Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Candy Store

Joel Bassin said a funny thing to me just as the lights were going down to signal the beginning of “Heathers: The Musical” on Tuesday night: “The only problem with having a hit is that you have to keep the bathrooms clean.”

And a hit “Heathers” has been, for good reason. Where “The Toxic Avenger” leavened its darkness with a healthy dose of silly, “Heathers” starts with teenage angst, stirs in irony, pathos and deeply twisted humor, and then whips it all into a dark delicious mĂ©lange. Even with an inevitable dip in energy in the second act as the various threads unravel, this production is a delight throughout and director Debra Clinton shows herself to be at the pinnacle of her skills.

Some bullet (pun intended) points:

  • Crack open a character and you find a person. One of this production’s many strengths is that even characters that can seem a bit one-note are played by actors who give them a fully-realized rendering when they take center stage. The most obvious of these is Leanna Hicks as Martha “Dumptruck.” Sure, she’s the superperky nerd sidekick, but then give her a song to herself (“Kindergarten Boyfriend”) and she’s a 3D person with a complex inner life. Hicks knocks it out of the park, a triumph echoed by Michaela Nicole (“Heather McNamara”) and Billy Christopher Maupin (“Ram’s Dad”) who both grab ahold of their solos and wring surprising depth of emotions out of them.

  • If only. Carmen Wiley as Veronica has been praised plenty already and she is truly fantastic. I’ll just add that this show makes me regret I didn’t make a point of seeing the Theatre VCU productions she was in.
  • Smug-free zone. Adam Valentine as J.D. is not the strongest singer. But he harmonizes fabulously in his songs with Wiley and, though it’s been a while since I saw the movie, I liked his performance better than I remember liking the annoyingly smug Christian Slater.

  • Music! The music may be recorded by Jason Marks’ tracks are playfully dynamic and richly produced. He and Clinton just need to keep doing more and more things together.

  • Lights! Speaking of dynamics, Michael Jarett’s lights add tremendous character to the production, intensifying moods from scary to snarky to shiny/happy. Ruth Hedberg’s costumes are also a hoot, particularly the Heather’s getups. Apparently, her budget ran out, though, so Caleb Wade and Steven Martella had to run around half-naked most of the second act. Not that anyone’s complaining…
  • Miscellany. A tidbit I found fun: the first trial concert production of “Heathers” starred Jeremy Jordan as JD. The name may not be familiar to many but, to this “Supergirl” fanboy, the thought of quirky, awkward “Winn” playing the brooding, murderous “JD” made me smile. Also: there’s apparently a “Heathers” TV show in production, which could be cool but I’m already worried about because the actor playing Veronica seems like she might be one of those actors who is actually beautiful who is going to be called on to be the nerdy, awkward outcast. But I’ll try not to pre-judge…

I'm lucky to have snuck in for one of the last performances; the end of the run through the 12th is sold out. What's your damage? If you missed this show, it could be significant.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

What a Week

At some point during every episode of Lovett or Leave It, one of my favorite political podcasts, the host Jon Lovett exclaims, “What a week!” He’s usually reacting to the turmoil in presidential politics. But you could certainly say the same for theater this past week, both local and national.

First, you have Morrie Piersol getting plucked out of the North Atlantic, a rescue so awesome it received Icelandic news coverage and even more comprehensive local coverage that got picked up on the national wire. Thank goodness Morrie is safe and thank god for the Icelandic Coast Guard and all rescuers involved for their heroic efforts. Morrie has been a great theater teacher at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School and has directed numerous acclaimed productions on local stages. We’re hopeful he’ll stay safe on solid ground for at least the next little while.

Then you have all of these shows opening or closing or both. SPARC’s “Oliver!” opened and closed and by all accounts was awesome. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” opened at the Dell and people have one more weekend to rush out and see it. And “In the Heights” (Virginia Rep) and “Macbeth” (Quill) both closed after sterling runs at their respective venues.

You’d think we’d have a minute to breath before there were new shows to rush out and see but, NO, before you know it “The View Upstairs” is going to be opening at RTP and “Alice: A New Musical” will debut at Firehouse (in a co-production with TheatreLAB as part of their season of collaboration).  It’s the summer, people – don’t you understand that things are supposed to be low-key and calm?!?!

We were all saddened by the passing of Sam Shepard – what the heck with all these iconic creative people dying lately? Shepard was a Virginia resident for about a decade and wrote some amazing, devastating plays. Productions of Shepard’s work in Richmond have been stunning and mesmerizing, starring some of our town’s best talent. Does anyone else remember Stephanie Kelley in “Buried Child?” She was exquisite. More recent productions of “True West” (Toney Foley! David Clark!) and “A Lie of the Mind” (McLean Jesse, Alex Sapp, too many to mention…) have also been exceptional. It’s sad to think of such a distinctive voice in American theater no longer making art.

