Monday, November 22, 2010

Wow, what a wild wonderful winterly white weekend

I was nearly knocked-out by the one-two punch of Christmas cheer this past weekend, thanks to openings of Barksdale’s “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” and Swift Creek Mill’s “The Winter Wonderettes.” The links above will take you to the two T-D reviews, both productions fairly well received by Ms. Haubenstock.

As I’ve been summing up my thoughts about each, I really wish I could write a combo review since the two productions have such interesting similarities and contrasts. Both have scads of familiar songs but one has a cast of dozens (or so it seems) versus the other’s cast of 4. Both are set in the mid-20th century (“WW” is supposed to be set in 1968 but is full of sentiments from a decade earlier) but one production is full of glitz, glamour and technical dazzle while the other garner’s much of its appeal from its low-tech, homespun charm. Both productions make the most of the strengths in the shows’ scripts and both are also somewhat hampered by their books’ weaknesses.

It’ll probably be 2 weeks before my reviews show up in print so I’ll give a little preview by saying, while I thought each production had its issues (mostly script related), I ended up thoroughly entertained by them both. To sum up: If you want to be dazzled and enchanted and leave the theater with stars in your eyes, “White Christmas” fits the bill. If you want to be charmed and amused and leave the theater with warmth in your heart, check out “Winter Wonderettes.” But really, for the full range of holiday-oriented emotions and entertainment, I’d suggest seeing them both.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Comfort and Joy

Ms. Haubenstock's review of RTP's latest was in the T-D yesterday. What tickles me most about this production is the thought of Ford Flannagan -- who has done such an amazing job with the character of Peter Pan in the past -- playing a holiday fairy. It's kind of like Peter playing Tinkerbell, yes? You just know that's gonna be a hoot.

After "C & J" on Wednesday, the hits keep rolling this weekend with Barksdale's "White Christmas" and the Mill's "Winter Wonderettes." See them now before holiday madness really begins!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Counting Down

I’d feel bad about not blogging more but hardly anyone seems to be blogging anymore these days (well, except for Andrew Hamm, but that’s all football stuff and even he's slacked off the past couple of weeks...) I’m starting to wonder whether blogging will eventually go the way of MySpace – something that lingers in the background but that people don’t pay much attention to anymore. Perhaps it’s already there?

Anyway, it occurs to me that there is a lot of counting down going on these days. Thanks to the continual movement of holiday-related retail hype, the countdown to Christmas has already started. More immediately, the countdown to the latest Harry Potter movie is reaching a fever pitch. Personally, I’m counting down to Thanksgiving when I’ll get to see the 1/3 of my family that’s been roaming the country for the past almost-5 weeks.

In stage world, there’s anticipation building for the mini-flood of shows that will start opening this weekend in Richmond -- as per the story in the T-D this past weekend on "White Christmas." But on the national/New York scene, there is an increasing focus on the imminent opening of the Spiderman musical. There were stories about the not-in-any-way surprising delay in the opening a while back and lately the pictures of the costumes and sets that have been released has generated additional press.

I’m still highly ambivalent about this whole endeavor. I love the Spiderman mythology, enjoyed the first two movies (and even the third a little), and am a long-time fan of U2. But I’m just not that excited about seeing all of this adapted for the stage. Sure, it all looks extravagant and all. But will I end up caring about any of these characters? Will the songs be memorable or just pomp-rock in support of spectacle? I will read the first reviews with great curiosity.

Friday, November 12, 2010


The first play of AART's season, "Home," opened last night. I don't know if this is going to be the way AART's productions work in general but this one is only playing for the weekend. So you won't be able to dawdle if you want to catch it!

Something I never do

After the opening night performance of “Love Kills” at the Firehouse a couple of weeks ago, I was heading out to my car in the Lowe’s parking lot. When I got to my car, I noticed a little clutch of three middle-aged women standing a couple of cars down from me. They were engaged in earnest conversation. Not intense conversation exactly, they just seemed like they were trying to figure something out.

