Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Film" and "NotFilm": Buster Keaton & Samuel Beckett visit Brooks Museum

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2016 at 1:38 PM

  • Buster
It should have worked. It should have been amazing. 

What could be better than a team up between absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, and cinema's great clown Buster Keaton? Add to that, a story that's nothing more than a chase scene boiled down to essence? What could have possibly gone wrong?

The rather preciously named Film— screening at the Brooks Museum this week — should have been a spectacular cinematic event, not some footnote and fascinating curiosity. But Beckett had no idea how to make a movie. His friend and longtime collaborator Alan Schneider didn't either. Worser
  • Sam
  still, neither of these grand men of the theater knew how to talk to the poker-faced (and minded) Keaton, a certifiable master of the form.

Beckett and Keaton couldn't have been more different. The former was a heady, experimental philosopher, the latter more interested in technical details and visceral pleasures. Keaton had previously turned down the role of Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot, because, like so many American theatergoers, he just didn't get it.

Ironically, Beckett described Keaton as impenetrable. 

Keaton didn't understand Film either, and said so publicly. He took the gig because he needed the work. 

Visual essayist Ross Lipman tells the story of Beckett’s struggle to understand the language of film and of his difficult relationship with collaborators like Keaton and award winning cinematographer Boris Kaufman in the documentary Notfilm, also screening at the Brooks this week. Lipman's digital feature (not film) is narration-heavy, and contemplates itself into some un-cinematic corners. It also contains fantastic interview footage with actress Billie Whitelaw, who's widely regarded as the definitive interpreter of Beckett's work.

As a teenager, Leonard Maltin visited the movie set hoping to meet Keaton, whom he idolized. With starry-eyed fanboy zeal the popular film critic recounts his story of an uneventful meeting that, nevertheless, made a lasting impression. He knows Beckett was probably on location too, but Malton only had eyes for Keaton.

Beckett regarded Film as a qualified failure, and strong evidence that his peculiar brand of performance didn’t translate well to the big screen. Still, the curious artifact functions as a kind of movie trailer, teasing images and themes the playwright explores more thoroughly in plays like Endgame and Rockabye. It does so with lots of stark visual appeal thanks to Kaufman's cinematography.

NotFilm, by contrast, is a qualified success that could take a lesson from Beckett's show-don't-tell ethos. 

On a side note, Kaufman was the younger sibling of Russian film pioneers Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman. He worked as cinematographer and director of photography on a number of Hollywood features including Tennessee Williams' gorgeously-shot The Fugitive Kind. That was the story's third title. It had originally been staged as Battle of Angels, then rewritten and staged as Orpheus Descending

New Moon Theatre Company's solid production of Orpheus Descending is currently on stage at Midtown's Evergreen Theatre. 

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Will Call: What's on Stage in Memphis this Week?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2016 at 1:19 PM

You know the Buckaroo Banzai catchphrase, “No Matter where you go, there you are?” There’s a lot of the sentiment in Tennessee Williams’s drama Orpheus Descending. The original film adaptation was called The Fugitive Kind, and its spirit is beautifully captured in Merle Haggard classics like "The Running Kind" and "Lonesome Fugitive." But Williams’ musically-inspired drama name-checks blues icons like Leadbelly, and and bumps and grinds to older, slinkier rhythms.

Williams once described his version of the Orpheus myth as the story of a, “wild-spirited boy,” named Val who wears a snakeskin jacket and makes his living with a guitar. Val wanders into, “a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop.” Underneath it all, according the the author, “it’s a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them...and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all."

In other words, it's a play about race, sexual oppression, and how civilized and not-so-civilized folk talk about things we’re not supposed to talk about.

To whet your whistle for the New Moon Theatre Company’s opening weekend of Orpheus Descending, here’s a clip of Marlon Brando talking about his guitar.

Also opening this week:

“Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.”
• Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. Shakespeare’s Henry V is a multifaceted epic about politics, patriotism, friendship, loyalty, war, and it’s spoils. This production comes to us courtesy of Tennessee Shakespeare Company and the University of Memphis.

Den Nicholas Smith directs Together Alone for the Emerald Theatre Company. Together Alone’s about Bryan and Bill — if those are their real names — who hook up and talk about life and sex and death and things.

Everybody’s second-favorite orphan is back for more.


Yes, that’s right, dammit, I said, “more.” Oliver’s not quite Annie I suppose, even though he has a more compelling story, full of hardship, thievery, and gruel. This latest revival— a first-time production for Theatre Memphis, surprisingly — is directed by A Christmas Carol regular, Jason Spitzer, who, at this point, should know a thing about grubby industrial London.


• Peter and the Starcatcher at Circuit Playhouse: This deeply silly Peter Pan origin story is too glib by half and one of the most magical things you’re likely to see on stage anytime soon. It’s reviewed here.