Then we were all confused – ok, maybe just me – by the dust up related to “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and the casting of Mandy Patinkin. The clash of Broadway financial concerns and racial optics seemed to guarantee that someone would be pissed off by something. There are a dozen or so OpEds embedded in this situation, but I don't have the time to write one just now.

Finally, my little geek heart was overjoyed that another podcast I listen to, puzzle-centric “Ask Me Another,” featured Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor this past week. They were promoting their roles in the revival of “Marvin’s Room,” which, even though it has pretty tepid reviews, I would go see just to watch Lili Taylor who has been a favorite of mine since "Mystic Pizza" a million years ago. And just to add excitement to an already fun show, one of the games was a very challenging "worst possible musical adaptations" quiz. Are you a theater know-it-all? You should listen to the show and see if you can answer the questions (I struggled…)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Elaine Page comes to Richmond

I apologize up front for my naked attempt at clickbait. Ms. Page IS coming to THE Richmond, not to Richmond, Virginia.  
But it’s hard when you scroll past a headline that includes “Elaine Paige” and “Richmond Theatre” not to do a double-take. So I just shared that experience with all (both) of you. 
If your interest is piqued, the lovely Richmond Theatre outside of London has a glorious glossy brochure with some amazing acts planned for the upcoming season. Anyone interested in a road trip?

In addition to diva-related double-takes, I’ve subjected myself to a lot of talk about casting out on the internets. Stephen Sondheim came out in hearty support of mixing things up gender-wise. Good on you, Mr. Sondheim, for pushing the narrative about theater being a living, breathing art form. 

More intriguing: a Richmond outlet I’d never heard of called The Legacy Newspaper did a lengthy piece about “color conscious” casting (page 10-11 in the online version). It’s a good piece but I’m a little perplexed that no local voices were included. Particularly given the big picture featured from “In The Heights” – not the current Richmond production – this just seems odd.

Hey, and the Artsies were officially announced! More on that in the days/weeks to come!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody and Will

I didn’t see either “Da” or “Musical of Musicals, the Musical” this past weekend. After 3 shows in quick succession, I needed a little break. But, so far, both the comic drama and the comic musical have been generally well-received so far.  

I did see that “Da” is dedicated to the late Woody Eney, which it still surprises me to realize that he’s gone. If you haven’t heard of him, Woody had a long list of relatively minor parts in many TV shows and movies. There isn’t much evidence of his career on YouTube; unfortunately, all I could find was a pretty ridiculous set of scenes from “Greatest American Hero” and an awful recorded-from-TV episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.” In the former, Eney plays the bad guy; in the latter, he’s an even worse guy.

But I’ll always remember him from his lighthearted turn in “Golf with Alan Shepard” at the Barksdale some 18 years ago. Woody settled into a nice career as a playwright here in Richmond and several of his plays were produced around town, most recently (I think), “40 Acres and a POW.”

It’s weird what you find when you start Googling someone. Apparently, there is a resume of Woody’s from 1974 that you can buy online, if you are so inclined. The most recent news I could find on him was this touching tidbit about a video greeting Woody received from Henry Winkler just last year.

In my memory, Woody was a member of the Barksdale old-timers, like Pete Kilgore and Muriel McAuley. Even the most crotchety of them was lovingly regarded in Richmond. (Pete was so acclaimed he got a house resolution passed in his honor.) These folks were true groundbreakers.

So, if you go see “Da” or “Musical of Musicals,” as you settle into a comfy seat in a lovely historic old building, you might give a thought to the great ones who worked so hard to create the local theater scene. We have them to thank for building the foundation.

On another note, people can’t seem to stop mining the Shakespeare legend for modern TV and movies. Tonight, “Will” debuts on TNT and the movie “Lady Macbeth” just opened in selected markets. What do you all think: will productions like these increase interest in live theater productions, or have no effect? Hmmm. It’d be nice if TV or movie producers would do some local promotional tie-ins. Somehow, I don’t expect Quill got a call from TNT or Roadside Attractions. Boo.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Practice, People, or Perspective?

Often, all the critics in town will love a show. Sometimes, opinions will be mixed. Seldom is condemnation unanimous.

I’ve been somewhat bewildered that critical opinion of the latest Quill production, Macbeth, has seemed universally negative. Quill hits more often than it misses so I couldn’t believe that they’d put on a total mess. I had to see for myself.
I went to last night’s show and I had a fine time. I can see some of the deficits in the production and it would be hard to match the dynamism of Jan Powell’s Macbeth five years ago. But still, I’ve seen Macbeth more times than any other Shakespearean drama and I’ve seen much worse than the current offering directed by Jemma Alix Levy. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise but it’s still praise.

