Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Raving out the year

Well, though it has been sitting on the shelf for weeks, perhaps it's appropriate that my review of "A Year with Frog and Toad" comes out this week. This way, I end the year with a rave about one of the most engaging productions I've taken in so far this year. Hope everyone out there in the blogosphere has a happy and healthy holiday season!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beauty and Wrap-ups

If you missed it, a review of “Xmas Carol for Two Actors” was in Sunday’s paper.

It’s always interesting during the holiday season when the overviews about the year that was come out. We are reminded of gaffes and scandals that now seem like ancient history (Anthony Weiner!) and we are very nearly forced to reflect on the good and the bad of the previous 12 months. I appreciate that Entertainment Weekly chose to recognize a challenging work like “Sleep No More” while also joining the chorus of praise for “Book of Mormon.” The NY Times had two wrap-ups, Brantley’s including several shows you’d expect. I like Isherwood’s largely because of the core message of his piece, summed up as “…while most of the media attention and dollars continue go to the overhyped fare that is more branded entertainment than art, American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths is in surprisingly strong shape.”

In the past, I’ve been chided when I comment on the physical beauty of someone in a show. Apparently, this somehow treads into the subjective/objective territory – opening up a critic to the criticism that “he/she only likes shows with pretty girls/boys in it…” Or maybe a critic is only supposed to notice acting ability without any attention given to the actual physicality of the actor. Given that an actor’s body and all of its components are the primary tools he/she has to do their job, this seems a little disingenuous.

There is no escaping the fact that acting is a profession where the way someone looks is one of the most – oftentimes THE most – reason that person is cast (contrary opinions? Let me hear ‘em!) So the question arises, does an actor’s looks become a valid talking point in a review? Personally, I know there are times I have to reflect on whether I liked an actor’s performance because of what they did or how they looked or the magic alchemy between form and function. How much of that should I put in my review?

For Sycamore Rouge’s “Picasso in the Lapin Agile,” I thought the two female leads were/are stunning. I mentioned this in my blog post, but I don’t know if I would have included those kinds of comments in a published review. Somehow I don’t want any actress to be discounted as “just a pretty face,” particularly when her acting is as compelling as Mrs. White’s or Ms. Kuykendall’s was.

I think the attractiveness of the “Picasso” cast made more impact on me than it might have otherwise because of it being a bar show where I could see the actors very up close. Part of the magic of theater is that, sometimes, people who are reasonably attractive in person seem absolutely stunning on stage. Does that somehow mean these people are better actors because the force of their performance is so strong you think they are better looking than they really are?

Beyond “Picasso,” I’m also thinking about this issue because I think the whole beauty thing can cut both ways. My industrious son has been up for parts where we have gotten the impression that what the casting director was looking for was someone a little quirky or distinctive looking, a boy who wasn’t quite so ‘pretty.’ I remember hearing that one of the reasons people like Julia Roberts is that she isn’t a perfect beauty and so therefore more relatable. And that actresses like Charlize Theron haven’t always been taken seriously because they are too beautiful.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate that physical beauty plays such a big part in the acting world. But this is also a good time of year to remember that, while what you look like on the outside may play a part in your success, what you are like on the inside will be what determines whether you are happy or not. Perhaps a little trite but not any less true for being so.

Speaking of the season, this will be my second-to-last post of the year. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and tomorrow I will plunge headfirst into the joy and fervent family time of the holidays. But I will take time out enough to post a link to my rave review of “Frog and Toad” which damn well better run in Style this week. Happy holidays, y’all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Go See These Shows!

A week ago I was without power, which was annoying enough, but now I’m further annoyed in retrospect because it robbed me of a whole week that I could rave about Sycamore Rouge’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” I saw the bar performance of the production last night and it was a singular experience, unlike anything I’ve been a part of before. If you have any doubts about making the trek down to Petersburg to see this show, get over it and check out this production. If you go this weekend, you’ll have the extra bonus of seeing how the “Lincoln” movie people have totally revamped the streets of Olde Town Petersburg – it’s pretty impressive (if a little annoying from a parking perspective).

Certainly part of my delight with this experience was the environmental theater aspect of it. “Picasso” is set in a bar, Sycamore Rouge has a lovely in-the-round kind of bar area, making it perfect to host this show. I was lucky enough to grab a seat at the bar (ok, I kind of stole it from director Jeffrey Cole, but hey, it was a really good seat!) and so I got to see a lot of the action very up-close-and-personal. Einstein (Adam Mincks) asked me to hand him a napkin; Germaine (Liz Blake) rolled her eyes at me conspiratorially after a particularly grandiose statement by Picasso (Ryan Bechard). It was a little intimidating at times but I definitely felt like a part of the action, and not just a spectator.

Even more exciting was being a few feet away from the actors as they launched into their intense tete-a-tetes. There were moments exchanged between Picasso and Suzanne (Irene Kuykendall) and then Picasso and Germaine that literally gave me goose bumps. I can’t guarantee that these translate as well from the stage as they did in the bar, but if even half the heat that is generated between these actors makes it into the house, that’ll certainly be fiery enough to warm your hot toddies.

Cole has brought together a great cast for this production, and one of the most striking aspects of it as a whole is frankly how striking they all are. Kuykendall and Blake are just knock-out gorgeous, Bechard has that dark smoldering artist thing down perfectly, and David Janosik (as barkeep Freddy), Phil Vollmer (as comic interlude Schmendiman), Larry Akin Smith (as fading lothario Gaston) and Mincks all have the off-hand good looks of great comic actors: affably handsome blokes whose good looks don’t get in the way of them making a good joke.