The Starcatcher and Peter
  • The Starcatcher and Peter

 • The Wiz: There sure is a lot of homage and redux on this week’s list. This funk and soul-infused Wizard of Oz sold out before it opened, so tickets are scarce. But it you didn’t get tickets, don’t worry. This isn’t the Hattiloo’s best effort, and Season 11 is just around the corner. 
Off to see the Wizard.
  • Off to see the Wizard.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"The Wiz" is a Hit... Because, Because, Because, Because

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2016 at 6:01 PM

Cast of the Wiz
  • Cast of the Wiz

The bad news for slowpokes: Hattlioo's production of The Wiz sold out most of its shows before opening night, and tickets are hard to come by.

The good news for slowpokes: Don't sweat it, you're not missing much. And if you really need a fix, the good parts are all on YouTube anyway. 

Also, thank goodness for advance sales, right? Because I really don't think this was the flashy season finale Hattiloo had in mind, and it's doubtful a flat, sung-to-tracks iteration of the Oz story would capture as many imaginations on the merits. There's too much talent on stage to dismiss this Wiz outright, but there's no compelling vision either. Design is uninspired at the edge of being downright counterproductive, and the whole thing smacks of something one might observe in a small town middle school cafetorium.

Even Emma Crystal's typically inspired choreography is only intermittently inspiring. 

The Wiz follows the original Wizard's blueprint pretty faithfully. There are Munchkins, and witches, flying monkeys, weird men behind curtains and, "I'm melting, I'm melting," and like that. With its gritty vintage tone and broad emotional spectrum, it can be a moving musical event, and funky good fun for all the senses. But the Hattiloo's music is all canned and thin-sounding, especially when contrasted with live human voices, and good ones at that. It's got no bottom to speak of, and instead of feeling the music in your body as one might in a club — or a good night at the theater — the experience is more like watching karaoke on cable access.

And let's be honest, nobody goes to see The Wiz because they just love the underdeveloped book. Music is the #1 priority, and here it feels like an afterthought. 

The visual experience isn't much better. The Hattiloo's versatile space — probably the most customizable in town — seems like it was laid out to host capacity crowds, not to stage a kick-ass musical. The oppressively gray and beige set establishes a playing space that's shallow and broad, so the action's all stretched out and mostly front-facing. Audiences seated on the sides get excluded. Like, a lot.

Pro tip: Sight lines are especially bad for those unfortunate enough to be seated all the way up right and left. Arrive early, sit anywhere else.

I've seen great proscenium-style theater in black box theaters, but that's never the most interesting or effective way to use this kind of space. That said, the creative team could stand to take a cue from the folks doing Peter & the Starcatcher on the proscenium stage next door at Circuit Playhouse and learn how less can be so much more. Actors and storytellers are more important than representational scenery. But I think I miss dynamics most of all, Scarecrow.

This show could have been so much better in the round with a smaller cast, a hot little combo, and a whole lot of creative problem solving. 

While the general tone may be flatter than Kansas, there are some real bright spots in the cast. Kortland Whalum has so much presence as the Tin Man it starts feeling like his show every time he sings. Charlton L. Johnson throws himself into the part of the cowardly lion with reckless and refreshing abandon. Mary Pruitt's similarly satisfying as the Lord High Underling, and there are others.

India Ratliff is fine as Dorothy, but for someone in almost every scene, she's never given very much to do. Which is really what's wrong with the whole production. The actors walk around, say their lines and dance with a modicum of conviction. But what should be high adventure through the urban funhouse lookinglass just kind of eases on through the most basic motions.

There've been times when I could easily describe The Hattiloo as being one of Memphis' most consistently creative and resourceful theaters. Fingers crossed the unevenness of recent productions can be chalked up to growing pains. Only a year into the new building, and already this ambitious company is physically expanding to accommodate rehearsals, programs, and events. In the meantime, artistry suffers consistently and considerably.

Nowhere is that more evident than in The Wiz.

Voices of the South: Headed to New York, Presenting New Work

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2016 at 12:51 PM

Berry & Madden
  • Berry & Madden
Something Old, Something new...

Nobody's getting married to my knowledge, but there's still some cause to celebrate. Voices of the South is gearing up to take Mississippi Stories — some of Alice Berry and Jenny Madden's oldest adapted work — north for a short, Off-Broadway run. In the meantime, the little company that could is also preparing a festival of new, locally-developed work brought to life as the result of guided workshops. 

The Summoner's Ensemble Theatre, which produces A Christmas Carol at the Merchant’s House starring former Memphian Kevin Jones in all roles, is presenting Mississippi Stories, adapted by Berry and Madden from the works by Eudora Welty. The Gloria Baxter-directed production arrives at the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row on July 28 and runs through August 7. 

