Friday, June 29, 2012

OUCH!: Corbin Williams talks about learning to skate for Xanadu

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 1:05 PM

I've always thought Xanadu should be renamed Workman's Comp: The Musical! But hats of to Corbin for taking a risk, and not breaking any bones.

Free Concert: Voices of the South throws a musical party for Elaine Blanchard's "Prison Stories"

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Virginia Ralph
  • Virginia Ralph
If you're not familiar with the Prison Stories project you should be. And you can get up to speed pretty quickly by checking out some links like this one, this one, and this one (with a video!). By the time you're through reading you'll want to mark your calendar for a free concert given in honor of Elaine Blanchard, and her incredible work with women behind bars.

Virginia Ralph, who wrote and composed Voices of the South's fantastic Old Forest Fairy Tale, is providing the musical entertainment. Here are the deets.

What: A concert for "Prison Stories"
When: June 30, 2012
Cost:Free
Time: 7:00 PM
Place: First Congregational Church Sanctuary
1000 S. Cooper

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Three Sisters: Vanities is back, and it hasn’t changed a bit

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 10:06 AM

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Vanities always reminds me of a high school yearbook signed by people we all swore we’d never forget, but did. Well, at least until Facebook brought them back into our lives and either confirmed that there was some real bond all along or that we hadn’t stayed in touch for a reason.

And when I think of yearbooks I think of the words, “Never Change” scrawled in big loopy letters. Seems like every other inscription in my senior yearbook said something like that: "Stay like you are and you'll go far." But was all of this a blessing or a curse? Even as a regular Clearasil user I never knew. And as time kept on slipping (x 3) into the future I knew less and less. Because most people didn’t seem to change much, really. They ripen and become more articulated. But changelessness seemed as inescapable as productions of Vanities in the 1970's and '80's.

In the late 1970’s Vanities, an unassuming three act play about three cheerleaders (I’m hesitent to actually call them friends), growing up, going to college, and eventually moving away, was the most frequently produced play in America. The original New York production showcased the talents of an unknown girl from Memphis named Kathy Bates and ran for 4-years. In 1981 HBO filmed a version of the play with Annette O’Toole, Meredith Baxter Birney, and Shelly Hack. This televised version was my first brush with the play. And being in that hormonal stage where every relationship is absurdly intense, I watched it over and over again loving it more each time. I never wanted it to change, and it didn’t. And over time — and not all that much time, really — I got tired of it. Maybe I even started to despise it like Mary, the play’s worldly cheerleader turned erotic art peddler, grows to despise the provincial attitudes of her high school associates. It just seemed too damn easy to do. And something that accessible couldn't possibly be worth doing, could it?

Vanities seemed like a strange choice for the New Moon theatre company, a growing indie that’s built a solid reputation by staging American classics and headier European works that have fallen between the cracks or out of the regional repertoire. Still, I was happy to revisit this once-popular show after all these years of writing it off as Lifetime bait waiting for its inevitable musical reincarnation. And even happier to discover that I may have underestimated this play about popularity and pointless living. It almost makes sense as a follow up to last season’s excellent Death of a Salesman.

Vanities may not be in the same league as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, but there’s something undeniably real and powerfully archetypical about these three mean girls who go through changes, but never really change. And if New Moon’s production doesn’t quite give them the pep rally they deserve, it gives them life enough.

You know the old cliche about history repeating for those who don’t learn their history? The cheerleaders of Vanities hear about the assassination of JFK and immediately worry about how it might impact their plans for the big high school football game. Is it any wonder that they only experience the political and cultural upheaval of the 60's and 70's in purely aesthetic terms: Real hippies smell, but the hip, happening sounds of Broadway’s Hair is the winning ticket for sorority all-sing.

Liberated women aren’t defined by men, but the three vanities are of an older order. They are the college-educated harem girls for a new kind of American Sultan. So one's burned a bra: Helluva striptease show.

The acting is low key, and a little cinematic. Every character could be more crisply rendered, every scene infused with more life. In act three especially, when nobody has anything left in common — Nothing they can talk about anyway — we need to see why these women need one another. The conflict is spelled out in the dialogue. The fun comes from watching them affirm one another while fighting, sometimes wickedly, for a better piece of the same neon tiara.

