Wednesday, May 30, 2012

An Old Forest Fairy Tale

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2012 at 5:02 PM

If you missed Voices of the South's children's theater festival this past weekend you missed the debut of one of my favorite original VOTS kids shows since Wilhelmina Millicent’s World of Imagination.

An Old Forest Fairy Tale, by company member Virginia Ralph, tells the story of a little girl who lives near Overton Park and develops a special relationship with the bugs and the frogs and the worms and other icky crawly things as well as the other birds and beasts. She's whisked off to fairyland where she's invited to participate in a play performed by a whale (in a tree costume), a drum-playing polar bear, a redbird, two fairies, and the (ex) planet Pluto. The play within the play — a light opera to be more precise— tells a true story about how a bunch of "old ladies in tennis shoes" saved Overton Park from being bulldozed to make room for the I-240 extension.

It's a thoroughly charming hyper-local fantasy about conservation, and how ordinary people can join together, take a stand, and make a difference even if they're mocked and bullied.

It was beautiful. And here's a clip.

Keep an eye out for future productions of this short, sweet piece.

Also, if you like what VOTS does, they're raising money to keep their children's festival a pay-what-you-can event.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crazy: Playhouse revives A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2012 at 10:58 AM

Renee & the Boys
  • Renee & the Boys

If you like classic country music but are on the fence about dropping in on Playhouse on the Square’s A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, do yourself a favor and go. Renee Kemper sounds just like Patsy, the band's hot, and the comedy is groaner-ific. It’s good entertainment even if it’s not very good theater.

I’ve never quite been able to decide if A Closer Walk— a certifiably hokey tribute to the beloved singer—is too ambitious or not ambitious enough. It tries to be many things at once: a biography, a remembrance, a musical revue, and a stand up comedy act. It also tries to recreate the feel of concerts in venues ranging from gut-bucket bars to the Grand Old Opry, Las Vegas, and Carnegie Hall. But really, it only ever succeeds in reminding viewers of the one thing everybody already knows: Cline, whose life was cut tragically short when her plane crashed in the hills near Camden, Tennessee, was a powerful singer who left behind a gorgeous, vastly influential body of work.

A Closer Walk documents Cline’s rise to stardom, dropping bits of trivia along the way, but it never seriously considers her importance in the evolution of Country Music, a field of endeavor which, in spite of the occasional solo hit by yodeling cowgirls like Patsy Montana, was a real boy’s club until the mid 1950’s when artists like Cline, Kittly Wells, Jean Shepard, and Skeeter Davis all became consistent hit-makers. Husky-voiced an independent, Cline was an inspiration to aspiring artists like Loretta Lynn, and her unique ability to appeal to audiences that weren’t usually partial to country music increased the honky tonk fan base in ways unseen since Tony Bennett covered Hank Williams’ "Cold, Cold Heart" in 1951.


Renee Kemper sings "Your Cheating Heart"

Cline had a larger-than-life personality, and more than enough drama in her private world to build a solid play around. But A Closer Walk is a study in two dimensions, a narrated biography with almost no interaction between the characters onstage. With an emphasis on struggling, singing and praising the Lord it's the very definition of claptrap, but there's good news too. It never pretends to be much more than what it is: an excuse to put some great songs on stage.

John Hemphill takes on a several roles. He’s never as engaging as he might be as the show's narrator, a country deejay called Little Big Man. But he excels as a wisecracking Las Vegas lounge lizard and springs to joyous life as a motley hayseed comic modeled after Cousin Jody and Minnie Pearl’s sometimes sparring partner Rod Brasfield.

Kemper’s not an especially strong actor but she gets the job done and her voice is a revelation, especially on more dramatic pieces by top-shelf songwriters like Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, and Don Gibson. Her powerhouse run through the posthumously released "Sweet Dreams" doesn’t just pay tribute to the original, it rivals it and is easily the most beautiful sound I’ve heard on a Memphis stage all year. But sonically speaking this show’s most exciting moments aren't Patsy's. That honor goes to the harmonious quartet of Kyle Blair, Ben Laxton, Nick Mason, and John Koski, worthy stand-ins for the spectacular Jordanaires.

