Friday, April 13, 2018

An Act of God: Theatre Memphis Stages a Divine Comedy

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2018 at 3:21 PM

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I want to write an 11th commandment: Thou shalt take that preaching somewhere else.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how many nice coffee drinks on the Main Street mall have been ruined when some guy’s rights to speech and worship collided with my inalienable pursuit of happiness. When you’ve been avoiding church your whole life nothing sucks like that moment when a street preacher sets up across from your table with his PA rig and his garbled, unscholarly message for sinners. So, I was ready to receive An Act of God, the irreverent nightclub act disguised as a play by Daily Show writer David Javerbaum. But somewhere between “let there be light,” and something about “wrath management issues,” I started to wonder, “Holy shit, did I get tricked into going to church?”

Don’t misunderstand. An Act of God doesn’t pull a Book of Mormon, wrapping all its hipster heresy around a fluffy, comforting case for faith. It’s a full-on lampoon having great fun with Biblical inconsistency and God’s "mysterious ways." You could build a whole show around sassy edicts like, “I'm flattered but don’t kill in my name — I can kill all by myself.” Most of the zingers have stingers. But as Kevar Maffitt works the room in his lordly robes, sharing illuminating personal anecdotes and popping his points, it’s hard to shake the sense that this avatar of the almighty is testifying to a congregation, if not preaching to the proverbial choir. Sometimes I laughed. But mostly I just sank into myself and wondered about the big philosophical questions that weren’t being addressed. Questions like, “Are all theater seats uncomfortable or only the ones I sit in?”
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Maffitt’s a great God with a winning personality and offbeat charm. This material can’t sustain itself without a strong personality lifting it up, and Maffitt's got what it takes to do the heavy work. He's especially good during a deserving smitedown of the horrible (I mean “classic”) bedtime death prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But there’s a reason TED talks cut off at 18 minutes, and even mild antagonism from Stuart Turner (standing in for Archangel Michael) fails to give the monologue a dramatic spine.

Theatre Memphis’ Act of God has a lot going for it, including a supporting cast that’s way too accomplished to stand in as magician’s assistants. Director Cecelia Wingate’s eye for detail is evident and Jack Yates’ scenic design is heavenly, per usual. Javerbaum’s gags are also good. Some of them are great. We should probably thank him for this food for thought. It will tickle many skeptics and make affirmation-seeking atheists happy as fundamentalists at a foot-washing. Also, Act of God’s a brave season choice for a donor-dependent community theater in the South. Theatre Memphis is to be commended for trying it on, and giving it such a lush production. Outside that context the material doesn’t break any new ground. Not my cup of blasphemy.
Event Details An Act of God
@ Theatre Memphis
630 Perkins Ext.
East Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. Continues through April 22
Theater

The Opera 901 Showcase Puts Memphis in the Spotlight

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2018 at 12:27 PM

Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo
  • Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo
How about a big standing ovation for Opera Memphis, its general director Ned Canty, its newly announced directing fellow Dennis Whitehead Darling, and the fantastic cast and crew of the Midtown Opera Festival’s 901 Showcase. They’ve collectively made something very impressive — an epic built from the tiniest gestures.

It’s hard for opera to shake its longstanding reputation for extravagance, expense, elephants, Orientalism, and required reading for English-onlies. But there’s something almost revolutionary about Canty’s evangelical zeal and dedication to access. With his 30 Days of Opera platform, Canty’s made the intimidating form familiar throughout the 901. This year’s Opera Festival turns that formula inside out with an evening of tiny (and tremendous) world premieres marrying familiarity to the form.

Employing local and locally connected writers (and some area composers too), the Opera 901 Showcase takes on family, identity, responsibility, grief, institutional racism, secret histories, and professional wrestling (yes, wrestling). Big, universal themes are explored in unmistakably local contexts, making this year’s small opera event a true festival in the best and most basic sense of the word. It’s a multicourse feast for the eyes and ears, and a community revival testing shared values and celebrating things we cherish.

Watching the Opera 901 Showcase is like cracking into a great collection of short stories. No piece is longer than 20 minutes, and each work uses the form just a little differently to extract meaning and message from isolated moments in time. Barriers to entry are low (unless you only speak French, German, and/or Italian), and even musical theater skeptics may find themselves reconsidering their positions regarding opera.

The 901 experience begins with “Formidable,” an aptly titled, gorgeously told story about two strangers on a park bench overlooking the Mississippi River. One of the women is an earthy, oversharing Memphian. The other “isn’t from around here,” having come to Memphis to dispose of her father’s ashes. With a lean and lovely score by Kamala Sankaram and words by Jerre Dye, “Formidable” leans on a few overused sentences, but lands with the raw force of a Cathedral-era Raymond Carver story, when the influential author was redefining anthology, and muscular prose. “A Small Good Thing” particularly comes to mind.
“A Pretty Little Room” jumps back in time to 1892 to tell the true crime story of Alice Mitchell, who brutally murdered Freda Ward. In order to prevent Ward, her lover, from boarding a steamboat called the Ora Lee and leaving for a new life in rural Golddust, TN, Mitchell took her father’s razor and walked across river ice to confront her runaway lover. She slashed Ward’s face and was subsequently committed to the Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, TN, where the pulpy and portentous “Pretty Little Room” unravels like a fever dream. It’s a nifty penny dreadful of a piece, written by Dye and scored, with all appropriate dread and dissonance, by Memphis composer Robert Patterson.

Marco Pavé’s "Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo" plays out like a hip-hop mashup of Brecht and Camus. In this one instance Opera Memphis bent rules about cast size and opera length to stage selected scenes and choreography from a proposed full-length fable about politics, plague, and Memphis’ school-to-prison pipeline.

Technical problems on opening night made “The Demo” a bumpier ride than it might have been. And, to fit better with an evening of tightly wrapped shorts it might have been better to present a single, self-contained scene. But Pavé’s entry was still a mighty preview, overstuffed with broad comedy, blunt commentary, and arresting imagery. Hopefully we'll get to see the finished product someday.

“Moving Up in the World,” is the only piece in this selection that’s not a world premiere having been originally staged as a part of Opera Memphis’ Ghosts of Crosstown event. Loosely inspired by the life of Memphis bartender Lafayette Draper, it tells the story of an elevator operator contemplating his imperfect but improving lot in life on the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling is more of a surging talent than an emerging talent. His simple, nuanced staging of “Moving Up” charms audience at the top, and never lets go even when things are going down.


And now, the fireworks...

Has there ever been a wrestling heel whose gimmick was being a shitty father figure to all the babyface grapplers? If not, there should be, and "Kayfabe: A Wrasslin’ Opera" is all the proof you need. This brief, delightful rock opera is a collaboration between Dye and Memphis rocker/arranger Sam Shoup that squashes all the garishness of pro wrestling into the barely developed story of an abusive father-son relationship.