But more important than just a bunch of pretty faces, this is a collection of great actors. All the principals have monologue moments that they absolutely kill, none more stirring than Blake’s challenging comeback to Picasso about his relationships with women. If there was a highlight reel for this year’s theater season, that moment would have to be on it. What you tend to notice in an environmental performance is how well actors are staying in character and maintaining relationships when they are not in the spotlight. Mincks (who was sitting next to me during much of the show) was regularly reacting to the action going on among other characters; Blake and Bechard exchanged several inconspicuous but significant glances. Also, these actors had the added challenge of a cast of unpredictable extras to play off of and they did so impeccably.

Last night, Elise Boyd was subbing in for Kellita Wooten as Sagot and I felt lucky to catch her in this role because, in my experience, Ms. Boyd is always entertaining. She did not disappoint here. And though I was certainly entranced by the beauty of this cast, that didn’t totally distract me from noticing the fine costume work by Kate Prothemos. Boyd’s period get-up was notable as was the lovely bustier/skirt combination Kuykendall rocks throughout the show.

I have seen “Picasso” at least once before – the production I remember is the one TheatreVirginia did many years ago. I had issues with the script then and I still do. In a show where even the minor characters (i.e., Gaston) are given interesting back stories to play with, the character of the Countess is particularly random (even though Claire Biggers is great in the role – and also very easy on the eyes). “The Visitor” bit seems almost lazy on Martin’s part, a device to wrap the show up, not necessarily to add anything to the proceedings (Kent Holden does fine here, though it’s hard to match the electric charge you expect from who his character is supposed to be).

The challenge for anybody putting on this show is to make the most of the script’s many delights and to obscure the weaknesses and this production certainly does that exponentially better than I remember the TVa production doing. Though I wish hundreds of people could get the benefit of seeing it in its environmental setting, I’m sure the staged version is just as much rollicking good fun. Bravo to Mr. Cole and his creative and comely cast!

And while I’m raving, I have to put in a further endorsement for Theatre IV’s “A Year with Frog and Toad.” I wrote a glowing review of this production a month or so ago and Style still hasn’t run it. This is as charming and engaging a production as you are likely to see, with performances and technical elements that haven’t been pro-rated in any way just because it’s a kid’s show in a modest-sized house. I still remember my amazement at how rich the musical arrangements by Paul Deiss are and that was just the first of many pleasures I found in this production. If you don’t have a kid, borrow one and bring him or her to this show. You’ll be glad you did.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Putting it out there

One of the great benefits of the new social media is the way it opens up windows into other people's worlds. Two examples:

1) Henley Street Theatre Company re-started their blog a month or so ago and I had occasion recently to go back to it and read about the audience's relationship with actors on stage. If you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend it. I also look forward to reading about some of the thought and insight that is going into the staging of "Lord of the Flies," one of the productions opening up early next year that I am eagerly awaiting.

2) Ms. Saine down at Sycamore Rouge recently posted a Facebook note describing an intense real-life situation involving the balance of art and commerce, leadership and management. It's very interesting and I imagine it as a kind of case study that could be posed as part of theater management classes.

"South Pacific" is very nearly upon us. I believe this is a touring version of a production I saw in NYC a few years ago that had Richmond expat Jerold Solomon in the ensemble. Too many other things going on in town for me to make to this, however. Speaking of which, there will soon be a "Xmas Carol for 2 Actors" slideshow available online that I think should be pretty entertaining. Watch for it!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Powerless

I had hoped to see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” last night but I ended up staying home to manage my powerless home as best as possible. The lights came on in my neighborhood this morning after a cold night for me but a hot night for the folks at Sycamore Rouge from what I heard. Here’s hoping no freak storm derails my plans to go next week.

For those looking for something different for a Friday night, Stage B is hosting a holiday celebration tonight at Gallery 5, with music, comedy and dancing. Sounds like a good time.

A review of “Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas” finally showed up, this one in the Herald-Progress. Don’t expect one from Style, still waiting on the T-D. I forgot to mention on Wednesday that Style also ran a review of “The Holiday Stops” this week, the show still running through next weekend. Mr. Porter gave his impressions of “My Fair Lady” on the radio recently, you can hear it here but the text hasn’t shown up on his blog yet.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the stage adaptation of the movie “Once” lately. I heard an NPR piece about it yesterday and then saw reviews in EW and the NYTimes. I had significant reservations about this kind of thing working – taking a quirky, some delicate screen story and putting it up on a big stage – but it sounds like the results may not be horrible. I’m curious about this production in particular after seeing Enda Walsh’s “Walworth Farce” in DC earlier this year. He’s a playwright that can certainly do quirky.

Next week, two dramatically different productions open: the tour of “South Pacific” and Richmond Shakespeare’s “Christmas Carol for 2 Actors.” Think it’s curious that a show set in the tropics shows up just as winter’s settling in here. Perhaps folks who were thinking of taking a sunny Caribbean vacation will just go to the show instead?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Fair

On the occasion of the recently published review in Style, I’ve tried to write an expanded consideration of “My Fair Lady” about a half-dozen times and, every time I try to organize my opinions and reasoning into something straightforward, it boils down to this: I didn’t buy it. By the end of the show, I didn’t believe that Henry had fallen for Eliza, and I certainly didn’t believe Eliza had fallen for Henry.

