Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mixology: Ballet Memphis gets Unapologetic

Posted By on Tue, Oct 30, 2018 at 12:24 PM

If you savor local flavor, Memphis music and musicians are lovingly entwined with the dance works in Ballet Memphis’ Fall Mix that continues through this weekend.

Every October, Ballet Memphis presents a series of new, or newish, works that often give the young dancers and sometimes new choreographers a chance to do contemporary and sometimes experimental movement. Steven McMahon, the company’s associate artistic director, says Fall Mix re-launches The Memphis Project, an off-and-on series that puts the focus on the creative and cultural soul of the city.

The effort is a triumph of programming and performance. The opening work is something of an epic oldie, Trey Mcintyre’s “Memphis Suite,” reworked from its debut 20 years ago. The dances are song-length short stories soaked in Memphis sauce and with a soundtrack of classic tunes and local performers starting with Elvis, and moving through Ike Turner, Al Green, The Staples Singers, Roscoe Gordon, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, Pat Hare, and John Lee Hooker.

The next piece by dynamo Alia Kache is “Unrest,” and is, fittingly, overlaid by the music of Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker from her “Turn Out the Lights” album. Baker is a poet of unrest and Kache’s choreography, dark and constrained at first, finds a fascinating deeper expression throughout.

McMahon choreographed the final piece, “Unapologetic,” in collaboration with Unapologetic LLC, the innovative record label and brand that travels the sonic edge while treasuring enough of the traditional to keep you guessing. Headed by record producer IMAKEMADBEATS, the group — Cameron Bethany, Kid Maestro, C Major, PreauXX, and Aaron James — is at the back of the stage, interacting with the dancers. The ballet, like the music, endeavors to take some risks and give the spirit of Memphis some complex, energizing expression.

Fall Mix is a thrilling program grounded in Memphis history and Memphis today, and celebrating the bounty of creativity in the city.

It's performed at Ballet Memphis, 2144 Madison. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Nov. 1 (with a spark discussion beforehand), 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 8 p.m. Nov. 3, and 2 p.m. Nov. 4. Tickets are $25 evenings / $15 matinees. Go to balletmemphis.org or call 901-737-7322.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Memphis Actor/Comedian Harold Foxx Makes Off-Broadway Debut

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 5:01 PM

Hanging with Harold Foxx - OUR AWESOME SERVER
  • Our awesome server
  • Hanging with Harold Foxx
The Old Testament character Job had his share of problems. He lost his home, his livelihood, his health, and his family. Craig Lucas' play I Was Most Alive With You, which recently took its last bows at Playwright's Horizons, may borrow heavily from the troubling Bible story, but none of that tragedy's rubbed off on Harold Foxx. The Memphis-born actor may have made his Off Broadway debut in Lucas' Job-inspired play, but he looks like a man on top of the world. Sitting in the Buffalo Wild Wings on Manhattan's W. 47th ("the one close to Playwright's Horizons"), Foxx' broad face practically glows with confidence.

"Did you see my New York Times spread," he asks by typing the words out on his phone and holding it up for me to see. I indicate that I have and tell him it looked great. He then types out a message saying he's waiting to see if the attention results in more work. If it does, he'll get excited about it.

Foxx is realistic about life as a working actor. He grew up in Orange Mound and graduated from White Station where he played football and made citywide headlines. Foxx is completely deaf. He's mostly silent. He's currently a professional actor, who lives in Los Angeles where he studies improv comedy with the Groundlings and auditions as often as possible. He doesn't think a Netflix special is out of the question. There's no reason to believe he won't get a shot at being in the next Black Panther movie. Nothing's for sure, but Foxx believes. He points to his personal inspiration, the deaf actor C.J. Jones who recently made his film debut in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

"My agent's good," he types.

Harold Foxx and Craig Lucas - COURTESY OF HAROLD FOXX
  • Courtesy of Harold Foxx
  • Harold Foxx and Craig Lucas
Foxx is as expressive as any silent film star. Every wrinkled brow or nostril flare writes a whole new story on his face. He describes this expressiveness as an artifact — something that just happens when you're in the deaf community. But there's precision to every eye-roll or pursing of the lips. There's timing, and it's good. You don't always need to read ASL to get the gist of his messaging. Critics noted his skills in I Was Most Alive With You, where the play's main speaking characters are mirrored by a shadow cast who perform a somewhat modified version of the show in ASL.

I caught up with Foxx in Manhattan, during the last week of his run at Playwright's Horizons. We "talked" about many things over wings, but did our official Q&A in a typed format. Here's a lightly edited version of that conversation.

Memphis Flyer: Wondering about life in Memphis. Did you know you wanted to act and do comedy when you were still living there?

Harold Foxx: Born and raised in Memphis. Native of Orange Mound. It’s funny how my comedy starts. Every morning the school bus picked me up. It was sorta of long ride. Then one day all of us kids on the bus just start to making jokes. From there I started doing comedy storytelling. That was in elementary school. And everybody laughs. Then, after school, when the bus takes us back home, everybody asked me for another comedy storytelling. And I start doing it again. Then somehow it became daily on the school bus, on the way to school and after school. Only difference is that I didn’t get paid that time. Since then, everybody sees my talents. Not only in comedy, but in acting too. Even my teachers in elementary school got me in school talent shows for dance and sign music. Plus, when I was in elementary school, the national theatre for the deaf came to my school and performed for us and I really looked up to them. Not only that. My former theater teacher Rita Grivich, who runs Deaf Drama & Theatre at White Station, always had a show. And when I was young, I'd always go there and watch the older kids perform. And I knew it would happen for me someday and glad that I was part of it.

MF: Memphis only has limited opportunities for actors, and the comedy scene has only begun to mature in the last few years. Guessing Paulette Reagan was a theater teacher at White Station? Were there many opportunities to experience and participate in comedy or theater?

Yes, Paulette Reagan and Rita Grivich were my theater teachers at White Station. Honest with you, I’m thankful to have had them as my teachers at White Station. When I was there, I was heavily involved in theater and it actually helps. It applies to what I’m doing today as an actor.

MF: When did you decide on comedy and acting as a career? And was there an obvious path for deaf performers or did you have to make your own?

Actually with all my experience and background as an actor from White Station High school under Paulette Reagan and Rita Grivich, they taught me a lot on what it takes to be an actor. When I graduated from White Station in 1999, I went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.,  where I graduated and also played college football there. Everybody expected me to join the theater at Gallaudet University but I didn’t get involved in theater productions. I focused on football. But I took a couple of theater courses at Gallaudet. So, when I graduated, I started to work as a football coach, personal trainer, and physical education teacher. Somehow my acting passion hits me again one day and I started doing some comedy sketches on Vine apps. It changed my whole life. Now I’m doing acting/comedy as a career, full time. Most of all I started this out on my own from looking up to my role model like CJ Jones, John Maucere, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, etc..
Past show flyer
  • Past show flyer
MF: I love silent film, and your comedy reel was a joy to watch because it has the expressiveness of great silent comedy. Funny enough to transcend any biases hearing audiences might have. Curious as to which actors and comics might have inspired you?

I started on Vine Apps. Of course, as deaf person, I can’t hear a sound or music. Most of my sketches were based on body language and physical comedy so it can be accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. It started similar to silent film — like my favorite comic who did all amazing in silent film, Charlie Chaplin. Then I started my internship at DPAN.TV (Deaf Professional Arts Network) where I learned to make better quality work — script, film, edit. Plus, they have a sound engineer who installs all sounds and music. My comedy video went to a whole different level. That’s when I started getting recognized for my work and getting opportunities in acting and comedy.

MF: How did you land the role in I Was Most Alive With You? And was working on it like anything you’ve done before? Looking at the behind-the-scenes videos, the process looks like it must have been unique and difficult.

Yes. It’s different from what everybody's already seen from my work as a comedian or doing sketches on the video. I was in a production of Our Town last year by Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre. That’s where everybody recognized my work on stage in theater. I’m not only limited to comedy. I can do variety range of work as an actor. Actually how did I land the role? I was in Jamaica doing stand up comedy and then I got an email from my agent. They asked for my video audition, but at that time I wasn’t really interested because I didn’t want to move to NYC. I’m still new in LA. Then one friend convinced me. Said, "It’s Off Broadway." And that’s a good start for my career. So I decide to do the video audition and I got offered the job. So, I’m thankful for this opportunity because I got to work with amazing talented of actors and actresses plus Craig Lucas and Tyne Rafaeli.

MF: Do you think the show’s accurate in its depiction of hearing impaired people, and culture?

We do both as English spoken and ASL, it’s a very heavy play and powerful at the same time and it’s very accessible to both audience.

MF: Has the run been rewarding? And is it difficult to put away as closing night approaches?

We had a very successful run, but at the same time we wish it could be extend more.

MF: Has the run of this show resulted in more opportunities, or is it back to the audition grind?

I’m hoping this production will get me more opportunities. I mean, it’s not easy as deaf actors/actresses because we don’t get a same opportunity as hearing actors/actresses. They might get an audition daily when we, as deaf actors and actresses, are probably lucky to get 2 or maybe 3 auditions a month. But for me, it’s all about hustling. Show your work out there and create your own work. That’s why I created a bunch of short comedy sketches. Now I’m writing my new stand up comedy material and working on a film script. Who knows, I might produce a feature film and act in it someday instead waiting for someone to offer me the opportunity. Always have your own work ready to go.

MF: I know you’ve been training with The Groundlings — which is great! But wondering what’s next, and if you have a preference for sketch/standup over other kinds of performance?

Right now I’m still in training and taking classes at the Groundlings. Sometimes I put it on hold if I get an opportunity like Off Broadway in NYC. But now my agent and I are working on something. Be aren’t sure yet. But for the Groundings, my training continues. Who knows? Maybe one day I will end up on SNL or Comedy Central.

