Monday, November 30, 2009

Post-Thanks Post

Reviews from recently opened shows continue to pop up. Today, Susan Haubenstock’s take on “Bus Stop” is in the T-D. John Porter’s review of “Greetings” showed up on Thanksgiving eve. Style didn’t have any reviews last week but did run my lovely wife’s recounting of the “Sound of Music” auditions out at Short Pump. It’s worth a read.

I’ve been feeling very thankful over the past several days but it’s hard to conjure up those feelings on a tired Monday morning back at work. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, dear reader, and have strapped yourself in for the roller coaster holidays to come!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mondo Monday

John Porter posted his review of "Scrooge in Rouge" on his website yesterday. Makes for good reading. I'm not sure what's going to show up in Style today, but I'm eagerly awaiting at least a review or two.

Monday, November 23, 2009

“I Love Paul!”

With their almost completely unfiltered reactions, children can be great critics. At the end of “Greetings” last Friday, I asked my children what they thought of the show. Two out of the four immediately said variations of “I love Paul!”

Paul is, of course, Paul Deiss who plays Mickey Gorski, a developmentally disabled young man (“retarded” according to his dad) who helps bring about a tranformative Christmas visit between his brother, Andy; his brother’s fiancee, Randi; and his parents. Randi is played by my lovely wife, Holly, and I had to laugh at my children’s reactions because they didn’t say anything about their mother initially. After some prompting, they said all of the appropriate laudatory and supportive things about her but, for at least a couple of them, Paul was who made the big impression.

And I can’t argue with that. When I first saw “Greetings” fourteen years ago, I also came away particularly impressed with Mr. Deiss whose ability to so thoroughly and convincingly be Mickey – physically, vocally, behaviorally – is the pivot about which the entire show revolves. Without his consummate skill in a role that seems easily done too big, too small or just not quite right, the production wouldn’t succeed.

And, in my (admittedly biased) view, this production does succeed and with flying colors. I don’t agree with Ms. Lewis that this is “not so much a Christmas play:” the way it challenges assumptions, highlights the importance of relationships and mixes the mystical with the mundane, I think makes for a fantastic Christmas/holiday play. And in the best of holiday traditions, wisdom is found through the actions of someone simple, innocent and loving.

If anything, I think it’s a Christmas/holiday play for grown-ups who understand – and have understood for years – that you shouldn’t be a Scrooge. But where do you go when you move off that pretty simplistic baseline? How do you reconcile the seemingly conflicting holidays traditions? What can/should you believe in a world with so many belief systems? Ultimately, what is family?

I am incredibly proud of Holly for her work in this role and I loved seeing her onstage again. There is something eye-opening about seeing a person onstage, even if you see them every day. On Friday, I was struck for about the millionth time by how pretty my wife is. After a couple of decades in each other’s company, it’s great to catch a little touch of that initial crush again.

Also, I didn’t appreciate the real importance of the character of Randi last time the Mill did this show. Late in the play, when the characters are wondering why everything is happening tonight, Andy says “I’ve brought girls home before” and his mom says something like “But not THIS girl.” In her review, I think Ms. Lewis shows insight (at least more than I initially had) in focusing on the importance of the relationship between Randi and Mickey, a relationship that Holly portrays with honesty, intelligence and urgency. I get the impression that Randi is more than just “a waitress;” she’s a smart and thoughtful person thrown into an awkward situation that grows into an other-worldly one.

Another thing I loved about the production was the relationship between Randi and Richard Koch’s Andy, which felt loving and comfortable to me. Beside Richard being great at playing a somewhat tightly-wound character, I thought he showed a natural affection for Randi as well as for Mickey. As madcap as Richard can be in some roles, it is his warmth that always comes across most strongly to me.

I think it was a great choice for director Tom Width to cast John Moon as Phil, Andy’s dad, as much for their physical similarity as anything else. In the scene where they are really going at each other, it totally looked like a father and son. John also has a kindness that underscores his gruff exterior that comes to the fore at opportune moments. But he can sure portray a total asshole, too – the squirm-inducing dinner scene is all about John and he does a fine job.

And Jodi Strickler (as the mom, Emily), is just a delight. As much as I’ve loved her work over the years, I was newly impressed with Jodi in Barksdale’s “Well” last year. Jodi may not have as much to dig into as Emily as she did as her character in “Well,” but she still makes the most of what the play gives her. Her one-on-one scene with Lucius is among my favorites and the last scene between her and John Moon is sweet and priceless.

And who’s Lucius (if you don’t already know)? Well, you’ll have to go to the play yourself to see. You’ll be glad you did!