Dye’s wrestlers aren’t rooted in Memphis lore, and neither the storyline nor the characters measure up to the operatic grandeur of a good Jerry Lawler/Ric Flair feud. But honestly, that’s a tall order. Shoup’s got some experience marrying rock and opera and his giddy, gritty score hits all the electric marks.

And I cannot tell a lie: There is something very satisfying about about going to the opera to see a guy get whacked with a folding chair. That may be all you need to know.

I haven’t said much about the performers. The singing’s all lovely and professional, of course, and the music’s great. But we expect all that, right? The revelation here is the up-close acting. Sawnette Sulker and Phyllis Pancella warm hearts and break them in “Formidable.” Daniel Spiotta and Brendan Tuohy chew scenery in “Kayfabe.” Darren Stokes takes audiences for a ride in “Moving Up in the World,” and Chelsea Miller and Nikola Printz chill in “A Pretty Little Room.” Stephen Len White does great character work throughout and Pavé leaves us wanting more.

When it didn’t glitch, projected images and titles were striking and allowed scenic design to be stripped to the bare essentials. Not needing to move a lot of scenery between operas made for fluid transitions. Canty’s commentary between shows was fun, sometimes improvisational, and always informative.

The Midtown Opera Festival continues this weekend with “The Triumph of Honor,” and another performance of the Opera 901 Showcase.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Dirty Dating, Homemade Opera, and God: A Weekend Theatre Roundup!

Posted By on Fri, Apr 6, 2018 at 1:23 PM

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If you find yourself in Germantown this weekend, First Date's not a terrible idea for an actual first date. And Saturday midnight performance at Germantown Community Theatre promises to be ... different.

This short, sweet rom-com musical introduces us to artsy, edgy Casey (Christina Hernandez)  and boring, businessy Aaron (Ryan Gilliam). They've been set up on a blind date and their meeting in a restaurant takes us through all the awkward stages from crushing one another's self esteem to Google background checks, to pre-planned bail-out calls, to wondering what to talk about next.

GCT's cast also showcases the talents of Nichol Pritchard, Jimmy Hoxie, Court Nixon, Jess Brookes, Jason Eschhofen, and Joe Johnson.

All I know about Saturday's special midnight show is that it's being described by cast and crew as "EXTRA raunchy," so bring your smelling salts.

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Daily Show writer Savid Javerbaum penned the comedy An Act of God, which gives the Supreme Being an opportunity to set the record straight on a variety of topics. Over the course of 90-minutes, the Good One discusses his famously mysterious ways, addresses longstanding misconceptions, weighs in on Adam and Steve, and pretty much lets it all hang out. Theatre Memphis' NextStage production is directed by Cecelia Wingate and stars Kevar Maffitt as God with Jason Gerhard and Stuart Turner as the angels Gabriel and Michael.
Event Details An Act of God
@ Theatre Memphis
630 Perkins Ext.
East Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. Continues through April 22
Theater
Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company is showcasing original works focusing on Memphis and the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. BCTC Remembers reunites the 2-woman African-American comedy team Royston & O’Gray who wrote and toured together for more than a decade.
Friends of George's presents Dragnificent 2018: Dragnificent Doo-wop with music from the ‘50s and ‘60s, original skits, production numbers, and group performances featuring the ensemble cast.
Dye & Shoup
  • Dye & Shoup

The Opera 901 Showcase is about as Memphis as you can get without somebody grilling ribs on stage. The lineup of short works includes "Formidable," which tells the story of a woman scattering her father's ashes in the Mississippi River and hip-hop artist Marco Pave's dystopian "Grc Lnd," about a future outbreak of Yellow Fever and a rising tide of activism. "A Pretty Little Room" is technically set in Bolivar at the Western State Hospital for the Insane, while "Going Up" — originally created by Opera Memphis as part of its Ghosts of Crosstown project — tells the story of an elevator operator working for Sears. "Kayfabe" is subtitled "A Wrasslin' Opera," and unites librettist Jerre Dye with composer, arranger, and old-school rocker Sam Shoup to tell the story of a pretty boy grappler called Face coming to grips with his personal demons — and the big bad heel.

"This isn't about an actual Memphis wrestler. It's not about Jackie Fargo or Jimmy Hart," says Shoup, a veteran of MTV's weird video vanguard band the Dog Police and staff arranger for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, New York Pops, and Memphis Symphony Orchestra. "But it is set in the Mid-South Coliseum in the 1970s. And let me tell you, it ain't Mozart.

"I played in a lot of '70s rock bands," Shoup says, describing the opera's attitude and sonic texture. "This show is 15 minutes of pure fun."

Speaking of fun, here's a little project Shoup did with Kallen Esperian — "The Immigrant Song."



Monday, March 26, 2018

Voices of the South Announces Fringe Festival Lineup

Posted By on Mon, Mar 26, 2018 at 2:22 PM

Berry & Madden
  • Berry & Madden
There are all kinds of fringe festivals big and small. A local fringe festival like the one Voices of the South is producing this spring, is an opportunity to sample a whole season's worth of independent performance in only a weekend or two.

Fun fact: Voices was born 22 years ago when Jenny Madden and Alice Berry were developing Southern narrative theater to take to the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. This year Berry, Madden and the rest of the company will bring a taste of Edinburgh to their hometown with The Memphis FRINGE Festival, a two weekend event highlighting a diverse slate of area actors, movers, writers, and storytellers working just outside the mainstream.   

Here's The Memphis FRINGE Festival lineup.

The Laramie Project with Central High School

Fri., April 13 @ 7pm; Sat., April 14 @ 6pm; Sun., April 15 @ 5:30pm

In October 1998 Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tied to a fence, beaten, and left to die alone on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Five weeks after this attack, members of the Tectonic Theatre Group traveled to Laramie to conduct interviews with the residents. They used these conversations to draft The Laramie Project, a narrative portrayal of life in Laramie the year after the murder. Sadly, many of the issues raised by Shepard’s brutal murder have not gone away in the twenty years since. Central High School’s theatre program is pleased to present an abridged version of this powerful play.



Stories in the Water with Latrelle Bright

Fri., April 13 @ 8pm; Sat., April 14 @ 7:30pm; Sun., April 15 @ 2:30pm

Stories in the Water explores deeply rooted relationships black people have with our most precious resource. From the shore of the vast ocean to the “community” swimming pool, a woman leads an expedition through the memory water holds. Leaving the safety of solid ground, water engulfs her, carries her across space time and delivers her home again.



The Feeling is Mutual with Sarah Ledbetter

Fri., April 13 @ 9pm; Sat., April 14 @ 9pm; Sun., April 15 @ 1:30pm

THE FEELING IS MUTUAL is a one woman show that creator Sarah Ledbetter really, really hopes you’ll like. It’s about gravity and other pesky inevitables. It involves dancing, talking, and thinking. It is somewhat challenging for the audience member in that it makes some pretty wild connections between different things, and is not always a display of virtuosity. It is, rather, a display of daring and sometimes mistaken efforts for the purpose of sharing with you, the audience, what it feels like to be dancing in front of a group of people who deserve to see something really beautiful happen.