I eavesdropped just a little, enough to realize that they were talking about “Love Kills.” I also heard enough to know that they were trying to parse some very specific issues. I was intrigued to hear such consideration given to theatrical issues so I hesitantly wandered over toward them and insinuated myself into their conversation.

Normally, I don’t like to discuss a show after it’s over with anyone but good friends or family. The whole “critic” thing tends to make casual acquaintances or strangers focus a little too intently on what I’m saying. It also tends to reduce the range of their commentary to extremes, most often “wasn’t that great!” but also sometimes “oh my, wasn’t that awful! Didn’t you hate it?” My friends and family don’t really seem to give a rip whether I’m a critic or not so they expound at will without undo concern about what I might say or hear.

So it was with some reluctance that I started to chat with these nice women in the middle of the Lowe’s parking lot. But I was glad I did because it turned into the kind of conversation that reminds me that audiences should be respected. Sure, some patrons doze off or show bad theater manners or react more to the pageantry of a show instead of its substance. But there are still plenty of theatergoers who care about theater, think about theater with some depth, and expect/demand a certain level of competence from the companies whose shows they frequent. In other words, they aren’t going to believe anyone who says the plate of hamburger they are being presented with is actually prime rib.

As the three women talked, I realized that between them they had seen several shows that had opened over the past several months (“Shipwrecked!,” “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming,” “Rent,” “Virginia Woolf”), they were familiar with each different theater company and even with several specific actors (in particular, Mr. Aliff who they thought was excellent in “Rent”). And they were struggling with “Love Kills” in many of the same ways that I was. In general, they did not like the songs. They had trouble with a couple of the performances (they found fault with Ms. Orelove in ways that I did not). And they were both intrigued and annoyed with the plotline, finding themselves alternately fascinated and bored. Though I listened much more than I spoke, I offered that it might have something to do with the subplot involving the sheriff and his wife.

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand the line of thought that some kind of supplement to the basic story of Charlie and Caril Ann is needed to turn their story into a complete musical. But in my opinion, the Merle and Gertrude subplot is too slight a story and it is given way too much focus. Charlie and Caril Ann are killers, cold-blooded killers that even murdered a child. The modest tribulations of two married folks do not in any way match or ‘balance’ the story of the homicidal teenagers. In fact, given that it is almost impossible to provide an appropriate counterpoint to the killers’ story, I would have suggested that whatever story was used to provide ballast to the main plotline be as minimal as possible (if you’ve seen the movie, consider the role that Robert Downey, Jr. plays in “Natural Born Killers.”)

Of course, I’m not the playwright and Mr. Jarrow made the choices he made. Still, for me, the Merle and Gertrude subplot trivializes the main plotline rather than enhances it.

Beyond “Love Will Never Die,” I didn’t find many of the songs particularly enchanting or compelling. Some of them were plagued with simplistic and reductive “even though we’re locked away / we’ll be OK” rhymes. Perhaps more of a problem, many of them seemed to lack a strong melody because there were times even Aliff and Orelove, who are both clearly accomplished singers, seemed to have trouble finding it.

I thought “The Funny Thing” was clever and Mr. Aliff’s delivery was fantastic. Aliff and Orelove singing together on songs like “Two Movies” was great to listen to – I really enjoyed both of their voices separately and the way they blended – but honestly, I would have rather watched them act more. Each of the scenes between the two of them – in the movie theater, in the motel room, after Charlie’s first murder, even in the jail – crackled with energy. By the end of the show, my annoyance with the songs grew because of the way they distracted from such gripping scenes between these two talented actors.

