Friday, July 31, 2009

From points west...

I've been secluded in a top-secret location for the past 5 days without Internet access which is one of the reasons I've been delinquent. But I'm sure you've been keeping busy, seeing the surprising number of shows still around and reading up on all the news. But while I have this brief moment released from my other responsibilities, let me please encourage you to go see "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" before they close. You'll be sad if you don't.

If you haven't seen "DMD" let me tell you this one thing: Garet Chester is awesome in it. Oh sure, Jim Bynum and Joy Williams are exceptional but that's the first thing that anyone's going to tell you. Garet is an essential third leg for the "DMD" stool and totally immerses himself in the character of Boolie. To be honest, there were times early on in the show that I felt Joy and Jim were a little too broad in their portrayals (a concern completely dispelled before intermission) but I never felt that about Mr. Chester's work. His Boolie is authentic, lived-in, and succinct. Much hearty praise should be directed toward Ms. Williams and Mr. Bynum but Mr. Chester should NOT be overlooked.

I've been meaning to write something about DMD for weeks and now that I've been away from things for a while I can't remember if I did or not. So I apologize if this is redundant. Oh, and see "Millie" because of the typing dance, Ali Thibodeau, Maggie Marlin and about a half-dozen other things. Personally, I've got to get back to town to see Hamlet, Fully Committed and Forum. Simple no rest for the wicked in this town...

Friday, July 24, 2009

They were going to do “Rent”

To me, nothing symbolizes the ambition, vision and even audacity of Chase Kniffen’s Stage 1 theater company more than the first production announced for its now sadly canceled second season. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen “Rent.” Would you have ever even imagined in your lifetime seeing “Rent” in a smallish black-box-ish theater in suburban Mechanicsville? Not me. And nothing encapsulates my disappointment about Stage 1’s closing more than realizing that now I probably never will.

From its stirring, astounding debut on the Richmond scene less than a year ago with a concert version of “Ragtime,” there was something almost too good to be true about Stage 1 right from the beginning. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of fledgling projects bubble up to the surface, poke along for awhile, and then flame out, wither and die, or just move on. Chase never seemed willing to settle for some kind of limp-along existence and his talent and drive clearly transcended one. His concert “Ragtime” was something that I could have imagined playing Lincoln Center or at least Center Stage. It was moving, exciting, emotional, and above all, featured some damn good people doing some damn good work.

This last part was what Chase then carried into Stage 1’s first season. The people who worked with him were among the best in town and he challenged them (or allowed them?) to do amazing things. I’m thinking particularly about the technical folks he employed who guaranteed that Stage 1’s shows didn’t have that slightly shabby, rough around the edges look that characterizes so many productions from young companies, often well into their third, fifth, or even tenth seasons. The sets were innovative, the costumes were consistently impressive and the lighting was simply dazzling.

And of course the actors were often phenomenal. We all knew Brett, Audra and Durron were good but I gained new respect for each of them after “tick tick Boom.” There was plenty (for me, in particular) to love about “Children’s Letters to God” but among the things I’ll appreciate most about it was that Chase brought young Mackenzie Mercer’s whopper of a voice to a wider audience. This spotlighting of young talent carried into “Normal” where Ali Thibodeau and Dave Amadee stole the show from their more experienced costars, who were no slouches either. Perhaps because Chase was a stage prodigy himself, he seemed to expect amazing things from his young actors, whether they were teens, pre-teens or even pre-adolescents. And the kids delivered for him every time.

This gets at my next biggest disappointment. Chase made a conscious effort to keep his finger on the pulse of theater appropriate for and attractive to a younger audience. And it wasn’t only just the “Spring Awakenings”-wannabe material that drips with sensuality and yells “fuck” at you at regular intervals, but shows like “Normal” that make an attempt to address real issues in a way that’s still entertaining. He, certainly more than me or anyone else I know, knew who the hot young writing talents were and kept up with what they were doing.

The final thing that I’ll miss from Stage 1 is the energy Chase infused his productions with. I heard him talk more than once about how little patience he had for lengthy transitions or awkward staging. As was clear with “Summer of ’42,” his productions moved, they practically demanded that you watch, and they rewarded people who paid attention. We’ve all seen the septagenarians who fall asleep halfway into the first act of many shows. I don’t have any stats on this, but I expect Stage 1’s “snooze index” was about the lowest in town.