MF: Do you ever make it back to Memphis? What’s the best way for folks back home to experience what you do?

I finally made back to Memphis last summer after seven years. I did a homecoming standup show there and am hoping to do it again soon. Memphis is my hometown, roots, and where I started. One thing I would tell Memphis folks, if they are pursing what I’m doing, it starts with passion and hard work. Create your work and get some training with a top acting or improv class to develop some network.

Click here for more on Harold Foxx

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College Theaters Stage Festival of Plays by Pulitzer Winner Lynn Nottage

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 4:46 PM

Three local college theater programs are staging work by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Collectively, it's called, “NottageFest." One play is being performed on each campus with an "intercollegiate finale," Sunday, November 11th, at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

Southwest Community College, Verties Sails Building, Room 113

Crumbs From the Table of Joy (premiered 1995)

Directed by Sheila Darras

Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 at 12:30 p.m.

Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.

Oct. 28 and Nov. 4 at 3 p.m.

All tickets are free and available at the door.


The University of Memphis, Theatre Arts Building

Intimate Apparel (premiered 2003)

Directed by Dennis Whitehead-Darling

Nov. 1-3 & 8-10, 7:30 p.m. each night

All tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and students

Purchase in advance at www.memphis.edu/theatre/currentseason/intimate.php

Rhodes College, McCoy Theatre

Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine (premiered 2004)

The play is about Undine Barnes Calles, an ambitious African-American woman in the early days of the Obama era whose best-laid plans don’t go accordingly. On the brink of social and financial ruin, Undine retreats to her childhood home and forgotten family only to discover she must cope with her cruel new reality and figure out how to transform her setbacks into small victories.

Directed by Thomas King

Nov. 9 & 10, 15-18, 7:30 p.m. each night, except the 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.

All tickets are free,but reservations are recommended by contacting the McCoy Box Office at mccoy@rhodes.edu or (901) 843-3839


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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Dracula's Got No Bite at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2018 at 11:25 AM

This is not a musical. No ships hit icebergs. Nobody's king of the world.
  • This is not a musical. No ships hit icebergs. Nobody's king of the world.
Was that a wolf mask? A bat mask? A rat mask? Or a fly? Was it rubber?


Thoughts have been scattered since I sampled Sunday's matinee performance of Dracula at Theatre Memphis. To combat the glamour, I've given myself a mental challenge. I'll make it through this entire review without using the word "sucks." Even if it kills me.

Theatre Memphis' Dracula is all blood, no guts. Still, the lush production gets at least one key thing exactly right. A little well-placed magic goes a long way. Levitation illusions are also a fun way to evoke that steamy point on the temporal map where nineteenth-century spiritualism crashes headlong into the modern age — a time when psychoanalysts unlocked mysteries of the mind while performers like Harry Keller toured the globe performing self-decapitations and floating head tricks.

William McNulty's script leans into the vampire story's potential for Jacobean-style splatter and grand-guignol illusion. In doing so, it also opens a portal to the camp dimension. Like the hapless victims of a cruel prank, the cast and crew walk right through.

We've seen so many versions of Dracula since 1897, the year theater manager and pulp author Bram Stoker borrowed the memory of Vlad the Impaler, a brutal prince who butchered Turks and Bulgarians for "the preservation of Christianity," and transformed him into the shape-shifting prince of darkness we know today. We've seen demonic Draculas, sleazy Draculas, sexy Draculas, silly Draculas, groovy Draculas, disco Draculas, and outright campy Draculas. We've seen porny Draculas, super-villain Draculas and kid-friendly Draculas who sell breakfast cereal and teach us to count. The fatal flaw with this latest incarnation is that nobody seems to have made a hard, clear decision as to what kind of Dracula this Dracula wants to be.

Brian Everson's a trooper but hopelessly miscast in the title role. He's a go-to actor for light comic leads. Adjectives that come to mind include "able," "clever," and "nonthreatening." Outfitted with a long black wig, and dark, impaleresque facial hair, his Dracula looks like it might have wandered away from the set of  What We Do in the Shadows. He's adopted a broad Draculonian accent and acts in bold strokes more suitable to musical comedy or farce. The pomp and  effort makes this blood-craving ghoul funny when he should be scary and the wolf mask thing with "Safety Dance" hair doesn't help a bit.

Wolf-bat?  Flying rat-wolf?

Everson's got a sound supporting cast. Andrew Chandler is especially enjoyable as the bug and rat munching Renfield. Jason M. Spitzer's an attentive director, notable for the work he did to inject a much-needed dash of horror into Theatre Memphis' long-running holiday staple, A Christmas Carol. His Dracula is thoroughly rendered but never scary enough to qualify as horror, mysterious enough to function as suspense, or funny enough to be a comedy. It's not tricked out enough to be a magic show nor is there quite enough mayhem to call it theater of blood.

Memphis' namesake playhouse seems to be taking some risks these days but the best adjective I can think of for this show is "safe." As noted above, Dracula can be a lot of different things. But safe isn't one of them.

As the well-known horror classic unfolded in front of me, my mind wandered far and wide. At one point I started trying to think of all the fun spook season shows Theatre Memphis might have produced instead of this Dickensian Dracula. They've done such a fine job with monster musicals like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family. "So why wasn't I watching the American Psycho musical?," I wondered, not giving a fig if the flopped Brett Easton Ellis adaptation was ever a good idea or not. All that brutality, misogyny, and 1980's-style greed would at least be in line with contemporary anxieties.  For fresher takes on the old vampire story there's Little One, Cuddles, and Let The Right One In. There's an Evil Dead musical and if that's too far out, Theatre Memphis is more than equipped to explore the psychological terror in dramas like Frozen or The Pillowman.


With this list of things that might have been, I've got nothing left to say. So here we are at the end of the review and I didn't use "sucks" once. Or even bites. To borrow from Deadpool, that would have been lazy writing. Besides Theater Memphis' Dracula doesn't suck or bite. But it doesn't thrill or chill either. That blows.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Lizzie Borden Rocks Theatreworks

Posted By on Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 9:43 AM

Lizzie & Co. - NEW MOON
  • New Moon
  • Lizzie & Co.
Rock-and-roll was barely old enough to drink when somebody asked playwright Sam Shepard his opinion about the rock musical. I've not been able to run down the exact quote, but the Shepard, who sometimes drummed with The Holy Modal Rounders, thought rock musicals and operas would remain theoretical until somebody composed one that was as "violent" as "a Who concert." As someone who tends to rate concerts by the degree to which they've "ripped my head off," or "melted my face," I've always agreed with Shepard's assessment. By that measure, it's probably fair to note that, in spite of the city's storied music history, the rock musical didn't arrive in Memphis until October 2018 when Lizzie — the Lizzie Borden ax-murdering musical — opened at TheatreWorks. I say this as a veteran of Hair, American Idiot, Rock of Ages, Rocky Horror, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and a dozen more electric guitar musicals.  But when it comes to pure rock concert muscle, New Moon's Lizzie kills the competition. Dead.

Lizzie's soundtrack is show-tune aware, but with a punk heart, a goth soul and roots anchored deep in the sisterhood of classic rock. Delivered in an audience-aware, concert-style format, songs like "Why Are All These Heads Off," and "What The Fuck, Lizzie?" make The Who's Tommy sound about as quaint and orderly as the collected love songs of Lerner & Lowe. It's the rare Halloween season treat that should appeal to most traditional theater fans while flirting hard with a quality I'm going to call Goner appeal.

The story of ax-murderess Lizzie Borden (and her famous 40-whacks) is sung, shouted, and shrieked at the audience by a strong, all-female cast of 4. The book strays far enough from the facts as we know them to qualify as historical fiction, but the details of what actually happened when Mr. & Mrs. Borden were murdered, are beside the point in this bloody portrait of a place where sexual abuse and the status quo walk hand in glove. Director Kell Christie keeps the sex and money elements of the narrative front and center while making the overall experience more like an arena concert than a piece of musical theater. Melissa Andrews' lights are on point, and Eileen Kuo's music direction drives hard without sacrificing dynamics.  A nearly perfect ensemble showcases the acting and vocal talents of Christina Hernandez, Annie Freres, Joy Brooke Fairfield, and Jaclyn Suffel.

Lizzie closes Sunday, Oct. 28, so there aren't many chances left to witness this dreadful tale of horror and woe. You don't want to miss this one.

Pay-What-You-Can Wed. Oct 24. 

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Summer/Winter Romance an Uncertainty in Heisenberg at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 1:03 PM

Uncertainty Principle: The principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time. — Google.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Exists solely "in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."  — Wikipedia.

How nice it is for fans when these sorts of harmonics occur between shows in a local theater season. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which opened last week at Playhouse on the Square, is a spectacle-driven event, faithfully adapted from Mark Haddon's book by British playwright, Simon Stephens. Heisenberg, which opened the same weekend at Theatre Memphis, is a a spectacle-free example of the kind of work Stephens does when he's doing his own thing. In the case of Heisenberg, "his own thing" is also a little like Tom Stoppard's thing, but shorter, maybe a wee bit duller, and way less pleased with itself.

None of the above is a complaint, mind you. But be warned: Heisenberg is not a play about the famously conflicted WWII physicist tasked with developing a nuclear weapons program for the Nazis. Beyond the title, his name is never mentioned and the metaphor, at the heart of Theatre Memphis' sturdily built production, is pretty basic: It's difficult to take the full measure of a person or relationship in any time-isolated circumstance. It's harder still to predict where the players may end up when the curtain comes down. The story is a romance, of sorts, with just a hint of suspense woven into the fabric. It introduces us to Alex Priest, a reserved, 75-year-old Irish-born butcher living in London, whose life is turned upside down by a motormouthed American woman with ulterior motives.

