Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Orpheum's newly announced 2013-14 Broadway series mixes chestnuts with surprises

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 7:55 PM


Book of Mormon! is coming to the Orpheum. I can't believe it!

Why, it seems like only yesterday...

(For best enjoyment play the Youtube clip before going any further)

I was sitting in Pat Halloran's office, admiring the photos on the wall behind him, while the Orpheum's President and CEO waxed eloquently on racehorses, his still-new proposal to build a performing arts education facility, and why, in spite of its nine Tony Awards and popularity, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's musical, The Book of Mormon, would never be a part of his theater's Broadway subscription series.

I was working on a piece for Memphis (the magazine), about Memphis (the musical), and trying to get a handle on the business of show, what it means when the Orpheum invests in musicals like Memphis, and how the Broadway season is built.

Halloran had a point as strong as it was frustrating. Although BOM would almost certainly attract single ticket buyers, and possibly even sell very well, he had to think of his season ticket buyers. He didn't think the demographic was overflowing with South Park fans.

For some perspective on the kind of 3-D chess Halloran was playing, The Book of Mormon, still running on Broadway, recouped its $11.4-million investment in only 9-months while the similarly capitalized Memphis, made its $12-mil back in just under two years, moving from the red to the black shortly before it closed in August, 2012. At a time when many shows struggled, Mormon cruised. Its cast album reached number three on the Billboard charts making it the first musical soundtrack to crack the top 10 in 42 years. That would seem like a slam dunk, but, as the old saying goes, the three hardest dates are Christmas, Easter, and Memphis.

Since I brought it up, Memphis (the musical) , which did its namesake city a solid by opening a highly praised national tour here, I should probably mention it makes its second stop at The Orpheum in April.

The possibility that BOM might dock at the Orpheum was never dismissed. Spring Awakening, a differently provocative musical made a one-night-stand at Beale and Main once upon a time, so anything was possible. Halloran just didn't see subscription material, and I'd assumed he meant forever. So I was surprised to the point of being downright giddy to see Parker & Stone's dirty little musical closing a 2013-14 Broadway season. And let's be honest, The Book of Mormon, Warhorse, and to a lesser degree Wicked and West Side Story help to prop up a season front-loaded with spottier material.


This popular show is an especially jukebox-heavy version of the jukebox musical. It's more Million Dollar Quartet than Jersey Boys and, as anybody who caught Playhouse on the Square's strong 2008 production knows, storytelling isn't the strong suit. But you could do worse than to spend an evening with some of the most infectious Rock-and-Roll songs ever recorded.


Flashdance , featuring the original movie's hit title track and Michael Sembello's "Maniac," has never been on the Great White Way, so it's a bit of a misnomer to include the 1980's film-turned-musical on a "Broadway" season. It did spend some time in London and producers of the revamped American version hope to ride this tour all the way to a New York City opening.

Like Billy Elliot, and Footloose, and The Full Monty but with 100% more wet lingerie, Flashdance is a blue collar dance fantasy. It follows the triumphs and travails of a female welder with a chance to study dance, who picks up extra money working at a shake shack. So far reviews have been mixed.


Look, another musical based on a not-that-classic movie. Not to be confused with any of the Nunsense nonsense, this one-time Whoopie Goldberg vehicle tells the story of an earthy nightclub singer who hides out among the nuns after witnessing a murder. So, if you can't resist a good Nuns acting out of character story, this one's for you.


Yeah, it's an old chestnut. But I'm here to tell you, that Leonard Bernstein score still kills.

Continue reading »

Friday, March 15, 2013

God, I Hope You Get It: A CHORUS LINE kicks high at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 3:30 PM

A Chorus Line
  • Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis
  • A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line took its first bows in 1975, 25-years before the reality television phenomenon took hold, 31-years before American Idol ever trended on Twitter, and 34-years before Glee took the personal/performative crossroads to new pop culture heights. Considering Michael Bennett's master plan to interview/audition a bunch of chorus dancers, musicalize their stories with Marvin Hamlisch, then, where possible, cast the original contributors as themselves, the material would lend itself to a radical, post-reality makeover. I'm not recommending that, mind you, but it's hard to not view A Chorus Line without also considering its progeny. Remarkably, with so much scripted reality under the bridge, the material almost always seems fresh. And the best thing about A Chorus Line today is that it still only requires the theater's barest essentials. Two boards and passion are enough. Toss in a spotlight and you're loaded for bear.

