Friday, January 27, 2017

Wild, Wild, Wild: Rock of Ages Revisits the Reagan Era

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2017 at 1:38 PM

Just a small town girl... - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Just a small town girl...
It’s confession time. I haven’t been a fan of 80’s top-40 music since way back in the 80’s when my high school class wanted to make the sappy Phil Collins hit “Against All Odds,” the song we marched into at graduation. Unironically. So, it should come as no surprise, of all the jukebox musicals out there — good, bad, and terrible — I’ve always had the hardest time giving Rock of Ages a fair shake. It’s like somebody went out of their way to pick all the music I rebelled against and force-fit it into a thinly plotted romantic comedy set in the sleazy, testosterone-flooded hair metal scene of LA’s Sunset Strip. The first viewing I endured like torture, and swore it would be the last. The show’s campy edge couldn’t shake off the slime, and the few songs I do legitimately enjoy (Motering...) couldn’t escape the horrible gravity of Starship’s “We Built This City,” which, I think we can all agree, is at least a least a semi-finalist in the worst song in history contest. So imagine my surprise when I found myself (mostly) enjoying Playhouse on the Square’s energetic homage to the Reagan era, when everything was awful.

The story goes something like this: The economy is wrecked, city cores are crumbling, but it’s morning in America so foreign investors are snapping up property and transforming local flavor into upscale homogeneity. Into the scene walks Sherrie, a young girl from the heartland, in painted on cut-off 
Born, raised in S. Detroit. - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Born, raised in S. Detroit.
jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman’s club. A 5-minute stand with a burnout rockstar in the men’s room of the Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey-a-Go-Go) has wrecked her chances for real love, and brought her to a place she never thought she’d be. Now she’s holding out for a hero.

In this case, the real bad guy isn’t the asshole rock star — a cross between David Lee Roth of Van Halen and Axl Rose. We recognize him from first meeting, as someone spiraling toward oblivion and probably a toilet filled with his own vomit. The villain is a German real estate speculator with no compunctions about bulldozing rock clubs and putting up a retail shopping destination. The hero is busboy and would-be metal god, Drew Boley, who only wants to rock. And maybe sip some wine coolers with a nice girl now and then.

Scott Ferguson is a favorite among directors. I like how he stuffs scenes to their bursting point with life, color, and texture, although sometimes storylines get swallowed up in all the fun. This go-round, he keeps the action up front, and the conflicts clear while working with choreographer Travis Bradley to build body shots, stage dives, and lots of windblown hair into the production numbers.  Even the muddled second act races along like a crazy train, always threatening to slip off the rails.

There’s always been a little teeny-tiny hint of Threepenny Opera in Rock of Ages, and Ferguson, and a rock solid ensemble, find grace and meaning in LA’s slimy underbelly. Maybe even a hard life lesson or two.

Kathryn Kilger is a fine fit for Sherrie, the good girl in a bad situation, and Chris Steinmetz is appropriately cringe-inducing as Stacee Jaxx, a pretty, petty boozed up sack of garbage in too-tight pants. Isaac Middleton sometimes struggles with the range and brute force the songs require, but he overcomes all obstacles including the character’s own piggish instincts. He makes you love him, and makes the music work.

The glue holding everything together, however, is Stephen Garrett, who’s back on stage in Memphis after a brief hiatus. It is a welcome and auspicious return. Garrett specializes in emotionally detached smart guys, smartasses, and smarmsters with hearts of gold. This go-round he’s Lonny, a rock-and-roll lifer, living for the city and the scene: A little bit middle aged Jim Morrison, a little bit roadie for Spinal Tap. But the way he leads both the audience, and his fellow characters through the show is more like stoner Bugs Bunny leading Elmer Fudd on a wild rabbit chase. You just know somebody’s gonna get a big ol’ kiss. It may be my favorite musical performance by Garrett since he Christian rocked the house in the band satire Alter Boyz.

If there's anything I dislike more than Hair Metal it's Huey Lewis & the New's Sports LP. But if there is a Heart of Rock & Roll it's Jarrad Baker as the Bourbon's true believing owner, trying to hold on to that feeling and everything else that matters, even if he can't hold on to his club. Jonathan Christian turns in a strong supporting performance as Hertz, the teutonic moneyman, as does dancing machine Daniel Stuart Nelson who channels the spirit of Klaus Nomi as Hertz’s son Franz. Brooke Papritz mugs a little too much in her role as a cartoon activist, but also displays comic instincts reminiscent of Laugh In-era Ruth Buzzi.

Annie Freres has a voice that can’t be ignored, and her too-brief moments on stage are worth the ticket price. "Shadows of the Night," could have gone on much, much longer.

I’m never going to be a Journey fan. Or a Bon Jovi fan. Or all that into Quiet Riot. But if every production of Rock of Ages was as full and fun as this one, I could warm up to it pretty quickly — Against all Odds.
  • Anywhere
Apologies: Brooke Papritz was originally misidentified because somebody clearly can't read a program. (Me)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Living Colors: "Other People's Happiness" is a Well Made Play

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2017 at 11:18 AM

Little ditty 'bout Sara & John
  • Little ditty 'bout Sara & John
You know what it's like when everybody in the family gets sick at the same time? Nobody's able to make soup, or Jello, and somebody's always in the bathroom when you really need to go, and nobody can seem to be nice to anybody for very long, even when everybody's sympathetic? Other People's Happiness is a little like that. It's a well made play about a tightly knit family of four who all come down with relationship flu at the same time. Some of the drama feels artificial — manufactured by characters who court it — but there's some real stuff too in this latest NewWorks@TheWorks-winning world premier. It's a handsom thing too.

Like most well made plays Other People's Happiness begins fairly late in an ongoing story, and the first stretch is devoted to much exposition. This one starts on a family fishing vacation, with an occasionally interrupted monologue by John. He's a reasonably successful businessman and father of two, who's casting around for more than the evening meal. John drops his fishing line again and again without success, while talking about the new phase he and his wife Sara are entering. Maybe it's time to relax and try new things. Maybe they can spice things up too with some erotic adventures. But Sara has a completely different future in mind, whether she's willing to be honest about it or not. Words are spoken, mean things are done. Stupid things too.

Did you catch the metaphors? I figured. More complications (and metaphors) arise when the couple's adult son and daughter, who are experiencing rocky patches of their own, get involved. The details make the show, so I'll say one more thing and stop at that. There's a twist that comes near the end of the show. In a well made play there's almost always a twist that reverses much of what the characters think they know about everything.

Jeanna Juleson is a terrific Sara, reserved on top but with so much more going on just below the surface. After all these years she's still something of a mystery to her husband, and that's only mostly his fault. Gordon Ginsberg's John is appropriately bland, working harder than his wife to maintain a veneer of reason and control while completely losing his shit. Jacquelyn Skoog Hayner and Standrew Parker are the kids and they both bring a lot of dimension to characters that are sometimes more functional than fully baked.