What I might believe is that Henry has started – and just started – to stop thinking of Eliza as a “thing” or a “project” and begun to think of her as an individual. I wouldn’t even necessarily go as far as saying he thinks of her as a person because, since she’s a woman, she’s not quite a true person in Henry’s antiquated vision. There are lyrics in his big breakthrough song that reinforce this: “I’m so grateful she’s a woman and so easy to forget / Rather like a habit one can always break…” I know the lyrics speak to the tension Henry is feeling about this but still, the words reflect only the spark of recognition of Eliza’s personhood, certainly not a complete embracing of it.

And Eliza, well, it seems to me she makes a calculation based on her various options, ultimately leaving the potential for “true love” with Freddy behind. There is something fundamentally frustrating to me about celebrating a woman who chooses a man that has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain and disrespect for her, versus choosing someone who – while ineffectual and also swimming in misguided notions – at least seems devoted to her.

Thinking of the show as having these conclusions – a man get an inkling of a clue that lower-class women are people and a woman makes a better-of-two-evils decision – hardly makes it an endearing musical for me. I’m sure people can provide all sorts of alternate analyses of this, but that’s how it came across to me.

The show has some extraordinary songs and, while others have commented on the lack of a full orchestra, I actually enjoyed the more spare orchestration because it let me luxuriate in voices like those of Stacey Cabaj, Jason Marks, and Ben Houghton. The compelling delivery of these great songs certainly makes the production worth seeing…but they still didn’t diminish my discomfort with the show.

Besides the relationship issues, there were niggling class issues that I was annoyed with. I guess there’s something further discomfiting about watching “happy street people” dancing around the gutters of London while Occupy protesters are still in the street protesting income disparity. Also, the endowment being granted Alfred out of the blue made for a fun turn-about at the end but also kind of defies logic. I know, I know: it’s just a show and you are supposed to suspend that whole real world thing while in the theater. Sometimes I am better able to do that than other times.

Side note: I had a similar reaction while watching “Guys and Dolls” recently. It’s also a Broadway classic and tends to sweep the viewer up in its wonderful musical world. But never before had the song “Marry the Man Today” bothered me as much as it did this last time. The fact that the show’s two key romances pivot based on that song doesn’t really fit. Adelaide has wanted to marry Nathan all along, it’s been Nathan who’s been resisting, right? So how does her deciding she can accept him as he is (for now) change that?

Anyway, I’m aware I’m over-thinking things and taking pot-shots at classics while I’m at it. I guess I’m just in a mood.

But, to end on a positive note, there were several moments from this production of My Fair Lady that I will remember very fondly…in addition to just about everything Stacey did. Lauren Leinhaas-Cook’s slow burn during “Why Isn’t a Woman More Like a Man” was a perfect piece of non-verbal acting that totally made that scene for me. Also, the harmonizing among the male ensemble members was really great. To paraphrase Eliza, I could have listened all night.

And just to acknowledge that the “tweeting in theaters” conversation was picked up by yet another national media outlet, you can check out the Washington Post blog post on the issue, written by the lovely and very talented journalist, Maura Judkis (a fellow USC Institute fellow). She’s included some interesting quotes from theater folks. I also enjoyed the comments that the theater professionals on the 2AMt blog have to offer on the subject. Of course, you can check out Andrew Hamm’s post on his blog if you want to read even more thoughts, linked to over there on the right.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

...and on...

I was embroiled in a Twitter-fest last night and didn't take the time to actually read the USA Today story that the AV Club piece on texting in theaters referred to until this morning. From that story, I particularly noticed these choice bits:

"Hale says there were "no negative comments" from patrons about the tweet seats, located in the back row of the theater to avoid disrupting other patrons."

"Broadway productions...have not used tweet seats. But...the director of promotions for Godspell on Broadway says the production intends to use them."

"Quote: 'Tweeting the CSO's performance was like attending a members-only social event in the midst of a traditionally formal setting.'"


My only purpose in continuing to talk about this is to reinforce the point that social media has fundamentally transformed the way we interact with the world. Even two years ago, I couldn't watch Survivor while simultaneously trading barbs with the show's host via Twitter. I watch the Oscars or the Tonys these days as eager to read the commentary from my Facebook friends as to see what happens on screen. At my work, I am bombarded daily by information on how social media is transforming marketing, sales, and business development. The "rulebooks" for how certain things happen are getting rewritten every day. I'm not advocating for these changes; they are already here.

So, yes, we can all agree that texting can be rude, disrespectful, and totally inappropriate. But, like it or not, it also may be coming soon to a theater near you.

In the meantime, people involved in theater can spend their time making disparaging remarks or value judgments. Or they can look at the issue dispassionately and with an understanding of their audience and make what they consider appropriate decisions. Whether it's zero tolerance or no holds barred or something in between, that's for each company to decide. But I would suggest they make those decisions without a load of inflexible baggage filled with preconceptions about what theater is "supposed to be" or of what their audience is interested in. For some, theater is the highest form of art. For others, it's just one of a dozen options of what to do on a Saturday night.

Theater people are creative people. Certainly they can be creative about dealing with this issue.

Monday, December 05, 2011

And so on...

Comments on my texting related post just kind of went crazy, though I guess I was responsible for a big percentage of them. As if by some cosmic coincidence, the Onion's AV Club site posted this piece today. I continue to bristle at the overstatement -- apocalyptic, really? -- but now I've been conditioned to know that that's the way the issue is going to be talked about...until it's not.