Voices hosts its first Mid-South Writer's Lab Festival June 17-19. A group of local playwrights have spent the last year working together in a supportive environment to create five new plays. 

Friday, June 17 at 7:00 pm:
By Jeff Posson

Saturday, June 18 at 5:00 pm:
By Jason Gerhard
By Terry Scott

Sunday, June 19 at 5:00 pm:
By Joy Tiffin-Sutherland
By Jonathan Lambert

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Defying Gravity: "Peter and the Starcatcher" Flies Without Strings

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2016 at 6:23 PM

The Cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
  • The Cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
What makes Peter and the Starcatcher such a joy to watch? That’s a softball question. It’s a lovely, giddy, ominous, often ridiculous piece of performance candy doubling down on live theater’s three most important things — actors, actors, and actors.

Molly & the Boy
  • Molly & the Boy
Not shading on my designers; respect to all y’all. Only saying — after scenic visionary Adolphe Appia — when it comes to show, man really is the measure of all things. At its best — even in the astonishing technological now — the theater’s not a place for fixed diversions. It’s the last safe place to imagine dangerous things collectively. And, like its beloved source material, Peter and the Starcatcher is the kind of story that helps hardened adults relinquish self-control and enter a twilight place called Neverland, where pirates lurk, mermaids frolic, fairies twinkle, and little boys never grow up.

I’m not going to say too much about Rick Elice’s sprawling — sometimes too sprawling — Peter Pan origin story, because it’s a show where the journey really is the destination. I’ll merely note that it begins with two tall ships sailing in different directions to a common destination. One ship carries a mysterious trunk, some British seamen, and a bunch of pirates. The other carries young boys destined for slavery, the daughter of a British seaman, an identically mysterious trunk, and a passel of seagoing scoundrels. It ends at the beginning of a legend we already know, about the immortal Pan locked in his forever battle with a wicked, one-handed brigand. Between times there’s swashbuckling, glib banter, vaudeville routines, a song or two, and just enough gut-honest acting to keep things real.

The not-so-secret weapon in this latest production is musical theater powerhouse David Foster, who’s been sidelined for some time due to illness.

Well, he’s not sidelined anymore, and he’s making up for temps perdu.

Black Stache & the Boy
  • Black Stache & the Boy
Foster plays Black Stache, a dark hearted pirate who’ll cut you, boo, and not bat an eye if he do. Even in the context of a deliberate ensemble he’s a capital-S-T-A-R, and bigger than Norma Desmond.

Maggie Robinson is Molly the titular starcatcher. She's a precocious kid and tough little mother-figure to a trio of lost boys played to the grubby hilt by Dane Van Brocklin, Jason Gerhard, and Isaac Middleton. This team’s responsible for some of the show’s tenderest moments, but there’s not a slouch on director Bob Hetherington’s creative team. Bill Andrews, Michael Gravois, Nathan McHenry, Ryan Kathman, Stuart Heyman, Greg Szatkowski and Jared Graham round out an uncommonly well-rounded cast.

Hetherington gets good work from his designers too. Erik Diaz, Zo Haynes, and Caleb Blackwell have conspired to create a comfortably-scaled environment for actors to build worlds inside of worlds.

Am I gushing? I think I'm gushing. But I can say critical things too like how the script’s a little too loose and referential, and the stage sometimes erupts into an overly-frenetic jumble of confusing activity. But in a fun fast-moving play, those moments zip right on by.

Hang the moon from a string and you’ll wind up hanging the sun, and all the planets too. Imagine the moon and you can cram the universe into the modest auditorium at Circuit Playhouse. That’s exactly what Peter and the Starcatcher does, and with no small amount of panache. 

To be or not to be... pirates?
  • To be or not to be... pirates?
Correction: This review erroneously listed Daniel Muller as scenic designer per POTS preview materials. It has been corrected to read Erik Diaz. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Memphis Theater Wins Big at Chicago's Jeff Awards

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2016 at 11:16 AM

Liz Sharpe at Memphis' Ostrander Awards
  • Liz Sharpe at Memphis' Ostrander Awards
Monday, June 6, 2016 was a big night for Memphis theater in Chicago. The cast of Byhalia Mississippi was honored with two non-equity Jeffs, including the prize for Best New Work awarded to playwright (and past Playhouse on the Square intern) Evan Linder.

"Holy Shit!" Those were the first heartfelt words of Cecelia WIngate's acceptance speech. 

Holy shit, indeed. Wingate's a terrific player but she’s better known locally for directing monster hits like The Producers, The Addams Family, [Title of Show], Young Frankenstein, and Altar Boyz. Her performance as a loving but irredeemably racist grandmother earned the Jeff for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Memphis expat Liz Sharpe was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading role, but lost to Amanda Drinkall for her performance in Last Train to Nibroc.  Theater fans my remember Sharpe as Jackie, the tough survivor in Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, or as the Valium-addicted Harper in Angels in America at Playhouse on the Square.  She played Byhalia’s protagonist, Laurel, a young mother who doesn’t always make the best decisions.