A trio of reviews have appeared in the Times-Dispatch over the past several days, including Julinda Lewis's review of the Mill's "Greetings" in today's paper. Over the weekend, Ms. Lewis also weighed in on Barksdale's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and Celia Wren made a rare guest-reviewing appearance to cover RTP's "Scrooge in Rouge."

The whole Tline crew went to "Greetings" on Friday and were all enchanted. More specific thoughts will be forthcoming, as soon as I clear the Monday morning madness off my desk.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The African Company presents Richard III

One of those worthy events in town that I've ended up overlooking in the midst of everything else is the University of Richmond's production of "The African Company presents Richard III." It sounds like the kind of challenging work that Richmond should embrace; only 2 more shows left!

Also, there will be a free playwriting workshop offered by Carlyle Brown, author of the play, at U of R tomorrow. According to the official communique about the workshop:

"The writer of the Department of Theatre and Dance's most recent production comes to the University of Richmond's campus this weekend to do a talkback at the final performance. Earlier in the afternoon he will do a writer's workshop with both experienced and non-experienced individuals interested in playwriting.

Don't miss this valuable opportunity to experience a playwriting session with one of America's leading playwrights.There are eight places available for this workshop. Please sign up fast through Debbie Mullin ( by simply writing to express your interest in attending."

There's no mention of the workshop being restricted to students. Could be a cool opportunity.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two wrongs make a right

So I thought last night was the charitable admission night for “Scrooge in Rouge” – you know, donate canned goods and you can see the show. Well, turns out it was opening night (duh). I ended up keeping my boxfull of Sauer’s condiments and jars of Costco peanut butter but still got to see a great show!

I also thought curtain was at 8pm but it was at 8:30. However, I got to spend at least a slice of that time hanging around chatting with the dashing Elliot Lau who many just saw in “All That I Will Ever Be” at Shafer Street Playhouse last weekend. I wasn’t able to catch it but I heard it was a great show. And anything with Mr. Lau in it would be worth a look – that’s even before consideration of the special appearance by a virtual John Porter!

“SnR” was a hoot, pure and simple, with Steve Boschen very nearly stealing the show with his over-the-topligato portrayal of Lottie Obbligato. He would have stolen the show outright if he didn’t have to wrest it from such predigious competition, Kirk Morton and Lauren Leinhaas-Cook. Morton brings a wonderful antic energy to everything he does, particularly hilarious in his petulant Ghost of Christmas Past and brightly idiotic Fred. Leinhaas-Cook does a great gruff Scrooge and, while she doesn’t get as many of the goofy one-liners, she makes the ones she delivers work. Most of all, she remains a fine actress even amidst all of the silliness; I particularly liked her cheerful reaction to Scrooge’s post-mortem song, “Good Riddance, Goodbye!”

Speaking of songs, one of the reasons to recommend this show is that, while the actors are all great comedians, they don’t coast on their ability to elicit laughter. Each has a winning singing voice as well and they all are put to good use in the calvalcade of 18 songs that spill forth in the short 80 minute, intermission-less show.

But what really pushes this production from great to exceptional is the costume design by Thomas Hammond. This is one of those shows where the costumes get nearly as many laughs as the cast. And some of the outsized pieces brought to my mind the wonderful memory of RTP’s “When Pigs Fly” so many years ago. Hammond truly is a comedian with cloth.

So definitely go see “Scrooge in Rouge” and that may be the last time I say it because I will be compelled in the next several days and weeks to make repeated encouragements for all to see “Greetings” at Swift Creek Mill and “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre IV. Does this signal the final death throes of my objectivity? Could be. Still, a beautiful bird told me that the IDR of “Greetings” went very well last night so be sure and make room for that one on your dance card.

Final note: be sure and check out Bruce Miller's comment in response to my "Merch" post. Three Bags Full -- I'm very excited about this!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I wrote yesterday’s post before picking up the latest Style. Another notable thing about “Scrooge in Rouge” is that it’s cast graces the cover of the latest issue, as well as being featured in a few pictures inside the issue.

There is a short piece on the number of “Christmas Carol” variations due to be staged around town this holiday season. In the short space provided, I would have appreciated a little more on the actual productions than on “Die Hard” and the Jim Carrey movie. But that’s just me.

It was also interesting to see the Randolph Macon theater program get a shout-out. I’ve never seen a show of theirs, though I was tempted by an Ionesco thing they did a while back. Gotta make that happen sometime.

Also of great interest to me in this issue was the “Improving though Improv” article written by Don Harrison. I like that the ComedySportz crew gets a good mention; would have been even nicer if they had included a pic but there were probably rules about that. Still, Dave Gau and Christine Walters are a pretty photogenic duo.