After Patsy’s death has been tearfully announced Hemphill's Little Big Man says a prayer and tells God one of his best angels is on the way. Moments later the back wall opens up, light blasts out at the audience, and Kemper is flown in with the aid of a wire and a long black plank: a literal Patsy ex machina. The effect is stunning even if the image is literal to the point of silliness. She might as well be wearing wings and carrying a harp.

The marketing materials for A Closer Walk describe it as the “perfect small-cast musical” with minimal technical requirements. It arrives as described and other than the angel effect, lighting and scenic design is minimal. The Vegas sign cutouts and a big blue moon all look cheap, but this is a show about listening, not looking and the weak script and spare design is balanced out by a healthy selection of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits including "She's Got You," "Walking After Midnight," "Faded Love," and of course, the title track, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

At least one technical issue merits a mention. The sound mix is a mess. Or it was for last Sunday's matinee anyway. Dialogue over music was unintelligible. It’s not very interesting dialogue at least and besides, if you’re going to A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, talking is probably the last thing on your mind. Or it should be, hoss. It sure as shootin' should be.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lend Me Some Shoe Polish: Is casual blackface appropriate in 2012?

Posted By on Fri, May 18, 2012 at 11:04 AM

I have to get this off my chest.

Lend Me a Tenor, the third door-slamming farce to land on a Shelby County stage in the past month, needs to be put out to pasture. Frank Rich was right when he described the 80's-era hit as being all things farcical "except for hilarious." But it's not the absence of laughs (for Frank & me) that makes me think it's time to let this one fall into obscurity. It's the blackface.

This isn't just knee-jerk political correctness on my behalf, though that accusation is inevitable. I've never been one to rule any set of words or images off limits simply because they are offensive to someone. Offense is a tool in every artist's chest and, used wisely, interesting things may be accomplished. That's not the case with Lend Me a Tenor.

Blackface, 2012
  • Blackface, 2012

Tenor is set backstage at a production of Verdi's Otello and true enough, Shakespeare's famous Moor of Venice has been a common blackface role. But this isn't an historical artifact or a thoughtful exploration of another era and ethos it's a common sex farce. And the bulk of the play's mistaken identity humor is built around the notion that when a couple of white guys slap on blackface and an afro wig nobody can tell them apart.

That's a problem for me, even if the play isn't malicious.

I was surprised when Tenor showed up on Theatre Memphis's schedule in 2003, gobsmacked when it received a high-profile revival in 2010 and a little disappointed to see it on Germantown's season this year.

I'm curious to see how GCT's Tenor comes together because, in spite of my personal issues, Ken Ludwig's script is tightly wound, and some very fine people are involved in the production. I'm also curious to know if I'm the only person who thinks this show has outlived its "sell by" date?

For dates, times and ticket information, here's a link.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Gag Reflex: Noises Off at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, May 4, 2012 at 2:22 PM

Pants down, knickers up, NOISES OFF
  • Pants down, knickers up, NOISES OFF

People love Noises Off. Over the years I’ve heard many friends (theatre people especially) describe Michael Frayn’s backstage farce, currently getting a healthy workout at Theatre Memphis, as their favorite play. And over the years I’ve wondered “What in the hell is wrong with me for having a completely different reaction?”

It’s not that I don’t like Noises Off, I do. Quite a bit actually. But the second act moves like a mad pinball machine in multiball mode and makes me motion sick. When that ends I’ve usually had my fill of foolishness but the show romps on for a whole other act.

New York Times
theatre critic Frank Rich once called Noises Off the funniest play written in his lifetime and, in a 1983 review of the show explained why he felt that way.

“It's strangely involving to watch actors struggle heroically in a ludicrous play,” Rich wrote describing the most calamitous nights of theater as being nearly as memorable as the most successful. “When absolutely everything goes wrong on stage, as when everything goes right, we're treated to drama that is urgent, spontaneous, unmistakably alive.”

True enough. But this, I think, may also be the source of my (admittedly irrational) discomfort. I’ve never enjoyed watching a play fall apart or seeing actors humiliated. But it happens all the time and there are moments when Noises Off, for all of its outlandishness, seems too much like just another crappy day at the office. I hate that too because, in theory, I’ve always seen Frayn’s play as something just a little grander than an opportunity for virtuoso clowning. It’s also an epic, Beckett-like metaphor for modern life where where there’s no God, just an egomaniac with a PA system; everybody is screwing everybody else (one way or another); and the biggest secret is that there are no secrets. It’s a play without heroes and in the end every character is dumped on: buried in the very curtain they live for.