So why was my experience so different than the critics’ in town? I have some thoughts.

n  Practice. The reviews generally described the fight scenes as tentative. That was not the case during the performance I saw. It seems perhaps the fighters in question spent at least some of the time during their off days practicing their fight choreography, or maybe the actual steps got pumped up a bit. Last night, Alex Burtness as Macbeth and Jeff Coles as Macduff went at it with a determined vigor, generating a great number of clanging sword sounds and convincing “oofs” and “ughs.” Their big fight scene actually got an ovation. Which brings up…

n  The People. The crowd last night was a bit odd – 20 priests were in attendance; honest! I was there as their programs were counted out. There was also a strong contingent in the front section that was very engaged – booing softly at Lady Macbeth or Macbeth himself later in the play, laughing at even the smallest jests, and even emitting emphatic “mm”s in response to some of the more dramatic lines. It’s hard to know if the cast responded specifically to that energy but it certainly contributed to that magic sense of communal enjoyment of an experience.

n  Perspective. Macbeth is an amazing and odd play: The supernatural elements, the brutality, the constant gendering of the action (here’s an interesting, possibly controversial article that talks about gender and Lady Macbeth and ultimately connects the dots to Hillary Clinton of all people!) The critics gave some pretty specific reasons why they didn’t like this production and I’ll agree with some of them in a minute. But it’s a pretty straightforward, uncluttered rendering and I appreciate that. The benefit of keeping things simple is that the two most powerful scenes – Macbeth sees a vision of Banquo at a dinner party and Macduff finds out the truth about his family – stand out in stark relief. In the former, Macbeth’s horror and confusion is palpable and ably mirrored in the dinner guests’ reactions. In the latter, Macduff’s naked grief is overwhelming and cuts through the decorum and formal language of the play with laser-sharp emotion. If other scenes were more intense, I don’t know that those two would land with such power.

Having said that, I had my issues with the production as well. I’ll echo others and say that I’ve seen some amazing things done with the weird sisters scenes and the approach here was just OK. I’ll also have to agree with my friend Mr. Porter and suggest that Rebecca Turner is a bit underwhelming as Lady Macbeth. It’s hard to compete with the echoes of Zoe Speas from Powell’s production and, while I did like some of Turner’s choices, the role is an epic one and it requires a pretty epic rendering.

In general, the supporting cast was fine but could have used the bolstering that actors like Bob Jones or Alexander Sapp have brought to supporting roles in previous Quill productions. Jeff Clevenger is always good but his comic chops might have been well used as the night watchman. One small issue is that Mr. Clevenger is brought on as a not-overly-costumed old man not too long after Duncan is killed and I wonder if some audience members get confused about the character change.

Mr. Burtness is a powerful Macbeth, though, and his transition from humble hero to reluctant murderer to full-blown treacherous paranoid is strongly realized. Cole is a noble Macduff and Thomas Hockey is a winning Banquo. The realization of the weird sisters’ predictions in the second act is underscored in a crystal clear way that I think makes the production work well for Bard novices.

So if you have read the reviews and are on the fence about Macbeth, I’d suggest you hop off the fence and give it a shot. The 20 priests sure seemed to enjoy it; you probably will too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Did you see the video of the on-stage proposal to Alana Thomas during the "In the Heights" curtain call last weekend? It’s just about the most adorable thing ever. Congrats to Ms. Thomas and her fiancĂ©; may they have many decades of happiness together! (And thanks Rich for the head's up on this.)

In contrast to a young couple making big plans for the future, I’m just trying to make plans for the this weekend and beyond. The arrival of the Modlin Center 2017-18 season catalogue has forced the reservation of several nights in the future.

The one absolute must-see down the road is the appearance by Lynn Nottage next February. Nottage is one of the most vital voices currently writing for the stage and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about her creative process.

Before that, the National Theatre Live series will kick off in September. There are several of these broadcasts that I’m interested in with the Angels in America doubleheader being at the top of the list.

For this weekend, a stop by Hardywood for a refreshing downpour of Purple Rain is a must. These "Cover to Cover" events are incredible and one of many great ideas from the Shofner/Roop team. As anyone who has been to one of these before knows, most of the big voices employed are local theater vets or mainstays. The Prince lineup is impressive throughout but I’d probably go just to hear Jessi Johnson let loose on some his majesty’s classics. 