Alex is shocked when a complete stranger sneaks up on him at a train station and kisses him on the back of the neck. Georgie Hardeman swears it was a case of mistaken identity, but she sticks around the station anyway, launching an awkward, distinctly one-side conversation. It's the beginning of an unlikely and complicated relationship between a mouthy 42-year-old woman and a quiet but soulful septuagenarian who loves music like John Cusack in High Fidelity and takes long walks around London with nothing but his headphones for company. Stephens' script toys with the idea that we can never tell where a story will go, but we can be pretty sure from the onset that Georgie— a confessed fabulist — is either going to swindle Alex or the two lonely characters are going to fall in love and/or teach one another valuable life lessons. Or maybe some less expected combination of all of the above.

Like the sensitive young protagonists of a certain kind of movie, Alex is coping with losing his parents. He's also managing the trauma of true love lost. The only real difference between Alex and the sensitive but stunted male leads in coming of age fantasies like Elizabethtown, or 500 Days of Summer, is that, by the time Georgie shows up in his life, Alex has been making the most of his arrested development for 60 years or so. And he's pretty good at it.

In many regards, Georgie is a "manic pixie dream girl" straight out of central casting, but aged to middle years — like a slightly broken refugee from Mama Mia. Unlike the cinema archetype she so closely resembles, Georgie, a school administrator by profession, has been doing her quirky carpe diem schtick long enough to have a backstory. This includes an adult son who hates her free-spirited ways and has abandoned her for the USA where he hopes to put down roots. Differences aside, the results here are very much the same as they always are with the MPDG type. She storms into Alex's life like a 42-year-old Kirsten Dunst,  and the sheer force of her quirk draws him into an unexpected, sometimes dangerous, and certainly uncharacteristic adventure that results in sexual and personal awakenings and second chances.

As Georgie Natalie Jones comes on like a weird tornado, winding and smashing her way into Alex's personal space. It's a strong, detailed performance that hints at the kind of work Jones might have done as Maggie the Cat had she been given more to work with in Theatre Memphis' 2017 production of Cat on a Hot in Roof.  In a dynamic similar to Cat's, Georgie's would-be squeeze doesn't always have much to say. In Irene Crist's tightly directed production, Alex is always present, no matter how hard Jones monologues.

Alex is another familiar type. He's a classic salt-of-the-earth guy with the soul of a poet/philosopher. He's a sensitive butcher who likes knowing that animals have seams and are put together just like ready-to-wear. He's never experienced life outside of London, but he can tango like a champ. He's got a big heart, a bigger record collection, and grand ideas about the universe, if only somebody would ask him to share.

There's not so much salt and vinegar in Jerry Chipman's butcher. His routines seem less habitual than duty-bound, just at the edge of dharma. He blushes and giggles his way through the awkward stuff in a sweet, complete performance that's maybe a little too passive for a little too long.

Jack Yates' set is an elegantly abstract object lesson in economy, utility, and how to frame characters in a small, intimate drama. It's likely my favorite thing the resident designer has ever done in Theatre Memphis' smaller black box space.

I've admittedly fallen for a few manic pixies, but, for being a committed Harold & Maude guy,  fantasies about older men and eccentric younger women have never turned my ticket. All else aside, Heisenberg is still that. But clocking in at about 90 minutes, it's too brief to bog down and, if it sometimes feels a little familiar, I can't complain about a show that invites us to think a little harder about uncertainty and the limits of information without making the physics lesson too dense, too dark, or too self-congratulatory. Good show!

Correction: An earlier draft misidentified Georgie Hardeman as Katie Hardeman.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Hattiloo Puts the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Spotlight

Posted By on Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 4:13 PM

Inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry and Richard Wright's prose, Dominique Morisseau's  Pipeline wants to be a teaching play where various aspects of the grooming system known as the "school to prison" pipeline are explored in broad strokes and emotionally fought conflicts. Characters exist at the edge of archetype, representing specific tensions in the narrative. Hattiloo's uncommonly wooden production is only sporadically successful in giving Morisseau's brief, panic-attack of a show the life, urgency, and inevitability it needs in order to cook.

Pipeline introduces us to Laurie, a grizzled soldier-educator from urban district trenches. She's a "white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids,” and probably the kind of person who shows up in memes for calling the cops on black people outside Chick-fil-A  for ... I don't know, reasons, okay? Laurie describes her teaching gig as "war," and kids are clearly the enemy here. Now that a student's slashed her face with a knife, she's got the scars to show for it. Or, she did have scars, before the reconstructive surgery. With a mannequin-still face and gutsy swagger, Memphis veteran actor Pamela Poletti just lets Laurie's opinions rip.

We also meet Nya (Nicole Bandele), an African-American English teacher who shows grace in the face of Laurie's white noise while navigating a whole other set of conflicts.  She's committed to the neighborhood but sends her son Omari to a private school. When Omari faces expulsion after pushing his teacher in an incident he can explain, but can't dispute, Nya's ex-husband, a brusque and evidently successful man of business becomes involved. Things get prickly, complicated and class-and-gender conscious real quick.

To Omari dad-not-dad, he's just a signature on a check the secretary probably sends automatically. There's  more going on in this one under-explored relationship than Pipeline's 75-minutes can hold. Many things are left unattended.

Hattiloo's Pipeline benefits from honest, committed performances, particularly from James Cook, as a straight-dealing security guard and younger cast members Desmond Cortez and Zaria Crawford. Overall, the stakes here are always too low and the threats too intangible. The action is unfocused and story's momentum is interrupted rather than aided by projected video. 

Video projection can be a nifty tool, especially when it becomes interactive, environmental, or provides the audience with a different view of things than the one being presented by the actors. But these kids-gone-wild, ready-to-go viral videos depicting school tensions and violence were redundant, highlighting and reinforcing only the more sensational aspects of a complicated story. The clips are projected on theater walls between scenes and it's a nifty effect at first. Over time the clips become speed bumps, interrupting the momentum of a brief, bracing text with the potential to land hard.   

Pipeline mixes kitchen-sink guts with cold formalism. It deploys Brooks' "We Real Cool," like Greek Tragedy uses prophesy. You feel the audience nod in collective recognition when the first words of the touchstone poem dropped. Hattiloo's production connects in these and other moments, but it never connects the dots.


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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Typographer's Dream is Dreamy Comedy at TheatreSouth

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2018 at 11:00 AM

First off, Quark Theatre's production of The Typographer's Dream, is a fine, fine thing with more honest laughs, and little epiphanies than most plays twice its length. I'm probably not going to write very much about It though. Not because it's not worthy, but because it's a tiny thing, featuring only three actors, no set to speak of, and clocking in at around 75-minutes. More than usual, describing any of the component parts in any detail will spoil the fun.

Instead of narrative, playwright Adam Bock uses the convention of a panel discussion to just let a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer talk directly to the audience about their seemingly unrelated jobs. The result is a curious, quirky show about the differences between what we do and who we are. Playing out like the most delightful documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control filmmaker Errol Morris never made, The Typographer's Dream is a subtle, jokey inquiry into the malleable, too-easily-shaded nature of translation and described realities. Best part: For being pretty heady stuff, Bock is never afraid to be a little poignant, and first and foremost, The Typographer's Dream was built to entertain. But when the laughter fades, it may leave audiences contemplating the meaning, poetics, and ethics of their own occupations.

Jillian Barron is joyfully weird as the geographer. She's one of those eternally chipper people and seems to love her job — and maps — just a little too much. Eric Vinton Jones plays the proud, disciplined stenographer like a man who's always wondered what it might be like for somebody to care about what he had to say for a change. It's a quiet, uncommonly honest performance, and very funny. 

Of the bunch, Michelle Miklosey's typographer has the most trouble getting started. Her character's feelings are complicated and thinking about them doesn't always bring clarity. She's not sure how to describe her her job. She's not a graphic artist or a word decorator. She's engaged with so much more than a visual representation of language. She worries about truth and honesty and how meaning can be distorted if we give it a misleading physical form. The whole of this warm, probing (but not so deep) comedy turns on this idea. It's frustrating. It's lovely.

Speaking of misleading, it's not entirely true that there's no narrative here. A story tying the three panelists together does emerge from their fragmented work histories. It becomes full enough to trigger stylistically incongruous flashbacks that shouldn't work but somehow do.

Director Tony Isbell's kept things simple, which is never as simple as it sounds. It's another winner for Quark Theatre, and bite-sized performance in Memphis. 

The Typographer's Dream closes this weekend, so catch it while you can. It would be so nice if a show of this scale — a show that could move into another theater, shopfront, lobby, or living room tomorrow — could be kept going. If it could be booked privately, like a band or deployed like a calling card to raise awareness, and $ for the company. But that never happens. Assume it will be gone after this weekend. Though it seems like such a disposable trifle, this is a show you want to see — a show you'll want to keep with you. 
For more details, here's the click.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Newsies Is Good Entertainment: Weekend Theatre Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Sep 7, 2018 at 4:28 PM

Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
  • Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
What does it mean when a musical about newspapers and unions is way more popular than newspapers and unions? I honestly don’t know. And I don't really know where to start with my review of Theatre Memphis’ production of Newsies other than to say it’s a technically outstanding interpretation of the famously failed Disney film that found a more natural home on Broadway. The ensemble is first rate. The singing soars. The choreography is energetic and stunty. The kids (and baby-faced grownups) playing the “Newsies” are especially good and John Hemphill and Kent Fleshmen make perfect comic and villainous foils.

What’s not to love?