Like a New Yorker Cartoonist, playwright Adam Seidel has a fine sense of economy. He ably builds people we recognize, and circumstances we know too well, with only a few scribbles and scrawls. And like old masters of the well made play he makes great use of letters and notes. Or, in this case, smart phones. So many big events happen offstage and are explained in scenes where the kids meet up to catch up, or while John gives a tour of the barn he's decided to rehabilitate and repurpose. It sometimes makes for a play that's more talky than active. When somebody sets fire to the family home conversations about the blaze need to pulse with the heat and horror of memories and dreams fighting to stay alive. What we get is more and more squabbling between characters who are so bland they're almost fascinating.

New plays are usually born in an austerity that fosters marvelous invention. But a professionally mounted show is one of the real perks of POTS' competition, and it's a nice one. Veteran performer/first time director Leah Bray Nichols hasn't gone out on any limbs, and with a straightforward piece like Other People's Happiness, that's probably for the best. She's shown a keen sense for what's necessary, and gotten honest, believable performances from a generous cast. But artistry is another metaphor in Other People's Happiness and the real stars of the show are Jackie Nichols' blank canvas set and Mandy Heath's gorgeous, painterly lighting design. Heath isolates her figures in space and makes them glow against rich, jewel tone landscapes of color that sometimes make up for an absence of color in the writing. The lights are a big bold choice in a play plays it safe and could benefit from more bold choices.

New plays are the lifeblood of live theater, and Playhouse on the Square's New Works series, now in its third production season, has been a magnet for solid material like We Live Here, and the excellent Byhalia, Mississippi. Like most of what we've seen so far from the series, Other People's Happiness is intriguing, with real potential to become something much better with a draft or two. On many occasions I've made the point that not everything needs to be a masterpiece, the theater needs more good plays appealing to all kinds of consumers. Other People's Happiness is already a good play, and it connects, judging by the mostly enthusiastic response of a packed Saturday night house. It's also a little familiar — currently lacking the unique identity and defining moments that make for really memorable theater. Leah Nichols' clean composition and Heath's saturated colors make it memorable anyway.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Unamerican Psycho: Germantown Community Theatre Does Something Crazy

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 10:23 AM

First, I’d like to do something I almost never do and start this review with a standing ovation. Hooray for Germantown Community Theatre. Hooray for being brave and doing things differently during the holidays when nobody ever does anything especially brave or very different. While other playhouses pull out beloved Christmas classics and reel in customers who attend theatrical performances somewhere between once a year and once a lifetime, it makes good sense for a clever company to cash in on regulars looking to escape all the Bah Humbugs and God bless us every ones.

There’s a problem though, and it may have been reflected in Sunday afternoon’s uncomfortably small matinee audience. From its violent beginning through a long, somber curtain call (set to the loping tune of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV theme), Germantown’s Rope never feels like a gift of any kind.

A question Rope's characters are asking themselves: "How does it feel...

’s a funny fish to begin with. Modern audiences may be familiar with the show by way of Hitchcock’s 1948 film starring Jimmy Stewart as a morally ambiguous college professor coming to terms with a pair of decadent students who’ve misunderstood Nietzsche and done something awful. It’s based on Patrick Hamilton’s chatty, 1929 play, which tells the same basic story, but with a few substantial differences bringing it even more in line with the grossly indecent works of Oscar Wilde. Set in the period of original production, and loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, Rope was Hamilton’s portrait of a dangerous and narcissistic class, happy to make games out of sex and murder. It also functions an overdetermined object lesson — a kind of dialogue between Wilde and Nietzsche built to address common misunderstandings about nihilism. Think of it as a gay-ish American Psycho set in post WWI Britain with an au current ideology standing in for watermarked business cards. It's also, fundamentally, a ham-handed exercise in suspense. Still, there’s real potential for a bold company of artists ready to wallow in Rope’s sick banalities (“Rather!”) and indecent desublimations (“Rather!”).

In a nutshell, Chase Ring’s production for GCT is short on color and long on the literal. Ring’s an inventive actor with a large personality, but neither quality seems to have followed him into the director’s chair.

When you do daring (like serve up gruesome for Christmas?) it’s an opportunity to create audience sampling. Just like the bigger playhouses leveraging their technological advantages, it’s a real chance to make lasting memories. In this case it might have been fun to swing for the design fences and create a dynamic space that frames the production instead of entombing it in a dollhouse. Something touched by elements of futurism, surrealism or dada —  period-appropriate European art movements fancied by brats of all kinds. Something to elevate the middling material and leave a mark. But what stands out most in this production (costumes excepted), is a pronounced absence of style.

Every character in Rope has some mental picture of his/herself as an iconoclast, living bigly and in ways the typical Alf, Bert, or Bill couldn't understand. They're the butt of The Aristocrats joke, and the intellectual elite we’ve all been warned about — SCARY! But also a hoot! One's just a little more alive than all the rest right now. Another’s deader.

For his cast, Ring has brought together an able mix of seasoned veterans and fresh faces. There are a lot of good actors on stage, they’re just never lit very well, or given much to do besides talk, and talk, and talk (and talk, and talk). The lust for a life less ordinary that drives this chiller, is largely desexualzed, and reduced to something considerably less magnetic than it might be.

James Dale Green holds his own as Rupert Cadell, an irascible, hard drinking poet shaped by the original war to end all wars. But for a man full of drinks and dangerous ideas, he’s never allowed to be more than a scamp. Nor is anybody else, regardless of who they may not have killed, or why.

Joe Prestigiacomo, Ryan Spearman, Kristen Vandervorst, Whitney Bogus, Ty Hoskins, Louise Levin, and Beverly Morlang round out an ensemble more talented than tight.

Ironically Patrick Hamilton, named the condition GCT’s Rope suffers most — “Unchange.” Although Hamilton, achieved fame and fortune writing popular thrillers, it was never enough for the well-heeled Marxist. He longed to be taken seriously, by which I mean he wanted to create meaningful work for which there was no apparent market. So, in the late 1930’s, as fascism spread, war loomed, and global economies faltered, he penned a satirical, surrealist novel about the British caste system. The badly reviewed work of dystopian fiction was called Impromptu in Moribundia and told the story of a perfect world populated by perfect stereotypes, where perfect order is kept by “Little Men” of business who wear bowlers and become suspicious of the novel’s foreign narrator when he doesn’t take his hat off during the national anthem. Moribundia is a place where transition is possible only in the absence of change — “Unchange.” Absent a lively concept, or opportunity to experience finely focused performances, there’s just no compelling reason to revive an artifact like Rope or believe an ordinary season offering can compete with something as big as Christmas.