Melanie with Myesha Williams

Sat., April 14 @ 11am; Sun., April 15 @ 4:30pm; Sat., April 21 @ 11am

Melanie tells a story of a strong lady who visits home after being adopted as a child. While reuniting with her grandmother, Melanie rediscovers a book filled with stories of her past grandmothers’ lives, reminisce unwanted feelings that she had as a child before adoption, and seek understanding for her upbringing. Melanie learns the expanded definition of unconditional love as she forgives her family and connect back with her roots.



Squaring Up: Project 1

Sat., April 14 @ Noon; Sun. April 15 @ 3:30pm; Sat. April 21 @ 1:30pm

Project 1 and Thistle & Bee hope to act as catalysts leading to a community that is aware of the human sex trafficking issue, and ready to take action to support services that help victims recover from the trauma. At the end of each performance, audience members are invited take part in an immersive artistic co-creation experience and a talk-back to process the performance and discuss how community members can work to help end sex trafficking in Memphis. Net ticket proceeds will be gifted to Thistle & Bee and the Lisieux Community.



The Cabin by Adam Remsen

Sat., April 14 @ 1:15pm, Sat., April 21 @ 3pm; Sun., April 22 @ 7:15pm

Quark presents The Cabin, an original play by Adam Remsen. Hilarity erupts as a brother and sister learn the dark secrets of their deceased mother's troubled past. Laugh yourself silly as two siblings delve deep into their family's unsettling history. This heart-wrenching family drama will leave you in stitches! A harrowing laugh riot!



The Sound of Cracking Bones with Jason Gerhard

Sat., April 14 @ 2:30pm, Sun., April 15 @ 7:30pm; Sat., April 21 @ Noon



The Healing Power of JC with Sara Kaye Larson

Sat., April 14 @ 3:45pm; Sun., April 15 @ 6:30pm; Sun., April 22 @ 4pm



The Curator with The Perry Library of Theatre

Sat., April 14 @ 5pm; Sat., April 21 @ 8:15pm; Sun., April 22 @ 5pm

THE PERRY LIBRARY OF THEATRE presents an original play by E. Warren Perry, Jr., The Curator. This one-act play grapples with the results of applying postmodernism and historical revisionism to a museum’s collection, to its logical and uproarious extreme. Set in a fictional southern museum, curator Dr. Ronald Saulsbury fights new museum influences and his axe-wielding young assistant to try to prevent the annihilation of every real artifact in the collection – and history itself.



Far Away by Caryl Churchill; Directed by James Kevin Cochran

Sun., April 15 @ 8:30pm; Sat., April 21 @ 7pm; Sun., April 22 @ 6pm

Joan wakes up in the middle of the night and sees something she’s not meant to see. She’s convinced to keep a secret that will forever alter the course of her life. Caryl Churchill’s brief and chilling Far Away paints a not so-far-away future where fear of “the other” rules supreme, and beauty, politics and violence strike an uneasy kinship. Confronting our deepest fears, Far Awaydepicts a chilling world where everyone and everything is at war, and not even the birds in the trees or the river below can be trusted. Whose side is the right side?



Sinners on a Southbound Bus with Danica Horton

Fri., April 20 @ 7pm; Sat., April 21 @ 5:30pm; Sun., April 22 @ 2pm

An evening bus ride from Montgomery to Dothan, Alabama; two men on the run– but was their action a sin or a virtue? This dark one-act explores power, morality, fear, and the ghosts we leave behind.

Please note: Strong language and violence. Not suitable for children.



Rebound with Jill Guyton Nee

Fri., April 20 @ 8pm; Sat., April 21 @ 4pm; Sun., April 22 @ 3pm


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Five women tell stories of harassment and abuse; Playhouse on the Square won’t release the results of sexual misconduct investigation.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 21, 2018 at 1:01 PM

Jackie Nichols - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Jackie Nichols

Call it a #Metoo moment. Call it the “Weinstein effect,” a recently coined term inspired by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s lurid story and used to describe the watershed moment when women collectively stood up to sexual predators in positions of power and said, “no more.” Call it whatever you want. Now that Playhouse on the Square has completed its independent investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct at Playhouse on the Square — and possible abusive behavior by the theater’s founder Jackie Nichols in particular – women who’ve contributed to that investigation want their stories told. And want them to matter.

On Dec. 1, 2017, Angela Russell posted an explosive allegation on her Facebook page against Nichols. She accused him of sexually abusing her in the 1970s, while he was married to her mother, Diana, his first wife. The abuse allegedly happened over a three-year period starting when she was only 6 years old. In a statement published by The Commercial Appeal, Nichols flatly denied Russell's allegations.

Russell, now 49, is the owner of Underground Art, a 25-year-old tattoo studio in Cooper-Young. She says she’s been trying for decades to get Nichols to take accountability for what he allegedly did. Her claim is backed by a high school classmate who remembers hearing the story from Russell in the 1980s, and by other friends who say Russell told them about it in the 1990s.

A month after that post appeared on Facebook, a group of 20 Playhouse on the Square employees, spearheaded by two company members who are no longer with the organization, interrupted a board meeting to make a statement and present a list of demands.

“Playhouse stands on a national stage,” the statement read. “Our actions will be an example to other artists and organizations in Memphis and around the country. We want to send a strong message: ‘Not here. Not ever.’ The people in this room today have a responsibility to make that principle a reality.”

Demands included the “immediate suspension of Jackie Nichols pending a full investigation,” and for the board to “additionally look for other individuals or incidents that may not already have been brought to light.”

On January 5th, Nichols took a voluntary leave of absence. A week later, Jennifer S. Hagerman of the Burch Porter & Johnson law firm was named to investigate complaints against Nichols and unknown others, per the employee statement. A separate review of policies and procedures was also announced.

A little more than two months later, on March 13th, Nichols resigned his position as executive producer. A statement from the Playhouse board made no mention of the investigation and praised the outgoing leader’s unparalleled service to Memphis theater.

Playhouse’s refusal to release the Burch Porter & Johnson report has not been well received by some of the women who met with Hagerman. In addition to Russell, the Flyer has interviewed four other women who spoke to the investigators and alleged sexual harassment by Nichols: Louisa Koeppel, Alice Raver, and two women who asked to have their identity protected for personal and professional reasons. Here are their stories.

When Louisa Koeppel read Angela Russell’s Facebook post last fall, it brought back a memory of being driven home one night in the 1980s by Nichols after she'd been baby-sitting at his house.

“Jackie had been drinking,” Koeppel recalls. She says she remembers feeling her weight pressing against the passenger door while he said things such as, “Too bad you’re the babysitter,” and “You’re starting to look like a woman.” She says she was scared enough to consider opening the car door and rolling out of the slow-moving vehicle.