Did I mention that there’s also no plot, only a situation? Noises Off opens during the final dress rehearsal of a dreadfully conceived sex farce called Nothing On. For act two the set is flipped to show the audience what goes on backstage on opening night. Act three is a full fledged actor’s nightmare, as the show falls completely apart weeks into a tour of the English countryside.

One truly awful (perhaps even unforgivable) thing about hiring Ann Marie Hall to direct Noises Off: She can’t be in it too. Hall’s one of Memphis’s best comic actors and anybody who missed her brief, brilliant turn in Opera Memphis’s Die Fledermaus missed something truly special. Harpo Marx would have been jealous. Mack Sennett too. Other than that, who better to helm a massive gag-fest filled with falling axes, trousers, and bodies?

Hall’s brought together a tight if slightly uneven ensemble that includes Tony Isbell as director Lloyd Dallas, Kim Justis as an aging comedienne who can’t remember her lines, Brian Everson as an actor for whom words always fail, and the great Barry Fuller as an ancient party boy whose love of drink causes all sorts of trouble.

Everson is an unassuming, and effective performer. He was one of the best things about Theatre Memphis’s flawed Importance of Being Earnest and the understatement that made him such a fine John Worthing works for him again here, even when there’s nothing understated about what his juvie male lead is asked to do.

Some actors have bad dreams about being naked on stage. The proudly curvaceous Melissa Walker Moore isn’t one of them. She’s fearless as a dim starlet cast only for her physical assets, her willingness to prance around in her skimpies, and a rigid ability to remember her lines and say them exactly (complete with ridiculously mechanical gestures) no matter what kind of hell is breaking loose around her.

One technical element kept me from enjoying act two as much as I might have. When the set is turned around a large picture window lets the audience see what’s happening onstage (now, technically backstage) while the “behind the scenes” action unfolds in front. Instead of respecting and avoiding the window, as actual backstage actors might, the characters sometimes just walk in front of the window as though it wasn’t effectively bringing them into the “action.” It made the suspension of disbelief difficult and in a play this wacky, that can’t happen. Judging by the laughter all around me, however, not everybody gets so hung up on these kinds of details.

So here’s the gist: I’m apparently doomed never to enjoy Noises Off. That’s my problem. It’s clearly a lot of fun for a lot of people.

Ticket info, here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

High School Musical Awards: The Nominees

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 9:26 AM

Once on this Island Lausanne Upper School
  • "Once on this Island" Lausanne Upper School

On Thursday, May 24th at 7:00 p.m., high school students and supporters from throughout the Mid-South will gather at The Orpheum for the High School Musical Awards where more than 200 teenage actors will perform on stage. Lead Actor and Actress winners will then travel to New York City in June to compete in the Jimmy Awards held at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway.

Tony Award nominated actress and country artist, Laura Bell Bundy, from Legally Blonde and Wicked will return to The Orpheum Theatre as host for the evening.



The Nominees for the 2012 High School Musical Theatre Awards

Outstanding Chorus

Briarcrest Christian High School-Anything Goes

Evangelical Christian School-Beauty and the Beast

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Lausanne Collegiate School-Once on this Island

Ridgeway High School-Once on this Island

St. Agnes Academy-Godspell

Outstanding Small Ensemble

The Little Old Ladies in The Producers-Memphis University School

The Cool Girls in Back to the 80s-Corinth High School

The Silly Girls in Beauty and the Beast-Evangelical Christian School

The Gods in Once on this Island-Lausanne Collegiate School

The Gods in Once on this Island-Ridgeway High School

The Crows in The Wizard of Oz-St. Mary's Episcopal School

Rehearsing Thoroughly Modern Millie in Collierville
  • Rehearsing "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in Collierville



Outstanding Student Orchestra

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Harding Academy-She Loves Me

Houston High School-Once Upon a Mattress

Overton High School-Grease

Southern Baptist Educational Center-Oklahoma!