Emily Burnette takes on Joanne, the incurious breeder of the bunch who only wants to marry a rich man, make babies, and drink away the details. She does that exactly. And she says things like “I’d just die,” so often you start to wish she’d get on with it. Lauren Malone’s Kathy is an obsessive organizer, and a little on the mousey side. Heather Malone is too openly contemptuous of Joanne too soon, but when her Mary isn’t only glowering, she’s a lot of fun to watch.

I’ve always imagined there’s a lost fourth act to Vanities, where all the loose threads are neatly tied up. It seems like it should be the kind of play that ends with a big group hug. But instead there’s only innuendo and uncertainty, and the play is better for it. Will Mary find fullfillment selling erotic neon and sleeping with married men or will she settle down, find Christ and breed like Joanne? Will Kathy ever know what she wants to do with her life? Will the philandering husband Joanne can never leave turn out to be John Edwards? Will there ever be a time when the play's comments about abortion don’t sound absolutely current?

The genius of Vanities is that it seems so insubstantial but it sticks with you. Like all that baggage spelled out in cryptic cliches in your senior yearbook.

Vanities, written by Jack Heifner. June 22 - July 1, 2012. Theatreworks. Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. 15.00 Adults, $12.00 Seniors, Students & Military. 901-484-3467, www.newmoontheatre.org

Friday, June 22, 2012

Costume Contest: The Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis is looking for designers.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 11:56 AM

Here's the lowdown:

Its Shoe Time!
  • It's Shoe Time!
This challenge is to design a stylish ensemble that could have been worn in 1945 by a young woman. The contest is open to girls ages 12 - 18.

McCalls Pattern Fronts 1945
The winner will see her creation come to life by skilled seamstresses and actually worn on stage by the main character in the play "Sisters of the Cloth."

She will also receive a $100 cash prize, three tickets to the play and credit as the costume's designer in the playbook. In addition, she'll receive a scholarship to The F.F.E.W. Winter Fashion Camp in December of 2012.

Contestants must submit the following:

Detailed sketches of the front and back of each piece of the ensemble.
Detailed description of the ensemble including the color and suitable fabrics.
Essay describing fashions during the 1940's. The essay must include the major influences on fashion during that period.
Completed entry form.

More details here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Just Say No: “Nanette” isn’t much fun

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 12:19 PM

If ever a publicity photo said No, No its this one.
  • If ever a publicity photo said "No, No" it's this one.

I’ve been making a list of nice things to say about Theatre Memphis' production of No, No, Nanette. For starters, the early 20th-Century design is striking although the costumes can be garish and the Jolly Rancher-colored lighting makes it worse. Act II looks like someone’s Easter basket got dizzy and vomited all over the stage.

Wait. I said I was going to list good things and I meant it.

Unforgettable actors like Bennett Wood, Jude Knight, Emily Pettet, and Rob Hanford are cast in roles for which they will never be remembered.

Ugh. Sorry. That wasn’t very nice either, was it?


And, for fans of Roaring-20’s culture, there’s some top-notch tap and certifiably hot Charleston action. And...

And...

Well folks, that’s about all I’ve got. And while I won't deny that this lede is an artificial setup I wanted to like this show and sincerely tried to thread together a silver lining. No luck.

It’s easy to see why Theatre Memphis might give Nanette a spin around the dancefloor. Last Season’s Crazy For You, a tap-laden reworking a 1930’s-era musical by George & Ira Gershwin, was a huge hit with audiences and Ostrander judges alike. Nanette's an adorable relic of the 1920’s, and should appeal to the same sensibilities, right?

Well, maybe it's a home run for audiences drawn to old familiars, charmed by young people striving, and happy to see a play with no damn cuss words. Otherwise— or at least from my perspective—this Nanette played itself out like a wooden high school musical with theatrically-inclined teachers cast in a few choice roles.

The plot is pure cotton candy. We're treated to the story of Jimmy Smith, a successful and generous Bible salesman who's been financially assisting— some might say "keeping"— three down-at-heel girls. Worried that his depressingly frugal wife might find out Jimmy does what any innocent victim of his own largesse might. He sends his attorney, a happily-married man on the make, to buy the girls off. How could anything go wrong?

