Monday, September 29, 2014

Members Only: Theatre Memphis Attempts Carson McCullers’ “A Member of the Wedding”

Posted By on Mon, Sep 29, 2014 at 11:00 AM


She walks downtown with her suitcase in her hand. 
Looking for a mysterious dark haired man
—"Delta Dawn"

Membership yields privileges not extended to those merely invited to party at the club. And if you’re serving, forget about it. Looking back from our 60-year vantage point the definitions of privilege, and other less subtle messages about race and gender embedded in Carson McCullers A Member of the Wedding seem prescient, if not positively up to date. The novel and the more awkward, author-adapted play don’t tell a coming of age story so much as a coming to grips story, full of dark humor and the usual humid tropes of Southern fiction that aren’t half as nostalgic as they appear to be at first gloss. It’s unfortunate that so many of the things that make the original story so very compelling and special in novel form, don’t translate especially well to a medium as immediate and economical at live performance. Action is the currency of American family drama, and although there’s always a lot going on in A Member of the Wedding, for two moody acts, nothing really happens.

Irene Crist has style, and a knack for telling stories with political underpinnings. But the director who gave Memphis a memorable Angels in America marathon, and even managed to highlight rebellious threads running through Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, hasn’t been able to do much with Member. The show’s few scene changes crawl as somber music makes the already ponderous pacing feel that much slower and heavier.

Member is a fantastic character study, considering the fluidity of gender identity up to, at least, a certain age, as well as the cultural infantilization of African-Americans, who are lumped in with the kids as burdens to be endured by serious white adults. It tells the loose story of Frankie, a tomboy who has fallen in love with her brother, his bride to be, and their impending wedding generally. Frankie imagines that this wedding might be her ticket out of small town life where she is excluded from clubs, and all but ignored by her father.

Wanting for companionship Frankie spends time with her six-year-old cousin John Henry, and they are together, the main companions of the family’s African-American maid Bernice. And they talk. And talk. And talk.

There are some fine performances here. Lauren Ledger is an appropriately lanky Frankie, and she seems to have a real affinity for the role. Holden Guibao makes an adorable John Henry and the always excellent Delvyn Brown is once again superb as Honey, the doomed jazz trumpet player, smelling of reefer and  smoldering with anger and frustration.

As Bernice, the one-eyed domestic and serial wife, Judi Bray is an understated force, knowing herself and the precarious position she occupies.

As with the novel, the play revolves around these characters, with others popping in now and again just long enough to see them, but not long enough to make any kind of real impression. Likewise, the play’s final tragic events are dropped on us like the atom bombs Frankie reads about in the newspaper. There is so much good content here, but the form remains problematic.

A Member of the Wedding is often very funny, but it’s often the kind of laughter that may catch in your throat. It’s material Southern literature fans will want to check out, and rewarding for those with the patience to see it through to the end. 

For more information about Theatre Memphis' NextStage production of A Member of the Wedding, here's your click.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Will Call: Tips & Tidbits for the Theatrically Inclined

Posted By on Fri, Sep 26, 2014 at 11:56 AM

  • A Teutonic likeness of John Hemphill
We are entering into one of those awful/wonderful periods when the weather is perfect and there is so much nifty stuff to do that you can't possibly do it all. Here's a quick rundown of some of the more interesting theater and dance offerings available for consumption this weekend. 

I love Steve Martin's very Martinized adaptation of Carl Sternheim's German Expressionist comedy, The Underpants. It's a profoundly silly meditation on the nature of fame telling the story of a middle class couple who have trouble renting a room until the wife experiences a terrible wardrobe malfunction. Don't let the early 20th-Century trappings fool you, this story could have easily been devised as a response to the age of 4Chan and Instagram. A top-notch cast includes a pair of Johns (Hemphill and Maness), Rebecca Sherrod, Deborah Burda Nelson, and Jenny Kathman. It's one weekend only, which means I'll miss it. But I'd love to hear reports back from people who can make it out Bartlett to see this comic gem. 