The big winner, of course, is the play itself. Byhalia, Mississippi co-premiered in four cities: Memphis, Chicago, Toronto, and Charleston. It’s since been picked up by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre where it opens in July.

Linder's a co-founder of Chicago's New Colony theater collective. The Warriors, The New Colony's fantastic docudrama about survivors of a playground shooting in Jonesboro was recently adapted for audio-only by Memphis' Chatterbox Audio Theatre.

Give it a listen. 
Cecelia WIngate (center) picking up an Ostrander.
  • Cecelia WIngate (center) picking up an Ostrander.
CORRECTION: This post originally named Liz Sharpe as a winner. She was a nominee, but didn't win. But she shoulda, dammit. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

On Stage this Week: "The Wiz," "Peter and the Starcatcher," and "The Great Cable Cooking Show Contest."

Posted By on Sat, Jun 4, 2016 at 2:17 AM

If there's one show people associate with Playhouse on the Square it's Peter Pan. The boy who wouldn't grow up has made Christmastime appearances off and on for years. This season he's back on stage at Circuit Playhouse in a very different kind of show.

Peter & the Starcatcher is a dark-edged and self-aware origin story. It's all about how Peter Pan became Peter Pan and how a certain pirate lost his hand. It's a nifty take on the J.M. Barrie classic. 

In this rehearsal footage from the Circuit Playhouse production you'll note the presence of none other than musical theatre powerhouse David Foster who's been sidelined for most of this season due to medical issues.

It's good to have him back. 
What a piece of work is Hamlet. How evergreen. How ripe for appropriation and parody. Aye, there's the rub. Will Memphis theater audiences be over Shakespeare's original man in black when the curtain rises on New Moon Theatre's February production? That may not be the question, but given all the Hamlet-related shows we're seeing this season, it's one worth asking. Or will productions of shows like The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and One Ham Manlet whet appetites for the real, complete thing?

Paul Rudnick's light comedy I Hate Hamlet is Germantown Community Theatre's contribution to Hamletpalooza, and it sure is a mixed fardel. Rudnick's script is a bumpy muddle of real-estate gags, sitcom hijinks, and splendid set pieces about celebrity, passion, immortality, and tight pants. An uncommonly engaging cast pulls it all together and keeps spirits high, even when the writing threatens to let everybody down...
Long story short, it's a fine production of an uneven play with some great performances that make everything worthwhile. To read the rest of my review, click here

I Hate Hamlet closes at GCT this weekend. 
Also opening this weekend The Great Cable Cooking Show Contest, a new play written and directed by Memphis theater artist Ruby O'Gray.

A synopsis: 
The play is a zany look at chefs from the most unlikely places, who compete in the small town for money and bragging rights for their culinary creations. Five finalists are chosen to prepare their creations for judges and TV land along with storylines that will tickle your funny bone.
The Great Cable Cooking Show Contest is at TheatreWorks through Sunday, June 5, with two shows on Saturday. 

Last but not least... The Wiz.

I'd say, "Get ready to ease on down the road" with this popular favorite. But if you haven't already purchased tickets, the road may be blocked. The Hattiloo Theatre sold this show out before opening night. That's good for them, but not so good for those among us who always wait till the last minute to reserve. 

Oh, there may some stray tickets available here and there, but good luck getting one. 
A shot from the Hattiloo''s first production of The Wiz.
  • A shot from the Hattiloo''s first production of The Wiz.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Weekend of Festivals Not Named 901

Posted By on Sat, May 28, 2016 at 6:26 AM

This weekend, right? So many festivals, so little time. 

This Saturday, noon till 3:00 p.m. in Overton Park the Hattiloo Theatre is hosting its annual Black Arts Fest, showcasing artists from a variety of disciplines. 

Admission is FREE.


There's even more good stuff happening just a stone's throw from the Hattiloo's event at Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre.  Voices of the South's Memphis Children's Festival has become a Memorial Day tradition featuring storytellers, musicians, and numerous theater troupes specializing in kid's stuff. It's a joy every year. 

As always, it's Pay What You Can.
For details VOTS has made this informative commercial. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Celebrating Arthur Miller's Centennial With Colorful New Editions

Posted By on Thu, May 26, 2016 at 2:29 PM

Had he lived, Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller would have turned 100 in 2015. Penguin Plays is celebrating the milestone into 2016 with a pair of new beautifully designed acting editions of Miller's first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, (which flopped badly) and All My Sons (which did not.)