Koeppel, now 45, is a dancer with Project: Motion and member of Hutchison’s fine arts faculty. She didn’t want to share her story on social media as Russell had, but she felt compelled to speak to the investigator. Her father, Fredric Koeppel, formerly The Commercial Appeal’s food and culture writer, also remembers the night in question.

"One night Louisa came into the house very upset,” he wrote in a statement supporting his daughter’s story. Louisa told her father that Jackie had “hit on her” in the car. “He put his arm around her and tried to kiss her,” Koeppel's statement continues. "Jackie is a longtime acquaintance of mine, whom I see out and about occasionally. I never brought up the issue of his misconduct with my 13- or 14-year-old daughter, but every time I saw him, I thought about what he had done."

Alice Raver says she thought of Playhouse on the Square as her “safe space” when she was a teenager. The West Memphis native, now working as an actor in Nashville, says she still remembers it that way. Her parents argued at home, she says, and the theater was where she went to get away from it.

“It was glorious being part of Playhouse on the Square, in spite of what Jackie did,” she says.

As a teenager in the 1970s, Raver began doing youth theater at Circuit Playhouse. Raver says she was impressed by Nichols’ theater operation because his company was producing edgy plays like When You Comin’ Back Red Ryder while other theaters around town were mounting musical confections like Brigadoon. Raver was eager to do more around the theater, and when opportunities to help out with lighting, set construction, and box office work presented themselves, the 15-year-old jumped at the chance.

“I had keys,” she says. “I felt so privileged to have that responsibility.”

Raver says she can’t remember the first time Nichols was inappropriate. She says there were stolen kisses and comments about her body that happened when they were alone together, and that they could be usually be diverted with mild resistance. Like the keys she carried, and the responsibilities that went along with them, she says the attention felt like validation, bolstering the esteem of an awkward teenager with acne and braces. “I was flattered that he showed an interest,” she says. “Maybe he thought I was cute.”

Raver says the kisses and comments eventually became less frequent and stopped when she took a break from the theater to attend college.

Two other women who spoke to the investigator also shared their stories with the Flyer but asked that their names be withheld for personal and professional reasons. The first was 14 and doing youth theater with Circuit Playhouse when, according to her account, Nichols asked for help taking costumes to the costume shop.

“I was gathering costumes when he came up to me and started kissing me on the mouth,” she says. Having very little experience kissing at that point in her life she initially responded by kissing back. A moment later she pushed him away asking, “Do you have any idea how old I am?” When she told Nichols, he allegedly responded saying, “You don’t have to mention this to your mother. “

The last person to speak to the Flyer before publication tells a story much like all the rest. She says the groping began at 15. Sex was allegedly solicited when she was 17.
Jackie Nichols’ contributions to the performing arts and culture in Memphis are difficult to overstate. Loeb Properties may have brought Overton Square back from the brink of demolition, but Nichols and Circuit Playhouse Inc. (CPI) literally set the stage for the now-thriving entertainment district’s resurrection and revitalization.

Nichols launched his company in 1969. In 1975, he created a new flagship theater, opening Playhouse on the Square on Madison Avenue. In 2010 he moved Playhouse out of its second home in the old Memphian Theatre just off the northwest corner of Cooper and Union and into a custom-built, $12.5 million, performing arts facility across the street.

Nichols was also instrumental founding TheatreWorks and The Evergreen Theatre, a pair of performance spaces made available for smaller companies to co-occupy. These venues have enabled the growth of independent theater, comedy, and variety arts scenes, enjoyed by thousands of Memphians today.

Playhouse’s theater education program is a powerhouse, reaching 30,000 children annually. Its leaders have a strong history of child advocacy and responsible training.

For these reasons and others, many people — especially theater people — are grateful for everything Nichols has accomplished in Memphis. Playhouse on the Square has grown from a tiny regional theater into a professional company with enviable physical resources. It’s the kind of resounding success that’s hard to argue with — the kind of success that sometimes makes dissenting voices hard to hear.

“I am proud of what we have built together,” Nichols wrote in his March 13th letter announcing his resignation, citing his theater’s $3 million annual revenue and its 40,000 yearly attendance. “I have reached the point in my life where it is important to me to share the insights I've gained and lessons I've learned with my colleagues and peers so that I may contribute to the professions that have given me so much happiness and fulfillment.”

In a separate media release also dated March 13th, Playhouse on the Square announced that interim executive producer Michael Detroit would officially assume Nichols old job full time. In a statement to the Commercial Appeal Nichols said not conducting an investigation into his conduct would be “irresponsible,” but his March 13th resignation/retirement announcement did not mention the investigation or its findings.

The women who spoke to the Flyer said their interactions with the investigator were professional and thorough, but Russell questions why the results of the investigation have not been made public.

“This absolutely lacks accountability, culpability and transparency,” Russell wrote in response to Tuesday’s announcements. “There is no mention that the other women who've come forward were also underage when they were abused. There is no mention of any allegations against other members of the organization. There is no mention of complicity by other members of the organization.

“We will continue to pressure Playhouse to release that report, to take accountability,” she concluded.

Russell’s announcement apparently runs counter to attitudes at Playhouse on the Square. When asked about the silence in regard to Hagerman ’s investigation, Playhouse board member and media consultant David Brown said there will be no summary report forthcoming.

“There will be no release of findings,” Brown wrote, responding to an email from the Flyer. “Playhouse never said it would publicly release a report.

“I can tell you that the last alleged event was from the 1980s, nothing in the past 34 years,” he continued. “[Nichols] denies all of the allegations that came up during the investigation."

The #eyesonplayhouse hashtag Russell uses hasn’t exactly caught fire, but it only takes a little social media searching to locate negative threads about POTS on the internet. The commenters' concerns revolve around a lack of transparency and an inability to determine what problems, if any, may have been identified by the investigation, and whether or not Nichols' decision to leave the organization — a decision that hasn't been officially acknowledged as being connected to the investigation — is part of a meaningful solution. The fact that POTS did not acknowledge its investigation in media releases regarding the 49-year-old institution’s historic change of leadership does nothing to allay concerns that problems, if they exist, may be related to a culture inured to those types of actions, rather than to a specific individual.

Maybe all this is simply the Weinstein effect. Maybe it’s social media’s ability to keep unpopular ideas moving around the internet when legacy media isn’t paying attention. However we choose to label this particular cultural moment, one thing is certain: These are no longer the kinds of concerns that go gently into the night when prominent men retire.


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Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Drowsy Chaperone" hits, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" hits walls

Posted By on Sat, Mar 17, 2018 at 6:27 PM

Jason Spitzer spins the hot wax.
  • Jason Spitzer spins the hot wax.
The Drowsy Chaperone begins in the blackout with a cranky voice calling out into the darkness. "I hate theater," it says. "It's always so disappointing, isn't it?" Lights finally come up, illuminating an unremarkable apartment and its lone occupant, the Man in Chair. He shares a little prayer before the start of any live performance asking God to keep things short — two hours at the most. Additional requests are just as modest: a story, "a few good songs" and some good old fashioned escapism.