Bruce Miller has written a fine and elegant post that honors the achievement of Stage 1 and rightly points out that Chase is still around and will continue to do good work. The disappointments I list will hopefully be short-lived and assuaged by future opportunities to shine that will be given to Mr. Kniffen. However, there was something particularly neat about Chase having his own place with the ability to run the show with his unflinching devotion to quality.

As great as Bruce’s post is, I am not quite as cavalier about “lessons learned.” Mostly I fear that there will be a negative lesson learned, that other young, ambitious artists will flinch in the face of the overwhelming challenges that confront a venture like Stage 1. Mr. Miller is more familiar with these than most, given that he was in the same boat a couple of decades ago or more with Theatre IV. I remember last summer, seeing the Stage 1 performance space transformed from a big empty room to an impressive performance venue largely through the blood, sweat, tears, and money that Chase and his small band of compatriots poured into it. One of the most impressive things about Chase was his willingness to work tirelessly and selflessly to make Stage 1 not just another company but something truly exceptional. Regardless of this particular outcome, I hope others will have the drive – the audacity even – to take this same kind of leap in the future. Because, while coming back to earth can be a disappointing or even a painful experience, the flight was glorious.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Throw another blog on the fire

Style is chock full of theater-related stories this week. Ms. Burruss recaps the Stage 1 situation, while I preview "Fully Committed" and post-view (?) "Night of January 16th." Still working on the verklept-itude. Hope to have actual words to write about it all in the next day or so.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sad but True

I just had it verified that Stage 1 will be closing it's doors. The press release quotes Chase Kniffen saying, "...current economic realities make it impossible to ensure financial sustainability for the coming year." As soon as a more complete story is posted online, I'll be linking to it.

I'm a little verklempt to say much more on this right now. Perhaps later in the week after the news settles in...

Night and Dane

There have been reviews of both “Hamlet” and “Night of January 16th” in the T-D over the past couple of days. Personally, I took in the excellent production of “Driving Miss Daisy” on Friday, a show my wife had encouraged me to attend last fall and now I feel very lucky to have made it to. More specifics on that to come…

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s near the end of July, two productions just opened and there’s a few more to go before the end of the summer (“Fully Committed,” “Aloha,” “Forum” at Dogwood Dell…) I’m also going to be trying to squeeze in a trip to the student production of “Godspell” at Stage 1 before all is said and done. Is it just me, or is Richmond setting some record for busiest theater summer?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Captain’s Blog, Stardate 1600

When it comes right down to it, there are only so many blog-related puns a guy can come up with.

Anyway, I realized today that, beyond my general lack of blogging lately, I specifically have not been giving out much Hamlet love. The show opened last night, I believe, and I expect it is a very fine production, given that it is restaging the very fine indoor production from earlier this year. It’s certain to have at least one bang-up fight, perhaps some stirring melodies offered by Andrew Hamm (and maybe …sigh… Liz Blake), and some great performances. I remember Jeff Cole’s very human lead performance as making this Hamlet perhaps the most relatable I’ve ever seen.

But in one of those strange tricks of memory, the two aspects of the indoor production that stand out in my mind are Timothy Saukiavicus’s portrayal of Claudius and the performance of the old Who song, “Behind Blue Eyes” before the show. I am eager to check out the restaging to see what strikes me this time (hopefully not a stray sword during the climactic scene…)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Sometimes I write a lot. Sometimes, not so much. A crazy June opened up into a July that has felt like a revolving door for me. When did the lazy daze of summer transition to the crazy days?

Anyway, the stalwarts of Richmond theater carry on regardless of the bitching about my personal life. This week, Style has my story on Night Light’s upcoming “Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls” as well as a great background piece on Richmond Triangle Players new performance space and new managing director.

I had the occasion to speak to the delightful kb saine at Sycamore Rouge yesterday and she’s talking up the positive buzz on “Night of January 16th” which opens this weekend. Somehow, I had it on my schedule that it wasn’t opening until next weekend. Silly me. Anyway, for those who have tried to avoid jury duty in the past, this show should turn that dynamic on its head. People will be hoping to get selected for the jury for this show. Will you be joining me in planning a trip southward for this one?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

**snicker** Fairy Tale

Nice headline for Ms. Burruss's review of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The show is going gangbusters, so I hear, with only the final show not sold out. Seems like a bang-up summer for Richmond Shakes!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Like Falling Off a Blog

Well, I hope everyone had a great Independence Day weekend and all. At our house, we went through the becoming-more-commonplace bittersweet cycle of another show closing. Apparently some local folks in “the community” traveled westward last week to see the boy but I haven’t heard any word on whether they made it or not. Perhaps they got stuck in one of those mothballed rest stops along the way.