For me, it’s the irony. See, striking newspaper delivery kids were they primary means of distribution for afternoon papers. Their after-school labor helped to make Joseph Pulitzer very rich. Although the strike did win the newsies some concessions, they are all still crushingly poor when the curtain comes down. They’ll be paid no more for their labor. They still have to invest more up front. They still take a hit on every paper they sell. But Pulitzer, knowing a good deal when he hears it, subsidizes their risk and incentivizes productivity by agreeing to buy back unsold issues. Although the result was favorable and the Newsboy strike is an important moment in American labor history, in the post-labor 21st century it’s hard to see Newsies as anything but nostalgia. Or a cynical artifact of American capitalism celebrating values and systems we don’t officially like anymore. Values and systems our elected representatives had been busy starving and stamping out for more than a decade by the time Disney released the original flop film in 1989.

To be fair, Disney grabbed good headlines recently for making $15/hour the new minimum wage in its parks. It’s a good, overdue decision that’s earned praise from affiliated unions that, though diminished, continue to press for better wages and working conditions. Well, from the unions MouseHouse hasn’t stealth-busted, anyway.

Theatre Memphis’ Newsies got a well-deserved standing ovation opening night, but looking around at all the gray hair, pale faces, conservative suits and Marsha Blackburn supercuts, I couldn’t help but wonder what this demographic was clapping for. It couldn’t possibly be for a story about disruptive, production-choking protest. The Newsboy strike famously shut down a bridge, after all, and we all know how Memphis’ privileged classes feel about that sort of thing. Maybe they were just applauding the unpaid talent sweating guts out to entertain? Or depictions of the use of law enforcement as the strong arm of big business, quelling dissent and making compromise more appealing? Or the plebe-appeasing triumph of capital inherent in the musical’s happy ending? Or maybe it was just habit.

See, in the current political and economic environment a proper telling of this story shouldn’t entertain, it should incite.

Allow me to double down on my opening comments. Theatre Memphis’ Newsies is perfect and polished in the ways musicals at the East Memphis playhouse often are. Fans of the film, and earlier iterations of the stage show won’t be disappointed. Voices are strong, the acting is professional and featured dancers (high) kick ass. Costumes are appropriate and scenic and lighting elements serve the material well. Even if the book and music underwhelm, the production may yet inspire.

That’s not nearly enough, but I’ll take it.
Junk continues...

For a different take on business in America, Junk continues its run at Circuit Playhouse. From the Review...

To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980s, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.

We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers, was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. The Wolf of Wall Street was a blurry, sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage, there's been Enron and Serious Money and I can't believe I almost forgot to mention Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color, or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.  (Continue reading).
Hattiloo takes a look at the "school to prison pipeline" with the play Pipeline.

From press materials: 
"Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, is committed to her students but desperate to give her only son Omari opportunities they’ll never have. When a controversial incident at his private school threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront his rage and her own choices as a parent."
•The popular musical Nunsense opens at Germatown Community Theatre.
•Emerald Theatre Co. presents Gaydar, its third annual original 10-minute play festival
•Tennessee Shakespeare opens Two Gentlemen of Verona. This is also the best bargain in town thanks to Tennessee Shakespeare's Free Shakespeare Shout-Out Series which kicks off this month with 11 performances in nine different indoor and outdoor locations. It's a 75-minute show and no tickets or reservations are required.
•Quark Theatre opens The Typographer's Dream at Theatre South. You can read the preview here. 

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Obsession: Circuit Playhouse Stages White Collar Crime Drama, Junk.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 7:10 PM

  • Playhouse on the Square
  • Gabe Beutel-Gunn
"It's savage and it's cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It's noble and it's brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you're left like a zombie
And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession" —
The Eurythmics, 1982.

To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980's, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.

We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. The Wolf of Wall Street was a blurry,  sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage there's been Enron and Serious Money and I can't believe I almost forgot to mention  Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.

Robert Merkin's got problems with the American media. Newspapers only collect low hanging fruit he grouses in a familiar complaint about the modern press. He's not all wrong, of course. Reporters do sometimes craft narratives with "good guys and bad guys," as surely as if they were playwrights.

“[Reporters] don’t understand how the real world works,” Merkin says, laying out Junk's primary meta-text. Calling no attention to the irony, he heroically (and accurately) points out that his brave, new system puts money into the hands of poor people and minorities who'd been shut out of the American economy. Watching Merkin invent subprime loans in prison to "help" an underpaid guard realize the "dream" of home ownership, is a helpful reminder of how big time gangsters may have better reputations back in the old neighborhood. In doing so, it also reminds us why the professional classes don't get "deplorable," values.

What all these narrative threads lack is the meaning and human context of a crashing economy and the historic loss of minority wealth that occurred when the bubble finally popped.

Akhtar's balanced, complicated treatment tells the story of a hostile takeover. Merkin, by proxy, acquires the publicly-owned  Everson Steel, outfoxing the family-run corporation's third-generation management at every turn. He's going to kick the struggling steel business to the curb, killing jobs and the possibility of resurgence while focusing on pharma holdings in a weirdly boring game of economic chicken that makes it impossible for even the horn-doggiest of old-school capitalists to compete without getting themselves hooked on junk.

Junk strips away the usual trappings of business procedurals, exposing a kind of ritual addiction. Akhtar works a nonjudgmental idea that every person's the hero of his or her own story. Every man, anyway. But so many characters never develop, many more important threads go un-pulled, while other shopworn tropes emerge.

To some degree guest director Warner Crocker ignores the playwright's suggestion to avoid making Junk "an 80's play," and it wouldn't shock me if all John Hughes' movies got together and called Circuit Playhouse to ask for their soundtrack back. But, if one were to go that way, Junk's about boys club bullies, and in spite of its pivotal female roles, closer in spirit to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" than "Summer of '69." Soaring, transcendent (and sometimes bewildering) moments would nestle brilliantly into something from Glassworks. Judy Chen's sexless monologue about money giving her an orgasm might make more sense were she one of many stone-faced Robert Palmer girls, swinging to the shredding guitar samples of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" or if all the filthy lucre flowing through Junk manifested itself in any way other than the decorative illuminated spikes on a graph-inspired set.

Speaking of, Phillip Hughen's sweet scenic design is also a bit of a one trick pony. Oh hell yes, the light-bright graph is way cool to look at, but does it help tell the story? Or does it just limit stage depth and opportunities to design something bolder than this Junk's enter/exit blocking. The isolation works for one character and Jason Gerhard is typically excellent as a terrified, easily manipulated dumb-money investor.
Extra width, not much depth. - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Extra width, not much depth.
Circuit's creative team has brought together a strong cast that should be capable of riskier, and more rewarding choices. As Merkin, Gabe Beutel-Gunn is all sincerity and righteousness, while Mark Pergolizzi's Tresler, a traditional capitalist determined to preserve the status quo at (almost) any cost, mixes entitlement and easy self-assurance with rigidity and calculated bluster. Both men need to command a room like Tony Robbins power-walking into a self-improvement revival, thumping his latest book like the King James Bible. Neither do, and no other character is developed enough to make this play tick.

This should be a good role for Beutel-Gunn, and maybe even a better role for Pergolizzi who knows a little something about how to play rock star kings threatened by gypsy killers with no respect for established rules of the game. Why does it seem like every staging choice was designed to make both the high-rolling, p-grabbing Tresler and his natural enemy so much smaller than life?

Kevin Shaw crafts the evening's most compelling character. He's completely believable as Everson, the third generation scion of American steel royalty, coming awkwardly, and much too late to an understanding that sustainability means more than shuffling numbers on a balance sheet. It means expensive modernization. It means working with communities and labor and taking the kind of profit hits Wall Street won't stand for. But he's pure milquetoast, blinkered by privilege and unprepared to face the expensive-suited barbarians hammering away at his gate.  

Though the character is somewhat misused, Jeff Kirwan gets to the heart of things as a union boss scolding the rank and file for choosing self-interest over self preservation. Sadly, even in this very long play, there's not enough time to show how the steel industry changed the face of labor with its "new experimental bargaining." That broadly-adopted change in protocol took away the right to strike in favor of binding arbitration. Since you're reading this review here and are unlikely to find anything similar on the The Commercial Appeal's website, it might be helpful to understand that these same bargaining techniques enabled union -busting and the corporate delocalization of daily newspapers. So Junk's most heartfelt moment leaves the false impression of short-sighted workers availing themselves of a money grab when, for the previous 20-years union leadership had been golfing with management, while ignoring comment from the rank and file that might have sustained America's unionized industry through mechanization.  Like reporters, playwrights also tell easy, incomplete stories sometimes. At least Kirwan connects with both his character, and the audience during Junk's heart-breaking aside about complicity and the common man.

While I don't really miss all the cocaine or the gratuitous sex that often accompanies these kinds of stories, I do miss the speed, clarity, chaos and manifest temptation. Junk's a fine essay, but a less than extraordinary play that creeps along with three dots left dangling for every two it connects. Even these weaknesses might be exploited by embracing another trope of the 1980's — postmodernism. Expanding on the example of shows like Enron,  Junk might discover its better life as a rose-strewn toe-dance across the keys of  a big baby-grand, ascending like good hair or a big black and white stairway to heaven. The thing about this american ritual, to borrow from The Eurythmics, "It's savage and it's cruel and it shines like destruction, comes in like the flood and it seems like religion. It's noble and it's brutal. It distorts and deranges. It wrenches you up, and you're left like a zombie." Junk doesn't do any of that.

That's love, not judgment. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Marriage Proposal, Memorials Steal the Show: Ostranders, 2018

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2018 at 10:10 AM

Dawwwwww! (From the 2016 Ostranders).
  • Dawwwwww! (From the 2016 Ostranders).
Laughter, tears, goosebumps, the uncontrollable urge to dance, and the undeniable need to stretch: This year's Ostrander Awards packed in an entire theater season's worth of feels, including big surprises and the occasional jot of dismay. This year's event boasted more (and better) musical numbers, with a bigger band and better production than Ostranders past.