Rope’s not bad but, as Hitchcock once noted, the best films are made from mediocre source material. I love the idea. And believe there’s a market for something different this time of year, as long as that thing's also special in some way. In a giving season lackluster material and an all around lack of inspiration seems downright miserly. 

Manhattan skyline, hair, suits, moistened lips... style.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reduced Shakespeare: "One Ham Manlet" is Serious Fun

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2016 at 3:53 PM

If you only see one one-man Hamlet this season, make it One Ham Manlet. It's a joy for Shakespeare lovers, but also a fantastic entry point for skeptics, who think they should know a little something about the celebrated tragedy, but can't bring themselves to commit to the full four-hour show.

At 90-minutes Ryan Kathman's Manlet isn't an enormous time investment, and will leave many theater lovers wanting more. That's pretty much the definition of success.

Kathman, who developed, and stars in this solo tour de force had me from the show's opening when he... Dammit!

To say what he did would give it away and spoil the fun. This makes it difficult to talk about without letting a lot of cats out of their respective bags. So instead of getting too deep into it, I'm going to link back to this preview. It tells you just about everything you need to know about a funny, thoughtful, loving and somewhat irreverent take on the original man in black.

Good theatre of any kind results from good problem solving. Few things present more problems than doing Hamlet on a relative shoestring with a cast of one. One Ham Manlet's a solid primer in how to make theater theatrical, and take advantage of commercial theater's most underrated tools — audience imagination.

I'd see this one again, if I could.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The House That Will Not Stand: Great Writing on Display at the Hattiloo

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2016 at 2:17 PM


I could say it again, but I won't. The Hattiloo Theatre's production of The House That Will Not Stand isn't perfect, but it's good, sometimes very good, and occasionally better than that. But Marcus Gardley's script — inspired by the Federico Garcia Lorca classic House of Bernarda Alba — is extraordinary. It's a fitting tribute to the original, never standing in its shadow. The uncommonly strong writing carries the Hattiloo's production through  rougher patches. When things click, it soars.

Before getting to the good stuff — and there's so much good stuff to talk about — I want to make a worried  confession. This title gave me pause. It reminded me of something a friend in a band called The Lights once said about his group's name. "I can see the headline if critics hate it," he said — "Turn Off the Lights." I've frequently complained that the Hattiloo undervalues technical theater, treating it as an afterthought. But since moving into the new space, it's struggled with other aspects too. Quality's swung pole to pole, show to show, from perfectly professional, to events that wouldn't pass muster at area high schools. And, just as I've wondered about stagnation and the absence of creative strategies in our older institutions, I've similarly wondered how any new playhouse can sprout so fast, in so many directions, with so much programming, divided attention, and stretched resources, and not crack down the center. To that end, some titles are just scarier than others.

Sometimes, like Lorca, I like to go dark for contrast. Because this is a fairytale review, and the ending is happy. Yes, consistency remains a problem, but in spite of that, here I am, the constant skeptic, with nothing but a basket full of "Wows." Sure, some of the casting in the The House That Will Not Stand seemed off, but some was spot on, and the production, which could have stood another run or six before opening night, was beautiful to look at, and —especially for fans of virtuoso writing — a joy top to bottom. While I still worry about the things I've mentioned previously, I also have to stand back and marvel. Before Hattiloo, it's not impossible to imagine shows like Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, or The House That Will Not Stand making the cut at Circuit Playhouse, or maybe Theatre Memphis' NextStage. More likely we'd see them at the University of Memphis, if at all. But there's no way both would ever appear in the same theater in a single season. And we'd never see these two thoughtfully, and thoroughly rendered productions back to back. The former became a sell out show for Hattiloo, and rightly so. And The House That Will Not Stand is extra special. It's something every theater lover in Memphis should make a point of checking out while it's here. Writing of this potency is rare anywhere, and this still relatively new work has plenty of life ahead of it, with a New York production, and a film in the works. See it now, before everybody else is talking about it.

Set in New Orleans in 1813, a short decade after the Louisiana Purchase, House is, in part, about the Americanization of French Louisiana where communities of free blacks flourished. Men and women, once able to walk the streets without papers, could be stopped by authorities and enslaved. With this change in dynamics — all tragic contemporary resonances considered — came other changes to culture and tradition. The House That Will Not Stand touches on many things, but is essentially a twisted, sometimes terrible Cinderella story built around an old, decaying practice of French colonials taking black common-law wives. There is a (possibly) wicked mother, who only wants to protect her three girls from the new system, keep them out of the old system, mind her interests, and serve the occasional slice of pumpkin pie.

Beartrice (Jacki Muskin) is the Mother in question. Her white lover and keeper is dead when the play starts — choked on a chicken bone. Maybe. This means the nice house she lives in could be inherited by the man's wife. Or it might go on the market and be purchased by an old rival (Patricia Smith). This potential murder mystery and a sub-thread about about the curse of being born darker than a paper bag drive the plot along, but the beating heart of this dark, delirious dramedy belongs to the slave Makeda, practicing to carry herself like the free woman she knows she's going to be.

Makeda absorbs a number of classic African/African-American myths. She's the cunning trickster, separating fools from their gold. She's also the wise conjure woman, and magical in ways that might seem exploitive if the character was created to redeem a white master. She's also a perfect Lorcan clown, responsible for heavy doses of truth and laughter. Maya Geri Robinson seems young in the role, but inhabits this character completely. I predict an Ostrander nomination, and have a hard time imaging who might even rise up to challenge this winning performance.

At first glance, Jimmy Humphries set design's not nearly as gothic as it might be. That's what makes it worth a second and third look. The gently raked and sparsely furnished stage gives this House a versatile, modern edge. With nothing but light the whole space shape shifts to be whatever it needs to be — drawing room or discotheque. (Oh, yeah).

Opening night had some shaky moments. Actors were reaching for the odd line or landing just outside their light. That's the sort of stuff that fixes itself. Director Tony Horne has built his House like a master craftsman. All actors are aimed in the right direction, and this already fine show promises to grow into something fantastic.

I want to leave everybody with this image. Marcus Gardley was in the house for opening night, and before the show he had some things to say about his visit to Memphis, a city that sometime has trouble seeing itself — especially the best of itself. The playwright was overwhelmed by the Hattiloo, and the potential it represents. He didn't completely assuage my worries, but confirmed all convictions when he described the theater — one of a very small handful of African-American playhouses — as one of most important in the world.