The Heathers continue to be mean girls and selling out the performances I can get to. What can you expect from a show that’s literally killing it? Between Heathers, Macbeth, Toxic Avenger and Game of Thrones restarting this weekend, the blood is running like a river this summer. What could be making us look toward so many artistic expressions of violence? Could it be feelings of frustration and powerlessness amidst big-picture calamities we can’t control? Hm. I’m thinking both Prince and the “In the Heights” lovebirds might be pointing us toward better coping mechanisms.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Weakness

I used to get some ribbing from friends and colleagues whenever I’d recognize the talents of an attractive young woman in a review. “Of course you singled her out,” the good-natured banter would go, “because she’s pretty.”

Well, maybe. I can admit some bias, one that is not uncommon: “conventionally attractive” people draw my attention. But if they aren’t talented, they don’t hold my attention. And there are dozens of “unconventionally attractive” people that I find fascinating.

There are other reasons to single out actresses, besides being male and tilting heavily toward the hetero on the Kinsey scale. Even in our increasingly egalitarian world, there remains many more women chasing a lot fewer parts written just for them. I would argue that, just based on statistics, the average female actor that actually gets a part is intrinsically more talented than the average male actor (that is, has trained more broadly or longer, has had to audition more often, has had to overcome rejection more frequently, etc.). 

Applying statistical reasoning to artistic expression may be inherently specious and generalizing over an entire art form is dangerously business. Still, it’s reductive to think that just because someone is “pretty” a critic is going to automatically notice them more. It impugns the critic, for sure, but also undermines the talent of the pretty person and the integrity of the director who chose that actor as part of their artistic vision. 

That’s a lengthy and over-serious intro to my thoughts on a delightfully silly production, 5th Wall’s “The Toxic Avenger.” And I lead with it because I am indeed going to single out a lovely young woman for her exceptional performance in this show. And while certainly easy on the eyes, what sets her apart is her disarming comedic talents, her sporting willingness to be randy and ribald, and her phenomenal voice that shines even amidst a cast overflowing with vocal power. 

Of course, the beautiful actress I’m singling out is true Richmond treasure Debra Wagoner. I have a great deal of respect for this extremely talented singer and repeatedly acclaimed actress when I think of her reviewing this script, seeing that she’d be singing a song called “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” and thinking, “yeah, I wanna do that!” 

This production does more with 5 actors than some big fat productions do with 20. It helps that, in addition to Ms. Wagoner, the cast is busting with talent. The fact that Wagoner’s opera-level singing chops are not even the strongest here (I’d have to give that title to William Anderson) is both amazing and indicative of director Keith Fitzgerald’s ability to attract some serious people to a wonderfully frivolous show. 

As I’m thankfully free of having to provide a plot synopsis or anything else a traditional review would include, here are some random thoughts:

n  The other woman. I had never seen Rachel Rose Gilmour on stage before. Wow. Another skilled comedian with a killer voice. How does Richmond continually end up spoiled with new and surprising superstars? 

n  Argggg!!! I singled out a tech superstar in “It Shoulda Been You.” For “Avenger,” the standout is sound designer/sound board operator Joey Luck. He even gets his own personal joke in the show. Less obvious than the reverb effects are the sound balance he gets on the band. Musical director Starlet Knight and her awesome crew are rambunctious as hell but they never overwhelm the singers. In such a small space as The Basement, this is an amazing feat. 

n  Feet feats. In several numbers, Emily Dandridge’s choreography is the comedy. A choreographer’s challenge in a comedy is underestimated (IMHO) because, while most jokes are scripted, funny dance moves usually aren’t. Ms. Dandridge clearly has some sharp comic chops of her own. 

n  The boys. Alexander Sapp managing to be alternately nerdy and hunky requires a skillset I’m not sure I even know how to explicate. And for a couple guys tossed off in the cast list as “The Black Dude” and “The White Dude,” William Anderson and Chris Hester are the steel fiber that holds this rollicking affair together. They essentially play the whole town of Tromaville and the characterizations they provide are delightful. 

n  One liners. So many wonderful ones in this show. Wagoner’s tossed off line about “indeterminate accents” was the quick, small moment that had me LOLing. 

n  Clean up on Stage 1. This show succeeds because it is built to be messy and continually makes fun of itself. There were a few moments that were not crisp or well-defined in this production. Luckily, that was all part of the charm. 

n  The only true problem. Starley Knight’s band is not identified in the program, Ms. Knight doesn’t get a bio, and there is no song list. Really? 

I haven’t seen a show this summer yet that is anything less than stellar. I have some misgivings about the rumblings I hear about “Macbeth” but I love going to Agecroft and am approaching it with an open mind. If nothing else, maybe the witches are cute…