Friday, February 2, 2018

Italian Girls, Irish Guys, Sunset Babies and a Clown: Theater Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Feb 2, 2018 at 5:13 PM

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Opera Memphis' executive director Ned Canty has a knack for gags and visual whimsey. So when a zany piece like Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers is the assignment you can count on seeing things you don't often see in an opera — Things like hand tossed pizzas being made, funny underwear, and a hairy, diaper-clad dude shooting arrows in the guise of cupid. On that front Canty, and his cast deliver the goods, although character development and the director's typical clarity in storytelling weren't quite there on preview night.

Take that criticism with a grain of salt. What matters: Preview performances are a special kind of rehearsal. Sometimes they look and sound just like the finished product, sometimes they are still very clearly a work in progress in need of an audience but not quite ready for one. The anachronistic translation is funny and the voices are strong, and blend together perfectly (and frantically!) in the composer's signature group crescendos.

There's more plotting in The Italian Girl... than actual story, but here's the nutshell. A vain Algerian bey is tired of his wife and harem and wants the kind of spice in his life you can only get with an Italian girl. So when a shipwreck brings one to Algiers (searching for a lost love, accompanied by a would be suitor) he kidnaps her, pitches hilarious woo, and gets schooled.  It's like an Italian The King and I meets The Taming of the Shrew (With the shrew doing all the taming!)

At the deeply silly heart of The Italian Girl... is the song "Pappataci" (Eat and Shut Up), which may be the single most ridiculous piece ever composed for an opera. It does not disappoint. Fans of Canty's video game-inspired Mikado will also appreciate the loving cultural pastiche on display here.

Fingers crossed that a well-intentioned, but not very effective plan to project video on hand-held screens works out better on opening night than it did in the preview. This is a chocolate fudge and caramel laden banana split of an opera. When things don't work it can melt fast.
Also worth checking out this weekend...

Sunset Baby at the Hattiloo
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When I hear my more cinema-oriented friends complaining about superhero movies and how much they miss small, artfully told stories about real people with real conflicts my answer is always the same: Sounds like you might need to come back to the theater where, in addition to all the big musicals, these kinds of stories are still valued. Stories like Sunset Baby, reviewed here.

Morgan Watson's Nina is as hard and multifaceted as cut diamonds. It’s hard to eclipse actors as strong as TC Sharp and Emmanuel McKinney, and they both hold their own as Nina’s long absent father and gangsta boyfriend respectively. But whether she’s rolling her eyes and saying, “I love you,” or holding forth on what it really means to be “children of the revolution,” it’s hard to take your eyes off Watson long enough to look at anybody else in a tight, terrific ensemble.

Sunset Baby’s set after the death of a one time Civil Rights icon named Ashanti X who had struggled economically, becoming a less than inspiring crack addict in later years. Now that she’s dead her papers are worth more than she ever was and Nina’s long-estranged father shows up looking to get back into his daughter’s life. And for letters Ashanti X had written to him while he was in prison.

Sunset Baby is a GenX story looking at lives shaped by a stalled Civil Rights movement, when protest gave way to politics, and old heroes became fringe figures and outlaws. It’s a little play telling a big story. 
Fences at Theatre Memphis
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August Wilson's best known play is lovingly revived at Theatre Memphis.

Wilson's characters are pressed to create their own mythology in order to survive in a world they are constantly reminded they didn't create. To that end, Fences' Troy Maxson is a former Negro League star, accidental labor leader, and myth-maker of the first order. As Troy, Willis Green blows through the show like a category-5 hurricane. He's supported by a strong cast that includes Jessica Johnson as Troy's wife Rose and Justin Raynard Hicks in an unforgettable turn as brother Gabe, a combat veteran whose head wound left him in a state of perpetual childhood.

Once at Playhouse on the Square
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Once is one of the best shows I've seen in Memphis or anywhere else. If you miss this, you'll regret it.

Once gets its hooks in deep during the pre-show. While the audience is still being seated, the full cast of actor-musicians launch into a fiddle-sawing, guitar-picking, mandolin-strumming, box-banging, foot-stomping, and tin whistle-tooting jam session. When showtime finally rolls around, the joyful music practically gives birth to the storytelling.
Just Larry's Mayhem at the Evergreen Theatre
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Do you love a good variety show? Memphis' favorite clown, juggler, magician, comedian and burlesque host never fails to entertain. If you want to know more about his latest installment of Mayhem click here. If you want to know more about the man himself, here's a longer piece about one of the city's most interesting entertainers. 
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