What began in 1984 as a simple act of handing out play prizes, is now a proper mini-festival where theater makers and theater lovers can spend a few more hours with favorite shows from the past season, and sample the best work being created by top artists working in Memphis area playhouses. This year's audience was treated to heartfelt, heart-stopping, rafter-shattering samples from Falsettos, Dream Girls, The Wild Party, Fun Home, Violet, Shrek, Once, and The Drowsy Chaperone.

A memorial for local performing artists who've died in the past year turned the crowd into a sobbing mess. 

This year's host-free version of the Ostrander Awards took several tentative steps forwards in terms of packing in fun content and letting Memphis' theatrical talent really show off for itself. People who do shows don't always get to see shows, and it's hard to overstate the revival-like affirmation of being in room filled with actors, singers, hoofers, writers, and musicians all together for the first time hearing Breyannah Tillman cut loose with "And I Am Telling You," or falling into a stunned hush when the cast of Once hammers out a ragged Irish ballad. But between the singing and all the dancing, and the surprises, this was still a show desperately in need of an editor. 
Dreamgirls at the Ostranders
  • Dreamgirls at the Ostranders
C'mon, folks! Excluding a modest acceptance address by lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell, every speech and award citation would have improved with distillation. Actors may love a meaty monologue, it's true, but when it comes to telling this night's story well, in a reasonable amount of time, a deft sentence or two composed for speakers rather than readers, is more effective than detailed paragraphs rattled off imprecisely at a breakneck pace.

I'll attempt an example.

The 2018 Ostrander for "Oh No You Didn't" goes to Chase Ring. Ring upstaged everybody (including lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell!), when he took a knee and proposed to co-presenter, Ellen Inghram. Congratulations and raised eyebrows are both in order.
Scene stealer! Yeah, it's a terrible, blurry photo, but it's the best shot I got of Chase Ring proposing to co-presenter Ellen Inghram on the Orpheum stage at the 2018 Ostrander Awards.
  • Scene stealer! Yeah, it's a terrible, blurry photo, but it's the best shot I got of Chase Ring proposing to co-presenter Ellen Inghram on the Orpheum stage at the 2018 Ostrander Awards.

I'm kidding about the raised eyebrows part. And the part about giving Chase the business for being a spotlight-hogging scene thief. Mostly. But congratulations really are in order. It was lovely, and an awesome moment to share with a community that's experienced a good deal of crisis and loss in the past 12 months. Also, any citation longer than the one above my super blurry photo of Chase and Ellen showing us what perfect storybook romance looks like, is probably too much.
Members of the cast of Once offer a lesson in ensemble performance.
  • Members of the cast of Once offer a lesson in ensemble performance.
I'll have one last report about this year's Ostrander awards in the October issue of Memphis magazine. Until then — and until next year for Intermission Impossible's annual Ostrander coverage — I'll leave you with this picture of Justin Asher loving life. In Shrek ears. 
Shrek & Donkey.
  • Shrek & Donkey.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Jitney, Fun Home Take Top Honors: Ostrander Winners, 2018

Posted By on Mon, Aug 27, 2018 at 9:07 AM

Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square
  • Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square
This season, Hattiloo completed August Wilson's entire century-cycle with a first-rate production of Jitney, Wilson's requiem for gypsy cab drivers working Pittsburgh's Hill District. In the musical category, Ostrander liked Playhouse on the Square's Fun Home, a sophisticated musical adaptation of comic book artist Alison Bechdel's traumatic childhood. 

College Division

Set Design
The Wild Party - Brian Ruggaber, U of M

Costume Design
The Secret in the Wings - Becca Bailey, U of M

Lighting Design
The Secret in the Wings - Nicholas F. Jackson

Music Direction
Nine - Jason Eschhofen, U of M

Nine - Jill Guyton Nee

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress - Hiawartha Jackson, Southwest

Leading Actress in a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Jordan Hartwell, U of M

Supporting Actor in a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Tyler Vernon

Leading Actor in a Drama
Theophilus North - Ryan Gilliam, McCoy Theatre, Rhodes

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Violet - Destiny Freeman, Rhodes/U of M co-production

Leading Actress in a Musical
Violet - Jenny Wilson

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Violet - Jason McCloud

Leading Actor in a Musical
Violet - Deon'ta White

Featured/Cameo Role
Violet - Jaylon Jazz McCraven

Large Ensemble
Nine - The entire cast of ladies

Small Ensemble
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress - Ciara Campbell, Jhona Gipson, Rashidah Gardner, Mary Ann Washington, Hiawartha Jackson

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Danica Horton

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Violet - Karissa Coady

Best Production

Ostrander Nominees and Award Winners 2018 Community and Professional Division

Excellence in Set Design
Tim McMath, Fun Home, Playhouse on the Square

Excellence in Costume Design
Amie Eoff, Shrek, Theatre Memphis
Shrek at Theatre Memphis - JOEY MILLER
  • Joey Miller
  • Shrek at Theatre Memphis

Excellence in Props Design
Betty Dilley, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Germantown Community Theatre

Excellence in Hair/Wig/Makeup Design
Buddy Hart, Rence Phillips, Charles McGowan, Shrek

Excellence in Sound Design
Joe Johnson, Eurydice, New Moon Theatre Company

Excellence in Lighting Design
Zo Haynes, Fun Home

Excellence in Music Direction
Jeffrey Brewer, Drowsy Chaperone, Theatre Memphis
Falsettos, Next Stage, Theatre Memphis
  • Falsettos, Next Stage, Theatre Memphis
Excellence in Choreography
Travis Bradley & Jordan Nichols, Drowsy Chaperone

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama
Erin Shelton, All Saints in the Old Colony, POTS@TheWorks
Jessica “Jai” Johnson, Ruined, Hattiloo

Best Leading Actress in a Drama
Maya Geri Robinson, Ruined

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama
John Maness, All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Leading Actor in a Drama
Greg Boller, All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Supporting Actress in a Musical
Carla McDonald, Fun Home

Best Leading Actress in a Musical
Breyannah Tillman, Dreamgirls, Playhouse on the Square

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical
Napoleon Douglas, Dreamgirls

Best Leading Actor in a Musical
Justin Asher, Shrek

Best Featured Performer in a Drama
Jamel “JS” Tate, Jitney, Hattiloo

Best Featured Performer in a Musical
Annie Freres, Shrek
All Saints in the Old Colony: Greg Boller, John Maness - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • All Saints in the Old Colony: Greg Boller, John Maness

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
Jeff Posson, All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Production of a Drama

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Dave Landis, Fun Home

Best Production of a Musical
Fun Home

Gypsy Award
Christi Hall

Larry Riley Rising Star
Breyannah Tillman

Behind the Scenes
Andy Saunders.

Best Original Script
All Saints in the Old Colony POTS@TheWorks

Best Production of an Original Script
All Saints in the Old Colony

Annie Freres in Shrek
  • Annie Freres in Shrek

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Tony Isbell Awarded Eugart Yerian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Memphis Theater

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2018 at 11:43 AM

Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.
  • Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.
In the Ostrander Awards first year of existence Tony Isbell was one of two actors nominated in the Best Actor category. He lost. Oh well. He’d be nominated many more times and win his share of play prizes. Now, after 40 years working in Memphis as an actor, director, producer, sometimes writer and occasional cult movie star, Isbell is being honored with the Eugart Yerian award for lifetime achievement.

Isbell will be honored at the Orpheum Theatre this Sunday evening when the Memphis theater community converges at the corner of Main & Beale for Memphis' annual theater awards, The Ostranders.

Memphis Flyer: Origin stories are a good place to start. And we’ve talked about this before because, like me, you moved here from rural Middle Tennessee.

Tony Isbell: West Tennessee.

Yes, West Tennessee. But you didn’t exactly grow up in an urban environment.

I was born in Union City and lived in a 10-mile radius of Union City and Martin until we moved to Memphis. That would have been 1978. So at this point I've lived more of my life in Memphis than where I'm from originally.
Tony Isbell in "Red"
  • Tony Isbell in "Red"

Was theater something available to you?

No. That's a very short answer. No. I used to say the first play I ever saw I was in. The University of Tennessee at Martin is there. And I'm sure they were doing [theater there]. But when I was a kid was a long time ago. Union City was maybe 10,000 people when I was a kid. Martin was maybe 3-4000. Something like that. So this was a small agricultural community, basically. I didn't see theater. I saw a lot of stuff on TV of course. And at that time, there was still some stuff that was kind of like live theater. Even when I was in elementary school and junior high, there were no productions in the schools.

What were your creative outlets?

I don't know if you can classify this is creative, but… For my family, who I love, I probably seem like an alien. I love to read. And I’d read practically anything when I was a kid. But when I discovered things that were like science fiction and fantasy and stuff that today would be called magical realism, I truly fell in love. Those were the kinds of things that I loved almost from the minute I began to read. Some of the earliest books that I remember — I can't remember the titles — but they were Norse mythology and all that stuff about the Norse gods. Mythology in general. So anything that had a kind of flavor of the fantastic.

I did watch a lot of TV. Probably more than was good for me. But I used to pester anybody I could to read to me. They would laugh at me. In a good way. I was especially fascinated by the comics in the newspaper and I always wanted to know what does this cloud say. What does this cloud say. The act of reading just fascinated me and in Elementary School I got in trouble for reading too much. That sounds crazy, I know. We had assigned days when we could go to the school library. I’d find books that I wanted to read and we go back to class and we were supposed to do something else and I’d hold the book under the desktop and begin reading it immediately and just lose myself completely. I remember one time when the teacher called on me and I was totally in another world.