Many thanks to those who have participated in the conversation. I'm always interested in hearing what people think, even when I don't necessarily agree with them. I know I have a different perspective on this issue than most people and I'm glad everyone refrained from just calling me a babbling idiot. Specifically, I appreciate Jonathan Spivey for offering his lengthy and considerate comments. The "Rocky Horror" production he mentions sounds awesome and I agree that more of those kinds of experiences would be great. Thanks to Augustin for offering a great perspective that seems to overlap with mine to a great extent, i.e., I'm not in support of people texting but, given that they do, it might be worth trying different strategies to deal with it.

It was great to get the input from Lou Harry, too, one of the most knowledgeable theater critics and commentators I've ever met. He organized a theater trivia game as part of the fellowship I did this past summer that was amazing; he has clearly forgotten more about theater than I will ever know. Check out his columns in the Indianapolis Business Journal sometime.

Thanks to kb saine for alerting me to the AV Club article. And, in case you didn't know, Sycamore Rouge just opened "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and it got a nice review from Ms. Lewis in the T-D. I'm definitely taking the trip south for this one.

Speaking of reviews, has anyone seen one of "Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas?" Has anyone seen the show? What did you think?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Why I Like Critics

Sure, since becoming a critic myself, my opinion toward critics is much more empathetic than it might have been a dozen years or so ago. And since becoming friends with several critics who I think are pretty nice (and talented and interesting) people, I have developed an outright affection toward many of them.

But beyond the personal aspects of it, I also like critics for two significant reasons. First, they can be incredibly entertaining and smart writers. Sometimes a critic finds a particularly clever turn of phrase or a distinctly insightful observation that both is fun to read but also enhances my enjoyment or understanding of the piece they are writing about.

Second, often critics put into words certain thoughts or perceptions that were rattling around in my brain but that I couldn’t quite find the right verbiage for. After seeing a play or movie or TV show, I like reading reviews and having those “Yes - exactly!” moments where a phrase I read encapsulates just what I was thinking.

I had that kind of moment re-reading Rich Griset’s review of Firehouse’s “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” this morning. I saw the show last night (and didn’t text even once during the production…) and, while the production had some things I liked, I didn’t come away particularly liking it. In particular, there was something that bugged me about the attitude toward women I sensed in the show (still feeling echoes of dislike for the “My Fair Lady” attitude). The way Mr. Griset put it was “Durang's use of violence against women as a shallow metaphor for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is more offensive than illuminating.” Yes – exactly! Beyond being a little uncomfortable with the aggression and disdain voiced toward women by the father character and Zamir, I don’t feel like it was effective in illustrating anything. How much more interesting and complex would the character of Zamir been if he had been just as shady and unknowable but also had an outright affection toward women?

But that point to another problem with the play IMHO: it isn’t about the interaction of characters but of caricatures. I loved Irene Ziegler’s portrayal of the theater-obsessed mom but even she was trapped in a strictly two-dimensional construct. I think Arash Mokhtar is probably an excellent actor but I didn’t get enough shadings from this play to really know for sure. And I felt the worst for supporting players Lisa Kotula, Steve Organ and Stephan Ryan who are all talented but weren’t even given 2 full dimensions to play in this show. I came away most impressed with Eva DeVirgilis who, as Griset says, is very likeable in her role. That may seem like faint praise but, amidst oddities in this show that tend to push viewers away rather than make them empathize with anyone, it’s actually an exceptional achievement.

Another “yes” moment for me in rereading the Style review was the characterization of the set. The whole turntable design is actually very impressive. But I agree Griset when he says, “While the setup works brilliantly for scenes such as the parent's living room and kitchen, the apartment scenes and the conclusion at Hooters are on the homely side.” I think of the depth that Slipek brought to sets like the one he did for “Something Intangible.” He was able to do great things with some of the turntable thirds, but others were pretty bland.

I most enjoyed the last ¼ of the show, the meta-comic aspects of the story when Felicity starts and stops the action. There was actually some clever stuff in there. Unfortunately, this part came after much that just didn’t work for me (Hildegard’s underwear? Why?).

Of course, Mr. Maupin and the Firehouse deserve kudos for bringing a fairly whacky – and potentially controversial – work to the local stage. I certainly appreciate the effort, just didn’t love the results.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

OMG indeed

Michael Hawke posted a link to an article about the new Tateuchi Center being built in Washington state and its announced policy to allow cell phone use for texting and tweeting during live performances (note: the policy still restricts phone calls). The responses to his post were understandably reactionary – the move was called dumb, idiotic, etc. Personally, I think it’s smart and visionary.

Look: I spent a chunk of my life resisting new technologies that seemed ridiculous to me at the time. More than 20 years ago, I fought moving to a “windows” based computer system at my work, wondering why anyone would want to do more than one task on their computer at once. Shortly thereafter, I put off adopting an email system, again not grasping what the benefit of text-based communication system would be given that so few people I knew could even type. Ever since these first experiences, I’ve flipped completely. New technologies are consistently reshaping our lives whether we like it or not. Resistance is futile.

A key line in the Tateuchi Center article is this: “this isn't giving in as much as moving on.” I understand that cell phone use in certain contexts can be incredibly obnoxious, and you can ask my teenage daughters about how I’ve railed at them about this at various times. And I’ve had enough infuriating experiences (some of which I’ve detailed in this space) at live shows with inconsiderate patrons to write a book about it.

But I have to be honest: I have texted during plays. As often as I’ve shot accusatory glares at others for talking loudly during a show, I’ve also been that guy trying to get a last text out before the lights go down at the start of the second act. I keep my phone with me nearly all the time and, between the demands of my work and home life, have found the near constant state of engagement valuable.