I've felt this poor man's pain since the first time I sat down to watch The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of 1920's era musical comedies that takes its share of pokes at modern fare ("Please Elton John, must we continue this charade!"). The Man in Chair loves theater, of course. Or what it's capable of anyway. He's just picky. Discerning.

Theater Memphis' take on this instant classic is knowing and no holds barred, with a terrific cast that includes Jason Spitzer as the curmudgeonly man, with Gia Welch as a superstar giving up her career for love, and Annie Freres as the titular chaperone.

There's so much more I could say about this cast and all its performers but maybe reviews shouldn't be too long either. How about we wrap with a classic: Don't miss this one.
MICHAEL GRAVOIS
  • Michael Gravois
I regret that I've been occupied with other stories of late and unable to blog about Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Or, to be precise, I regret that I haven't blogged about its source material Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and boasting one of the greatest comedy writing teams of all time. The roster included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen and Laughter author Neil Simon among others. Best I can say at this point: Those unfamiliar are overdue a YouTube binge. It was SNL when words like "pregnant" were too racy. But in spite of a more restrictive environment, Caesar's team regularly delivered smart, relevant material. Maybe even too smart for network TV, which always looked to grab the biggest audience possible no matter how low you had to aim.


Your Show of Shows represented an extraordinary convergence of talent and its quirky backstage life has been eulogized memorialized in TV's Dick Van Dyke Show, Simon's Laughter, and the wonderful Peter O'Toole film My Favorite Year.

Like Drowsy Chaperone, Laughter on the 23rd Floor pivots around a narrator. Unlike Chaperone, we're never given that much of a reason to care about this storyteller, loosely based on the playwright. He's just a device to set things up and wrap them up in a show with not much story, but a whole lot of character.

From people punching holes in the wall to running gags and unexpected changes of pants, the conflict and physical comedy in Laughter on the 23d Floor echoes the source material. What it may lack story-wise, it more than makes up for in opportunities for laughs.

Michael Gravois digs into the role of Max Prince, loosely based on the driven but booze and pill-addled Caesar.  With a believable, manic edge Gravois convinces us he's the kind of guy who might write a post sobriety novel titled Where've I Been? But there's no starring role in this comedy, it's the kind of ensemble where one weak link breaks the chain. Gravois is supported by a gaggle of solid comic performers including Jonathan Christian, Brent Davis, and Kim Sanders as various other members of the greatest writers room in the history of writers rooms.

I've never been a Simon fan — an unpopular opinion I know. And structurally speaking, this is arguably one of a prolific writer's most paint-by-numbers efforts. It may not be a great play. But when the characters come to life and the comedy cooks it can be a helluva show. 




Friday, March 16, 2018

Playhouse on the Square Won’t Share Findings of Misconduct Investigation

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2018 at 1:32 PM

Jackie Nichols - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Jackie Nichols
Playhouse on the Square won’t release the findings of an independent investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by former executive director Jackie Nichols according to David Brown, a board member and consultant handling news media contacts on behalf of the organization.

The now-concluded investigation had been triggered by one woman’s December Facebook post accusing Nichols of sexually abusing her 40 years ago. Although they did not go public on social media, and none have been previously acknowledged by Playhouse on the Square or its representatives, several more women came forward to tell their stories to the investigator.

When asked if the report or a summary of findings would be released, Brown responded: “There will be no release of findings. Playhouse never said it would publicly release a report. I can tell you that the last alleged event was from the 1980s, nothing in the past 34 years, and (Nichols) denies all of the allegations that came up during the investigation.”

In response to a request to interview Nichols, Brown said the Flyer would need to contact Nichols directly or by way of his attorney, Louis P. Britt III.

“In fact, I think that would be the only way for you to report with balance. Jackie is not with Playhouse any longer as he has retired,” Brown wrote in an email.

"The Nether" : A horror show about pedophilia without consequence in virtual paradise

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2018 at 11:51 AM

Sims v the Detective in The Nether onstage at the Evergreen Theatre.
  • Sims v the Detective in The Nether onstage at the Evergreen Theatre.
Jennifer Haley's The Nether is a remarkable little play stuffed with big ideas. It’s a near future detective story about investigating pedophilia and brutal murder in a virtual world “without consequence.” It’s another big little play produced by Quark, a company devoted to “small, essential” theatre. With an A-list cast of Memphis actors it’s one brief act of smart, relevant drama — serious stuff with a comic book edge and satisfying moments of dark, blindsiding humor.

Today we call it the internet. In the future it’s the "Nether." And in the future (should we choose to become “shades”) we can leave our physical bodies behind to atrophy, live in our own custom-built avatars and enter into a world without consequence where girls will be boys and boys will be girls and nothing is real — unless it all is. Jillian Barron plays the hardboiled detective here and brings a fierce anime edge to her scenes with Sims/Papa, as played by the honest, always understated Barclay Roberts. Papa invented The Hideaway — a beautiful, faintly Edwardian world where everything is perfect and visitors can have special encounters with little girls (sometimes the avatars of adult men) before chopping them to pieces with an axe.


There are moments when The Nether begins to echo old, dubious warnings about the effect of deviant behaviors in entertainment and video games. Sims/Papa, as played by Roberts, makes the usual (nevertheless icky) counter argument that he provides a safe place for potential bad actors to work through compulsions without actual harm. But, for being such a little play — only 85-minutes long —The Nether is bigger than all that, bird-dogging a variety of near-future challenges that seem almost inevitable.

Quark’s a poor company that embraces its poverty, leans hard on good material and the strongest tool in the theater-maker’s toolbox — imagination. This isn’t bare-stage theater, but it nearly is. There are screens and some furniture, but this show is mostly built of sound. A low electronic buzz defines the real world with more pleasing noises taking us into The Hideaway. And yet, as visually null as this production may be (save for some colorful lighting splashes courtesy of Louisa Koeppel) this play is most likely to appeal to sci-fi fans who’ve enjoyed eye-candy like Blade Runner and HBO’s Westworld.

Stephen Garrett — soon to take a paternity break from the stage — is typically strong as a conflicted patron of The Hideaway who’s more than he seems.

In a difficult role that calls to mind the play’s own cautions about role-playing in a world without consequence, young Molly McFarland stands shoulder to shoulder with her adult co-stars and delivers a brave, polished performance.

From a technical theater standpoint, it’s easy to imagine a better dressed version of The Nether using projection or some other wizardry to paint scenes with pure light. With confident, unfussy direction by Tony Isbell, t’s hard to imagine a more thoughtful or surprising version.

