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.
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