There's still a long way to go, but finding and staging gems like The House That Will Not Stand — and doing them rightwill certainly help it get there.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Hunger Game: "Cuddles" Isn't Your Typical Vampire Story

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 10:25 AM

Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums
  • Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums
I no longer possess a copy of The Amityville Horror, so don’t expect me to quote it directly. But I devoured the paperback when it was new, and I was too young to get into an R-rated picture. The line that scared me most explained the mundane triggers for demonic haunting. Supernatural horror, it said, might appear and disappear suddenly. It might be caused by something as simple and ordinary as “rearranging the furniture.” For some reason that line stuck with me, and it pops into my head whenever good plays with strong directors and gifted casts don’t seem to work. I wonder how many haints and horrors might be driven away by better design — Or at least by a simple shuffling of the chairs.

Cuddles is a different kind of vampire mystery. It unravels slowly, strangely, evoking a grinding sense of dread that grows minute to minute. At core, it’s a modern fairy tale with gothic elements ripped from 19th-Century novels where everybody seems to have a mad or embarrassing relative locked in the attic. It’s the story of Tabby, a well off, not very nice woman, and Eve the bloodsucking little sister she cares for. There are men in this story too, and although we never see them, they often feel like the play’s realest characters. Their influence erodes a system of rules and rituals the sisters created to protect each other from “the hunger.”
Cuddles is clever, but New Moon’s cast is struggling. Conversations (one-sided, per the script) turn into droning monologues. But when Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums connect it's horrible, hard to watch, impossible not to watch, and everything you want from a revisionist nightmare. They’re good together, but disadvantaged.

Most of the action is pushed as far upstage as possible and confined to a smallish platform floating in the comparatively immense darkness. The effect isn’t one of claustrophobia — which would be appropriate — but distance. The play’s less active moments happen in this big dark gulf between the audience, and a perfectly revolting little attic set. 

Maybe the audience could have been drawn in closer, and assembled on three sides. Maybe the attic set could have been brought to center stage. Distinctions might even blur and the attic and outside word could bleed together — literally and figuratively. Point being, there's a lot to like about this spook story. But somebody needs to rearrange the furniture.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Is "The City of Conversation" Provocative or American Myth-making as Usual?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2016 at 5:54 PM

She said/She said
  • She said/She said
The City of Conversation  is a sharply-written slice of political drama nested in a family crisis. It’s essentially the story of liberalism at the end of the 20th-Century as Reaganite barbarians stormed the New Deal’s crumbling gates. The tale — told from the perspective of a politically split Georgetown family — wants to map polarization, and the end of civility in American discourse. Set apart from issues, or the social conditions that caused so much fissuring in traditional party lines, it becomes an exercise in scapegoating, and misplaced congratulations. There are plenty of fresh ingredients assembled here, but the spice blend is flat wrong.
As usual Jack Yates’ sets dazzle and Amie Eoff’s period costumes pop under the lights. There’s at least one extraordinary performance to crow about too,  and a few good ones worth bragging on. But the cast is unbalanced in terms of ability, and when the play staggers, author bias becomes evident. So does an unmistakable streak of weird woman-blaming.
The unwritten “Georgetown rule,” once held that, no matter how bitterly Beltway rivals fought at work, evenings were for collegiality, cigars, and dick jokes told over highballs at boozy, loose-talking soirees like the ones hosted by Hester Ferris — crisply played at Theatre Memphis by Karen Mason Riss. Hester's the tireless influencer we meet at the top of the play, working on Teddy Kennedy’s disastrous primary run against sitting president Jimmy Carter— a bitter affair opening doors for Reagan & Co. Her plans are upended when son Colin arrives home a day early from college, with Anna, the ambitious conservative he plans to marry.

Playwright Anthony Giardina romanticizes Georgetown as a kind political Eden, turning Anna — beautifully and savagely imagined by Shannon Walton — into an Eve-like temptress offering the apple of Reaganism to any powerful man who’ll sits still long enough. Eventually — and inevitably — she squares off against Hester, tearing the family apart. That’s where The City of Conversation’s metaphors break down. Because women didn't queer the fraternity. And whether the script is blown up to mythic scale, or boiled down to microcosm, turning a contrived standoff between two stubborn, differently corrosive women into a model for polarization is, quite possibly, the biggest dick joke that ever was.

From casting to set details, this City has director Jerry Chipman's fingerprints all over it. That's normally not a bad thing, but in this case it means seeing familiar faces working well inside their comfort zones. That yields some positive results — It's great to see Michael Walker back on stage, fully inhabiting the skin of a changeable Kentucky Senator. But as Hester, Riss — a JC regular — speaks well, but seems adrift. Granted, she's better adrift than a lot of actors are fully focused. But here, in a play where victories don't necessarily produce winners, and true heroes are hard to come by,  her frank, no-bullshit style falls a little flat.

Given 30-years worth of Presidential comment to choose from City's sound design makes American politics seem boring, if not exactly uneventful. So much potential, little of it realized.

But damn, it's so good looking.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

New Editions: Ibsen, Naughty Shakespeare

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 4:56 PM


This post is so going viral. I mean, who among us doesn't get crazy excited about new editions of classic plays by authors like William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen? 

I've already written a bit about Pelican's new Shakespeare collection. But I feel compelled to jot a few words about Othello and The Taming of the Shrew. Both include the usual essays, with nice, lightly rendered introductions. Breaking a willful wife and training her up right was a popular plot back in Willie's day and Shrew, we're instructed, is part of that mysoginist genre, forever popular, but at odds with modern sensibilities. Othello's intro builds from the Shavian barb inspired by Verdi's Opera Otello. In a spot on analysis George Bernard said Otello wasn't Verdi's most Shakespearian adaptation, so much as Othello was Shakespeare's best Italian Opera. But honestly, I'm not here to type about what's in the books, so much as what's on them. I mean, it's one thing to be bawdy, and quite another to be so on the nose. Or on the... something.

Nice berries Othello. 

I'm not sure what it means to reduce the Moor of Venice to nothing but a head with a stylized penis, but here we are. Now here's Kate the cursed on the cover of Shrew. 
 What are all those little things around her her heartgina? Beads of sweat? Bugs? Just... Ew. 

The scripts are fine, the essays are swell, but from the teeny tiny titles on, I'm just not loving this design.

Is it fair to call Ibsen Norway's Shakespeare? Maybe not. Okay, no. But he was practically as inventive as the Bard when it came to word coinage and that can be a problem for translators. The new Penguin Ibsen collection isn't just a new edition, it's a new set of translations. That's great news because we're talking about an author who worked in a small language and is known primarily by way of translations, not all of which are historically sensitive.

It's probably not so strange, given translation goals, that the publishers continue to use the title A Doll's House even though that's not quite right. In Norway "Doll House" is a distinct word, and one that Ibsen specifically rejected in favor of something closer to "A Home for Dolls," which is less catchy, but bends the title's meaning in a slightly different direction. Beyond this example where the title is too well known to alter, this is exactly the kind of thing the new editions aim to correct. 