I think its fantastic that Mr. Harrison brought an analytical bent to the story. I think his critical perspective on the proceedings is one of the benefits gained from having him as Arts editor. Sure, journalists are supposed to report but they’re supposed to ask the hard questions, too. Like what about the guest list to this gathering? It seems like a situation rife for creating impressions of who is on the “ins” and who is on the “outs,” at least as far as CenterStage is concerned. And some of the most exciting work being done in Richmond is happening on college campuses, which also happen to be populated with thousands of eager arts-interested patrons – was anyone from U of R or VCU there?

I think a bigger question that Mr. Harrison is getting at with his piece is: what was the point? And might the time be better spent hammering out concrete ideas or plans for energizing the arts scene versus playing nice (or semi-nice it sounds like) for a few hours? I may part ways a bit with my editor on this because I think there is a great deal of value in simply getting people together and trying to foster a positive attitude. However, I do wonder what the next step is supposed to be. And, will the rest of the arts community – like maybe even a couple of freelance writers – be invited to play along going forward? Or will CultureWorks only cater to a handpicked few?

Having a touch of analysis also grabs people’s interest and spurs comments, and those that the article has already generated are worth checking out.

(Update: I wrote the paragraph above about the article's comments before the prolonged and annoying back-n-forth about corporate welfare and such came to dominate the comments. I think there are other forums for debating city finances and priorities. It was an arts article and the people at the gathering were concerned about promoting/supporting/reporting on the arts. There's plenty of material to chew on just in that realm without bringing tangential issues into it, IMHO.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Xmas Carol for Two Venues

It’s pretty interesting that both Theatre IV’s “A Christmas Carol” and Triangle Players’ “Scrooge in Rouge” are in rehearsal at the same facility right now. I don’t know all of the details of either production but from all accounts they are two very distinctly different takes on the traditional Dickens tale.

In addition to featuring the talented Lauren Leinhaus-Cook front and center, “SnR” is notable for its venue, the newly re-opened and renamed Theatre Gym. Many a fine production has graced that stage and I’m looking forward to what else we might see there in coming months.

It’s been calm here for a few weeks now, as the storm of 8 mainstage shows opening over the next 3 weeks has been gathering (not to mention the various staged readings and special holiday-oriented performances). I hope Richmonders have carved out a slice of their holiday planning to make room for some shows!

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Here’s something that I’ve wondered about for a while: I’ve only been to one CYT show (“Narnia”) and there were tables and tables of show-related merchandise for sale in the lobby. “Avenue Q” at CenterStage had its booth of show-schwag of course and was doing a brisk business.

I know Theatre IV will often have a polite little table doing children’s book sales for some of their shows but I’m curious why there isn’t a bigger push with various forms of merchandise for other productions. There are definitely shows I’d have bought t-shirts from in the past. It seems any of the shows featuring the Sanders Family or the folks from Greater Tuna would be rife for merch opportunities.

Could there be snow-globes for “Scrouge in Rouge?” A tie-in to sell David Sedaris books with Sycamore Rouge’s “Santaland Diaries?” Or even cute little stuffed elves? Ornaments with “Greetings” on them for the Mill’s next show? Or perhaps among the more lucrative possibilities: CD sales of the original music Jason Marks has composed for “A Christmas Carol?” With the Theatre IV cast singing? Or, thinking ahead, the mind boggles at the stuff that could be sold at Firehouse’s “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” in the Spring…

I’m sure there are issues I’m missing here but I know with live music and movies, merch is as lucrative and sometimes more lucrative than the “product” itself. Are there reasons theater isn’t jumping on this bandwagon?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kid’s Stuff

My review of Firehouse’s “This Is How It Goes” showed up in Style yesterday. I’m not sure whether to expound upon the review or just leave it be. I’ll be mulling over that today.

It’s funny how the universe (read: fate, God, etc.) works sometimes. I’ve had the occasion to think lately about the pros and cons of the life of a child actor. And I’ve recently found/heard a few interesting pieces that explore the topic. First, there was this bit on NPR, an inteview with the teenage star of just-closed Broadway production, Brighton Beach Memoirs. (It’s also worth taking a look at NPR’s theater “hub” for a whole host of interesting theater-related stories.)

Then, this past weekend, there was a story in the New York Times about the record number of child actors active in Broadway shows right now. It gives a good snapshot of what that life is like. I’d recommend it to any of the theater parents hanging around the Empire Theatre with me these days or folks who have big dreams about the future based on their child's "Sound of Music" audition last weekend.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Venue News (Ven-news?)

