsons — which I could, if I had the space here — is to ignore the admirable efforts and talents of the rest of the cast which, down to the last member of the ensemble, performs with an intensity and focus rarely seen in community theater shows. Again, space does not allow me to mention every name, but I would be remiss if I did not praise the work of Bradley Barbaro, whose powerful and corrupt Juan Peron ambitiously vaults to Argentina’s presidency with the aid of his charismatic wife. Mr. Barbaro is joined by the talented Omar Montes as Magaldi, a club singer who serves as an early steppingstone for the social climbing Evita and Melanie Bierwieler as the mistress whose place Evita takes in Peron’s bed. These three brilliantly support the Dawsons.
Then there are the exceptional musicians, led by conductor/keyboardist Aaron Cassette, who play Lloyd Webber’s score with passion and fervor. Also Jean Boothby’s costumes are a delight, as are Marc Lalosh’s eye-popping scenery and projections and Joseph P. Oshry’s terrific lighting.
So run, don’t walk, to get tickets for this show. All right, I said it twice.
Ahead on the Manatee Players schedule is “Pump Boys and Dinettes” (Oct. 25-Nov. 11), “Forever Plaid” (Nov. 29-Dec. 16), “Anything Goes” (Jan. 17-Feb. 3), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (Feb. 21-Mar. 10), “Miss Saigon” (Mar. 28-April 14), and “Fiddler on the Roof” (May 2-19). For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.manateeplayers.com or call 941-748-5875.