In addition to A Doll's House the new collection includes GhostsAn Enemy of the People, and an underrated early work The Pillars of Society. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Body Language: Our Own Voice Gets Physical

Posted By on Tue, Oct 4, 2016 at 4:38 PM

I'm a cheerleader for Our Own Voice. I'm glad they're here doing important experimental work in Memphis. It thrills me that they soldier on, in a role that must feel truly thankless at times. If you're accustomed to reading my reviews, you're probably already anticipating the, "but." So let's just rip the bandaid off quickly, shall we?

Body of Stories, which runs at TheatreWorks through Oct. 15, is slow and shapeless. It has its share of transcendent moments, but often feels more like an ongoing workshop than a completed body of work. And I use "completed" loosely because I appreciate how OOV sometimes builds productions that aren't finished until the audience shows up to participate — or to not participate. But this one feels like it opened a little too soon, before the group's collected improvisational work yielded much in the way of revelation or insight.

Kimberly Baker and her ensemble have developed a collection of monologues and multigenerational movement pieces about how we relate to our bodies. This is well worn turf, obviously, but given a political climate where every new day brings a new slate of stories about a serious presidential contender body-shaming people, there's plenty left to explore. I'm just not sure that this "Moving Exploration," as it's subtitled, moves the ball very much. 

There's a monologue about a guy who thinks people who say nice things about his toned physique are actually body shaming themselves in a backhanded way. Interesting premise/humble brag, but without much in the way of development. We hear other, somewhat atypical stories, about esteem-raising compliments in the kind of forum that usually focuses on insults and expectations. Even then, there's very little in the way of considering what complaints and compliments may mean — And no real conflict pushing the dialogue forward. 

There's not much I enjoy more than the choreography Baker builds using a mix of dancers and non-dancers, and how she finds ways for even the less experienced movers to shine. That's true here too, although the evenings most playful and poignant moments occur in what appears to be semi-improvisational work between the company's better trained dancers. Fun, fresh stuff also happens when some of the cast's younger members are engaged. Kids continue to say the darndest things. 

OOV's goals are vastly different from most companies. There's no such thing as failure when we experiment, only positive and negative results, all of which can be interesting and instructive. So it's not uncommon to see an occasional OOV piece that doesn't feel like it was intended for general audiences (though I suspect the company's founders can make a convincing case that all the work they do is for everybody). Maybe if Body's length was cut in half, and something was done to develop conflict and connect various threads so pieces and parts feel like a body instead of like a coffee house open mic transcript circa 1992, this one might be for everybody too. And maybe it's for everybody else, just not me.

Oh well, I remain a cheerleader for Our Own Voice: RAH! 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Monarchy in the UK: Charles III Rules Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 10:06 PM

Long may he reign?
  • Long may he reign?
Mike Bartlett's deliberately (and delightfully) Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It's also one of the more interesting, and innovative scripts to make rounds in ages. It begins with somber candles, and a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who, in real life, is still very much alive, but a relative short-timer at 90-years and ticking.

In a twinkling England has changed and everybody — Prince Charles especially — wonders what it means to have a King in Buckingham Palace.

Things get tense right away when Charles is presented with a privacy bill that, to the old man/new monarch’s way of thinking, undermines press freedom and, in doing so, looms as a serious threat to English Democracy. Law requiring the royal autograph, real though it is, has come to be regarded as ceremonial, and when the required signature is withheld, a crisis ensues that threatens to boil over into anarchy. And that’s just the beginning. Charles knows history and the law, so when the politicians seek to neuter him, he raises the stakes in a big, big way.
Here is a play where politics is practiced by master craftsmen and rude brawlers alike while the royals get on with a proper game of thrones. Prince Harry (Jared H. Graham) struggles to reconcile his disposition with birthright and responsibility, while media darlings William and Kate learn how to leverage their own authority as the reigning “King and Queen of column inches.” Bartlett presents it all in Shakespearean verse, with special working-class dives into prose. It’s tribute artistry fine and rare, and so much more than just stunt writing.

As directed by Dave Landis, Playhouse on the Square’s Charles III is smart, but sharper than it is crisp — full of vigor and clever, history-winking design, but badly organized in spots that could and should make jaws hit the ground. As long as one thing is happening on stage at a time the sailing's smooth, but stagecraft lists freeform and sloppy whenever the set’s enormous staircase is packed with party people or protesters.

Actors struggled with lines opening weekend, but for all the rough edges the end result was still something to cheer about.

As Charles, James Stuart France had the heaviest load to bear, and the most trouble matching words to action. But when he was on he was on, and very much the evening’s sad star — risking the crown to save Democracy. Charles finally catches his elusive dream, stepping into a role he’s spent a lifetime preparing for, only to discover he’s arrived late to party in last season’s frock.

Jamie Boller is infinitely watchable as Kate, much beloved of the camera. Bartlett imagines her as a less ghoulish iteration of Lady Macbeth driving William (Ian Lah) as he trips and lunges toward glory.

And what about the media who, over the course of the play turn (Brooke Papritz) an ordinary girl’s life into a circus shame-show because she had the good/bad fortune to get on with a Prince? Playhouse’s production never pulls this thread hard enough to make audiences’ second guess Charles’ problematic, but moral position; a position informed by his own complicated relationship with the British press. He’d been the King of column inches too, when Diana was by his side, and none of that turned out well for anybody. Now the doomed ex-princess’ ghost wanders through this bleak parody, with a punchline on her lips. It only sounds like prophesy. 

Juicy character work abounds. Tony Isbell and Michael Gravois are the conservative devil (doing the Lord’s work?) and liberal angel (fallen?) whispering treason and hateful policy in the King’s royal ears. Isbell’s the opposition leader, playing all sides; Gravois the Prime Minister, prepared to go nuclear if he has to. Christina Wellford Scott’s also quite fine as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It’s a smaller role compared to the heavy lifting she’s performed in shows like Doubt and The Lion in Winter, but it’s pivotal, and one of the best things she’s done in a long time. She might even be having fun.

Charles III’s awkward moments will probably stay a little awkward. The rest will tighten with repetition, and from edge of seat suspense to meditations on the meaning of celebrity, it was all pretty tasty to begin with.

Baseball Lives Matter: Mr. Rickey Cuts a Deal at Hattiloo

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 1:42 PM

What was really at stake when baseball was integrated and Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues? That question drives Ed Schmidt's brief, argumentative drama Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. It's slippery too. Much trickier than you might think given how the history's usually presented. Schmidt's bracing historical fiction, which opened solidly at the Hattiloo Theatre last weekend, only scratches a scant bit deeper, but good creative archeology's been done here, and there's a whole lot of illuminating artifact in the short, shallow trench Mr. Rickey digs.