I've Got Your Tea Party Right Here
  • I've Got Your Tea Party Right Here

Our Own Voice Theatre Company is unlike any other company in town. It began as a troupe dedicated to exploring experimental techniques, as well as issues and ideas related to mental health and "normalcy." So, in some regard, Madhatted, a locally-adapted vision of the mad tea party from Alice in Wonderland is a perfect fit. And I can assure you, if you saw this show at the Memphis Children's Theatre Festival a few years back, it will be a different experience. Info here. 


The classic farce Servant of Two Masters has been reimagined as a music-filled slapstick extravaganza called One Man Two Guvnors. Francis Henshall (an updated vision of the stock character Harlequino)  has just been fired from his folk jazz skiffle band and being desperate for work he takes employment from—yes— two masters. Hilarity ensues, as it often so does. Details here. 

Dance fans — both street and classical — have a special opportunity this week to explore both the origins and the future of Memphis-style bucking and jookin'. The "Old School vs. New School 3" dance competition at Minglewood Hall pits Memphis' first generation Gangsta Walkers against younger dancers looking to see if their bucking and chopping measures up against the original masters.

"This is the first time in a long time that people will have an opportunity to see the original Gangsta Walkers," says instructor, artist, and event organizer Jaquency Ford, who has hand-picked the dance partners who'll be squaring off against one another at Minglewood. Gangsta Walking is the direct antecedent of jookin', the Memphis-born dance style that New York Times dance writer Alastair Macaulay recently described as, "the single most exciting young dance genre of our day, featuring, in particular, the most sensationally diverse use of footwork."
Pretty Tony will be in the house to perform his seminal club hit "Get Buck." Original Gangsta Walkers include Wolf and Romeo, two-thirds of the G-Style, the '80s-era rap and dance team that first began to mix breakdancing moves with "buck jumps."

A stone's throw to the east, at the new Hattiloo Theatre in Overton Square, FreeFall finds New Ballet Ensemble (NBE) presenting a concert showcasing the company's critically acclaimed hybrid of ballet, Memphis jookin', and world dance styles. NBE's program includes a revival of Noelia Garcia Carmona's Dos, a vibrant mashup of jookin' and flamenco set to original music by Roy Brewer and showcasing the talents of Shamar Rooks. The New Ballet Youth Company presents Doin' It Right choreographed by NBE alum and Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark dancer Maxx Reed.

NBE is also premiering "Three Dream Portraits" based on poetry by Langston Hughes with music by Margaret Bonds and choreography by General McArthur Hambrick.

If that's not enough on the Memphis dance front U-Dig Dance Academy is hosting an evening of wine, international cuisine and (like you couldn't guess) jookin. That also goes down  Friday, September 26, 2014 at the Jack Robinson Gallery, 400 South Main Street. Tickets for the event are $25; $50 (includes dinner); and $250 for a reserved table and will benefit the U-Dig Dance Club.


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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Son of Phantom: Actor Ben Jacoby reflects on changes to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved horror show The Phantom of the Opera, and his father Mark Jacoby, who portrayed the titular ghoul on Broadway.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 25, 2014 at 1:31 PM

Ben Jacoby
  • Ben Jacoby
The songs remain the same, the costumes are original, and the chandelier still falls, but that may be all that fans  of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera find familiar in a revamped tour currently docked at The Orpheum. Actor Ben Jacoby-- the son of former Broadway Phantom Mark Jacoby— plays Raoul in the retooled show, and has shared some thoughts about his lifelong relationship with the material.

Intermission Impossible. As a legacy— having been a kid when your dad played the Phantom on Broadway— and now playing Raoul in an updated tour, I suspect you spend a lot of time telling people about the differences between the two productions.

Ben Jacoby: People do ask about that a lot.

Are people protective? Do they want it to not change. Or are they ready to see something new?

I have come across people who feel they have a certain ownership. But by and large people are interested. And they are usually happy with the updates. New life has been breathed into the show. And even devoted fans understand the need to do that.

You once told an interviewer that you have no specific memory as to when you first heard the music in this show. It’s something that’s always been with you.

You mentioned that my father played the Phantom. I was three when he started and five when he finished. I don’t remember being introduced to the music. My day was just going to work. This is what he did every night.