Theatre IV is opening up the Little Theater at the Empire for Triangle Players’ upcoming “Scrouge in Rouge,” a welcome return of that cute little black box into circulation.

Also, I recently heard from the new management at the Hat Factory who would like me to tell anyone and everyone that the former Toad’s Place location downtown has two – count ‘em, two – different stages available for presenting theatrical productions. They are very amenable to working with theater companies in the staging of big productions (their main stage, nice lighting and sound equipment) or smaller pieces or staged readings or the like. Flynt Burton is the guy in charge and can be reached by going to the Hat Factory’s website and clicking on the Contact link.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Alternate Avenues

It was quite a scene at Short Pump Mall this past weekend, with scores of talented kids coming out for the “Sound of Music” auditions. At least one collection of performances has shown up on YouTube if you want to get a sense of the general atmosphere. I hear it was near-freezing when everything started, though it was balmy and in the 70s by midday when I showed up.

From what I heard, I expect Chase and Sandy are going to have a relatively easy time with the first cut – trimming the 500 or so wannabes to maybe 100 or so that really had serious chops. But from then on, I think its going to be tough; I saw many fresh faces with soaring voices even during my short visit to the proceedings.

Susan Haubenstock’s review of “Mahalia” was in Sunday’s paper. I’m glad to see a review of the show – I was under the impression the show opened last weekend and was surprised that no review had shown up last week. The AART folks might not be as glad as Ms. H’s review is not exactly a rave.

I caught the matinee of “Avenue Q” this weekend and was generally delighted with what I saw. Unfortunately, I was not as delighted with what I heard: my sole complaint about the show was a somewhat muddled sound quality. It probably didn’t help that I was in the third row, house left section so was probably not in prime position for listening. Still, you kinda hope every seat in the fabulously designed Carpenter Theatre would afford equal access to quality sound. It was disappointing because I was there with two “Q” newbies and I really wanted some of the clever lyrics in songs like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” and “Schandenfreude” to register with them the way they did the first time I saw the show. Neither of my companions heard the name of the kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Thistletwat. Me telling them afterwards was not nearly as funny.

This was my third stroll down Avenue Q. The first time I saw the show, I loved it and was one of the only people I know that defended its Tony win against “Wicked” way back when (I defended it in print but can’t find the review online, sorry.) The second time was a bit of a letdown. I was thinking that the show wasn’t as good without the initial shock value but now I wonder if part of the letdown was not having the phenomenal original cast that included John Tartaglia and Stephanie D’Abruzzo. This time, I was surprised to find myself enjoying some of the non-madcap parts of the show; Jacqueline Grabois's delivery of "Fine Fine Line" I found especially affecting.

The cast at CenterStage was great, I thought, and I particularly enjoyed Grabois as Kate Monster. I could tell the she was not an experienced puppeteer though because from my vantage point the puppet of Kate often blocked my view of the actress and the puppet’s mouth was not always in sync. Brent DiRoma was fantastic as Princeton but I thought his voice as Rod was a bit forced. I really loved the Christmas Eve, Lisa Helmi Johanson, who was just the right mix of sassy and sweet.

Besides the sound, the show was impressive technically and found the lights extremely effective, a definite improvement over what I’ve seen in places like the Landmark that seem more in tune with concerts versus theatrical productions.

I was curious how the show sold; the matinee still had seats in the back of the orchestra so was far from a sell-out. I had been wondering whether a two-day run was right for “Avenue Q;” apparently the Jam Theatricals planners know the audience better than I do. Another thing I didn’t know: apparently the cast is non-Equity for this show (according to Wikipedia). I think that really muddies the claim that this show represents “Broadway in Richmond.” Hmmm….

I know some local theatre peeps caught the show this weekend; I saw a few at the matinee. I’d be curious what others thought about this first big traveling show to open here in a long time.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Wild Things

The Tlines spent the evening enjoying alternate art forms tonight. I took the youngest to see “Where the Wild Things Are” while the other boy was squired to appreciate some ballet (a new online review of which showed up on the Style site today). Variety is the spice, right?