I have to admit, I wasn't thrilled to see Theatre Memphis revive this old favorite. It's been a dozen years, I suppose, but there's so much good stuff out there that people should have the opportunity to discover before the reruns commence. But I can't fault them either. By any standard, A Chorus Line is quality theater, with a Pulitzer in the trophy cabinet. I'm especially thankful to have been in the audience on opening night to hear Donna McKechnie, the hoofer/actress who inspired the character Cassie, describe the more competitive and ridiculous aspects of the ACL creation myth. According to McKechnie, participants shared the most dramatic, over-the-top stories they could to increase their chances of making the final cut. She obviously had had her doubts as to whether or not it would ever amount to something worthwhile. But theater is, by nature, a transformative process, and when the most human elements of these stories were isolated, pared down, and translated into song, something very special happened. A Chorus Line, which ironically includes the line "nothing runs forever" ran on Broadway for 15-years, and toured extensively.

Directors typically treat the original production of ACL as a blueprint, and, while one might long to see some new light through old windows, it's also interesting to see a show handed down from from the source, with the aid of artists like McKechnie, and Mitzi Hamilton, another original collaborator who directed and choreographed Theatre Memphis' last production of the show.

Performing artists cope with rejection and humiliation like nobody else. They regularly hear maddening criticisms like, "You were too good," "Too pretty," or "You were just a little too right for the part." It's a weird world where landing a hemorrhoid commercial and the honor of telling the world about your hemorrhoids can be the most exciting news in years. The job makes a person incredibly self-reflective.

"For this, I studied Shakespeare," you think. "For this, I have struggled so hard? So I could be rejected for work that a respectable department-store Santa would turn down?" You look in the mirror and every defect is magnified. You know for a fact that your breath stinks, your nose is too pointy, you're aging badly, you can pinch an inch (and change), and on top of all that the last casting director didn't say anything and the one before that said he was looking for somebody with less polish, and you don't have any idea what that means.

Its been nearly 40-years. Will you give the man a ball, already?
  • It's been nearly 40-years. Will you give the man a ball, already?

Anyone who has ever been a working actor can tell a dozen stories about a life under weird, subjective scrutiny. The Hamlisch & Kleban songs, especially "At The Ballet," "Tits and Ass," and "Nothing," get at the angsty core of a career performer's predicament, and are just about as good as clever and multifaceted as anything that ever dripped out of Sondheim's pen. "What I did fo rLove," became an instant standard, and instant kitsch. Add to this all the dancing — good, glorious, and often (intentionally) awful — and you've got a show.

If you've seen any production of A Chorus Line before, Theatre Memphis' production will be instantly familiar. The staging is just about as traditional as it gets. With rare exceptions the only things that really change, from production to production, are the performers, whose honesty and willingness to swing for high fences, always make the difference between a limp retread, and a play that is, somehow, forever young and fresh.

  • Emma

Theatre Memphis' cast features the talents of Chris Cotten, Shannon Sparks, Guillermo R. Jemmott, Jr., Chris Hanford, Leah Beth Bolton, Lynden Lewis, and Noelia Warnette-Jones. They rise to the challenge in every way. In spite of the monologues, this is an ensemble piece and singling anybody out would be wrong. That said, let me be wrong and say that the Ostrander judges need to create a special, "Whatever It Is You Just Did, That!" award for Emma Crystal, who's a knockout as Sheila, an aging knockout.


Theatre Memphis' production is directed and choreographed by Josh Walden, with associate director/choreographer Adam Lendermon and music direction by Gary Beard. Eric Sefton designed sound, and Jeremy Allen Fisher designed lights.

Nothing about this show is original. Nothing disappoints.