With terrific productions of Blackbird and Years to the Day in the rearview mirror, Quark’s still the new kid on the block. Also a real contender. Good stuff.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Playhouse on the Square Founder Steps Down Following Sexual Misconduct Investigation

Posted By on Tue, Mar 13, 2018 at 2:21 PM

Jackie Nichols - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Jackie Nichols
Playhouse on the Square founder and executive producer Jackie Nichols has retired* following an investigation into sexual misconduct according to a report by The Commercial Appeal.

Nichols' statement of retirement:

"My colleagues and I founded this company 49 years ago because we loved great theatre and we believed that our hometown of Memphis deserved a place where great theatre would thrive. In the last several decades, Playhouse on the Square has evolved from this simple notion into one of the most successful performing arts organizations in the country, with annual gross revenues approaching $3-million and more than 40,000 audience members attending our 16 yearly productions. Our education and professional training programs have given rise to multiple generations of performers, designers, administrators, and artists of all disciplines. From our home in Overton Square, we have driven a modern renaissance of Midtown and now anchor one of the most successful economic and community development projects of the last several years. I am proud of what we have built together.

Several years ago, I began a discussion with my family about what the next chapter of my career might include. My mentor and friend Andrew Clarkson believed that all of us have an obligation to 'learn, earn, and return;' that is, we should work hard to learn as much as we can about our chosen career path, make an honest living in that field, and then give back to the communities that make our success possible. I have reached the point in my life where it is important to me to share the insights I've gained and lessons I've learned with my colleagues and peers so that I may contribute to the professions that have given me so much happiness and fulfillment. Therefore, today I am resigning my position as Executive Producer of Playhouse on the Square so that I may devote my full energies and attention to consulting for the arts and nonprofit sectors.

I am more excited about where Memphis and its amazing arts community are going than I have ever been. I look forward to doing whatever I can to continue that momentum and I am excited about what the future holds... Thank you for the opportunity you have given me to serve, and for the many incredible moments — onstage and offstage — that we have shared together."

The Flyer has been following this story from the beginning. We've interviewed some of the people who spoke to the investigator and will have a more detailed report soon.

*Note: This post has been modified to reflect an inaccuracy. The media release was finally delivered along with the note "You have used the wrong word in your lede. Pay attention. He didn’t resign. He retired. There is a difference." We regret any inaccuracy, although the initial report did reflect actual language used in the quoted text above. More to come.

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Friday, March 9, 2018

Report on Playhouse investigation may arrive as soon as Monday

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 5:59 PM

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The results of a two-month-old investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Playhouse on the Square founder and executive producer Jackie Nichols will be made public soon according to a  consultant* handling news media contacts on behalf of the organization. Possibly as early as Monday, March 12th.

On January 5th, Playhouse on the Square announced that Nichols, 70, would take a leave of absence until the investigation was complete. From the media release:
The Executive Committee of Circuit Playhouse Inc. today announced that Executive Producer Jackie Nichols is taking a leave of absence pending an investigation of a sexual misconduct allegation against him, which he denies. This allegation is unrelated to the operations of Playhouse on the Square. Our board of directors take this matter seriously and will appoint an independent investigator to investigate the allegation. 
On January 12th, POTS named the investigator, Jennifer S. Hagerman of the Burch Porter and Johnson law firm. It was also announced that a review of policies and procedures would be conducted.

The investigation into Nichols' conduct was triggered when the now 49-year-old daughter of his first wife posted detailed allegations on Facebook, describing events dating back more than 40 years. Since that time, more adult women have come forward and spoken to the investigation with allegations of misconduct that occurred when they were still minors.

The Flyer has identified and spoken to three. All have described their contact with the POTS investigator as being professional and satisfactory.

According to longtime associates, POTS has a strong, decades-old track record of arranging child-advocacy training for staff working with its Summer Conservatory and other youth programs. Similar training has not historically been required for all employees.

Last week Playhouse on the Square announced its 50th anniversary season.

*Note: This report has been updated to correct an inaccuracy.

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Theatre Memphis, Playhouse on the Square Announce 2018-19 Seasons

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 3:10 PM

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Theatre Memphis and Playhouse on the Square have announced their 2018-2019 seasons. Local theater lovers can look forward to a number of regional and world premieres in addition a handful of popular favorites and certifiable classics.

With Louisa May Alcott adaptations coming to both POTS and Theatre Memphis we can expect a lot of Little Women on Stage.

THEATRE MEMPHIS' LOHREY STAGE

Ragged newspaper boys take on the newspaper industry in a nostalgic reminder of how we used to think organized labor was awesome...
•Disney’s Newsies August 24 – September 16, 2018

The shape-shifting, blood-sucking aristocrat hunter becomes the hunted...
•Dracula October 12 – 28, 2018

The original nightmare before Christmas...
•A Christmas Carol, November 30 – December 23, 2018

A beloved story about childhood, race, justice and its double in the American South —
•To Kill a Mockingbird, January 18 – February 3, 2019

The founding fathers sing about the weather (it's hot), death (it's sad), and an economic system built on molasses, rum, and slaves...
•1776, March 8 – 31, 2019
If a jerky celebrity has an accident at your party, maybe they should convalesce elsewhere. Think Stephen King's Misery in reverse — but funny-ish...  Add glamor.
•The Man Who Came to Dinner, April 26 – May 12, 2019

John Waters' 16-magazine-inspired valentine to big hair, cool R&B, and an ultimate, kid-led triumph over white assholes.
•Hairspray, June 7 – 30, 2019

NEXT STAGE at Theatre Memphis

The classic tale of an a not quite elderly British butcher meeting a no longer young waitress, receptionist, assassin etc. Uncertainty happens...
•Heisenberg — September 21 – October 7, 2018

A perennial favorite about teenage awkwardness and spelling...
•The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, November 2 – 17, 2018
Size matters? A new adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic...
•Little Women, February 8 – 24, 2019

Sarah Ruhl's Pulitzer finalist about a brazillain housecleaner who'd rather be doing standup comedy...
•The Clean House, April 5 – 20, 2019
Meanwhile, at...