Outstanding Music Direction

Arlington High School-Hairspray

Briarcrest Christian High School-Anything Goes

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Memphis University School-The Producers

St. Agnes Academy-Godspell

Outstanding Dance Execution

Arlington High School-Hairspray

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Hutchison School- Return to the Forbidden Planet

Lausanne Collegiate School-Once on this Island

Overton High School-Grease

St. Benedict at Auburndale- Anything Goes

Outstanding Featured Dancer

Morgan White in Hairspray-Arlington High School

Cheyenne Green in Chicago-Cordova High School

Russell Lehman in Grease-Horn Lake High School

Zach Favorite in Anything Goes-St. Benedict at Auburndale

Rachel Vernon in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat-Tipton-Rosemark Academy

Jenny Casilag in Dream Girls-Millington Central High

Outstanding Hair and Makeup Design

Arlington High School-Hairspray

Briarcrest Christian High School-Anything Goes

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Evangelical Christian School-Beauty and the Beast

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Southern Baptist Educational Center-Oklahoma!


The Drowsy Chaperone at Bolton High School



Outstanding Costume Design Tier I

Briarcrest Christian High School-Anything Goes

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Evangelical Christian School-Beauty and the Beast

Ridgeway High School-Once on this Island

St. Mary's Episcopal School-The Wizard of Oz

Arlington High School-Hairspray



Outstanding Costume Design Tier II

Bolton High School-The Drowsy Chaperone

Horn Lake High School-Grease

Lausanne Collegiate School-Once on this Island

Millington Central High School -Dreamgirls

Southern Baptist Educational Center-Oklahoma!

Tipton-Rosemark Academy-Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Outstanding Scenic Design Tier I

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Evangelical Christian School-Beauty and the Beast

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Memphis University School-The Producers

Briarcrest Christian High School-Anything Goes

St. Mary's Episcopal School-The Wizard of Oz

Outstanding Scenic Design Tier II

Hernando High School-The Robber Bridegroom

Lausanne Collegiate School-Once on this Island

Southern Baptist Educational Center-Oklahoma!

St. Agnes Academy-Godspell

Wynne High School-Seussical the Musical

Tipton-Rosemark Academy-Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Outstanding Lighting Design

Arlington High School-Hairspray

Millington Central High School-Dreamgirls

Cordova High School-Chicago

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Southern Baptist Educational Center-Oklahoma!

St. Mary's Episcopal School-The Wizard of Oz

Outstanding Artistic Element

Graphic Design in The Producers- Memphis University School

The Wolves in Beauty and the Beast-Evangelical Christian School

The Parasol Car in Once on this Island-Lausanne Collegiate School

The Greased Lightning Car in Grease- Horn Lake High School

The Fish Puppets in Seussical the Musical- Wynne High School

Outstanding Production Materials

Briarcrest Christian High School-Anything Goes

Horn Lake High School-Grease

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Southern Baptist Educational Center-Oklahoma!

St. Agnes Academy-Godspell

Memphis University School-The Producers



Outstanding Front of House

Arlington High School-Hairspray

Horn Lake High School-Grease

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Overton High School-Grease

Tipton-Rosemark Academy-Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Technical Achievement Award

Screen_shot_2012-05-02_at_9.41.43_AM.png

Collierville High School-Thoroughly Modern Millie

Evangelical Christian School-Beauty and the Beast

Hutchison School-Return to the Forbidden Planet

Bolton High School-The Drowsy Chaperone

St. Benedict at Auburndale-Anything Goes

Arlington High School-Hairspray

Student Technical Achievement Award

Alex Kesner-Briarcrest Christian High School

Reina Ishii-Lausanne Collegiate School

Carson House-Memphis University School

Kisshanee Phillips-Ridgeway High School

Hayden Morrissett-St. Benedict at Auburndale

Elizabeth Kruczek-St. Agnes Academy

Abrianna Miller- Millington Central High School

Outstanding Featured Actress

Ashley Allen as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray-Arlington High School