Closer to home, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” re-opened and yet another reviewer was left breathless with laughter – similar to my experience several months ago. A little announcement about “Ragtime” opening on Broadway in Nov. left me hyperventilating a bit. After Stage 1’s stunning concert version last year, the whole Tline clan has become big fans of this show.

One of the Tline’s will be enjoying “Spring Awakening’ at the Kennedy Center this weekend – one who is not me, unfortunately. Perhaps I’ll be able to provide some secondhand commentary next week. But speaking of outa-town theater, people tell me that the VA Shakespeare Festival down in Williamsburg is going great guns this summer and is featuring several Richmonders in its line-up. I’m wondering whether a wander down thatta way might be called for in the next several weeks.

Overall, this summer has been somewhat staggering in the amount and quality of the theater being produced. I never would have thought back in February that three of the shows that I’d be most intrigued or excited about in the entire 08-09 season would be the last three opening, that is, “Forum” at the Dell, the previously-named-but-now-contractually-unnamed one-man show starring Scott Wichmann out at the Tavern, and the participatory experience of “The Night of January 16” down at Sycamore Rouge. There simply is no taking a vacation from good theater in this area.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Thorough indeed

So I haven’t written anything about the big kahuna in town, Barksdale’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” but there are plenty of other opinions about the show out there (Mr. Porter’s summary of “Millie” – as well as ones for “Summer of ’42,” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” – showed up on the WCVE site a coupla days ago, for instance). One reason is because of my preoccupation with a certain out of town production, a review of which just turned up online recently.

But also, it’s hard to know where to begin with this show, given everything it’s got going for it. I guess I’ll start with a bit of an interpretive dance, as it were. Ms. Lewis’s review in the T-D started out with that somewhat cryptic comment about the "relentless, nonstop" nature of the show. Here’s my interpretation of that: “Millie” has many – possibly all – of the aspects of a big old-fashioned musical that annoy the hell out of people who are not fans of big, old-fashioned musicals. People breaking out in song at odd times, broad characterizations -- some of them bluntly politically incorrect, impossible love stories, extravagant plot contrivances, and improbably happy endings. But for me – and I expect for most people – I ended up loving all of the things about old-fashioned musicals that can be annoying in less capable hands.

I can’t think of anything that was not well executed in this production (sometimes you have to resort to the double-negative). Starting with Paul Deiss’s music direction, the astounding set by Ron Heller, the beautiful costumes by Sue Griffin, even an excellent sound design by Derek Dumais. The only reason I don’t include Lynne Hartman’s lighting is because she has done such spectacular work in the recent past that when she is only very good, it hardly seems worth mentioning.

In the cast, in parts great and small, there are immense amounts of talent. At the end of the show, the actor I was most enamored of was Ali Thidodeau because, as Mr. Porter points out, it’s not always easy to play the one that every man falls in love with. Ms. Thibodeau is just so, well, lovable, that she makes it work. As I’ve gotten some distance from the production, when I think about favorite moments they involve Timothy Ford’s crisp portrayal of Mr. Graydon, or Linda Poser’s hilariously tragicomic Mrs. Meers, and the imperious Miss Flanery played by Carolyn Meade. And Chris Hlusko does an exceptional job with the somewhat thankless role of Ching Ho. This boy projects such a charming personality – I wish I had seen him as Aladdin at the Riverside.

Of course the leads are incredible, Maggie and Zac just as attractive as hell and excellent in their roles, with special recognition demanding to be paid to Ms. Marlin for her seemingly effortless athletic dancing ability. Seeing Ali and Maggie dancing together may be the best dancing duo I’ve ever seen on stage. And of course it’s Ms. D’Beck who gave them some fine choreography to work with, assisted by a spry ensemble (so great to see Gray Crenshaw’s dazzling smile again!)

With all of that (and I could go on…) you really have to work hard to get to something negative to say. I guess really the only issues I had were the crotchety plot elements – two rich kids sent out to find true love, the classic she’s-my-lover / she’s-my-sister misperception, white slavery!?!? – but again, everything was done so well that those things barely registered. Any lover of theater will be doing themselves a disservice to miss this show, if for nothing else, that it’s a bright shining example of how the grand old shows can still be done up well.