All My Sons is a subtle mystery telling the story of two businessmen who supplied the US Government with faulty airplane engines during WWII. One goes to prison after planes go down and young men die.  The other one lives the American Dream, building a nice house in the suburbs.

It's a not so subtle critique of capitalist America's values, and with AMS  Miller laid a solid foundation for future dramas exploring father/son legacies, conflicting public/private moralities etc. He also asks if success is a measure of merit, good fortune, or something darker. Embedded in all of this is a love story built on lies and soaked in blood.

It rings too true for a play almost 70-years old. And the cover art is terrific. 

The Man Who Had All the Luck explores many of the same themes as All My Sons, but is  focused on an even more contemporary concern: Is success merit based?

The man in question starts life as a mechanic whose winning streak is so unbroken he starts to believe failure is just around the corner. After all, he knows so many other deserving people who've watched their dreams evaporate. And yet, good things keep coming his way. Surely, he must deserve it after all. 

The Man..., is Miller in the raw. It's flawed but ambitious, and way ahead of its time.

A real treat for  fans. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Memphis' Namesake Musical Gets its First Hometown Production

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 4:18 PM

“If you listen to the beat, and hear what’s in your soul, you’ll never let anyone steal your rock-and-roll!
That’s the last line of Memphis’ artificially uplifting closer, sung with Bic-waving conviction, as the musical concludes on a note more wishful than happy. But every time I see it (and the times are adding up), I find myself asking the same two questions: “Who stole what, now? And who’d they steal it from?”

It’s not the knotty history of black and white artists (or the black and white contracts they signed in blood) that concerns me at the moment though. It’s the irony.

This Tony-winner’s set at the dawn of the civil-rights era in the city of Sun and Soulsville, and raises the question of Rock- theft often and outright as it tells the subtext-forward story of “crazy little” Huey Calhoun, a motor-mouthed white deejay who falls in love with R&B and with Felicia, the powerful, dark-skinned woman he worships as its living embodiment. It’s based on the life of WHBQ’s Red, Hot & Blue DJ Dewey Phillips, but not really. There’s nothing romantic or bittersweet in the tragedy of Big Daddy Dewey, who played race music for white audiences and introduced Elvis Presley to the airwaves. That substance-shortened life went dark when it went off the rails, and wasn’t a tale playwright Joe DiPietro was interested in telling. What remains is a history-distorting Hairspray redux, with only a fraction of the color, and a collection of songs that make “Walking in Memphis” seem authentic.

What Memphis has going for it is sincerity, and an ability to exude quirky optimism while deploying an incrementalist mantra mugged from MLK: “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Especially if you’re poor, not white, or both. For one brief, shining moment in 2010, Memphis was the new Camelot, arriving, as it did, on Broadway, at roughly the same time the Obamas settled into the White House, and ideas about “post-racial America” were bandied around like it was a real thing. As I pointed out in my earliest reviews, it gained strong, (probably) accidental resonance, as attitudes toward “forbidden love,”  bent in saner directions.

What Playhouse on the Square’s production has going for it is director/co-choreographer Jordan Nichols who’s never been one to underestimate the worth of balls out entertainment. The pace is fast, the dance numbers are explosive and powerful ensemble singing covers for shakier solo moments. Nichols has also assembled top-drawer character actors who help to bring the weirdly-industrial streets of Broadway’s Memphis to raucous life. Huey and Felicia may hoard most of the good songs, but sidemen like John Hemphill, Michael Jay Vails, Marc Gill, and Curtis C. Jackson find authenticity in a play where Beale St. has basement nightclubs, and the Orpheum is a music venue, not a still-segregated movie theater.

Lorraine Cotten’s hillbilly drawl wanders a bit but, as Huey’s racist Mom, her gutsy gospel singing helps bring it all back home.

DiPietro, who wrote Off Broadway’s second longest running musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and the emotionally effective, Over the River and Through the Woods, always had a knack for creating dynamic relationships. Memphis’ most effective moments are played out between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, ministers and flocks, bosses and employees. Musically speaking, there’s no better example of this than Jarrad Baker’s moving performance of, “She’s My Sister,” where his Delray warns Huey to back off in a song that owes a lot to Stevie Wonder’s, “Living For the City.

The budding, ultimately broken romance between Huey and Felicia is a tougher sell given the natural born DJ’s relentlessly clownish Huckleberry Hound personality. It works, in part, because we want it to work. We want to find just enough hope in history’s wreckage to make all the awfulness seem worth it.

Nikisha Williams’ Felicia is feisty, with a sunshine glow that bursts out of her throat when she sings her breakthrough, “Someday.” So Maybe it’s more Motown than Memphis (with a little bit of this), it’s sweet, mid-Century pop, and the best part of Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan’s score.