As the farce unfolds Jimmy, his niece Nanette, the attorney, both wives, and all three golddiggers wind up in the same Atlantic City beach house at the same time. And yes, it’s awkward. There’s also a superfluous romantic subplot featuring the title character, a nice, wholesome gal yearning to experience the wild life before settling with a boring boyfriend. But this shotgun-blast of a musical could have easily been titled Get it Jimmy, Five’s a Crowd or Leave it to Lawyers.

Popular music changed in the 1920’s as a newly jazzed youth culture clashed with mom and pop. The thoroughly modern sounds are reflected in a vibrant score by Vincent Youmans with sweet and sassy lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach. It’s easy to give yourself over to woozy numbers like “Too Many Rings Around Rosie," but some of the show’s biggest hits are misses in a production where nobody from the pit to the lighting booth seems to have an affinity for the material. With cloying rhymes about baking sugar cakes Nanette’s best known song, "Tea for Two" is about as exciting as a great horking dose of cod liver oil.

And while we're on the subject of taking one's medicine, I’m always impressed by the output of Andre Bruce Ward’s costume shop, and was excited to see what the maestro might whip up for Nanette. This time the colors on stage are best viewed with a side of Dramamine.

Somehow Guest Director Mark Robinson failed to find any sustained charm in this lighter-than-a-soap-bubble offering from a uniquely charming period in American history. His characters lack definition and relationships barely exist. Worse, he’s treated the chorus like a church youth pageant, and brings all the kids onstage in a lumbering clot where they remain disconnected from the action until it’s time to dance.

Putting lots of people on stage with nothing to do creates a vortex of negative energy so Robinson’s Nanette moves with the jerky stop-and-start momentum of a virgin stick shift operator driving uphill.

Rob Hanford has some spectacular dance moments but Donna Lappin is Nanette’s only real standout performer. She's a perfect crab in the role of Pauline, a classically inspired menial, constantly threatening to quit her job as the Smith family maid. Her success however, only highlights other problems.

Pauline is an old fashioned clown role, and her best bits are between scene solos. Vaudeville and Burlesque performers called these jokey interludes “blackouts.” They were used to buy time for costume changes or sobering up the plate-spinner. Pauline's a time-killer, and even Lappin’s big scene with a remote controlled vacuum cleaner fails to deliver enough comic goodness to justify inclusion in an extremely long, mostly lifeless show with two intermissions.

Two.

Dos.

Not quite three, but more than one.

A confession that some readers may find surprising given my history with frothier musicals: I was genuinely excited about No, No Nanette. The 1920’s Radio Network is just about the only thing that gets played in the Davis house these days. Quirky vintage jazz turns ordinary chores into a Max Fleischer cartoon and it’s not uncommon to find Pop in the kitchen recklessly stacking bowls while Ma and the twins flap around the living room with a broom and dustpan. And yet, at the top of the second intermission the twin I took with me gave a more succinct review than I could muster.

“Daddy,” she said in a small pitiful voice, her luminous brown eyes framed by a perfect flapper do. “This play is giving me gas pains.” I knew what she meant.

Theatre Memphis still does exceptional work. Bo List’s uptempo take on Hedda Gabler was a joy and even if Amy Hanford’s Chicago wasn’t especially original, it was an effective crash course in the old razzle dazzle. But there’s a lot of redundancy in what happens out on Perkins Ext. these days. Even knockout dance numbers get old when they start to resemble all of the other knockout dance numbers. Forget about spice for a tic. Variety is life and re-creating success is never as interesting as merely creating.

Sidewalk fashion may be bending toward excess and the eyeball-melting glo of the 1980’s, but the 1920’s and 30’s are also in. The internet made a wide variety of historical music available to young musicians looking to stand out and a crappy economy combined with morally-repressive politics to inspire bars with speakeasy themes and depression-era specials. As hard as it might be to believe given the epically sorry state of this revival, No, No Nanette could have been one of the season's hippest happenings.

As always, I encourage folks to see for themselves. And I’m always happy to hear from dissenters who think I should consider a fallback career.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Mei Ann Chen receives the Helen M. Thompson Award

Posted By on Fri, Jun 8, 2012 at 10:43 AM

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Memphis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Mei-Ann Chen was presented the 2012 Helen M. Thompson Award in recognition of her leadership and achievements in Memphis and Chicago.

