Friday, May 26, 2017

The Winners for the 2017 High School Musical Theatre Awards

Posted By on Fri, May 26, 2017 at 11:17 AM

Another spectacular High School Musical Theatre Awards is in the books. And the winners were...

Outstanding Small Ensemble
Toffee’s Girlfriends, Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Large Ensemble
The Ancestors, The Addams Family, Jackson Christian School

Outstanding Chorus
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Student Orchestra
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Dance Execution
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Choreography
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Production Materials
Sister Act, St. Agnes Academy

Outstanding Front of House
The Little Mermaid, Corinth High School

Outstanding Artistic Element
The Airplane, The Drowsy Chaperone, Olive Branch High School

Outstanding Hair and Makeup
The Addams Family, Jackson Christian School

Outstanding Costumes
Into the Woods, Briarcrest Christian School

Outstanding Lighting
Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Set
Man of La Mancha, Memphis University School

Outstanding Technical Achievemen
Little Women, St. Mary’s Episcopal School

Student Creative Achievement Award
Grace Korsmo Arlington High School

Student Technical Achievement Award
Natalie Eslami Lausanne Collegiate School

Student Stage Management Award
Dustin Albarracin Corinth High School

The Bravo Award
Harriston Jones as Pugsley in The Addams Family, Jackson Christian School

People’s Choice Award
Shrek the Musical, Wynne High School

Outstanding Featured Dancer
Tim O'Toole as Andy, 42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Featured Actress
Katy Cotten as The Witch, Big Fish, St. George’s Independent School

Outstanding Featured Actor
Kyle Bowers as Bazzard, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Germantown High School

Outstanding Supporting Actress
Sarah Cate Melton as Maggie Jones, 42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Supporting Actor
Riley Young as Sonny/Piragua Guy, In the Heights, Hernando High School

Outstanding Music Direction
Tammy Holt, Into the Woods, Briarcrest Christian School

Outstanding Direction by a Teacher
Karen Dean, Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Lead Actress
Asia Smith as Ms. Strict, Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Lead Actor
Ethan Benson as Benny, In the Heights, Hernando High School

Outstanding Overall Production
42nd Street

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trash: Killer Joe's a Dark Tour of the American Trailer Park

Posted By on Wed, May 17, 2017 at 5:58 PM

  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Fathers & Sons
It's tempting to open this review with a doting paragraph about Santo & Johnny's bittersweet and otherworldly slide guitar instrumental "Sleepwalk," which would be a fine addition to New Moon's Killer Joe soundtrack. Or maybe I could drop some words about the overly dramatic theme music associated with Quinn Martin-produced detective shows that seem to be an original inspiration forTracy Letts' violent black comedy about love and death out in the great wide lonely. But director James Kevin Cochran has assembled a fine show with a first rate ensemble, so I'll focus on things audiences can expect instead of mourning details lost in translation.

Bouncing boobs, bobbing peckers, and even the odd butthole all make featured appearances in Killer Joe. Letts' breakthrough play is pure pulp — a Texas trailer park noir about life behind the aluminum curtain, in a land of narrowing opportunity where thrills are cheap and life is cheaper. More disaster than tragedy, Letts smudges the boundary between what's seen through the trailer's one useful window — the glowing TV — and what's unfolding in the filth-stained world of the play. Everything plays out like an update of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, dragging bourgeois audiences through Flyover country where (to borrow from the band Pulp), "they  dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do."

See, Chris Smith's mom stole his coke, right ?It was a lot. He was going to sell it and, you know, responsibly get his life back in order, only for real this time not like that time he tried to start a bunny farm but neglected the rabbits and they got rabies somehow and tore each other apart like some kind of sick drive in monster movie come to life.  Metaphor alert. Now Chris (played with impressive restraint by Luke Conner) owes 6G to some really bad dudes and Ansel Smith, Chris'  no-account daddy (Nicely rendered by Daniel Pound) — says he can't help. It's not like Ansel and his his sex-addicted wife (who's not Chris' mom) ever had more than $1000 at any one time.  So these two broke, broken, and helpless manchildren get high as hell underneath the Confederate flag in a convincingly squalid trailer, watch some shit TV and concoct a plan to murder Chris' mama for not very much insurance money

Enter Killer Joe, a polite, organized, thoroughly corrupt police detective wearing a black hat. He'll do the job for $25,000, non-negotiable, nothing else to say.