Being so close to the material must have made you feel like you had an edge over the competition in auditions.

Ironically, it almost felt like the opposite. I didn’t want a new director to think I was inclined to do the show the original way.

I just meant the deep familiarity— knowing the songs and the way people know something their whole life.

The director didn’t know instantly. It was maybe the third rehearsal when he said somebody had told him my dad played the Phantom.

Some people follow in their parents footsteps, others need to clearly establish their own identity, or move as far away as possible…

I didn’t feel the need to get very far away. I wouldn’t be in this business. I do hope Phantom and musicals are just a small piece of what I do. Because I also want to do TV and film, and plays. I’d like to do Shakespeare. Everyone wants to be versatile and have as broad a range of work as possible.

What are some of the most significant production changes in your opinion?

I can say that the set has been entirely redesigned. The original is so stylized, and this is much more realistic. The set is just massive. I see the mausoleum and the graveyard and I just can’t believe that they travel these pieces. They look like they should live wherever they are.

Also a lot of the tricks we know and love have been updated and there are a whole lot more moving pieces. It takes over 20 trucks to move it all. I marvel that we get it all from city to city.

That’s a lot of set.

I feel like I’m a part of something huge. There are so many moving pieces. And yet, at the same time if feels more intimate. We have addressed the realities of the moments, and the stakes involved, and there is nothing melodramatic about it. There is an opera ghost that’s killing people. Christine thinks she’s next and Raoul has to comfort her through that.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is at the Orpheum through October 5. For ticket information, here’s your click.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bad Company: Video Projection Compromises a Stephen Sondheim Classic

Posted By on Wed, Sep 17, 2014 at 11:55 AM

Robert (Center) and "Company."
  • Robert (Center) and "Company."

It’s difficult to watch a revival of Company and really understand just how different and risky this Seinfeld-like musical was in its day. It's not about much, really. Not much more than doing things with your friends and the condition of “being alive,” and relatively average. The scaled down show launched into pop consciousness at a time when musicals were still mostly big over-the-top fantasies. For those without a scorecard, Company’s day was 1970, not that anyone could peg its vintage watching Germantown Community Theatre’s uncomfortably modernized production. The costumes, hairstyles, and cityscapes are uniformly of the moment— this moment. But the characters are locked away in another time, and defined by another ethos. They continue to embody retro gender types they once butted up against. When characters talk about a “generation gap” they do it in terms of the 1960’s-era counterculture.

Company even has its very own ditzy stewardess/sex-fantasy stereotype that could have walked right out of last season’s GCT production of the chauvinistic romp, Boeing Boeing (vintage 1960).

Contemporizing modern plays is a hazardous endeavor and almost always ill-advised. When language and character functions aren’t archaic, there’s really no point in deploying concept to meet audiences halfway. Imagine, for example, Arthur Miller’s post WWII drama All My Sons set in 1992 in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. It could work, I suppose, but it would be strained and more than a little ridiculous. And that’s more or less the result with GCT’s Company, where, to borrow from Pat Benatar, bedrooms are the battlefield in question. GCT’s tech-forward update might be a complete disaster if not for heroic efforts by an honest, unassuming and unpretentious cast that almost makes up for conceptual choices that are nothing like any adjectives in the first half of this sentence.

Company boasts many of Stephen Sondheim’s finest songs and a nearly plotless book by George Furth. The show revolves around Robert, a single man who's turning 35, dating three different women, and keeping company with his old married, almost married, and happily divorced (but living together) friends. Everybody wants poor, single Bobby (“baby, boobie” etc.) to be happy. That means being like them, of course. It’s a mess in the best possible way, playing out like a typical (if tuneful) day in the life of the American bourgeoisie.

Lee Gilliland’s Robert is something of a cypher. We never really get to know who he is, but he seems like a nice enough guy and we like him all the same as we watch him flirt harmlessly (mostly) with friends while fumbling other relationships. The supporting cast is fleshed out by a roster of proven character actors like Sally Stover, Stuart Turner, Renee Davis Brame, Brian Everson, Cary Vaughn, and Jaclyn Suffel. Everybody has a moment to shine, though nobody quite as brightly as Brame who takes “Getting Married Today,” a serio-comic bit depicting a bride coming down with a case of cold feet, and turns it into the most memorable number in the show, soaring past certifiable hits like “Marry Me a Little,” “Side By Side,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and even the soaring, climactic “Being Alive.”