I do remember being fascinated by television when I was still fairly young, and asking I don't know if it was my father or who it was. See, I understood the people on TV were actors. I didn't think Gunsmoke was really happening. But it suddenly struck me — how did they know what to say? “Well, somebody writes it,” I was told. I thought that was so cool. So when I was really young I thought maybe I would be a writer. And I wrote some stuff.

You still do, don’t you?

I haven't written anything in a long time. I wrote some things for Chatterbox. But I thought I might be a writer. I enjoyed reading too much to be a writer if that makes sense. I still get ideas and I get inspired and I start reading about things I want to do and… well...

Other than that, I grew up in a very rural environment. My grandparents had a farm. They had some dairy cows. And I would spend summers with them, not even 10 miles from where my folks lived. Both my parents worked. My mother was a factory worker. Real working class sort of thing. My dad drove a truck. He drove trucks pretty much his whole life. Not like semis but like local delivery trucks and things like that.

Did you act things out? Or were you a class clown?

No. I was incredibly shy. And in many ways, I still am. But I was not the class clown or anything like that. If anything, I wanted people not to notice me. It goes back to that reading thing. I would get so involved in reading and watching shows. So caught up in that, it almost seemed like I lost track of what was going on in the real world around me. My mother was worried about me reading so much. She was really concerned that I wasn't getting enough sunshine and fresh air and stuff. I told you before about how one time she made me give away all of my comic books. Oh my God it broke my heart. I had Spider-Man #1. She made me get rid of it. I think I got a nickel for it. It's worth what now? $100,000 or something? Something crazy. My mother in particular was really concerned about me reading all that science fiction. She thought it was bad for me. And she didn't know anything about it, I don't think. She just saw the lurid covers on the paperbacks and magazines. She thought it was bad for my brain

Did you come to Memphis for school?

I went to undergraduate school at Martin. Marie and I actually got married there. In Union City. We moved to Memphis so she could go to graduate school to get her Masters. We weren't really planning to stay here. We didn't think much beyond her getting her Masters. She's a speech pathologist. She works and has worked for the state of Tennessee for almost 30 years.

When did you start doing theater?

High school. And there are two people I can point to that got me into theater. One was an English teacher named Harriet Beeler. She taught English but at some point she got certified to teach speech. So she had to take some extra courses at the University at UT-Martin, which happened to be right there. One of the courses she ended up taking was a directing class. So, for her final, all the students had to direct a short play and she approached me. I don't know why. I guess I was a good English student. She asked about doing a small role and I’d never done anything like that before, but for some reason, something in me just immediately responded. With fear and also extreme interest. So I said okay.
Isbell and Ellis in True West.
  • Isbell and Ellis in True West.
I would have been a sophomore or junior at this time. The play was this - oh my God, like the worst Lifetime movie you’ve ever seen. Big tearjerker. I don't remember the author but it was called The Valiant and it was about this guy who was in prison for murdering a man basically because he needed murdering. I wasn't playing that role, I was playing a role that had about two lines. A prison guard. Beeler cast a football player to play the hero because she thought he looked right. He was very popular. Well, he didn't come to the first rehearsal. There had been some mixup or something. But then he didn't come to the second one. Just didn't show up. So, I don't know if it was the second or third time he missed that she says, “Well, maybe I think he doesn't want to do this play.” By this point, I wanted to play that role so bad. But I was too scared to say anything. So she said, “I'm going to ask Andy to do it.” Andy was another guy in the show playing a guard. And Andy was a nice guy, but he could barely say the lines. So, after about 5 minutes of him struggling with the words she said, “Maybe we should let Tony do this.” Whatever else I may not have had, I was able to read things out loud really well and that was all she needed. She was like, “Oh good you can do it.” So I ended up doing that for the directing class and to this day I can remember how I felt before I went on stage. I was 16 or 17 and I was waiting backstage and my heart was pounding. I think I was actually afraid something bad was going to happen to me because my heart was beating so hard.

So, we went out there and did it and when it was over and we got to take a bow there was such an adrenaline and endorphin rush I literally felt high. Like I was on drugs of some kind. It was unbelievable. I’d never felt like that or imagined anything like that. It was just crazy. I was wearing this grey shirt and I had sweated so much I was wet from my elbow all the way down to my hip. I’d never done anything like that before either. I couldn't believe it. I must have been a junior because the next year we moved to a new high school, they built a new high school. And I wound up starring in the senior play which was the first senior play we'd ever done since I'd been in that school.
With Deborah Harrison in Fool for Love.
  • With Deborah Harrison in Fool for Love.
Then I went to UT Martin and studied theater with Bill Snyder all four years I was there and did lots of acting and directing. He was an interesting guy. He was from originally from Memphis but went to Yale and was a couple of years ahead of Bennett Wood who also went to Yale. So they knew each other or knew of each other. Then he went to New York. His real thing was playwriting, he was a playwright and had a minor success Off Broadway with a play called The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker. Which is partially set in Memphis and partially set in New York. It opened the same season Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and was one of the first acting jobs for Robert Duvall. Bill Snyder was friends with Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman and ended up going to Actors Studio for a while. Everything he taught at Martin was extremely Actors Studio based. it was interesting because, when he would direct we would improvise everything. You know, doing it without the dialogue. He'd say, “Okay, you're doing the play now but don't worry about getting the words. Just get what's going on.” It could be helpful. He hardly ever gave us blocking; all of that evolved out of the improvisation.

The show I felt like I made my really big breakthrough on was the production of Marat/Sade, which I would actually like to direct someday.

Me too, but I don’t see that happening.

I love that show. And it's not really done. It's like nobody does it anymore and I think it's just as relevant now as it was back then.

Somehow that doesn’t seem like a very Actors Studio kind of play.

I never knew why he picked any of the plays that he did.

Who did you play in that?

I played The Herald. And improvising all that stuff in the insane asylum was incredibly freeing for me. I've told people before, and it sounds goofy. But there was one night in particular when I felt like all my my previous acting had been in a dark room and then somebody turned on the lights. It's hard to explain. I've talked to other actors and they said they never had a moment like that. But it was like I understood what acting was supposed to be like. It wasn't just saying lines. All of a sudden I was connected emotionally and I really understood the difference, I think. From that point on I was able to access it

So, after college you move to Memphis. What was the theater scene like when you arrived here? Was it welcoming?

Yes. Well, a qualified yes. When I arrived here it seemed like the only places to do theater were Circuit Playhouse and Theatre Memphis. Playhouse on the Square had either just started or was about to start. I came down from Martin a few times to see shows at Circuit. This is when it was still over on Poplar across from Overton Park. A tiny little theater.

I'd heard it was harder to get into Theatre Memphis. At that time, Circuit was doing the kinds of shows I was more interested in. So, for the first eight, nine, or ten years - I don't know - I didn’t do any shows at Theatre Memphis. It was mostly Circuit because they did the more interesting plays for me. Also, the theater either owned or rented a house and, in the attic there was literally a space called called The Attic Theater that held, I'm not kidding you, maybe 10 seats. Maybe 12 seats. And that's where I did some of my first stuff in Memphis, because anybody could do anything in The Attic. I did some original scripts there. All you had to do was say, “Hey, I want to do this.”
With Mark Pergolizzi in As Is.
  • With Mark Pergolizzi in As Is.
The first play I did on a main stage was American Buffalo at Circuit. I played Bobby the kid. That was the first show I did there. It's a wonderful show. It was the Christmas show — to literally let you know how much things have changed. I can't remember the exact dates but it ran like December into January.

So this is my first show in Memphis really. Alan Mullikan played the shop owner and Jim Palmer played Teach. And the review was mixed to bad. It was Bob Jennings who hated any kind of thing like that anyway. Didn't like foul language. So this was not a good show for him to see. I remember his opening of that review and it was the first time I've ever been reviewed in the newspaper the opening with something like… Wait. Did American Buffalo win the Pulitzer Prize or was it just nominated.

I don’t think it won. But maybe.

Maybe it was just nominated.

Glengarry Glen Ross won a Pulitzer. American Buffalo won a Tony. But maybe it won the Pulitzer, I hate that I have such a terrible memory for these things. *

Maybe it won. Or was nominated. Because, the opening of the review was something like, “The American Pulitzer committee, whether it should or not, has seen fit to award the Pulitzer Prize for drama to American Buffalo and Circuit Playhouse, whether it should or not, has seen fit to produce it.”

Oh wow. That’s really something.

He didn’t like it at all. He said something about me to the effect of “Tony Isbell, as Bobby, the mentally retarded young thug, doesn’t seem to be acting. He simply is the part.” He didn’t mean that in a good way. That was my first review.

So you wind up staying in Memphis.
It just kind of happened that we ended up staying. I never seriously thought about going to New York or Los Angeles because, frankly, I wanted to be able to do a lot of theater. I didn't want to spend most of my time hustling auditions for shows that you don't get. Then Marie got a pretty good job here and I ended up going to Memphis State and getting an MFA in theater because I thought I might go back to Martin to teach. But that didn’t happen, so we just ended up staying here and over the years I've gotten to do tons and tons of theater, which is what I wanted to do. And a little film and TV here and there. As far as being a professional, I just didn't want to face all that. It had no appeal to me.

You bring up film and TV so maybe we should talk a little bit about “I Was a Zombie for the FBI?”

Oh, I loved that. That's when I was working on my Master's. I was actually approached by Marius Penczner, who was the director. He said, “Hey I'm going to be making this movie.” And I didn't know who he was. He had seen me in some theater stuff and thought I’d make a good villain. Especially a space alien. I don't know if this is true but he said he wrote the part with me in mind because he thought I had a cool demeanor that would work really well.