Joe's a classic Western trope: The bad, possibly evil SOB who becomes accidentally almost heroic now and then because he lives by a personal code that sometimes puts him on the right side of things though he remains, in every case,  a bad, possibly evil SOB. He's a direct man who means what he says, and says only what needs to be said.  He's also Letts' answer to Tennessee Williams' famous Gentleman Caller and when the Smiths can't make their downpayment Joe says he'll take a retainer — Chris' virgin sister Dottie, an infantilized adult with Munchausen by proxy written all over her pretty face. What follows is sick romance, rape, and horror interrupted and occasionally enhanced by buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The drama climaxes too literally with a scene of humiliation, abuse, and shaming so graphic and severe it threatens to make the play every bit as horrible as the dark world it aims to illuminate.

Killer Joe is a grotesque, trigger-laden, exploitive and genuinely poetic fable of limited horizons playing out in the vast flatness of Texas. It's a Libertarian paradise where radical self-interest neutralizes the blessings of liberty like chemtrails neutralize, I dunno — something or other. It's a liminal place where characters dream small and fail epically.

Speaking of epic...

Killer Joe Preview Scene from New Moon Theatre on Vimeo.

Annie Freres, notable for performances in Mama Mia and Rock of Ages at Playhouse on the Square, proves that her acting chops are just as finely developed as her "Jesus Christ" pipes. As Sharla Smith she's often naked, and so emotionally honest in the play's closing scenes the most stoic observers may find themselves watching through laced fingers. Mersadies Burch is similarly compelling Dottie, the childlike somnambulist at the heart of Letts' nightmare.

But what about the killer?

There's color missing from Don McCarrens' one (admittedly perfect) note performance as Joe, but he somehow manages to get the job done just fine in black and white. Whether he's laying out the terms of his agreement, or force-feeding a villain no worse than him (save for lack of a bullshit code) McCarrens is never anything short of credible.

The  cast's good, okay? But Chris Sterling's scenic design is the star. Texas has never been more claustrophobic or patinaed with grime. His is a very real cross section of trailer life. You can literally smell the green shag carpet. You can almost smell the poverty. Still, something's missing.

TV and radio broadcasts intrude throughout Killer Joe creating a secret sixth character in the drama — possibly the real bad guy in this western. It's helpful to highlight what the Texas lottery means to folks already gambling on meth and multilevel marketing schemes. It' might be fun to hint at why a plan that sounds like the plot of a Quinn Martin potboiler just seems like the way ordinary people do in Everytrailer USA. Strange as it sounds, the one thing desperately needed in a show already overstuffed with texture, is maybe a little more texture.

The adult content warnings aren't bullshit. Dirty words and basic nudity are only the tip of an icky, disturbing, weirdly riveting iceberg.

  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Brothers & Sisters

Friday, May 12, 2017

In the Rough: Hattiloo Stages August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean

Posted By on Fri, May 12, 2017 at 9:36 AM

I’ve got a knack for blocking out distractions, but every now and then, one small thing can keep me from fully engaging with a play. In the case of Gem of the Ocean, I couldn’t figure out how a second story door leading to interior rooms might sit above a door leading outside, flanked by exterior windows up and down. Wilhelm screams were anticipated when characters passed the upper story threshold but, to my surprise, nobody fell to certain injury. I suppose it can be chalked up to an enduring truth about August Wilson’s problem play, Gem of the Ocean: 1839 Wylie is a house of mystery, where the veil of spacetime is thin. This is where Aunt Ester, the old home’s ancient inhabitant, transports pilgrims to an even more ancient city of bones. Nothing is normal here, and everything is.