I once overheard an overly-candid director tell an uptight actor that he needed to spend an afternoon rolling around naked on stage. It was a figurative statement, but one that came to mind watching Brame perform. She remains clothed throughout. But what she does both physically and emotionally looks like the physical embodiment of that long ago advice. Funny to boot. And sometimes a little disturbing.

Although all of the actors do manage to connect emotionally to their characters and to one another, their relationships never grow or deepen as they might. This is exacerbated by a technological gimmick that must have sounded great when it was being pitched, but wrecks things in practice. There are three “windows” on set that double as screens for video projection. Characters that might have appeared live on stage often appear instead as video clips, leaving the actors who don't have business alone on stage to either ignore the video apparitions, or gaze like they were watching TV, or to wait frozen in the moment, till the singing video stops to say the next line. Things stop when videos start. Human connections are lost, and that’s all that really counts in this show. The offstage sound is so poor by comparison, it’s almost as if the actors have been imprisoned between enchanted panes of glass. The ultimate effect is similar to ghostly portraits hanging in the walls of Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter movies. A little creepy, and a little silly.

Projection is a useful, and versatile tool. I’ve seen it used well both interactively and scenically. But we simply don't go to the theater to watch YouTube, we go to see actors performing live, in three fleshy, sweaty dimensions, projecting their real (sometimes amplified) voices and spit to the back wall. We call prerecorded music “canned music.” This Company was full of canned people. SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

But seriously folks, Soylent Green, it’s made of people. And the video projection in GCT’s Company makes the show a bumpy, tonally inconsistent ride, and not nearly as full-sounding or fun as it might have been with inventive human-centric staging, more thoughtfully-imagined choreography, and consistently excellent musical performances. To give credit where due, the videos do look nice as a moving backdrop for the song, “Another Hundred People,” a love letter to anonymity and the banalities of life among strangers in a city that never sleeps. But they look good in a way that reminded me of what a lousy idea they were in the first place.

People give a lot of lip service to the "magic of theater," but have you ever stopped to ask what that line really means? I usually describe it to people like this. If you promise to show me an elephant and then you show me an elephant that’s impressive as hell. But if you show me an apple and make me believe it’s an elephant, that’s theater. And that’s the “magic” of theater. All of Company’s projected streetscapes filled with real New York people rushing to work, or playing some B-ball on the graffiti-tagged playground are so cool. But I didn’t go to the theatre to see the same old glamor shots or clips of what director Teddy Eck did on his summer vacation. I came to see (the very good) Carly Crawford, and a seasoned company of gifted performers and designers paint a more impressionistic, more magical, and more lingering image of New York in my mind.

Even when they are performed fully live most songs sound like they could have used a more rehearsal. It gives the musical numbers a strangely humanizing quality that is appealing, at least. It may underwhelm Sondheim fans looking for fireworks. Or polish, even.

Director Eck also helmed Grace a true highlight of The Circuit Playhouse’s 2013-14 theater season. It’s fairly obvious that he’s an artist who likes bold choices and isn’t afraid to experiment. That’s a good thing with a real downside. The thing about experimentation: Unfavorable outcomes are a natural part of the process.

GCT's performance space is about to get a facelift. It's exciting news and it will be interesting to see what kind of difference a new, lower stage will make in terms of production quality. The old converted schoolhouse can be a difficult space to design for and direct in. That’s never stopped the theater from producing an ambitious slate of musicals, comedies and dramas though. Historically directors have found inventive theatrical (read: human) solutions to challenges created by a small space with a less than adequate light grid and limited options for entrances and exits. Technological solutions certainly should be explored if they can be deployed in creative ways that don't distract or otherwise detract from the overall quality of a production. Company is a fine example of how not to do that. And it's a shame. There is a thoroughly charming production of this show bottled up like a genie inside the canned performance clips. 

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