For tickets and times, here you go.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Beginning of a Plague Remembered

Posted By on Thu, Mar 14, 2013 at 2:59 PM



In conjunction with the opening of Angels in America, Playhouse on the Square created a memorial to members of the Memphis Theater community lost to AIDS in the early days of the epidemic, when a diagnosis was automatically a death sentence. Here's the video portion of that memorial.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Waiting for Ma: Hattiloo checks out Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Posted By on Wed, Mar 13, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Valerie Houston
  • Valerie Houston

"All the boys in the neighborhood
They say your black bottom is really good
Come on and show me your black bottom
I want to learn that dance" — Ma Rainey's "Black Bottom."

"Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?" — Langston Hughes, "A Dream Deferred"

In every production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom I've ever seen— including the one currently on stage at The Hattiloo — the acting has been low key, verging on cinematic. The material is given the straight Checkhovian treatment even though the play often reflects the sensibilities of experimental dramatists like Bertolt Brecht and Jean Paul Sartre by way of Douglas Turner Ward. Huge passages of the script play out like an angry, American answer to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and if Ma Rainey is actually about anything, it's about waiting, a key feature of African-American oppression that can be found everywhere, from bondage to Booker T. Washington's accommodationist philosophy, to revisionist historians who still insist that slavery would have ended naturally, without federal intervention or war.

Of course there can be no waiting without the presumption that something is going to happen: emancipation, equality, opportunity, etc. In this case the band waits for Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey waits for her Coca-Cola, and the white management waits to get on with the business of building Paramount Records.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom isn't much of a story in and of itself, but it's filled with stories and storytelling. It's a play built out of bits, pieces, full of con games, clown shows, and hard lessons about the difference between real power and bullshit. The best one sentence summary I can offer: A white man gives a black man a dream and that dream deferred destroys the lives of two black men.

Rainey isn't the star of this play. She's the side show attraction, bossing around the white management, like they weren't exploiting the hell out of her. Her musicians, $25-a-day session players all, are the rubes at this carnival, who are kept in suspense by the management, and finally brought in to view the marvel when it's time to record.

The major characters aren't what you'd call positive role models. Rainey got her start singing in minstrel shows and like Brecht and Beckett who took some of their inspiration from cabaret performances, Wilson seems to have borrowed from negative stereotypes common within the minstrel tradition. His musicians can be clownish, but are infused with just enough hardscrabble humanity to give them dimension, as they drink, dope, brag, and generally avoid the business of getting down to business. They speak nonsense and wisdom in equal measure then argue over which is which. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom shouldn't be regarded one of Wilson's most accessible plays. It's not a "VH-1 Behind the Music"-style documentary for the stage. It's a savage cartoon about whites effortlessly manipulating African Americans, and the African Americans who unwittingly, play right into their hands. It should be garish, and obvious to everybody but the players.

There's nothing wild going down at the Hattiloo. Aside from Valerie Houston's blazing star turn as Rainey, everything is a little too cool for school. The acting is fine, the design for the crummy recording studio looks like a crummy recording studio. All things considered, it's not a bad night of theater. But without an edge, material that should smack us out of our work-a-day stupors just lays there.

The Hattiloo's multitalented founding director Ekundayo Bandele doesn't get on stage too often, and when he does it's usually a special occasion. This time, not so much. His character Levee is, in some regards, like Brooklyn hipsters of today, who mostly migrated from somewhere else and are trying so hard to walk, and talk like the authentic embodiment of their adopted home that they end up looking ridiculous. Bandele's Levee doesn't hide his country roots and comes across a lot like the slow-talking man-child he portrayed in his own play Judas Hands. It's the artist's first real miss and his least interesting performance since he took on Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The song in question...

Complaints aside, if you miss Houston as Rainey, you've missed what will surely be counted among the finest performances of the season. She's an Ostrander contender, for sure.

For tickets, click.

Oedipus the King on Your Computer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 13, 2013 at 9:44 AM

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the only thing missing from your otherwise perfect life is better access to Greek tragedy from the age of Sophocles. Here's the good news. Chatterbox Audio Theater, Memphis's only web-based theater company, has finally released the third part of, OEDIPUS THE KING. The show features the voice talent of local actors Tim Greer, Kinon Keplinger, Andy Saunders, Jane Harris, Adam Del Conte, Jennifer Henry, and Bill Andrews.