I am getting very close to 50 years old. Planners and theater professionals need to realize that, if this state of cell phone engagement is not uncommon in someone my age, it’s the absolute norm for those in their 20s and 30s. As the article says, "There's an inevitability to evolving cultural norms.” Those norms now involve cell phones as a vital and persistent aspect of life.

Embracing these changes isn’t just an issue of management for live theater; it’s an issue of survival. Among the broader population, live theater still sits near the bottom of the totem pole of cultural relevance these days. Audiences are aging, the image of “a night at the theater” as a special event that old people get dressed up for (and spend too much money on) persists.

Shows written for the stage have consistently evolved to conform to the tastes of new audiences – incorporating everything from rock music to adult themes to irony over the decades. If the content of theater has changed, doesn’t it make sense that the actual theater experience should evolve as well?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Playing Fair

Even though celebs from the “Lincoln” shoot have been hanging around town for a while, you might check out this photo gallery of cast members so you can keep your eyes peeled for these folks at your local coffee shop or restaurant.

Ms. Haubenstock’s rave about “My Fair Lady came out yesterday, a day after the feature about the production appeared in the Sunday paper. I was a little surprised that the coverage of the tree lighting at the Jefferson” in today’s paper didn’t mention MFL because I know the cast was there performing. Perhaps after the previous two stories, there was a moratorium on MFL coverage at the T-D?

I expect more reviews of this show will be popping up shortly, including mine in next week’s Style. I’m glad Ms. H had such a good time at the show, and I expect several folks will have a similar experience. I don’t know how to couch this exactly so I’ll just come out and say that, overall, I didn’t love “MFL.” I’m feeling a little sheepish about this because I really wanted to love it and I thought there were many individual aspects of the production that were truly exceptional. But my overall experience of the evening was only so-so. I’ll give more details when my review comes out – and prepare myself in the meantime for the pointed contradictory opinions.

With the annual “Drifty” show opening down at the Mill, I feel like we are truly entering the heart of the holidays as far as local theater goes. Perhaps it’s appropriate that “Torture” winds up at the Firehouse this weekend. It’s doesn’t exactly seem like a show for the season. Of course, neither does “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and that opens at Sycamore Rouge on Saturday. Go figure. The attraction of this production, for my money, is the bar performances. Nothing like being that close to the action.

Finally, thanks to the person who forwarded me this link to the Arena Stage “Music Man” casting call. Though my little thespian will have to miss this event, I expect there are many others in town who might want to give it a shot. Could result in a nice little holiday gift, yes?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Catching Up and Looking Forward

There’s been a scad of theater reviews published out there in the media world over the past week and I’ve only really caught up on them today.

That rarest of local productions – the world premiere – opened last weekend in the form of “The Holidays Stops.” Ms. Haubenstock weighed in early in the week but, curiously, GayRVA has only posted this preview to the production, not putting up a full review yet as far as I can see. If you missed it (I did, unfortunately), you can get at least one impression of the other world premiere in town recently with this review of “Brew” that ran on GayRVA.

The Style that came out this week has a review of “Why Torture is Wrong, etc.” written by Mr. Griset. You can also check out Mr. Porter’s review of this show by clicking on his blog link over there on the right.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” has been reviewed both in GayRVA and in the T-D. Also of interest, theater reviewers Mr. Griset and Mr. Miller take looks at the opera “Hansel and Gretel” in their respective publications.

I also enjoyed Mr. Griset pointing out the cell phone issue in this week’s Style. I would extend his bottom line assertion about the responsibility of the next generation beyond cell phones. We tend to mythologize technology as being somehow inaccessible for people over a certain age and for some reason, the older generation buys into it. This is a generation that had to drive double-clutch manual transmissions and somehow the myth is that they can’t send a text? I don’t buy it and I think we (all of us) would be better served by enabling the older folks in mastering the technology that enhances all of our lives.

As far as the impending holiday goes, there is certainly one very obvious thing to be thankful for this year: the incredible bounty of live theater in Richmond. Not only do we have a bevy of shows open right now but this weekend Barksdale will open a couple of highly anticipated productions. I’m looking forward to a holiday season where any free night can be enlivened by a nifty locally-produced stage show. While fighting off the turkey coma this weekend, take a minute to plan for the month ahead or it’ll pass by and some great shows will have passed you by.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Grant

I know I'm a little late in posting about this but I'm glad the Times-Dispatch did a story on Grant Mudge's departure from Richmond Shakespeare. To me, Grant has been synonymous with the company for the entire time I've been writing about theater and something in me still rebels at the thought of him not being there. If I can gather my thoughts (now as ever scattered like so many late fall leaves...) I'll have to write a more coherent tribute. Sorry to see you go, Mr. Mudge. Best wishes on your future endeavors. You can bet I'll be carving some time into my December theater schedule to take in your "Xmas Carol" one last time.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Leaves

My lawn’s a mess. Just as I was finally going to get a chance to maybe get some of the zillions of leaves up, the rain started. And that made even more leaves fall and accumulate and now I’m feeling fairly overwhelmed just at the thought of pulling out the rake.

I’m feeling similarly about theater in town. After being proud of myself for actually going out to see two shows last weekend, this week I’m getting a rush of feeling totally overwhelmed by how much is going on in town. In this week’s Style, I write about the new Life is a Cabaret series down at CenterStage that sounds pretty cool. But, at the same time, “Torture” is at the Firehouse, “Fences” is still running out at Pine Camp, “Grease” is at VCU, SPARC is doing “Smokey Joe’s CafĂ©,” “Raisin in the Sun” is at University of Richmond and my pal John Porter’s doing a reading of his play, “It’s a Fabulous Life” on Sunday. And that’s just the stuff I can think of off the top of my head; I’m sure there’s even more going on that I’m forgetting.