The push to integrate major league baseball didn't begin with Jackie Robinson. Lefty journalists and activists campaigned to make the national pastime look more like the nation for years. Even in the Jim Crow era, this was inevitability, so in the mind of Baseball exec Branch Rickey, the question turned from when it would happen, to how it might be allowed to happen. Rickey's answer: One man — to test the waters — others to trickle. So Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting becomes an engaging, often entertaining study in American exceptionalism.

With America's first African-American president preparing to leave office while folks who look like him are in the streets protesting the same old never-ending shit, this play feels like it's landed right on time. 

Branch Rickey wants everything perfect for Jackie Robinson's big rollout. He knows what to expect from the white community, and it's not pretty, so he's carefully selected a squeaky clean player who's agreed to remain passive and pleasant in the face of spitting, name calling, violence, whatever. But resistance to integration came from within the African-American community too, and with good reason. While promoting a black baseball hero who smiled in the face of adversity, might create opportunities for similarly dispositioned individuals, it would be a major league victory for white hegemony, per usual, sending devastating shockwaves through the African-American sports and business community. So — and this is where the fiction takes over —  one of baseball's great innovators — a man sometimes called "Mahatma" — calls a meeting of what today we'd call "influencers."  Summoned guests on his list include an aged Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who's still dancing to make ends meet, broke boxing champ Joe Louis, and actor/activist Paul Robeson who's flat not having any. Rickey wants them to say nice things to the media and guard against inconvenient protests that could threaten Jackie's chances in the majors. So the titans assemble (along with a resourceful bellboy) in a cramped room at the Roosevelt Hotel. There they sip cherry sodas, shoot the shit, scrap like contenders, and, in a faint echo of the Medieval mystery play, act out all the reasons not to trust Whitey. 

Everybody at Mr. Rickey's summit understood what it meant to be exceptional, rising to the top of their fields while other African-Americans struggled — and still having to enter through the rear of public buildings. Mr. Bojangles, depicted near the end of his life, had been a Civil Rights champion and the highest-earning black performer in America. But the elderly dancer, with an owner's stake in Negro League Baseball, was on the ropes financially and assailed by critics for performing stereotypical roles. Louis — the Brown Bomber — was similarly down at heel, and too familiar with the day-to-day indignities black men faced regardless of achievement. Robeson, by contrast to everybody else in the room, was  an active Communist who didn't trust the myth of individual achievement. He worries the success of Jackie Robinson and the relatively few players called up to the big show comes at the expense of other people's jobs and entire careers. He believes it will result in the ultimate failure of the Negro League, ceding all the power in baseball to white ownership. Who will go to the games when all the stars have gone away, he asks, wondering what will become of the people who sell tickets and concessions, and maintain fields, and so on. Then he makes a fair counterproposal.

Instead of one man at a time, how about one team at a time — black-owned? There are no spoilers here since we know the outcome, but the big ideas roiling through this cage match of a play make it exciting to watch as it swings for the fences on it's way to its historic conclusion.

The Hattiloo's production is sturdy, but rough at the edges at the preview performance I attended. It looked like it could stand another week of rehearsal instead of just a day, but all signs pointed to a production growing into what it needed to be. When the actors are more confident with lines and cues, this one promises to give off sparks. It's a strong ensemble led by journeyman actor Ron Gephart as the titular Mr. He's joined by Mario Hope as the bell hop, Frank Johnson as Bill Robinson, Emmanuel McKinney as Louis, Courtney Williams as Jackie Robinson, and Jonathan Williams as Robeson.

McKinney feels miscast here, but show's once again just how good a character actor he can be. As Louis he spends much of the play detached, either listening, or self-distracting, but when he engages it's fierce, game-changing, and alternately threatening and intensely humane. It's another great performance from an actor who doesn't seem to know how to do it any other way. 

Williams seemed to struggle most with lines, but crackled when he his his marks. 

As directed by Dennis Darling, Mr. Rickey is a fantastic example of Hattiloo doing what it does best by providing Memphis theatergoers with a clear alternative. Although more musicals are creeping into its seasons there's still a strong commitment to drama and this is a good one. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Beauties, Beasts etc — Theatre Memphis Darkens a Disney Classic

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2016 at 11:32 AM

Barry Fuller and Ashley McCormack
  • Barry Fuller and Ashley McCormack
“Happily, there is some remnant of childhood in this jaded public. It is this childhood we must reach. It is the incredulous reserve of the adults that we must overcome.
Jean Cocteau on his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

There’s a difference between staging a classic fairytale and staging the Disney version of a classic fairytale. When one leaves the public domain to dance with branded content, there are certain obligations (not to mention expectations) to forego interpretation and adhere, as much as possible, to visual tropes and character traits established by Disney in a growing catalog of adapted animated features. In other words, you’re supposed to faithfully recreate beloved cartoons on stage. Large talent’s a must, obviously, and some ingenuity is always required. But as long as you can figure out a way to raise enough money to rent a Shrek head, or build a giant whale mouth, all the creative stuff’s been taken care of for you by Uncle Walt’s magnificent i-merch-a-neers. So it’s rare to see a company really stamp a Disney musical and make it their own. That’s what makes Theatre Memphis’ production of Beauty & the Beast a little extra special. It’s very Disney, with bits borrowed from both the animated feature, and the Broadway extravaganza. But director Amy Hanford has tweaked the tone ever so slightly in the direction of horror and hallucination and, in doing so, she’s gifted Memphis with a densely entertaining production that instantly calls to mind the source material, while glistening with its own dark appeal. Even if you’re not a fan of the show or musicals generally, it’s hard not to be seduced by such overwhelming spectacle, and a formidable cast whose abilities won’t be eclipsed by applause-inducing costumes or lush scenery.

Hanford has always displayed a comfortable familiarity with the mechanics of a blockbuster Broadway musical. She's also had trouble infusing her finely-imagined automatons with the spark of life. To that end, Disney’s beastly tale of surface to soul relationships, represents an enormous leap forward. It’s not just lively, it’s alive and full of weirdness and wonder.

Beauty & the Beast tells the story of… nah. We’ve been telling ourselves versions of this story since we started telling ourselves stories, and we’ve been telling this particular variation for at least 400-years. Let’s skip plot points and get on with the important stuff.

Whether she’s singing about books or taming the beast, Ashley McCormack owns the stage as Belle. And although he’s never as menacing as he could be, Charles K. Hodges’ big baritone is well-suited for the monster’s role. As Gaston, a self-aware critique on traditional Disney heroes, Philip Andrew Himebook is large in every sense of the word. His enormous voice being rivaled only by similarly enormous acting choices that make him the most animated thing on stage.