Nathan McHenry plays Huey like a 24/7 hayseed comic and doesn’t always seem to have control over his voice. These are endearing qualities except for when they aren’t.

I’d hoped Memphis’ Memphis would at least look a little more like Memphis. Oh well. The creative team was going for “gritty,” but ended up with, “barn.” Bryce Cutler’s scrappy, aluminum-canopied set turns a city of dirty secrets and spectacular sunsets into a missed advertising opportunity

If it sounds like I’m down on Memphis, maybe I am a little. In the finale we’re introduced to a deflated version of Huey, working for a little radio station with only one listener. Felicia’s been successful, but she’s paid for it in terrible ways. They’ve both been ripped off, losing significant pieces of their identity to an industry that sees only one color: Green. “Steal Your Rock and Roll,” should be as cautionary as, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” in Little Shop of Horrors, but that’s not how it works. These days it makes me think of the story Bryan told about how he transitioned from rock star to Broadway hero.

When his publisher asked if he’d ever thought about writing musicals, the rocker — and former Juilliard student — answered with a sarcastic, “What are they?” The publisher’s answer cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Musicals mean 23 of your songs are performed eight times a week.” Bryan’s instant, unflinching reply: “I’m interested.” 

On the flip side, music tourism in Memphis has been booming and more attractions come on line all the time. Folks in the business believe Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet played at least some part in all that, so I’ll take the good with the questionable. Besides, for all my grumbling about authenticity, revisionist history, and rock-larceny, I’ll take POTS energetic, lovingly-staged production over both the Broadway run and the tour.

It helps to have the smell of barbecue hanging on the breeze. It really does. 

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Ignorance is Bliss: "Hay Fever" is Nothing to Sneeze At

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2016 at 11:47 AM

Christina Wellford Scott (l) portrays the matriarch of the over-the-top literary, artful and theatrical Bliss family and discovers shenanigans between her husband, played by Greg Fletcher (r) and a weekend guest, played by Melissa Walker in Noel Coward's comedy Hay Fever at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, April 29 - May 15, 2016.
  • Christina Wellford Scott (l) portrays the matriarch of the over-the-top literary, artful and theatrical Bliss family and discovers shenanigans between her husband, played by Greg Fletcher (r) and a weekend guest, played by Melissa Walker in Noel Coward's comedy Hay Fever at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, April 29 - May 15, 2016.
“It’s impossible to judge from their public performance whether they have talent or not. They were professional, had a certain guileless charm, and stayed on mercifully for not too long."
— Noel Coward on The Beatles
This isn't a review. I left Hay Fever at intermission.

Don’t judge. It was a beautiful day. Besides, I know how Noel Coward’s 92-year-old comedy of bad manners ends. Also, I think I did a pretty good job arriving on time and staying as long as I did, considering all the people who just didn’t show up in the first place.

That’s a terrible, Cowardy thing to say, but I don’t mean it in a mean way. Maybe nobody gives mom the gift of theater these days. Still, I’d anticipated some Mother’s Day crowd showing up to take in the antics of Sir Noel’s mercurial mommy Judith Bliss, her quirky brood, and all their amorous and unexpected guests. Couldn’t have been more than 60 people in big room. It was shocking at first, given the momentum TM’s built with solid, sold-out productions of Into the Woods, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Then the curtain came up and I was less shocked. What transpired was never awful, but it couldn't compete with a sunny afternoon. Or a rainy one if there was something to binge-watch with family, or marbles to be played.

Generic’s the first word. White label, black type: “THEATRE!!!” Mild strutting, intermittent fretting, a brightly-lit set so unencumbered by character it might service a number of scripts, including most Agatha Christies. Where was the personality? The joyous effervescent sparkle? The engaging eccentricity? More to the point, how hard does one have to work to make actors as accomplished as Christina Scott and Kinon Keplinger that flat uninteresting?

Something I know: Hay Fever's funniest moments happen in the act didn’t see, when all the ill-fitting couples uncouple, recouple, and odd couple. It’s also the act where Sorrel, Coward’s handsome young bohemian, announces, "We don't, any of us, ever mean anything," which is true, and the very thing that makes this show crackle when it’s on, and crash when it's not.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Hay Fever, perversely imagining it to be a direct antecedent of Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show, with Judith — a retired grand dame of the stage yearning for her comeback (and a little strange) — standing in for Frankenfurter. But it’s a snootier script and tricky, requiring bold color and just the right blend of personalities. Nothing bores like bored people, and it’s a challenge to wring gay laughter from the antics of rich brats doing beastly things we wouldn’t tolerate from peasantry — unless they were formerly rich. No matter how bold or beautiful it’s not a lot of fun watching privileged folk fight languidly against tedium, the commonplace, and the crushing weight of their own fabulousness. Not when there are fences to mend, children to tend, projects to finish, kites to fly, and sunny days to seize whenever you can seize them. Hay Fever lives and dies by the force of its charm and quirk. Both qualities seemed in short supply.