One thing that was further crowding my dance card was Jason Marks’s one-person show but, due to illness and the impending opening of “My Fair Lady,” Mr. Marks has postponed that show until next In other viral news (yuk yuk), I understand Mr. Wepplo has been seriously ill and that the opening of “Blue Mtn Xmas” will be delayed as a result. Please join me in sending “get well” thoughts to Jason and Aly; here’s hoping they feel better soon.

The Blue Mtn postponement is only one of many challenges Barksdale / Theatre IV is dealing with right now. I don’t know what else to say about that except that I’m wishing the best for everybody associated. Like in many arts organizations, there are lots of good people working under lots of pressure there. I guess I’m a Pollyanna at heart: I just hope it all works out with minimal damage to anyone.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Charm

First off, Mr. Griset’s review of “Fences” snuck online at Style last week. These online only reviews sometimes sneak by without anyone seeing them so take a look if you’re interested.

I had occasion this weekend to consider ‘charm’ as a viable critical attribute. On Saturday, I went to “Loosely Based on a Real Girl,” the one-woman show by Jennifer Lemons, better known as The Checkout Girl. On Sunday, I took in a high school production of “Guys & Dolls” put on by Ampersand, which is a collaboration of St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s drama programs.

There’s no denying the power and impact of a big-budget theater production. Even if the material itself is pretty lame (consider “Spider Man”), it’s hard not to leave the theater with stars in your eyes when you’ve been treated to lots of well-orchestrated music, scads of well-choreographed dancers, and the high-sheen of many polished performances, pretty set pieces, and fancy costumes.

However, there is also nothing like a small budget show put on by well-meaning people. Both of the shows I saw were not polished, were sometimes plagued by extended stage silence, and were not exceedingly glamorous (though the costumes at G&D were pretty awesome). But they were both very charming.

What I appreciate most about Ms. Lemons’ show was that she didn’t seem to panic in the face of her dialogue occasionally escaping her. She paused, sometimes retraced her steps, even turned to the audience for support. As a result, the audience was not only entertained by Lemons’ honest exploration of her varied sexual history but also charmed by her open and accessible personality. There is often talk in theater circles about the energy and connection generated by the interaction of a live audience with a performer. Rarely, though, is that connection as palpable and plainly realized as the Saturday night performance of “Loosely Based.”

At the Ampersand production, some of the performers were a little awkward, several of the singing voices were not the strongest, and there were a couple of interesting technical glitches. However, that did not take away from the success of the performance. In fact, hearing the backdrop being raised in a series of cranks, for instance, made clear the effort that was going into the production. Not only did the audience empathize with the performers but with the crew.

There was something incredibly charming about the budding romance between Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown in this context. I’m not sure about the 1920s but these days, a person’s first big love is more likely to happen when he or she is a teenager, not in their 20s or even 30s as per “G&D.” Preston Cochran had a streak of a very young Frank Sinatra in his portrayal of Sky Masterson (I know it was Brando as Masterson in the movie but Cochran had a Sinatra vibe) and Hazel King was sweet and appropriately tremulous as Sarah with a surprisingly strong soprano voice.

Everyone on stage was not a theater veteran but they all committed to their roles and created some excellent ensemble numbers. Even amidst such a large cast, some of the exceptional performances really popped. Alex Najarian was a hoot as Harry the Horse, making the gender switch work to the character’s benefit and Keaton O’Neal as Nicely Nicely Johnson was consistently winning. Of course, for my money, Jessie Jennison as Adelaide was the absolute highlight. If you’ve paid attention, you’ve seen Ms. Jennison in shows at Theatre IV and SPARC before but she really stepped to the fore in this role, worldly but not coarse, spunky but not cartoonish, and with a simply lovely clear voice. Am I biased because I know Ms. Jennison is a great kid offstage? Probably. But you don’t need to know her to recognize her talent. It was self-evident here.

Given my role as a critic, you might think it’d be my job to point out the weaknesses of these productions. Instead, these were two productions where at least some of the weaknesses contributed to that somewhat ephemeral concept of “charm.” Perhaps a more hard-hearted critic would simply dismiss productions such as these, wouldn’t waste his or her time even talking about them. But doing so would disregard what a good portion of the audience goes to a show for, not necessarily to be wow-ed by money and talent strewn about the stage, but to be charmed by the commitment and humanity of regular folks brave enough to put on a show.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Checkout Style

This week’s Style has my preview of the first stage show by The Checkout Girl, Jennifer Lemons. If you only know her through her funny and sometimes ribald tweets, you may be surprised to know that she is thoughtful, smart, and insightful in conversation. I’ve interviewed stand up comics that are either non-stop joke-making talkers (a la Robin Williams) or shut-down obviously angry people who work out their angst via comedy (a la…well, perhaps I’ll keep that to myself). Ms. Lemons is neither, just a sassy and sex-positive writer who’s taking her act to the stage. I’ll be there Saturday to see how it turns out.

Also in Style this week are a review of VCU’s “Grease” and a short preview of Stage B’s “Brew.” It’s a perfect time to see some of these not quite on the beaten path offerings since the beaten path is going to be thick with holiday shows any day now.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Just a few links

I saw “A Year with Frog and Toad” this past weekend and it was, in a word, brilliant. That one word review will have to suffice for a while since I haven’t written my review for Style yet and it won’t appear in print until the end of the month (sorry!).