Gem’s a fascinating work, packed with enough symbolism and code to build a Dan Brown novel around. It's the chronological beginning to Wilson’s century-spanning, 10-play Pittsburgh cycle introducing audiences to vivid characters, and situations of shocking currency. Like a set with doors to nowhere, it’s also something of a jumble, and probably the most difficult and daunting piece in Wilson’s 20th-Century puzzle.

Gem is a family tragedy that aims to redefine family. The people living in Aunt Ester’s house aren’t related, but they rely on one another like blood. The only true kin in this story of law, order, peace, mayhem and a  status quo looming like Armageddon, are Black Mary and her brother Caesar. She cooks for Ester in a poor but peaceful, charitable house. He wears a badge and relishes his role enforcing white interests.

Enter Citizen, a man with a secret, and a powerful need for soul-washing. Everybody told him to go to 1839 Wylie — a place of refuge and sanctuary. Times are so uncertain, and perilous for African-Americans there’s good reason to carry a heavy walking stick. There’s even debate over the relative merits of slavery, and the inevitability of prison. A man is dead because he was accused of stealing a bucket of nails from the mill. The man swore he was innocent, jumped in the river, and never came out — better free and dead than jailed for nothing. Before the show’s over the mill will be on fire and Aunt Ester, born at the dawn of the North American slave trade, will be in bondage once again.

As mentioned, the Hattiloo’s Gem has issues, but director Lawrence Blackwell’s production succeeds in ways an earlier production at Playhouse on the Square didn’t. The key difference is intimacy. A perfectly cast ensemble makes the audience feel like we’re all seated around the table together while Black Mary makes a pot of greens. When everything turns to blood and sweat and chaos, the sense of alarm and disruption is shared.

Speaking of, when this Gem cooks, it really cooks, but to contradict Aunt Ester’s constant advice to simmer down, somebody needs to turn the heat up and keep it up. This play's a slow burn in any case. Fumbled cues and lost lines can make a long play feel like bottled eternity. No bones about it.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Million Dollar Quartet" Wants to Be Your Teddy Bear

Sam Phillips comes home to Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, May 11, 2017 at 11:34 AM

The quintet.
  • The quintet.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock’n’roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door.” Jerry Lee Lewis.

In the Summer of 2010 Cowboy Jack Clement and I talked about the Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet. Technically it's Cowboy Jack who recorded the famous event, but he's almost always airbrushed out of the myth. Clement got his break in the music business when Sam Phillips hired him on as sound engineer at Sun Studio, and he's vaguely referred to near the top of M$4 when Sun is briefly described as a "2-man" operation.  Clement wrote songs like "Teenage Queen," which sure would be fun to hear in a show about the early days of rock-and-roll, but is also missing here. On the country side, he wrote the honky tonk standard, "A Girl I Used to Know" and brought Memphis songwriter Dickie Lee's "She Thinks I Still Care," to George Jones. He was a producer, recording artist, disc jockey, grand interpreter of Shakespeare, and an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Clement was wonderfully weird in the way everything good about Memphis usually is. Poofed from the story, per Broadway.

"I'm not in it? Don't they have somebody operating the board," he asked and I told him, "Sam Phillips does it all."

"Sam went next door to Taylor's restaurant," Clement explained. "Carl Perkins was in the studio recording, but everything stopped when Elvis came in... I remember thinking I would be remiss if I didn't record this. So I moved a few mics around and recorded what happened."

So, safe to say, Million Dollar Quartet's not the best historical document. But all warts and so many better possible playlists aside, the Tony-winning musical (and inspiration for the cancelled (botched?) Sun Records) gets the Memphis dynamic mostly right.