Tiffany Brantley as Kitty in The Drowsy Chaperone-Bolton High School

Bailey Hyneman as Erma in Anything Goes-Briarcrest Christian High School

Josi Ingram as Babette in Beauty and the Beast-Evangelical Christian School

Olivia Wingate as Gloria in Return to the Forbidden Planet-Hutchison School

Issa Basco as Andrea in Once on this Island-Lausanne Collegiate School


Return to the Forbidden Planet at Hutchison



Outstanding Featured Actor

Michael Vance as Ching Ho in Thoroughly Modern Millie - Collierville High School

Houston Meihofer as Fred Casley in Chicago-Cordova

Austin McCann as Lefou in Beauty and the Beast – Evangelical Christian School

Baker Ball as Mr. Marks in The Producers-Memphis University School

Kylan Owens as Rump in Grease-Overton High School

Payton Powers as Elisha Whitney in Anything Goes- St. Benedict at Auburndale

Outstanding Musical Production Number

“Steepin to the Badside” from Dreamgirls- Millington Central High School

“I Want to be a Producer” from The Producers-Memphis University School

“All That Jazz” from Chicago-Cordova High School “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes-Briarcrest Christian High School

“I Know Where I've Been” from Hairspray-Arlington High School

“Forget About the Boy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie-Collierville High School

Outstanding Supporting Actress

Samantha Simonetti as Mama Euralie in Once on this Island-Lausanne Collegiate School

Shekinah Graham as Sour Kangaroo in Seussical the Musical-Marion High School

Mariatu Okonofua as Mama Euralie in Once on this Island-Ridgeway High School

Logan Martin as Ado Annie in Oklahoma!-Southern Baptist Educational Center

Skylar Joyner in Godspell-St. Agnes Academy

Alanna Murphy as Erma in Anything Goes-St. Benedict at Auburndale

Outstanding Supporting Actor

Kristoff Hart as Seaweed in Hairspray -Arlington High School

Noah Gustafson as Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone-Bolton High School

Matthew Keaton as Jester in Once Upon a Mattress-Houston High School

Britt Colcolough as Roger De Bris in The Producers-Memphis University School

Gabriel Bailey as Papa Ge in Once on this Island-Ridgeway High School

Kyle Van Frank as Moonface Martin in Anything Goes- St. Benedict at Auburndale

Curtis Wegener as Lord Evelyn Oakley in Anything Goes-Briarcrest Christian High School

Outstanding Direction by a Teacher

Keith Salter-Collierville High School

Lorraine Cotten-Evangelical Christian School

Anne Marie Caskey-Hutchison School

Ann Lane Neal-St. Agnes Academy

Ashley Bugg Brown-Lausanne Collegiate School

Jenny Madden-St. Mary’s Episcopal School

Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role

Lauren Mohler as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes-Briarcrest Christian High School

Jamie Boller as Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie-Collierville High School

Bethany Beckam as Belle in Beauty and the Beast-Evangelical Christian School

Jules Jordan as Ulla in The Producers-Memphis University School

Saaba Sharma as Ti Moune in Once on this Island Lausanne Collegiate School

Haley Harris as Ti Moune in Once on this Island Ridgeway High School

People’s Choice Award

Voting Begins May 11

Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role

Wilson Howard as Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie-Collierville High School

Sam Shankman as Leo Bloom in The Producers-Memphis University School

Chase Waldrip as Curly in Oklahoma!-Southern Baptist Educational Center

Jari Head as Jesus in Godspell-St. Agnes Academy

Luke Conner as Cat in the Hat in Suessical the Musical-Wynne High School

William Monteith as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone-Bolton High School



Outstanding Overall Production

Thoroughly Modern Millie -Collierville High School Beauty and the Beast-Evangelical Christian School

The Producers-Memphis University School

Once on this Island -Lausanne Collegiate School

Once on this Island -Ridgeway High School

Godspell- St. Agnes Academy


The Orpheum’s High School Musical Theatre Awards are Thursday, May 24th, 2012 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15-$35 and go on sale to the public May 8th.

Screen_shot_2012-05-02_at_10.09.13_AM.png

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Opus One and Lucero

Posted By on Tue, May 1, 2012 at 9:10 AM

Screen_shot_2012-05-01_at_9.40.12_AM.png

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra's Opus One has collaborated with Joyce Cobb, Amy LaVere, Harlan T. Bobo and Memphis rapper Al Kapone.

This Thursday night at Minglewood Hall Opus One teams up with Lucero

If you haven't seen Opus One it's easy to get the impression that this is some kind of hyper-local pops thing but that's just not the case. These shows are a really beautiful example of artists doing it for themselves, making sure no music is marginalized, and kicking out some truly breathtaking performances along the way.

For more background you can take a peak at "One Love" a feature I wrote prior to the Al Kapone concert.

For more information, here you go.

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