In the meantime, the Times-Dispatch reviews of both “Frog and Toad” are online now, as well as Ms. Lewis’s take on AART’s “Fences.” I’ve got to figure out when I can see this production since I’m particularly interested in what Director dl Hopkins does with this piece.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Beatles tribute show, “Rain” was in town over the weekend, down at CenterStage. GayRVA had a review of that production. Just yesterday I talked to CenterStage Exec Dir Richard Parison about their cabaret series, which debuted last month and has another performer lined up for next weekend (Lumiri Tubo who will focus on Nat King Cole standards). It sounds like fun even if you aren’t a NKC fan and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for in the future: the January show will feature Richmond fave Kathy Halenda, RTCC award winner for her appearance in last season’s “White Christmas.”

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Little "Akimbo" Gush

My wife and I snuck out to see “Kimberly Akimbo” last night and I was glad we did. It’s an odd little story and I was more impressed with both “Fuddy Meers” and “Rabbit Hole” in terms of the script. What David Lindsay-Abaire does with this piece, though, is provide some fairly delicious acting challenges for talented people to dig into.

And to take on those challenges, director Anna Johnson pulled together an exceptional cast. There are many criteria one can use to evaluate a cast. Here’s a simple one: 2 out of the 5 cast members have received RTCC awards, 4 out of the 5 have been nominated. Clearly, these are people that have done notable work in the past.

There is plenty to applaud about this production (Terrie Powers’ set being a wonder of making a small space embody at least 4 different locations) and about the performances of the people you’d expect to be great (aforementioned nominees). But one of the most delightful components of this show for me was the fantastic performance by Matthew Mitchell as Kimberly’s geeky suitor, Jeff. Even without considering the 180 degree difference between this character and the one he played in “Legacy of Light” last season, Mitchell excells here by totally disappearing into this performance. As my lovely wife so succinctly put it afterwards, this characterization seems built thoroughly from the inside out. Every aspect of Mitchell’s performance – voice, posture, affect, mannerisms – was consistent and worked together to project a truly three dimensional character.

Johnson reinforces the quality of this performance with the help of costume designer Lily Lamberta and I expect Mitchell benefitted from having such talented fellows around him to work with, particularly Irene Zeigler who manages a wonderful balancing act as Kimberly (her scene in the “grandmother’s” outfit was a genius bit of compounding acting dissonance – an older actress playing a young character dressed older but not really playing older…). Still, put that aside and you’re still left with a singularly impressive performance, one I may start using as a benchmark for supporting performances for the rest of the season.

So there are something like 2 nights left of this show’s run so, if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend doing so. Even if Mitchell doesn’t wow you like he did me, you’re sure to find something to admire and enjoy in the work of Zeigler, Richard Koch, Debra Wagoner, and Jill Bari Steinberg. Each is given a beguiling opportunity with their role and each makes the most of it.

PS: I'm not ignoring the news announced by Richmond Shakespeare yesterday, just haven't had time to fully process it. Good luck in all of your future endeavors, Mr. Mudge! You've done some amazing things in this town.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Money Talks

So the biggest news this past week – at least in pure dollars and cents terms – was the big chunk of change the exceedingly magnanimous Novembers bestowed upon Theatre IV / Barksdale. Just to get some perspective on the size of this gift: someone who worked for one of the smaller local theater companies told me a few years ago that their entire budget for the year was around $60,000. Times may have changed since then but, based on that one factoid, it stands to reason that the November’s gift could fund a small theater company for something like 25-30 years. Wow.

I think the November gift is great news for local theater. The gift bolsters the area’s biggest live theater outlet and helps bring attention to the vitality of the local scene, while also adding an additional dose of energy into that scene. Sounds like a win-win all around.

The town has certainly been abuzz these days with the “Lincoln” filming. Almost every media outlet has some ongoing feature involving the production. Of more interest to theater fans is the fact that numerous local stage faves have landed small to medium-ish roles in the production. I’m already looking forward to the film coming out so I can play “spot the Richmonder” with other audience members.

In the run up to and aftermath of Halloween, I missed the slew of reviews that came out of CAT's “Home Fires.” Mine showed up in this week’s Style, Ms. Haubenstock’s appeared over the weekend, and Mr. Porter’s broadcast review is available online. As you can read / hear, all of us critics had quibbles about the script.

This week’s Style also had a nice piece on “Planet Shakespeare” and its program for homeschoolers. It’s great to see a different (if familiar) byline on a theater story – the more writers that are writing about theater, the better. And Mr. Foster knows how to work the wordplay opportunities that a name like Planet Shakespeare provides.

Among the things that are hampering my regular blogging activities are the forays of my thespian-oriented son, some of which were recently posted over on TVJerry’s site. As folks who may be working on “Lincoln” or who have had past film experiences, the movie world is a wacky one, full of its own ins-and-outs, nomenclature, little secrets that everyone else seems to know, and specific tools that come into play. Just one example: I was introduced to the “Day Out of Days” report just a couple of weeks ago – sometimes abbreviated DOOT (I guess?) I’m gaining a great second-hand education through this process. It doesn’t relate to theater except in the most tangential way, but it’s pretty fascinating just the same.

I’m happy that I’m going to get a chance to see “Kimberly Akimbo” before another wave of new openings hits this weekend, with AART’s “Fences,” Theatre IV’s “Frog and Toad,” “Brew” at Stage B and “Grease” at Theatre VCU all raising their curtains any minute. And it won’t be long until the holiday stuff starts rolling out. Hang on to your hats!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lax

I’ve been exceedingly lax on the whole blogging thing since the RTCC awards two weekends ago, trying to regain some perspective on the rest of my scattered life. I am tentatively and somewhat gingerly stepping back in the saddle because there is just so much activity going on, I can’t refrain from writing about it.