PLAYHOUSE ON THE SQUARE

Gentlemen fall in love and become homicidal in the highly theatrical...
•A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder — August 10th – September 2, 2018
Speaking of love and murder, how about an epic mystery that begins when a boy finds his dog has become the victim of murder most foul?
•The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — September 21 – October 7, 2018

The story of a little boy who won't grow up...
•Peter Pan — November 16th – December 30th, 2018

Until she does, of course.
•For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday — November 30th – December 22, 2018

Life, love, and silliness go on and on and on in...
•Tuck Everlasting — January 18th – February 9th, 2019


But the line “Your wedding is my funeral” comes from another show called...
Significant OtherMarch 1st – March 24th, 2019

And as long as we're talking about life old chum, whether it be everlasting and bittersweet or short, brutish and cruel, it's only a...
•Cabaret — May 3rd – May 26th, 2019

Also, kids have superpowers and we'd all do well to remember that.
•Matilda — June 21st – July 14th, 2019

THE CIRCUIT PLAYHOUSE

Wolves, Wall Street and making money off...
Junk August 24th – September 9th, 2018

"Something something something," mumbled Jo lying on the floor...
•Little Women: The Broadway Musical — October 5th – October 28th, 2018

Much like Richard Nixon (and the current White House resident)...
•Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook — November 23rd – December 23rd, 2018

Lynn Nottage takes on deindustrialization in the Pulitzer Prize winning drama...
•Sweat — January 25th – February 17th , 2019

I can't even with...
•Madagascar: A Musical Adventure — March 15th – April 7th, 2019
Big Brother's watching. Listening. Mining your data. Etc. Shame we don't adapt Brave New World as often as we adapt...
•1984 — April 19th – May 12th, 2019

Elvis + Drag = Dang, what took you so long?
•The Legend of Georgia McBride — June 7th – June 30th, 2018

POTS@THEWORKS

•Back When Mike Was Kate —January 4th – January 27th, 2019

World Premiere

•The Miraculous and the Mundane  — July 12th – July 28, 2019

World Premiere

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Hamilton" is coming! Orpheum Unveils 2018-19 Broadway Season.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 11:28 AM

ORPHEUM THEATRE GROUP
  • Orpheum Theatre Group
Spoiler alert: We've known Hamilton was going to be part of the Orpheum's 2018-2019 season for a while now. Now we know the rest of the story — and there are some nice surprises.

From the media release:

LOVE NEVER DIES September 4-9, 2018

This story of boundless love, full of passion and drama, follows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most successful musicals of all time, which has now been seen by more than 130 million people worldwide and is the winner of over 50 international awards. The ultimate love story continues in Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s spellbinding sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

The year is 1907. It is 10 years after his disappearance from the Paris Opera House and The Phantom has escaped to a new life in New York where he lives amongst the screaming joy rides and freak shows of Coney Island. In this new, electrically charged world, he has finally found a place for his music to soar,

but he has never stopped yearning for his one true love and musical protégée, Christine Daaé.


SCHOOL OF ROCK October 9-14, 2018

SCHOOL OF ROCK is a New York Times Critics’ Pick and “AN INSPIRING JOLT OF ENERGY, JOY AND MAD SKILLZ!” (Entertainment Weekly). Based on the hit film, this hilarious new musical follows Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher who turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band. This high-octane smash features 14 new songs from ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER, all the original songs from the movie and musical theater’s first-ever kids rock band playing their instruments live on stage. Vanity Fair raves, “FISTS OF ALL AGES SHALL BE PUMPING!”


LES MISÉRABLES November 27-December 2, 2018 (SEASON OPTION)

Cameron Mackintosh presents the new production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon, Les Misérables, direct from an acclaimed two-and-a-half-year return to Broadway. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an unforgettable story of heartbreak, passion, and the resilience of the human spirit. Featuring the beloved songs “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars," “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” and many more, this epic and uplifting story has become one of the most celebrated musicals in theatrical history. With its glorious new staging and dazzlingly reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, this breathtaking new production has left both audiences and critics awestruck. “Les Miz is born again!” (NY1).


WAITRESS January 15-20, 2019

"THE WOMEN OF WAITRESS ARE CHANGING BROADWAY!" (Time Magazine). Brought to life by a groundbreaking all-female creative team, this irresistible new hit features original music and lyrics by 6-time Grammy® nominee Sara Bareilles ("Brave," "Love Song"), a book by acclaimed screenwriter Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam), choreography by Lorin Latarro (Les Dangereuse Liasons, Waiting for Godot) and direction by Tony Award® winner Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin, Finding Neverland). "It's an empowering musical of the highest order!" raves the Chicago Tribune. Inspired by Adrienne Shelly's beloved film, WAITRESS tells the story of Jenna – a waitress and expert pie maker, Jenna dreams of a way out of her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest in a nearby county and the town's new doctor may offer her a chance at a fresh start, while her fellow waitresses offer their own recipes for happiness. But Jenna must summon the strength and courage to rebuild her own life. "WAITRESS is a little slice of heaven!" says Entertainment Weekly and "a monumental contribution to Broadway!" according to Marie Claire. Don't miss this uplifting musical celebrating friendship, motherhood, and the magic of a well-made pie. www.WaitressTheMusical.com


ON YOUR FEET! February 12-17, 2019

From their humble beginnings in Cuba, Emilio and Gloria Estefan came to America and broke through all barriers to become a crossover sensation at the very top of the pop music world. But just when they thought they had it all, they almost lost everything. ON YOUR FEET! takes you behind the music and inside the real story of this record-making and groundbreaking couple who, in the face of adversity, found a way to end up on their feet. Directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots), with choreography by Olivier Award winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and an original book by Academy Award® winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman), ON YOUR FEET! features some of the most iconic songs of the past quarter-century — and one of the most inspiring stories in music
history.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF March 19-24, 2019 (SEASON OPTION)

“An entirely fresh, funny, and gorgeous new production. A REASON FOR CELEBRATION!” – New York Magazine.

Tony®-winning director Bartlett Sher and the team behind South Pacific, The King and I and 2017 Tony-winning Best Play Oslo, bring a fresh and authentic vision to this beloved theatrical masterpiece from Tony winner Joseph Stein and Pulitzer Prize winners Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The original production won ten Tony Awards, including a special Tony for becoming the longest-running Broadway musical of all time. You’ll be there when the sun rises on this new production, with stunning movement and dance from acclaimed Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, based on the original staging by Jerome Robbins. A wonderful cast and a lavish orchestra tell this heartwarming story of fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and the timeless traditions that define faith and family. Featuring the Broadway classics “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “To Life,” FIDDLER ON THE ROOF will introduce a new generation to this uplifting celebration that raises its cup to joy! To love! To life!
ANASTASIA June 4-9, 2019

Inspired by the beloved films, the romantic and adventure-filled new musical ANASTASIA is on a journey to Memphis at last! From the Tony Award®-winning creators of the Broadway classic Ragtime, this dazzling show transports us from the twilight of the Russian Empire to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920s, as a brave young woman sets out to discover the mystery of her past. Pursued by a ruthless Soviet officer determined to silence her, Anya enlists the aid of a dashing conman and a lovable ex-aristocrat. Together, they embark on an epic adventure to help her find home, love, and family. ANASTASIA features a book by celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, a lush new score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) with direction by Tony Award® winner Darko Tresnjak.

HAMILTON July 9-28, 2019
HAMILTON is the story of America's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, HAMILTON is the story of America then, as told by America now.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dead in the Water: New Moon's "Eurydice" is wet and wonderful

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 4:38 PM

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Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice isn’t for theater lovers who like a lot of action or tense tightly plotted drama. Though it borrows from ancient Greek forms it’s barely recognizable as a play in the traditional sense. It’s more of a living painting or character-driven poem that borrows heavily from its source material without ever pledging fidelity.