I hadn’t been to the IdeaStations site in a while but I went there today after hearing John Porter’s review of “This Is How It Goes” on the radio. I really like how they’ve carved out a spot just for the theater reviews. However, I wish they were a little more timely in posting the ones they have. Of course, I feel that way about Style too sometimes, which, because of the vagueries of the publishing schedule, often has theater reviews in hand for a week or more before they see the light. My review of “TiHiG” being a case in point…

But, even though I don’t have a published version to refer to, I have to say I agree with much of what Mr. Porter had to say. (UPDATE: Mr. Porter has posted his review on his blog, FYI!) The way I would sum it up is that “TiHiG” is a play I respected more than I enjoyed. LaBute is a challenging playwright and I admire the fact that he goes places few others dare to go. And I love plays that make you think. But this one largely annoyed me. I think the unreliable narrator is a fine device but I guess I’ve mostly seen it employed in cases where the narrator is self-deluded. Here, I felt that the narrator was simply hostile and by the end of the show I wondered why anyone would want to put themselves in this guy’s hands for a couple of hours. I ended up being a little sorry that I had.

Having said that, I found Tyhm Kennedy’s performance bracing and thought Bill Patton did an exceptional job directing. It’s kind of surprising to feel that way in a situation where I ended up not liking the play much. My full review should hit the magazine next week and maybe I’ll expound some more at that point if it seems worthwhile to do so.

As far as “Where the Wilds Things Are,” I was looking forward to seeing this because it seems like a movie that has polarized reviewers. Some have praised it for its lyrical and unflinching take on a young boy’s view of the world. Others have trashed it for any number of reasons, mostly I think for trying to take a 10 sentence long book and stretch it into a 90 minute movie.

Having seen the movie, I understand the response now. I was alternately entranced and frustrated by it. Max Records as the boy, Max, is fabulous and the early scenes I think do an exceptional job of capturing the mixed-up collection of impulses, both endearing and infuriating, that make up a 9-year old boy. Max’s first discovery of the Wild Things is amazing – a little scary, a lot confusing, and a little bit magical. But a lot of the second half of the movie meanders with not much verve and too much pensive moony-eyed moments thinking about sadness and uncertainty. Still, it was hard for me not to love the work of Lauren Ambrose, as endearing as she ever was on Six Feet Under even if was just her voice.

Tomorrow’s the madness of “Sound of Music” auditions at Short Pump Town Center and then a little stroll down “Avenue Q.” It’s also closing weekend for CAT’s “Rappaport” and Sycamore Rouge’s “40 Acres.” As much as I’d like to catch either of them, I think if I get to another show this weekend, it’s going to be the Richmond Improv Festival. The 4 o’clock show’s only $6.50 for students! And if you’re going to be downtown for “Avenue Q” anyway, well, why not?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Critical thinking

Style has a preview of "Avenue Q" this week. I'm looking forward to this show, as much because it'll be the first production I'll be seeing in the new Carpenter Theatre. Should be fun.

Many weeks ago, Grant Mudge posted some links to blog posts by Isaac Butler. Butler may be mildly familiar to Richmonders because he directed Clay McLeod Chapman's "Volume of Smoke" at the Firehouse a few years ago. In these posts, Butler asks some great questions and makes some good points about the role of critics. The series is available in multiple parts; if you are interested you can read them all here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Going to Butler's blog was a little like falling down the rabbit hole for me in that it led to one of those classic experiences of clicking on link after link following the trail of other people's thoughts. One place it led was another series of posts on critics on the blog of James Comtois that, while focused on movie critics, also was fascinating reading. (Three parts to that one, here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Finally, Comtois linked to critic Roger Ebert's post about the rules for critics. That one is going to be added to my browser Favorites so I can refer back to it. The downside for that one, though, is that it doesn't really deal with how theater critics are different from movie critics, and there are some distinct differences.

There were many choice nuggets in all of these words about critics. I may dredge some up from time-to-time but I'd be curious about any responses to the following one in particular. It was written in reference to the "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" scale that Siskel and Ebert used:

"When push comes to shove, one of the jobs of a popular film critic is to ultimately let the reader know if he or she recommends the movie or not. In other words, a review should answer the reader's question, 'should I see this or not?'"

Several times in the past, editors have talked to me about a rating scale, either a 5-star system, or a letter grade, or a Thumbs-up, or something similar to the "Buy It, Burn It, Trash It" scale that the guys at Sound Opinions use. The opposition to such scales is usually along the lines of them being reductive, they don't give the reader credit for figuring out based on the details in a review whether it is worth seeing or not.

What do you think?

Monday, November 02, 2009


The word on the street (and across the airwaves) is that there isn't a whole lot of excitement about the election today. That's a shame because for Virginians, there is just as much at stake today as there was a year ago, maybe more.

So, as a lame attempt to get people in the mood for voting, here's a choice I'm posing to you, both of my loyal readers: What recent Broadway "stunt casting" announcement is your favorite? Would it be Abigail Breslin in "Miracle Worker?" Or Scarlett Johansson in "A View from the Bridge?" Alternative write-in candidates are certainly welcome. Polls are open until 7pm...