Phillips knew he couldn't compete with Nashville. So he panned for gold in a river of rejects, outcasts and oddballs. "That was right down my alley," Clement told me, affirming, for a paper thin jukebox musical playing with fast, loose facts, the story on stage at Playhouse on the Square, is undeniably true. It just didn't happen like that. As with Jersey Boys, the actors channel their famous characters, making all the music themselves — no pit. Like any good rock-and-roll show, it's about much fun for the crowd as it is for the pickers making it happen right there together. This cast looks like it's having a good time.  No surprises — Playhouse on the Square's homecoming production has an easy, authentic vibe. False notes  stick out, but are quickly buried in surplus charm and reasonably good rocking.

For locals who somehow missed the lore, M$4 is a fictionalized account of the one and only occasion Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all at Sun Studio together. The conceit: Elvis has gone to RCA, but wishes he was still working with Sam. Cash and Perkins have deals with Columbia but haven't told anybody yet. Phillips has a secret too. He's been offered a chance to move to New York and join Elvis at RCA. As he watches his most famous artists leave for greener pastures he becomes more convinced that he belongs right where he is and swears he'd rather sell a hundred records made his way that a million with somebody else pulling the strings.

"This is where the soul of a man never dies," the fictionalized Phillips says of studio life. Stephen Garrett, last seen at Playhouse as Lonny the narrator in Rock of Ages is a natural in the part of young Sam Phillips, and nails the moment.

Kavan Hashemian's got the voice and the moves, but it's the boyish understatement that really sells his Elvis. See, there's tension here, and hurt feelings. Carl Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" and put it on all the charts at once, then watched Elvis perform it on national TV while he was laid up in the hospital after a catastrophic car accident.  But for all of his flash and good fortune, Hashemian's King is a sweetheart, bashful, humble and human to the core — qualities fans have connected with across generations. Nobody could ever stay mad at that guy for long. Stephen Hardy is similarly winning as the Man in Black. Nobody ever bothers impersonating the no less distinctive Perkins, and that's true here too. As it should be with the father of Rockabilly,  Isaac Middleton lets his guitar do the important talking.

But what of the Killer?

It's important to understand, it wasn't just a lyric in "Whole Lotta Shakin'" Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't faking. Not a bit. Not ever. I'm not even sure the wild man of Concordia Parish could have faked anything if he wanted to. That's always been a problem for M$4. Lewis may have been the class clown, but he was never just a clown. His edge as real as the Pentecostal abandon when he played. The Killer had swagger like an OG rapper, and real gone, crazy genius. He might smile and charm, and toss his pretty hair and be polite as you please, and he might even sit down when you tell him to — and he's told to often in M$4. But Jerry Lee's gonna get you some day, wait and see. The musical comedy counts on Lewis for laughs and POTS's Nathan McHenry delivers big on that score, at the expense of spiritual verisimilitude. Then he beats the piano to the ground, sings the hell out of his songs, and gives, and gives, and gives.

As I've mentioned, all the good stuff in Memphis is weird at the edges, and think that's the main thing Memphis the musical has over a sanitized M$Q. If Andy Kaufman hadn't thrown coffee in Jerry Lawler's face, David Letterman's craziest interview award might very well belong to Sam Phillips. All these cool cats had demons and this musical's light tone wouldn't suffer a bit if things were just a touch wilder. Michael Detroit's staging always errs on the side of cuddly —  that's fine too. And if some pieces are missing from the million dollar puzzle, at least one piece has been returned — sort of.

 Kathryn Kilger's a smokey-voiced delight as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne. Her songs and character are shoehorned in, but she makes herself essential as the mystery girl cropped from the famous photo.