Hanford also gets fine performances from ensemble players, particularly the Beast’s servants who are all being steadily transformed into household objects — a candlestick, a teapot, a wardrobe, spoons, knives etc. “Be Our Guest,” the servants’ big number about generous hospitality, bubbles like fine French champagne overflowing its glass. If there’s one good reason to produce Beauty & the Beast live, it’s the challenge of staging, “Be Our Guest,” and from the cartwheeling rug, to glittering mylar confetti, and all the rest of Travis Bradley’s fine choreography, Theatre Memphis doesn’t disappoint.

As is often the case on Perkins Rd. Ext., the real stars of this show are the designers. Lights, sets, and costumes have all been crafted to overwhelm audiences while elevating the actors and never overshadowing them or a text/score combo that’s more popular than worthy of such fuss.
A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
  • A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
For better and for worse Theatre Memphis has been something of a one-size-fits-all shop lately, with a “more is better” ethos that’s smoothed defects in shows like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family, making troubled brand cash-ins better than they deserve to be, while inflicting considerable damage on more intimate shows like Gin Game and Sondheim’s anti-blockbuster Into the Woods, which wants to be more cubist Modern than Disney-framed contemporary. In a diary he kept while filming his own iconic version of Beauty and the Beast, French filmmaker Jean Cocteau wrote of a constant regret he felt after cutting “bits of intense poetry” from the screenplay. But regret was tempered by his understanding that, “one mustn't, at any cost, be seduced by an attractive idea if it hasn't got its right place.” It’s good advice in any case, but especially good for an institution that, for all of its good intentions, can fall into the consumer’s trap of mistaking extravagance for excellence. But they’ve struck gold with Disney’s Beauty & the Beast. It’s an indulgent piece of candy to begin with, and Theatre Memphis stuffed its production with golden tickets, and wrapped it in sparkling layers of old fashioned razzle dazzle.

It’s all too sweet for my buds, but will almost certainly keep box office phones ringing. So if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I’d reserve tickets now. I suspect word of mouth will soon make them a scarce commodity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Disgraced Sets A Course for Conflict

Posted By on Wed, Aug 24, 2016 at 5:16 PM

To be, or not to be... framed?
  • To be, or not to be... framed?
So a muslim, a white liberal, a black, and a jew walk into a theater... And no, that's not the beginning of a joke that got someone shamed off Twitter. There's no regrettable punchline here unless, of course, you mean the punch in the gut delivered by Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning one-act play Disgraced, which is available for local consumption at Circuit Playhouse through September4.

And who doesn't love a good punch in the gut now and then?

Disgraced is a play you need to see if you're a fan of fine acting and/or argumentative, politically-charged drama.  Irene Crist, who directed Circuit's vividly-realized production, has done her part to give the acclaimed show the life and wit it deserves. Still, I've got mixed feelings, no matter how much tough truth it spills in 90 overly-familiar, coincidence-packed minutes.

The show is often described as being about cross-cultural identity and the obstacles facing Muslim-Americans post 9-11. But since the proscenium's frame turns the mundane into myth, so it also functions — less fortunately — as a domesticated metaphor for globalism, radicalization, and terrorism, with the latter part expressed as a shocking moment of rage-fueled violence. 

The story: Amir (Gregory Szatkkowski), is a hotshot Pakistani-American lawyer with a shot at becoming a partner at the prestigious Jewish law firm where he works harder than anybody. He's derailed when his artist wife Emily (Natalie Jones) talks him into helping an Imam who's been accused of raising money for extremists. It's not paranoia when people really are conspiring against you and after his name's associated with a suspected Islamic radical, the knives come out for Amir. He becomes increasingly (and understandably) agitated by snubs, and other signs that he's falling from favor professionally.

Emily's an artist gunning for a show at the Whitney. She's also -in an unguarded moment- bedded Isaac, the Jewish man (Gabe Buetel-Gunn) who can make that show happen and who just happens to be married to the African American attorney (Jessica "Jai" Johnson) who, unbeknownst to Amir, has been given the partnership he was expecting. The hard-drinking dinner party that brings all these characters together to nibble on fennel and anchovy salad, plays out like a deconstruction of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as imagined by God of Carnage playwright Yasmina Reza using snippets of a real life newspaper comment section argument for dialogue. Noteworthy too, in a trivia-conscious play about American identities, everybody eats pork.

There are things you can be sure of. Like when somebody produces a gun on stage you can bet it will fire  before the show's over. While there are no firearms in this play, there are linguistic equivalents, and they strongly telegraph certain outcomes. Similarly, it's common enough for certain kinds of plays to climax with seemingly openminded characters revealing their prejudices by shouting racially-charged epithets in a moment of rage. Those familiar with the trope may find themselves anticipating this ugly inevitability. Akhtar might be appropriating these things ironically and aiming for ritual, but the effect is a little closer to deja vous.

Amir describes himself as an apostate and the Quran as hate mail to humanity stating, "There’s a result to believing that a book written about life in a specific society fifteen hundred years ago is the word of God: You start wanting to recreate that society... That’s why you have people like the Taliban. They’re trying to re-create the world in the image of the one that’s in the Quran." Events that follow result in a similar simulacrum, and Amir gives in to his scriptural destiny.

There's a frustrating air of fatalism to Disgraced, as atavistic pride bends toward violent predisposition.  But never mind the complaints. Terrific casting and scenic design evocative of Manhattan privilege help make up for predictability, and naked provocation. 

Disgraced picked up its Pulitzer in 2012 — a presidential election year, but not like this one. The newly-minted Tea Party, emboldened by it's reactionary, anti-Obama midterm success, was just starting to stir a white nationalistic pot of extreme conservatism that bubbled over into Donald J. Trump's 2016 campaign for the White House. Today Disgraced's cast of characters represent a microcosm of that candidate's clearly defined enemies. There are brown people, black people, immigrants, "East Coast Intellectuals," and liberals "with blood coming out of their whatever," all gathered together in one place to rehearse — as it is written — their parts for the end of the world. And so a play that aims for hard questions and complexity begins to feel a bit like propaganda. Nevertheless, its clearer and cloudier moments will both leave audiences with questions of their own, and that may very well be the point. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Details: The Devil's Music is an intimate night with the ghost of Bessie Smith

Posted By on Tue, Aug 23, 2016 at 1:06 PM

The Devil's Music is a simple pleasure. It's not one of the Hattiloo's most ambitious shows, but it's certainly one of the company's most cohesive. Audiences enter the playing space through a comfortable parlor lounge that's one part black box theater and two parts high-end bordello. It's a sweet, time-warping transition that makes entering the theater more like walking into a comfortable sitting room, where everything's soft and inviting — The perfect place to sit down and have a little talk with Blues Empress Bessie Smith. 