I want to repeat — These impressions don’t constitute anything like an authoritative review of Hay Fever. How could they? Even if I’d stuck around, how could they? It’s hard to play comedy in a big empty house, and even harder to watch one. Some of the show’s stiffer gags resulted from deliberate choices, but, in addition to the hour of my life I’ll never get back, I want to give this talented company the benefit of the doubt. I’m almost certain this Hay Fever’s had, and will have better days.

I’ve gone on longer than I intended because, unlike food critics who never have to say they’re sorry for not finishing the burned toast, theater hacks are expected to lick plate. So one last thing and then, with sincere apologies, I’m out. Our regional theaters are challenged with providing an experience customers can’t find elsewhere on demand. That’s not to say Theatre Memphis doesn’t do so regularly, or that there’s no room for vintage masterwork. But what we choose to do, large scale or small, requires some special quality to makes it an event. It’s at least got to be the sort of thing you want to take your mom to see.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Memphis Symphony Orchestra Rebrands, Partners with the University of Memphis

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2016 at 9:00 AM

  • Courtesy of the MSO
  • Holiday Pops.
After years of struggle and change the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is trying something different. In an attempt to combat rising costs the Orchestra is moving its administrative offices to Newport Hall on the University of Memphis campus and working with the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. The orchestra will also collaborate with the University as it develops an innovation-driven "Institute for the Arts, Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurism."

Rebranding to reflect its new circumstance, the classical ensemble will also take the name Memphis Symphony Orchestra in Residence at the University of Memphis.

The MSOIRATUOM (Formerly the MSO) will remain an independent not-for-profit as it enters into its  three-year renewable partnership with the University. It will continue to function, as before, producing full seasons of classical music. The relocation and unprecedented partnership, puts the Orchestra in a more sustainable position as it conducts a $15-million endowment campaign. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ibsen's "Enemy of The People" Tells a Sadly Familiar Story

Posted By on Thu, May 5, 2016 at 12:55 PM

The Wikipedia entry for Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People opens with this quote from the playwright:
“I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It may have many traits of comedy, but it also is based on a serious idea.”

These seemingly contradictory impulses are on full display in the CentreStage Theatre Company’s production of the play, which continues through May 8 at Midtown’s Evergreen Theatre. Dr. Stockman (Adam Remsen) has been a major force in creating his hometown’s newest attraction: a hot springs where Mayor Peter Stockman (Jon W. Sparks), hopes the sick and stressed will flock to take the healing waters.

But Dr. Stockman has made a disturbing discovery. To save money, the intakes for the bathhouses have been built too close to a tannery, owned by Dr. Stockman’s skinflint father-in-law Morten Kiil (Ron Gordon), and the mineral waters that have been advertised as pure and healing are in fact contaminated with disease and poison. Hosted, the reform-minded publisher of the local paper, is eager to publish the story, and as the first act closes, Dr. Stockman is ecstatic, believing he has saved countless lives and his city’s reputation.

But, since this is Scandinavian comic/drama, things don’t quite work out that way. The entire town has invested heavily in the hot springs and the related businesses they expect to spring up around it to cater to tourists. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Dr. Stockman is in for a rude awakening, as Ibsen’s script (translated into English by Arthur Miller in 1950) slowly turns the screws on him, fatally puncturing his sense of scientific nobility.
Remsen’s Dr. Stockman and Spark’s Mayor are the yin and yang at the heart of this production, and they play off each other beautifully. Remsen expertly traces Stockman’s arc from would-be town savior to the titular enemy of the people, while Sparks is perfect as the resolute politician who effortlessly outmaneuvers his well-meaning but myopic brother. The other standout performances include Dana Terle as Catherine, Dr. Stockman’s long-suffering wife, and Ron Gordon, who imbues Morten with a wry, flinty wit.

Veteran Memphis director Marler Stone’s production could not come at a more relevant time. So many of our current cultural conflicts, from climate change to the Flint water poisoning crisis to the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, revolve around the question of the short-term cost of doing the long-term right thing. How would you react if you found out that a major local business was destroying your health? Before you answer, did you know that the Vesco refinery on President’s Island is leaking tons of poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas every year? Kinda puts all that cheap gas in perspective, doesn’t it? An Enemy Of The People proves that Ibsen was thinking clearly and deeply about these issues 136 years ago. 