On any given night you can go out in Memphis, lay down $5 or $10 and watch the latest crop of Memphis rockers kick out some fantastic jams, — weird and wonderful or tight and seasoned. Fun as it was, even the Broadway production left me thinking, "that was a hefty ticket for a decent cover band." M$4's  a paradox: Polished, commercial vehicle about raw creative force. The plot's soapy — better yet, it's 100% True Bromance. The best moments are jams, where characters find each other in the groove. Like the Killer, it is what it is. And whatever it is should probably play somewhere near Graceland or Beale St. every single August when the tourist monsoon hits. Until somebody gets the ball rolling on that genius plan POTS's fluffy teddy bear of a production will have to do.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Grace Notes: Race and Erasure in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

Posted By on Wed, May 3, 2017 at 2:39 PM

It's not uncommon for a director to cut servants from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. They are peripheral characters  with no role in the play's central action.  It's understandable too —  In 2017, nobody wants to ask a gifted African-American performer to play a menial who does little more than wheel a birthday cake around on stage, stock the bar, and stand respectfully in the background. But what's achieved by minimizing disagreeable elements woven into the culture of an historical work? Particularly in a piece of theater deliberately built like music, with so much attention devoted to grace notes, and non-essential dialogue?

We're not talking about "Servant #1 and Servant #2" characters either. These theatrical phantoms have names: Daisy, Brightie, and Small. Getting rid of them doesn't affect core conflict, but it erases silent witnesses to the Pollitt family's lies, infighting and unnecessary strife. The servants may also be a proxy for the audience, able to show those of us stationed on the other side of the footlights, how to observe the action. Senior actors in the roles give  resonance to Maggie the Cat's motivating fear of being old without money. The servants' quiet efficiency frames the family's dysfunction and casual racism — something one anticipates in the house of a "Mississippi redneck," turned multimillionaire in the mid-20th-century. They've been cut entirely form Theatre Memphis' production of Cat. (As has the expression "Mississippi Redneck"— unless I missed it). Through edition selection or careful cutting, language at the intersections of race, and class (and even sex) has been minimized and softened. I'm not here to scold or applaud that. I'm only here to ask what it means when we adjust for the racial insensitivity of historic fiction by eliminating all the black people?

Before the usual assumptions are made, I'm not accusing anybody of being a bad person, or of doing something wrong. I am accusing Theatre Memphis of being a successful East Memphis arts institution with only good intentions — and all the systemic issues that go hand-in-hand with being a successful East Memphis arts institution with only good intentions. In its near-Century history only two African-American-themed plays have been presented on its main stage, and black directors have been few and far between. A strong recent production of Rasheeda Speaking on the NextStage, with its white author, white director, and 3/1 white cast, highlights the trend instead of testing the rule. Success and best intentions notwithstanding, this isn't a great track record.

One would think in the majority community might be better served by the city's namesake company. But that's never been the case, and maybe it never can be given the city's history of segregated urban planning, crap transit system, and the gatekeeper nature of contemporary arts development and funding. (Read the Q&A connected to this story for background). Besides, though more opportunities may exist, it's not like any of Memphis' other theatrical arts institutions are that much better.

When The Hattiloo Theatre came on line as a Memphis institution it immediately filled a need. Though still limited, Memphis' black theater, and theater-going communities now have a year-round place to experience work relevant to black culture. This good development resulted in a pair of unfortunate externalities. Increasingly the Hattiloo evidences the kinds of issues that go hand in hand with monopoly growth.  Meanwhile, the city's other playhouses — consciously or un — seem to feel even less obligated to produce a consistent body of work relevant to the city's dominant culture. Not to put too fine a point on it, this has to change. That means companies inclined toward traditional content need to identify opportunities for non-traditional casting. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was an opportunity for Theatre Memphis to do exactly that.

The Williams estate can be prickly about changes, but not so long ago Broadway audiences were treated to a Pollitt family comprised of James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, and Phylicia Rashad. That precedent makes the near complete erasure of race from this tragedy of the American South stand out even more.

This isn't a dig at Theatre Memphis. It shouldn't be interpreted as one. Nor is it a dig at a director who staged Cat, more or less, as was originally intended. Nor is it a eulogy for poor Daisy, Brightie, and Small, rubbed out for being inessential and awkward. I suspect most folks won't miss them a bit — and maybe that's the point.

But is it progress?

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