At this point it's time to do some disclaiming. Walking in on that set was little like walking into my own house, and maybe there's a reason for that. You see, I share a modern-decorated, 19th-Century cottage with the designer, and the red velvet curtains she's used here look awfully familiar. The wallpaper's right out of my TV room too. My wife, Charlotte Davis, has been a theater professional and project manager since before I started slinging words at the Flyer. Miraculously, our professional paths never conflicted until she joined the Hattiloo as production manager earlier this summer. What you need to know about our relationship is this: I won't have opinions about Hattiloo shows anymore. I'll know for certain everything that's wrong with any given set, because she's a bigger critic than me, and throughout production week I'll drift off to sleep at night hearing her furiously scratching items off her to-do list, and asking aloud, "Why isn't there a spittoon in this Memphis buffet flat?"  "Wouldn't a plant take up some of that empty wall space?" "Why aren't there more rugs?" "Couldn't everything be even softer, more nest like?" 

Like our cozy, brothel-esque house, maybe? Sure, The Devil's Music could be all that - and probably should be. I get it. But the magic happens in the transition. It just feels good hanging out in this space, and it feels even better when the spirit of Bessie Smith drops in for a visit. I'm not just saying that because, at some point, I have to close my eyes and sleep, but because it's true. Long story short, I doubt that this change in circumstances will compromise my reviewing, and if I ever begin to suspect that's happening, I'll recuse myself tout suite. 

The Devil's Music is part house concert, and part memory play, as Smith's piano payer Pickles summons up fond (and not so fond) recollections from the night his Empress died. It's not a solo show, though it mostly is. Pickles is there, obviously. And a sax player. And the audience is very much a character in this immersive show. But Bessie, as played by, Samantha Miller, doesn't share the stage with anybody. She's a force, and expects to be recognized.  

Director Leslie "Sticky" Reddick and Miller had their work cut out for them. The biographical monologue (with and without music) (See Lady Day at Emerson's...) has been done to death, and these kinds of shows can be hard to freshen up. This creative team has hit a mini-jackpot by keeping things simple and just letting Bessie be Bessie. This show succeeds because it puts the singer under a microscope and, in spite of the extreme close up, Miller never lets herself get caught acting. Bessie's just right there with you in the room, chatting it up, fussing, cussing, getting raw, working the house, losing her shit, going somewhere far, far away, and crashing back to earth with a shot of store bought gin. She's savory, like all those Columbia sides she recorded, but up close and so, so real.

Smith got her start singing in the Chattanooga streets. When food was scarce, she'd dance and sing at the corner of 13th and Elm Street in front of Chattanooga's White Elephant Saloon, with her older brother Andrew playing guitar. Better times were on the way, though. And worse.

At the height of her recording career the Empress was America's highest-earning black artist, headlining her own revue and touring the country in style in a customized boxcar. But she liked her liquor, her boys, her girls, and between a tumultuous marriage and an over the moon career, she manufactured enough drama to supply dozens of plays. This one's loaded with the stuff and packed full of devilish songs. Miller sings the hell out of them. 

 With numbers like, "Give Me a Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)," "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," and "Sugar in My Bowl," Smith's catalog is the perfect  soundtrack for sensualists, which brings me back to where we came in — literally, the parlor between the lobby and the show, where my conflict of interest resides. 

The Hattiloo's transformation from scrappy little storefront sensation to Midtown institution happened at light speed. Growing pains remain evident, exacerbated by the fact that a transformation of this significance also transforms requirements, modus operandi, and expectations. Consistency, as one might expect from a seat-of-the-pants startup, has always been an issue, and it's been an even bigger issue since the move. So it's good to see The Devil's Music — a show that might have been a hacked off revue — turned into a special little event. 

All I can do at this point is encourage you to take advantage of this brief, bluesy confection while it's available on the buffet. It goes down fast and easy. Then come back and tell me if you think I'm being fair.

Because, I'm not unbiased, and won't ever insult readers by pretending to be. 

Quick word about the music. It's not the most musically sophisticated combo I've ever heard, and a bass would really be appreciated here. But the not-too-adorned approach also adds to the intimacy and the sense that we're just hanging out with Bessie. There's nothing harder than being on stage with nothing to say or do and, in that regard, Bessie's backup is there for her whether she's singing or not. They are present — watching, listening, and responding. It's the mirror that sells the illusion we're all in this thing together. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Knowing You: Mamma Mia Does What it's Supposed to Do

Posted By on Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 3:24 PM

Three amigos. - POTS
  • POTS
  • Three amigos.
Guess I'm the kinda guy who only sees the litter and nobody will miss me when I'm gone. But, (Mamma mia!) Mamma Mia's not my cup of glitter. Those K-Tel hits are fine but they don't turn me on. 

Abba's jukebox musical is just one of those shows. Most likely you're either a fanatical devotee or you just don't get It. While I've always been solidly in the second group, I've got to admit that the trio of regional divas anchoring Playhouse on the Square's fun, faintly kitschy production give this sugary money-printing machine real local appeal. How hard could it be to sell tickets to see Kim Sanders, Claire Kohlheim, and Annie Freres do karaoke, and really, with a storyline so barely there it makes porno look way sophisticated, that's pretty much what Mama Mia is.  

More to the point, Mamma Mia is a cloying situation comedy set on a Greek island where Sophie, the daughter of an unmarried American ex-pat, has planned a big, messy surprise for her wedding party.

Sophie was born in the swinging, free-loving 1970’s, and her mother Donna, a rock-and-roller turned put-upon tavern-owner, has never been sure who the father was. After reading her mom’s diary, however, the determined young woman hones in on the three most likely candidates: a nerdy architect, an adventurous writer, and a gay banker who used to play in a punk band. Sophie's goal is to solve the mystery quickly and have her real dad give away the bride. So she does what any of us would do. She forges letters from her mother, inviting the three old friends on a holiday they won't soon forget.
Director Jordan Nichols and co-choreographer Travis Bradley have given their show a more vibrant movement profile than I remember from the stale Broadway tours, but Mamma Mia is all about those songs fans know so well, and, like previous productions, this regional premiere has a real "stand and deliver" quality. That's not a knock, because the goods are there and abundant.  

Sanders and Kohlheim sparkle as Donna’s oldest (sparkliest) friends and former bandmates —Tania the jet-setting serial bride and Rosie, an earthy cookbook author. Similarly, Greg Krosnes, Jonathan Christian, and Greg Earnest give plenty of support as Sophie's three (potential) dads. But this show belongs to Freres who plays Donna with the quippy sass of a latter day Hepburn and whose full, melted butter voice goes from gutsy to angelic in the span of a keyboard fill. She's a musical theater vet who's done some bar band singing too, and it shows. 

I like Abba as much as the next nostalgic Gen X-er. Mamma Mia, not so much. But if it's your confectionary cup of commercial swill (and I'm not judging, really), you will not be disappointed. 

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