When I signed on I told everybody that I worked during the day and we’d have to work around that. Well, damned if I didn't get laid off my job a week or two later. Then I saw the shooting schedule and was like, “I couldn't have done this if I still had my job.” It was kind of good in that way. We shot for several weeks. Five or six weeks. Maybe a little longer.

And this launches on cable with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or something like that, right?

They had a premiere at Ardent Studios. They set up all these big screens because there wasn't one auditorium big enough for all the people. There were five or six rooms they set up chairs in and you could watch on big TV screens. 20-30 people to a room. Then it actually played on Channel 5 a couple of months later. It ended up playing on the USA Network’s Up All Night. I think it was in rotation with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and they’d play it every four to six months.
Greatest hits: What are some of your favorite shows you’ve worked on?

Some of my favorite shows I’ve acted in? The Dresser at Circuit. I played Norman and it was the first year they had Ostrander awards. Myself and Jay Ehrlicher were nominated for best actor and I lost.

Jay was nominated for playing Salieri in Amadeus?

Yes, Amadeus. Also, I did Fool for Love. I loved that play. Still love that play. I got a lot of nominations in the early years. And in the later years too. It sounds like bragging, but I got nominated a lot. Acting more than directing. And I did True West a few years later at Theatre Memphis.

With Chris Ellis.

Yes. I directed Memphis’ premiere of Prelude to a Kiss and wouldn’t mind directing that again.

I like that Craig Lucas.

I did the other show of his— the Christmas Show...

Not Blue Window. Reckless!

Yes, Reckless. Loved that show.

This is all main stage stuff more or less, but you’ve also always done independent work too. Like you said you worked in the Attic. But you also produced a show in the basement at First Congo Church long before there was a theater in the basement of First Congo Church.


Yes, Thais. And now you have a company for doing independent work. Tell me a little about Quark.

It came about as a kind of joke. I made a joke on Facebook about Krapp’s Last Tape. There’s a line in the play, “I’ve just eaten two bananas and was only able to just keep myself from eating a third.” Or something like that. I made that joke about donuts because I had, that morning, eaten three or four donuts. Adam got the reference. I knew he was a Beckett fan. He wrote his masters thesis on Beckett and he was the one person who responded with the correct line. In a post on Facebook I said it’s the one play I want to act in rather than direct and he said, “Well, let's.” It turned out to be such a good experience. Such positive feedback from people. Even from people I didn’t think would care for it. A few months after the show I asked Adam, how about we do this on regular basis? Just a couple of shows a year.

We’re both nerdy, so we named the company Quark. Building blocks of the universe. And that’s what we want to focus on. We started with Beckett then looked at maybe doing some Pinter and said, “Maybe we want to do new things. Or things that haven’t been done here. So we started looking for new work that engages the intellect a well as emotions.
Bye, bye, Blackbird.
  • Bye, bye, Blackbird.

I love good design and I’m not just saying that because I’m married to a designer. Good, thoughtful design — which doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive — elevates everything. But I also love work that strips everything away but the barest essentials. That’s what I love about Quark.

I wanted to get down to just the actors, the audience, and the script and let the rest be bare minimum. The main things I’m concerned with are the actors and audience. The space, the audience, the performers and what happens between them is what’s most interesting to me.

*American Buffalo did not win the Pulitzer though playwright David Mamet was confident it would. It won 3 Tony awards and the New York Drama Circle's Award for Best New American Play. 

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Ostranders 2018: Picks, Pans, and "Who Got ROBBED?!?!"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 11:35 AM

Maness 4-ways.
  • Maness 4-ways.
You know what? As long as John Maness wins something, I don’t care about anything else this year. If the Ostrander committee misses all the rest by miles and miles, I’ll be satisfied for the ounce of justice done. Because … holy crap! After this season, the O-committee should consider a “John Maness hardest-working-person in Memphis Theater” trophy. With a roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic married to the soul of a magician and escape artist, he hammers out one unique character after another and vanishes inside them. I mean, who the hell does this guy think he is, Erin Shelton?

Nevertheless, the time has come, once again, for shade to be cast and predictions made in regard to this year’s crop of nominees and nominees that might have been if only the universe wasn’t so frequently unfair. It’s the season when the Intermission Impossible team wonders what it is our tireless, too human Ostrander judges might be smoking. When we ask the one question on every right-thinking thespian’s mind — “WHO GOT ROBBED?”

I want to see J. David Galloway take home the set design for New Moon’s lovely, immersive, and necessarily inventive design for Eurydice. I’ve been frustrated in the past by designers who quote or wink at surrealism when what’s needed is something approaching the real thing. Not every aspect of Galloway’s design was as dreamy as it might have been, but the microbudget masterpiece engaged imaginations, enabling the kind of stage magic money can’t buy.
That said, bigger, better-funded companies still have advantages in design categories and I suspect the judges may prefer Jack Yates’ outstanding work on The Drowsy Chaperone or the ordinary otherworldliness of Tim McMath’s design for Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square.

But what about the eye-candy that was An Act of God (also Yates)? What about 12 Angry Jurors, an environment so real yet another confounded patron tried to use the onstage bathroom (also Yates)? If it sounds like I’m arguing for more Jack Yates nominations, maybe I am. But I’m also making a case that there’s been some good design this season, and given a different set of sensibilities, this category might have swung another direction entirely. There might have been nods for the elegant emptiness of Bryce Cutler’s Once, at Playhouse on the Square, or the grubby, unfussy realism of Phillip Hughen’s design for The Flick at Circuit Playhouse. I look forward to seeing how this category evolves as New Moon continues to mature, and smaller Memphis’ companies leverage thoughtfulness against more tangible resources. 
  • Falsettos.

It’s wrong that Mandy Heath wasn’t nominated for lighting Falsettos but I can live with the slight as long as she wins the prize for Eurydice. That’s really all I have to say about that.

Once is a stunt musical — and what a terrific stunt! It’s part concert, part narrative drama, with the actors doubling down as their own orchestra. The three-chord score’s not Sondheim but casting players who are also, well... players isn’t easy. And pulling off a piece musical theater where the songs feel more like barroom romps than show tunes, requires a different kind of sophistication. I suspect the thrice-nominated Nathan McHenry will take this prize. He should take it for Once.

Who got robbed? Maybe nobody this year.

For excellence in sound design there are a few nominees, but really only one choice. Joe Johnson’s dreamy original score for Eurydice didn’t enhance the designed environment. It completed it.

I was happy to see choreographers Ellen Inghram and Jared Johnson nominated for the wit and wisdom permeating their work on Falsettos. It would be nice to see them win over the flashier entries in this category. No robberies here.

When it comes to the non-musicals, best female lead and supporting roles are almost always the toughest category to call because year after year they are overstuffed with contenders. While Kim Sanders was her usual perfect self in both A Perfect Arrangement and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the double nomination in the supporting category may not double her odds against commanding, emotionally wrenching turns by Jessica “Jai” Johnson in Ruined and Erin Shelton in All Saints in the Old Colony. Kell Christie was the best Emelia I’ve ever seen and a perfect match for John Maness’ woman-hating Iago in New Moon’s Othello. Any other year Christie would be my #1 pick. She’s a longshot compared to Shelton and Johnson and I’m hard pressed to say who’s more deserving of the honor.
Opera 901 Showcase
  • Opera 901 Showcase
Who got robbed? Although FEMMEemphis’ productions aren’t under consideration, basically the entire cast of Collective Rage. Quark’s similarly out of the running but in the young company’s very adult production of The Nether, young Molly McFarland stood shoulder to shoulder with grownup co-stars and delivered a brave, polished performance. As the youngest of the Weston daughters in Theatre Memphis’ tepid August: Osage County, Emily F. Chateau was damn near perfect — as fragile as Laura Wingfield’s glass unicorn and as likely to cut you if broken. ROBBED AS HELL!

Anne Marie Caskey does consistently professional work but she seemed miscast in Theatre Memphis’ not altogether successful production of August: Osage County. Ostrander loves Caskey (as do I) and her inclusion here might seem less bewildering if not for the absence of Michelle Miklosey’s pitch perfect Eurydice  Tracy Hansom's good old fashioned curtain chew in Stage Kiss. Were I one of these two ladies, I’d take The Oblivains strong advice and call the police. Because, ROBBED! OMG ROBBED!

Some of the best female leads this season did their thing just outside Ostrander’s natural reach. Jillian Baron and Julia Baltz were equally badass in FEMMEmphis’ Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. But let’s be real. All this talk of robbery is purely academic because each of these fantastic performances paled next to to Maya Geri Robinson’s larger-than-life depiction of a Congolese Mother Courage in Ruined at Hattiloo. And Robinson's performance may have only been the season’s second best. I can’t say with any confidence that I’ve ever seen an actor own a show like Morgan Watson owned Sunset Baby, also at Hattiloo.
Emily F. Chateau. The F stands for F-ing ROBBED!
  • Emily F. Chateau. The F stands for F-ing ROBBED!

The list for Best Supporting Actor is strong. It’s so strong I’m picking Bertram Williams for Ruined even though I started this column cheering for John Maness in anything. The list of nominees might also have included nods to Jeff Kirwan for his performances in New Moon’s Buried Child, Eurydice or both. It's worth noting (yet again) that every performance in All Saints in the Old Colony approached a personal best and Marques Brown was ROBBED!

I don’t know what the theater judges had against Buried Child but James Dale Green’s Dodge is a glaring best actor omission. So is Emmanuel McKinney, who gave a knockout performance as Muhammad Ali in the uneven Fetch Clay, Make Man. Both of these men should post on Nextdoor.com right away to let everybody know they were ROBBED! Once that’s been done, can we please all agree to give this year’s prize to John Maness? And can we go ahead make it for everything he touched this season? I say this with deep appreciation for and apologies to All Saints’ Greg Boller and Jitney’s Lawrence Blackwell who both delivered special, award-worthy performances in a season where the competition happened to be a little stiffer than usual.