I won’t go too deeply into the problems I had with the production but I will expand on one of the concerns I mentioned in my review. My comment on the production’s lighting is also a reflection of some frustration. In general, I thought David McLain’s lighting design was fantastic – a real stand-out. But the jail cell walls were a functional problem, at least in the performance I saw. At least three times a cell “door” did not open when someone walked through it. The sound effect that signaled the door closing was also sporadic. In fact, it’s hard for me to remember exactly but I believe once I heard the sound effect even though the door never actually opened and closed making me wonder if it actually was supposed to be tied to the lighting cue. This is a small detail, I know, but it’s an essential one. When I am doing my best to suspend my disbelief and then a character essentially walks through a wall, it substantially undercuts the effort.

But I’ll also say again, as I did in my review, that all of this did not diminish for me the incredible job Aliff did in his role and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ms. Orelove. There was an edge of adolescent petulance in Orelove’s Caril Ann that I thought was good (and understandable since the real Caril Ann was 13) but at times pushed just a tiny bit too far. Having said that, I truly loved the scene when Caril Ann becomes the strong one and comforts Charlie in their motel room. I think nudity on stage can be a distraction but in this case, I thought it was neither gratuitous nor distracting, and entirely appropriate given the nature of the scene. In fact, it might have ruined the scene for me if they got in the bath in their underwear or somehow had bathing suits or something under their clothes.

As for Mrs. Jones-Clark (I didn’t think Kim hyphenated but that’s how it was listed in the program) and Mr. Gard, I don’t know what they could have done to redeem a subplot that I already had problems with. Whatever that was, they didn’t do it. It may not be fair to them but I really just wanted their scenes to end so we could get back to Charlie and Caril Ann.

Which brings me back to my three new friends in the Lowe’s parking lot. They talked some about the morbid fascination of the story and concluded that, despite their negative reactions to some parts of the show, it was still compelling enough to keep them interested all the way to the end. One of them wondered whether they would have liked the show more if there had been a scene depicting an actual killing. They were almost embarrassed, I think, to conclude that they might have. I don’t know if I agree but I do think that the killing of Caril Ann’s parents in particular is given short shrift here. There are inklings of some psychological break in Caril Ann due to their killing – her line where she asks if they’ll be at her trial. This is fertile dramatic ground and I don’t think “Love Kills” plows into it nearly deep enough.

After I had finished writing my review, I read some of the background material that the Firehouse links to from their website. I was surprised and disconcerted to read that, in real life, Caril Ann ran to the police when they were first arrested crying out that Charlie had forced her all along. So the musical takes one specific detail of the real story, contradicts it and makes it one of the main thrusts of its fictionalized plotline. I’m sure this isn’t unusual with adaptations but in this case, I think it’s unfortunate. Knowing the truth just deflates my opinion of this show a little bit more.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Love Kills

There is lots I want to say about this review in this week's Style but I have no time to get into it. Perhaps by Friday I can get a chance to put some more thoughts down. In the meantime, feel free to chime in with alternate or supporting views.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Feast and Famine

Well, yesterday was election day. I hope you voted. It’s the most basic act in a free society so everyone should take advantage of it. Just like everyone should take advantage of great theater…(how’s that for an awkward segue?)

First, the reviews: Links have been all over Facebook but, in case you still haven’t seen them, reviews of Cadence’s “Oleanna” and Firehouse’s “Love Kills” were in the T-D over the weekend.

Last week, I attended opening night of “Love Kills” at the Firehouse and next-to-closing night of Richmond Shakespeare’s “Arcadia.” My review of the former was possibly going to be in this week’s Style but as it turned out, it wasn’t (there is a nice feature by Rich Griset on the Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre company though). I won’t preempt my own review but I can offer some brief comments: I had a hard time with the script, the score, and some aspects of the production.

The true story of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate has been the inspiration for compelling and disturbing films like Natural Born Killers and Wild At Heart (two of my favorite movies). Unfortunately, Kyle Jarrow’s adaptation pits Charlie and Caril Ann’s story against a subplot (an entirely fictional one) involving the arresting sheriff and his wife. I found this subplot distracting and sometimes downright annoying.