Chen, who is currently visiting her native country, conducting the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, says the award is an honor and a surprise. "Receiving the Helen M. Thompson Award is a significant recognition from the orchestral field and will certainly add much to the momentum already under way for both my orchestras in Memphis and Chicago," she says.

From hear earliest days in Memphis Chen expressed a desire to reestablish the MSO as a major community asset. During her two years the Symphony orchestra has seen significant growth in subscriptions, single ticket sales and corporate sponsorship.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

SOS: MAMMA MIA needs help

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 2:59 PM

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Knowing me, knowing you (Ah-Ha!). There’s not a damn thing we can do. I've got this sneaking suspicion that a person is either predisposd to like Mamma Mia or not. Turns out, I'm not but with more than 42-million tickets sold around the globe, a stinging review from Memphis seems almost pointless. And yet I feel compelled to at least send a message to all the people who got up off their butts to give this wooden mess of a show a thunderous standing ovation : You’re not doing yourself, the actors, or anybody else any favors.

Mamma Mia, the Abba jukebox musical, is a weirdly nostalgic situation comedy set on a Greek island where the daughter of an unmarried American ex-pat has planned a big, messy surprise for her wedding party.

Sophie was born in the swinging, free-loving 1970’s, and her mother Donna, a rock-and-roller turned put-upon tavern-owner, has never been sure who the father was. After reading her mom’s diary, however, the determined young woman hones in on the three most likely candidates, an architect, a writer, and a gay banker. Hoping she'll be able to solve the mystery in time to have her real dad give away the bride Sophie forges letters from her mother, inviting the three old friends on a holiday they won't soon forget.

Speaking of old friends, one of mine made me laugh out loud by describing Mamma Mia as the musical equivalent of campy pornographic films that aspire to plot and dialog. That, I think, is more accurate than Ben Brantly’s still-wounded post-9/11 description of the 2001 Broadway production as “comfort food” for troubled times.

Brightly colored codpieces should never be associated with deep-dish mac & cheese Ben, even under the wost circumstances.

I’m no great Abba fan, but I won’t lie: “Take a Chance on Me,” and “Our Last Summer,” are both on my iPod, and I’ve always thought they were sugary marvels of pop songcraft and production. But remove fandom and nostalgia from the equation, and they aren’t strong enough to drive the action of a show where the choreography is limited and gag-laden, and the characters often simply stand and sing at each other.

The best example of this stand-and-deliver approach is the “Knowing me Knowing You”scene. With its distinctive “ah-huh” backing vocals there’s so much great opportunity for cast interaction, comedy, and pathos. But instead the backing vocals are either synthasized or are sung off-stage.

There are some sweet performances here. Chloe Tucker makes an adoreable bride to be and Alison Ewing and Mary Callanan shine as Donna’s oldest friends, Tania a jet-setting serial bride and Rosie, an earthy cookbook author.

John-Michael Zuerlein and Paul Deboy charm as an adventure writer who might finally be ready to settle down and the banker who only ever fell in love with one woman, and bought her a guitar (for 10 bucks and his Johnny Rotton T-shirt) to prove it.

The rest of the principals just seemed tired in their roles. And there were other problems.

I wince whenever an actor leans against some solid-looking set piece like a door or a wall and it wobbles like a drunk at the urinal. Even worse, the startled recognition on an actor's face during the brief but long-feeling moment when the artificial world he or she inhabits becomes suddenly insubstantial.

So much for illusions. Throw in a little ear-rattling feedback from the sound system and what was supposed to be a professional show turns into karaoke night at the I-69 Shake & Steak.

Could this not-quite-campy thing I was watching with its cheap-looking sets, canned-sounding music, and strip-club choreography really be a Broadway touring show?

I suppose it can.

For 11-years I’ve been avoiding Mamma Mia like the measles. It was time to man-up and take a chance that I might just like it. Now that I’ve seen it, I wish I’d stayed home instead and watched every episode of Yacht Rock on YouTube.

For more information about tickets and showtimes, here you go.

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