So sit back, relax, and get your catharsis on with Blind Eddie King and his merry band of mother scratchers.




Friday, March 8, 2013

A Gala Launch for A Chorus Line at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 1:53 PM

I was surprised to see a message on Facebook announcing that Theatre Memphis still had tickets available for tonight's gala opening of A Chorus Line (Friday, March, 8).

This show's a past hit for TM, so I'd assumed tonight's event would be packed in advance. Happy to be wrong, because I'm going to the opening after all.

Tonight Donna McKechnie, an original Broadway cast member will give a presentation before the show, and there will be a cocktail buffet and a live auction. Post show drinks for those who stick around to mingle with the cast.

I'm not much of a gala guy but I am a nerdy guy and McKechnie also played Amanda Harris/Olivia Corey on the original vampire soap opera Dark Shadows.


Vaudeville Melodrama Anyone?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 8:20 AM

Squirm Burpee
  • Squirm Burpee

The Squirm Burpee Circus blends vaudeville acts, steam punk design and melodrama. And it's at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center tonight. (Friday, March 8)

Details here.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Debbie Does Dallas: Only the good parts (part two, the review).

Posted By on Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 12:42 PM

"Even if blondes are more fun you're also some kind of joke" — from the song "Where are You Bambi Woods."

Claire Hayner
  • Claire Hayner
After all the fuss made over the gay interracial kiss in Six Degrees of Separation at Theatre Memphis I wasn't sure how to feel when the Circuit Playhouse production of Debbie Does Dallas got a standing ovation from a matinee audience comprised of so many older patrons who winced at the raunch while howling with laughter.

Giggling little old ladies hit their guffawing husbands with their purses while a cast of sweet, scantily-clad young ladies tastefully simulated all sorts of sex acts. It was a blast. But also a little uncomfortable.

Maybe it's just the difference between Midtown and East Memphis. Or maybe Jesus loves crazy hot white girls putting out to make that dolla in a way he can never love a black and white man mugging down. Or maybe it's both of those things, and the whole point of the musical adaptation of Debbie Does Dallas.

As pornos go, D3 is iconic. It feels strange to type that. It's a badly acted tale of teenagers whoring their way to Dallas to become professional cheerleaders and make $15 a game, and it largely erases the line between exploitation and prostitution. It became a gateway vice, and practically a right of passage for young men coming of age in the 80's. (Heh, I said "coming.")

What does it say that we can market a product this degrading to women almost entirely on nostalgia for something like that?

Brains are sexy and Director Courtney Oliver was clearly robbed by the Memphis Flyer's Hotties committee. Her breezily self-aware romp through the icky side of male sexual fantasy is smart stuff.

Forget Bambi Woods. Cassie Thompson is a walking talking Barbie doll with a real gift for screwball comedy, and she does Debbie right. Thompson is joined by a fearless cast that the old burlesque emcee who lives inside of me wants to describe as "a veritable cornucopia of feminine pulchritude": Bussy Gower, Lindsey Roberts, Claire Hayner, and Eileen Peterson.

As the show's woodsmen Nick Lerew, Cary Vaughn, and Richie MacLeod also take care of business.

Cassie Thompson does Debbie right
  • Cassie Thompson does Debbie right

Even at 70-minutes the material feels stretched like the fabric in all those skimpy costumes. Not that I'm complaining about anything.

Ticket info.

Angels in Memphis: Playhouse on the Square remembers the early days of the AIDS epidemic

Posted By on Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 12:35 PM

Angels in America in Memphis

In advance of the opening of Tony Kushner's landmark play Angels in America, Playhouse on the Square dedicated a memorial to missing friends. I'll post POTS's mini-documentary when it's available online. Meanwhile, here's Angels director Irene Crist and Kim Daugherty, executive director of the Friends for Life introducing the memorial and explaining why Kushner's vintage play still matters. In Memphis, especially.

For show times and tickets and such. There's this.

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