Having said that, Nick Aliff delivers an amazing performance as Charlie and Emma Orelove is also excellent as Caril Ann. Their scenes together were golden. I think I would have enjoyed a play that focused exclusively on them much better. I’ll explain some more of my issues with the show after my review comes out, as well as lavish more praise on Mr. Aliff and Ms. Orelove.

In the meantime, let me gush a little about “Arcadia,” because, even though I didn’t expect to, I really enjoyed this show. In my humble opinion, the key to this show is getting wrapped up in the central mysteries and I, for one, was totally taken in by them. I wanted to know who the hermit was, I wanted to know if Byron actually killed Chater, I wanted to know what ultimately happened to Thomasina and Septimus. I empathized with Hannah and even with the obnoxious Bernard because they were so passionate in their own ways about discovering the answers to those mysteries and they pulled me anxiously through the more densely packed clumps of scientific falderal.

Sure, this is a play filled with big ideas and complicated concepts but to me it was like an overly lavish feast. Sometimes it’s too much but, boy, it’s nice to have something so sumptuous to wade through rather than the anemic ideas behind much so much of modern theater (exhibit a: jukebox musicals). There were times I was overwhelmed, but still, those times passed quickly and were balanced nicely. And the action always managed to circle back to the central mysteries.

A couple of things predispose me to liking a show like this. I’ve spent much of the past five years doing graduate school research so the excitement of historical clue-finding and conjecture that Hannah and Bernard go through was something I could totally relate to. Also, just like Shakespeare gives the illusion that people in Elizabethan England all spoke in iambic pentameter, Stoppard makes Englishmen and women in the early 19th and late 20th century seem much more erudite and clever than they ever were. I like this illusion. It’s a kind of hyper-intellectualism that I find entertaining.

So that’s the script, what about the performances? Well, I really think you need to talk in twosomes because some of the best parts of the production were the sparkling chemical reactions between Jen Meharg’s Hannah and Andrian Rieder’s Bernard, for instance; and Jonathan Conyers’ Septimus and Alex Wiles’ Thomasina. I was particularly enchanted by Wiles’ performance, showing an astounding amount of maturity in someone so young. Again, I’ve got some predisposition here, having two teenage daughters of my own. The last scene between Septimus and Thomasina may have been arguably more heartbreaking for me than other patrons, feeling the full weight of what a loss of someone so smart, enchanting, and vital would be like.

There were also many other great portrayals delivered by this talented cast, among them Julie Phillips as Lady Croom, Liz Blake White as Chloe Coverly, and the young Nathan Johnson as Augustus “Gus” Croom. And ultimately, the show was a great triumph for director Foster Solomon, a successful (again, in my opinion) and entertaining staging of a very challenging work.

But as much as I gush, I do not think the script or the production are/were quite flawless. The one scene where Valentine Coverly explains his mathematical ideas to Hannah is deathly boring, to the point that I doubt even Olivier could have made it sing (nice try by Andrew Ballard, though). I was confused about Hannah’s apparent aversion to emotional entanglement. Is she just too intellectual or is there more back story there? Of course, Ms. Meharg is entrancing even when she’s being emotionally remote so that didn’t ultimately detract from my enjoyment. However, I found David White’s Chater frustrating and distracting. That character really seemed to belong in a different play.

And finally, as much as I enjoyed it, I can see where some people would truly despise “Arcadia.” Not to speak for her, but I expect my wife would not enjoy it in the least. And, given that she’s demonstrably smarter than me, it’s not because she couldn’t parse the concepts. She would just need a more compelling reason to care about any of it. Maybe the teenage girl involved would hook her in, but maybe not for 3 hours.

According to the Wikipedia entry on “Arcadia,” one review called it “…too clever by about two-and-three quarters. One comes away instructed with more than one can usefully wish to know.” That may be along the lines of the perspective of people like the G.B. Pshaw that commented on the Style review. However, for me, as I’ve said, “Arcadia” was like a lavish banquet, most of which I found completely delicious. My only regret is that I didn’t see the show earlier in the run so that I could have come back and supped from that feast one more time before it closed down.