Editor's Note: Thanks to Memphis Flyer film editor Chris McCoy for stepping in and doing this while I was involved with Cookie Ewing's retirement party at Rhodes and the Johnny Cash historical marker unveiling in Cooper Young this past weekend. Enemy of the People is one of my favorite plays I never thought I'd live to see performed in Memphis. Hoping to catch it this weekend — Chris Davis.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

McCoy Theatre Alumni Throw a Party for Retiring Professor Julia "Cookie" Ewing

Or the True Confessions of a B-Student

Posted By on Wed, May 4, 2016 at 4:47 PM

Teresa Morrow Brown directs a cast of 43 Rhodes College theater alumni.
  • Teresa Morrow Brown directs a cast of 43 Rhodes College theater alumni.
I'd never questioned a grade before, but something about that B in beginning acting just bugged the hell out of me. How could I have made a B? I was a senior for gosh sakes. I'd already taken advanced acting, and directing, and "Languages of the Stage," and done quite well. I was only returning to the 101 course because I'd changed my major late in the game and the intro-level class was required to graduate with a degree in Theater & Media Arts. Thing is, I loved that intro class and did so much more than what was required. But there it was, big as life, staring back at me —- B.  

"I think there's been a mistake," I said to my professor and faculty advisor, Julia "Cookie" Ewing, making what seemed like a strong case for a better grade. She listened intently, as always, nodding her head from time to time. Then, when I finished my pitiful monologuing she agreed. No, she vociferously agreed, doling out high praise. 

"But I require students to give themselves a daily grade in their journals," Cookie reminded, softly, melodically. She's always had a switchblade edge, zero tolerance for malarkey, and a reputation for gentleness and generosity, in addition to an uncanny ability to shut out the whole world and devote her full attention to whoever she might be talking to. She didn't have to say another word. I knew exactly where this conversation was going. 

"What's the highest grade you ever gave yourself?" she asked, and I sputtered excuses about not wanting to be presumptuous, and always thinking I could make even my best work better. Then I ran out of steam and answered the question she asked: "I gave myself a B."

"Why would I give you a grade higher than the highest grade you gave yourself," she then asked, with the intensity of Meryl Streep playing Yoda.  Oh, I had an answer. But  I couldn't bring myself to say, "Because I earned it, dammit!" Because suddenly, I wasn't so sure I had. 
  • Cookie

With Cookie there was often very little separation between life lessons and the regular kind. She's one of those tough-loving teachers who makes you want to work harder and be better at everything you do. Everybody who's ever worked with her has a story to tell and many of those stories were related this past weekend — on stage and off— when numerous representatives from every class she's ever taught, and every show she's ever directed or acted in, returned to the McCoy Theatre to thank her, hug her neck, and wish her a happy retirement.

What happened Saturday was supposed to be a surprise, though I have it on good authority, she'd sniffed out the plot a week or so before. Hopefully she was at least surprised by the scale of the SRO event, which included a performance co-written and directed by Teresa Morrow Brown (Class of '83),  featuring a cast of 43 former students. (I encourage you to read all about it here). The show referenced dozens of productions including J.B., Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Brecht on Brecht, The Metamorphosis, Pippin, Cabaret, The Miss Firecracker Contest, Summer and Smoke, The Children's Hour, and Rhodes' landmark production of Nicholas Nickleby. It ended, appropriately enough, with images of a mama bird turning an out of the way corner of the McCoy Theatre into a safe place to raise her babies, followed by the formal presentation of a bronzed nest.  The McCoy Theatre's newer studio space was also renamed The Ewing Studio Theater. 

I could list all of Cookie's awards, accomplishments and accolades, but I'd rather share the image of former students, separated by decades, interacting like old friends and family. The sense of kinship and camaraderie was palpable. The abundant love and clear legacy evidenced an extraordinary teacher's virtuoso performance as a mentor to generations.

Standing O.

Oh, about that B. The grade stood — and I've continued to earn it. I never really learned that last lesson, and remain my own worst critic. Now, at least, I'm everybody else's worst critic too. 

Florence Johnson, Amy Matheney, and an all Rhodes cast celebrate the career and legacy of Cookie Ewing.
  • Florence Johnson, Amy Matheney, and an all Rhodes cast celebrate the career and legacy of Cookie Ewing.

Special thanks to Wes Meador, Dustin Pappin, Laura Canon, and Kevin Collier for the parts they all played in organizing a perfect evening.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Memphis Playwright Ruby O'Gray Hosts a Booksigning

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:51 AM

After 40-years, and numerous awards Ruby O'Gray's still got a few worlds left to conquer. Saturday, April 30, she's hosting a signing party for her new book Running Away to Home, which tells the story of Kathleen, a 17-year-old basketball fan who leaves Memphis for New York in 1966, looking for adventure and opportunity. 

A portion of the proceeds from each book sold will benefit the Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis, which O'Gray founded. 

The book signing takes place at TheatreWorks. 5:30-6:45.
O'Gray also founded the Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, currently producing Gus Edwards' play, The Offering, which runs through Sunday, at TheatreWorks. 

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