I take it from the sheer number of nominations in the category of Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, the Ostrander judges liked Fun Home. Me too. But maybe not enough to give any category a near sweep. Especially when it might be appropriate to co-nominate Fun Home’s small and medium Alison in order to make room for Falsettos’ Jaclyn Suffel and/or Christina Hernandez who were both ROBBED!

A taste of Once's pre-show jam.
Like I said, Ostrander very clearly likes Fun Home this year with the odd exception of adult Alison, Joy Brooke-Fairfield. So, individual nominations aside, I’m predicting a joint win for the two Alisons. Of course Annie Freres was a force of nature as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone. All else being equal, she was probably the most outstanding nominee in a field of outstanding nominees.

Best Female Lead in a Musical is a heartbreaker category because everybody nominated is ridiculously talented. Nobody in town has pipes like DreamgirlsBreyannah Tillman, who’s also proving to be a formidable actor. But Emily F. Chateau also had an amazing year and may have been better in Falsettos than she was in August: Osage County. Gia Welch is a precocious powerhouse. She was great in Chaperone, but might also have been nominated for work on 42nd Street or Heathers. Meanwhile, Once’s Lizzy Hinton and Shrek’s Lynden Lewis occupy opposite corners of this playing field. The former helped build a complete world out of song and mirrors.The later was almost buried in spectacle but made heart and soul so much more important than green makeup and ogre costumes.

Let me let you in on a secret: Like Lena Younger’s striving son Walter, Patricia Smith was ROBBED! She should have gotten a nod for her work in the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. I’m gonna talk about Raisin later on in this seemingly endless column, but frankly, that whole cast might want to call a personal injury attorney because they were dealt a disservice up front then ripped off by out appraisers!

Given all of Fun Home’s nominations in other categories, the omission of Joy Brooke-Fairfield feels oddly pointed. Fun Home’s a show that might challenge traditional gender divisions in these kinds of awards and when I didn’t see the older Alison included in this category, I so I double checked the whole list to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. But there was no Joy to be found anywhere, and that sentence is every bit as sad as it sounds. ROBBED!

I’d like to see Joshua Pierce win the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category for Theatre Memphis’ superlative take on Falsettos. But I missed First Date and Dreamgirls this season and, truth be told, I don’t understand Shrek’s appeal. Too disoriented by this category to make a fair call. That almost never happens. Y'all tell me.

Best Leading Actor in a Musical is yet another heartbreaker category. Shrek’s never going to be my thing, but it’s very clearly Justin Asher’s, and he was a mighty fine ogre,  loving every second of big green stage time. Stephen Huff was so at home in Fun Home it’s now almost impossible for me to imagine anybody else in his role. And I kinda feel the same about Jason Spitzer’s near definitive take on The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair. But I've gotta say, having been underwhelmed by his pitchy turn in Heathers, I was most impressed by Conor Finnerty-Esmonde's take on the hard-luck musician in Once. But when I filter out personal taste in music and storytelling and just let myself focus on the difficulty and potency of the performances represented here, one actor’s work really stands out. Villains are fun to play but nothing's harder than a complex character who's hard-to-like but can't be allowed to become a villain. Cary Vaughn, in his finest of many fine performances, plowed through Falsettos like a steamroller. Still standing. Still applauding this entire cast.
Eurydice — Awfully good looking.
  • Eurydice — Awfully good looking.
But what about Kortland Whalum? Where is his name? I’ll be the first to admit, Raisin was tragically underproduced. The scenic environment felt unfinished, and in an intimate space like Hattiloo, nothing sucks the soul from musical performances like warm bodies performing to cold tracks. But somehow, in spite of everything the actors had working against them, Raisin’s cast collectively overcame. I can’t blame the Ostrander for not rewarding the production, but when you factor in the odds against, no cast was more ROBBED than this one. I’ll brook zero argument: No actor deserves to this category half as much as Whalum. Folks are welcome to disagree on this point, but folks who do are flat wrong. ROBBED!

If Jamel “JS” Tate doesn’t win Best Featured Performer in a Drama for Jittny I’m personally calling in the FBI. Annie Freres is likely to win Best Featured in a musical for her flashy roll-on as the Dragon in Shrek. Or maybe it will go to Breyannah Tillman, who stuck the landing in her role as The Drowsy Chaperone’s show-stopping aviatrix. But James Dale Green stopped time with nothing but his weatherbeaten tenor, a strummed mandolin, and a compelling story to tell. That sounds like a winner to me. Who got Robbed? Once’s Chris Cotton, that’s who.

I’m totally happy if the Ensemble award goes to All Saints in the Old Colony, Falsettos, Fun Home, Jitney, or A Perfect Arrangement. All are deserving, though Jitney may be just a little bit more deserving than all the rest. But how in the blankety-blankblanblank did Once not make this list? The cast doesn’t just act together, they also make music together — acoustic music. Music largely unaided by electronics and amplification. Music so thoroughly human it connects past and future like a time machine made of skin, bone, wood and string. I’m happy if the award goes to any of the fantastic nominees, but no matter who wins the judges lose on this account. Once was the season’s ultimate ensemble show, and POTS’s ensemble crushed it. The pre-show hoedown was worth the price of admission. BOO!

As long as I’m complaining about the judges, OMG! Why is Tony Isbell nominated for excellence in direction of a drama for Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf? Don’t misunderstand, I come to praise this year’s lifetime achievement honoree, not to dis him. Isbell absolutely should have been nominated in this category, but for his work on The Nether (not eligible). Or his work on Years to the Day (also not eligible). Or maybe even his work on Stage Kiss (eligible and solid but fuck-you ignored). I’d go so far as to say he got ROBBED! in spite of bing nominated. This insubstantial work is a jarring inclusion next to Dr. Shondrika Moss-Bouldin’s unflinching approach to Ruined and the inventiveness of Jamie Boller’s Eurydice. Not to mention the hyper-detailed character development, and ensemble work Jeff Posson oversaw for All Saints in the Old Colony and the flawless world-building of Steve Broadnax’s Jitney. I’m calling this one for Posson, but it could go in almost any direction.

Best production of a drama? I like Jitney, though I’ve not pegged it as a winner in many other categories. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s the case here, though the parts were also quite good. Should All Saints in the Old Colony win, it’s every bit as deserving and, being a new script and the underdog here, maybe even more deserving.

I’m betting the darkhorse for excellence in Direction of a Musical and calling this one for Jerry Chipman and Falsettos. Everything else was bigger or flashier or more current in some way or another, even the stripped down Once. But life’s about balance, and Chipman’s production had nary a hair out of place that wasn’t supposed to be out of place.

Looking at the nominee spread, my gut tells me Fun Home was the judges’ favorite musical this season, and why wouldn't it be? It was flawlessly cast, and beautifully performed. But this wasn't the best work I’ve seen from director Dave Landis. I saw the performance with two companions. One wept openly, responding to the story and the characters. The other complained all the way home about the musical’s almost complete lack of action and visual/physical dynamics. I became the most unpopular person in the car when I said I thought they were both 100-percent right to feel the way they felt. Up to this point I’ve been #TeamFalsettos but I’m calling this one for Once. The other shows were great, but they were shows. Once was an event.

“Theaters not actively engaged in creating new material are passively engaged in their own obsolescence.” — Me.

Yeah, I totally quoted myself, but there’s not much I believe more than that. It’s one of the reasons I think the Ostrander Awards for Best Original Script and Best Production of an Original Script, may be more important than nice. In the future, judges might even consider beating the bushes a little on this front, and looking beyond the usual qualifying companies. All Saints in the Old Colony is a fantastic new script. It will win these categories, and it will know productions and awards beyond Memphis. But now would be a good time for all the folks who contributed words and music to Opera Memphis’ all-original 901 Opera Festival to cancel their credit cards because they have been ROBBED! OM might not be under consideration, but if we’re looking for superlatives, I can’t recall a more impressive example of new musical theater in the 901. Not 
Tony Isbell in "Red"
  • Tony Isbell in "Red"
since OM’s 2014 production of Ghosts of Crosstown heralded the rebirth of a neighborhood.

That may not cover every category, but it’s all I’ve got for now. Who did I forget?

Also, stay tuned for a Q&A with lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

In Praise of "Love and Murder" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2018 at 11:22 AM

Michael Gravois, Kristen Doty
  • Michael Gravois, Kristen Doty
It’s pointless to refer to “the death scene” in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The musical farce at Playhouse on the Square has eight or maybe nine of them, and every one of the characters who goes in extremis is played by the exceptional Michael Gravois.

The stage veteran throws himself brilliantly into the silliness, playing members of the D’Ysquith family who stand in the way of a greedy outcast whose mother married for (shudder) love and was therefore kicked out of the clan’s good graces.

Nonetheless, if certain of Monty Navarro’s relatives should die (the quicker the better), then he’ll be a duke with a wife, a mistress, and most importantly, money. But we really love to watch as Gravois bursts on stage as one of the royal relatives, expires, and then reappears moments later inhabiting the character and costume of another doomed relation.

Holding forth as the initially guileless Monty who embarks on a comic Breaking Bad as the bodies accrue, is Ryne Nardecchia, who played the role in the national tour and is flawless. Adam Cates directs and choreographs, and he, too, worked on the Broadway version and the national tour as associate choreographer.

It’s a thoroughly delightful escape, smartly produced, and scads of fun. If the orchestra would ease up a wee bit from time to time to let the singers be heard, it would be even better.

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