Written after the playwright's own father’s death, Eurydice is a grief project, strange and gentle. You can feel the author wrestling with pain — twisting it into origami birds and hurtling it at the sky. The New Moon Theatre Company and Director Jamie Boller have done an admirable job of bringing Ruhl’s quirky almost literally colorless meditation on memory and language to life, helping to cement the company’s reputation for taking on projects they probably don’t have the resources to produce, and making memorable theater anyway.

New Moon has turned to the Orpheus myth before having staged Tennessee Williams' intense Orpheus Descending. Unlike Williams' Southern drama (and also unlike the original source material) this contemporary update takes the spotlight off Orpheus, a supernaturally popular musician who’s songs are so beautiful they enchant  inanimate objects. It reorients the story around his love Eurydice who dies on her wedding day and is taken to the underworld inspiring Orpheus to undertake a hero’s journey to rescue her. As is the case in every version of the story he fails to rescue his love. Everybody dies — this is hardly a spoiler.
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Ruhl introduces a new character to the drama— the Father. Unlike other shades dipped in the waters of forgetfulness, he remembers the language of living people. He remembers his life and family. He’s spent his whole death writing letters to his daughter, and when she arrives he teaches her to remember— a kindness with all the force of cruelty. The two rebel ghosts are regularly chastised by animated stones that are anything but silent. These rocks—witness to all— are our chorus.

Though minimal in one sense Eurydice is a gift to designers. It rains real drops inside an elevator to hell. Rooms are created out of nothing. Objects fly. It’s the kind of text best suited for companies with substantial budgets or none at all, facilitating a commitment to total theater. New Moon falls somewhere in between resulting in a production that’s imaginative and inspirational.

Eurydice’s secret weapon is an ensemble cast peopled with strong actors who listen to one another and play their parts like musicians in an improvisational jam. Still, it’s Eurydice’s play, and with effortless effervescence (even in death) Michelle Miklosey leads the way. As Orpheus Gabe Buetel-Gunn might be more overtly musical, but all holes are patched first by his doting, then by his pain of loss.

In some ways the tables are turned on Orpheus in this story. In the original myth Eurydice is barely there while in this version it's the musician who's been pushed to the margins. But Buetel-Gunn is always present, even when mute. In an understated, slow burning performance as Eurydice’s sweetly subversive father Jeff Kirwan reminds us that not all masculinity is toxic and not every patriarch is of the Patriarchy. In fact, as Eurydice demonstrates, some dads are so special they inspire poetry.

Similarly, this gray, drippy, lovely production (with terrific lights by Mandy Heath, costumes by Austin Blake Conlee, and original music by Joe Johnson) seems destined to inspire local artists who look back in order to look ahead; who aren’t constrained by convention; who like to color outside the lines.

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Souvenir" is a keeper: Florence Foster Jenkins sings at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Feb 16, 2018 at 11:22 AM

David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of  Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.
  • David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.

Friends, Memphians, Theatre lovers, lend me your ears so that I may share with you the worst, most beautiful sound you've ever heard. I'm here to praise Souvenir: A Fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (the tone deaf diva who thought she had perfect pitch), not to bury it. But maybe a moment of that too.

The magic trick that makes Souvenir so special is that it presents us with confident singing that's so painfully off key and rhythm-free  it makes us double over laughing. But it's not Madame Flo who takes us on this journey, it's her long suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon. And like McMoon, by the time all is said and done, we're left to wonder if Jenkins wasn't differently gifted — touched, like any other visionary artist, by angels and so compelled to make art whether she had the technical skills or not.

"It's the music in your head that matters," McMoon says, or words to that effect. When this idea drops, a kind of beauty emerges from the disaster of Jenkins' singing.


Theatre Memphis' charming, original (local) cast revival is a textbook example of how, particularly with small cast shows, technical improvements don't always improve things. Enlargements may even compete with performers, making them seem smaller and more isolated than they might in a less busy environment. TM's last Souvenir was done on the cheap, and you could tell. But by staying small and leaving much to the imagination, the crummy set accomplished what good design is supposed to do. It made Souvenir's two actors the focal point, not a chandelier or the painted floors. The revival's no worse than the original, but it's no better either. Simply said, the more sumptuous, and admittedly swell, scenic design doesn't leave much room for the music in our heads. This is all more food for thought than actual complaint as the design effectively drops viewers into the world of New York's upper crust during the 30's and 40's, where McMoon and Jenkins, as played by David Shipley and Jude Knight, take audiences on a strange tour fraught with delusion, meanness and uncommon generosity. 

As local theater fans all know, Knight has a powerful, lovely voice. It takes an especially gifted and giving singer to sing so badly so beautifully, with such precise imprecision and confidence. It also takes a special kind of vulnerability to let yourself be laughed at, as has always been the case with Jenkins who was never anything less than sincere. Souvenir taps our reflexive cruelty as efficiently as a doctor checking reflexes, but never judges us for the reflexive mockery. If anything, it's a warts and all lesson in how to overcome crazy obstacles and love, love, love. It's no romance, but perfect for the weekend after Valentine's Day. And Knight's second time around performance is every bit as great and guileless as it was when she first stepped into Jenkins' tiara and angel wings.

Some of Shipley's mugging and milking of laughter feels forced. But he's grown considerably in this revival and that's especially obvious in Souvenir's more emotionally challenging (if no less hilarious) second act. He's an engaging narrator. We feel his personal transformation. More than that, as his own opinions shift, he  changes our attitudes about Jenkins obnoxious singing as well. 

I've already written a fair amount about Jenkins and Souvenir so I'll link some of that here, for the curious, rather than repeat myself.  I don't have much left to say other than to encourage folks to check out this disproportionately satisfying little paint-by-numbers play that, like the artist it essays, spills color outside all the lines and is never quite as paint-by-numbers as it seems.

This fantasia on the life of an unlikely (pre YouTube) celebrity will make you want to stand up and sing whether it's advisable or not.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Souvenir: The Best Worst Sound You'll Ever Hear

Posted By on Fri, Feb 9, 2018 at 2:48 PM

David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of  Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.
  • David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.

When Theatre Memphis first produced Souvenir in 2009 I had this to say about one of my favorite little pieces of biographical theater ever:

There is a place, you see, where awfulness and earnestness combine to create something truly special — something ridiculous yet as endearing and truthful as a child's painting. And as comical as these abominations may be, they have the power of authenticity and are somehow more intrinsically human than any display of virtuosity can ever be. This thing of which I speak is a rare but real quality, found not only in the works of McGonagall but also in the cinema of Ed Wood, and in the recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins, a tone-deaf opera singer who, having no sense of rhythm or phrasing, presented herself as one of the greatest sopranos of the early 20th-Century.
You can read all the rest here, though I regret that many of the videos have been removed since the original posting. Since this season's revival features the exact same cast as the original, I suspect I'll be just as happy with the result. Here's a video clip I made from 2009.





And here's the actual FFJ singing her heart out.

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