If you were one of the unfortunates (me included) who missed the Henley Street Bootleg Shakespeare event last weekend, here’s a nice write-up at RVANews. Though the write-up is pretty comprehensive, I’m sure it’s no substitute for having been there. I hope everyone had a raucous good time.

Style has an interview with David Lindsay-Abaire this week, signaling that time is running out on seeing “Kimberly Akimbo,” which I keep hearing is excellent.

I dropped in on “Home Fires” at CAT last weekend, a review of which should show up in print next week. It’s a hard show for me to give a capsule review of. I enjoyed much of the show, and truly loved Rebekah Spence’s performance as a single mom making ends meet during World War II. I have issues with Jack Heifner’s script, which I thought was a bit unfocused and layered with subplots that didn’t necessarily coalesce into something bigger than the sum of its part. Those expecting shades of “Comfort and Joy” or “Key West” are going to be disappointed, but those who appreciate an interesting slice of Americana with some potent emotional moments will love it.

We’re coming up on perhaps the most theatrical of holidays and, among the many other events going on, you might consider checking out the [vampire]Medea show happening at VCU’s Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre. Beyond the promise of a spooky take on an already gruesome tragedy, among the attractive elements of the production is the admission: free! (Production details are here.)

Beyond that, I don’t know of any other shows opening this weekend so it’s also a good chance to check out currently running shows like “Becky’s New Car,” “Akimbo” and “Home Fires” before the curtain rises on a slew of new shows in November.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tie

Before I let the 2011 Artsies fade in the rear-view mirror, here’s one more award-centric post to tie up some loose ends. In case you didn’t see it, the T-D printed a correction to their initial story on the event. Also, here’s the link to a recap of the awards from someone not wrapped up in the theater scene like so many of us. It makes me feel good that we could entertain someone at least moderately even if they didn’t get all of the inside jokes and references. (UPDATE: Style's recap of the event is in this week's edition.)

Oh, also, before I move on: the T-D had a review of “Kimberly Akimbo” yesterday. Definitely worth checking out.

So as with every year’s awards, the final results did not always reflect my personal choices (e.g., I thought Nick Aliff should’ve received at least a nod for “Love Kills” but that’s just me). Still, I continue to have the utmost respect for the process we critics go through to arrive at a final recipient for each category. There is contention amongst us, of course, but I think it is always tempered by two important things: 1) respect for each other’s opinion, and 2) an understanding that when we get down to the end, all of the nominees did great work and any qualitative difference between many of our choices may be infinitesimal and highly subjective. The high caliber of the options we are choosing from can make for difficulties in reaching a final selection.

The clearest example of the difficulties involved in our process is the tie for Best Musical this year. As a group, we tried several different ways to come to a final choice. We looked at all of the nominees collectively. When voting resulted in a deadlock, we considered just the final two in a few different ways, trying to get past that deadlock. Ultimately, we had serious discussions about whether ending in a tie was OK, discussions that included researching the Tony Awards and finding out that their selections have sometimes ended in a tie.

My perspective on the eventual result was summarized very nicely both by Phil Crosby and Bruce Miller in different ways. There was a glitzy musical full of big moments and technical excellence. And there was a small, uniquely intimate musical full of self-referential wackiness. Both of them had exceptional performances. Phil called them the biggest and the smallest shows of the season; Bruce called them David and Goliath. Another way to look at it is that these shows were like apples and oranges and, among us 8 critics, 4 of us ended up enamored with the apple while the other 4 couldn’t be budged off the orange. After weeks of agonizing, a tie seemed like the only way to go. It’s not a situation I’d like to land in again but it seemed like the best solution.

As to other comments I’ve received: we members of the Circle are always open to constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement. Both the Best Ensemble award (now the Ernie McClintock Award) and The People’s Choice award arose out of suggestions we’ve received. So please feel free to send them on, either posted here or emailed to me personally.

To folks who won awards and may want them engraved: I'd recommend K2 Awards (2221 Dabney Road, 804.784.7298) where I think it's still just $8 to get your name inscribed.

To Mr. Deiss (whose contrariness I respect and appreciate): I definitely understand your frustration and disappointment at the Mill not receiving any awards. I also expect there was a similar frustration felt by supporters of Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, which did not receive any nominations this year. I don’t think anything I can say can really alleviate those feelings. However, by way of explanation, I can say that we evaluate every category individually and the results never reflect any bias toward or against one company or another, even if the final results seem to indicate one. I know several Mill nominations had strong advocates but in each case they were outvoted by other choices.

I would also reiterate what Heather said in her opening this year: “Any single one of the nominees could easily have gone home with this year’s awards and for every person nominated, there were several others could have been nominated just as easily.” Those aren’t just empty words; having trudged through the nomination and final selection process, I know it’s true.

Clearly, the People’s Choice award needs some fine-tuning. Tying it to an onsite raffle was done mostly to raise funds – and add fun! – but also to limit anyone from stuffing the ballot box. I’ve heard there was still confusion about how often you could vote and that shows not nominated for anything were probably not voted for because people associated with those shows weren’t in attendance. These are good points and ones that we’ll need to think about as we go forward. Still, I thought the award added a new and interesting twist to the night and resulted in perhaps two of the most persistent benefits of the evening: 1) the Roop-Lauterback video that loses little entertainment value upon repeated viewings and 2) the new necklace for Carol Piersol that I hope she will wear with pride!

While it’s true the event runs long – too long in some people’s perspective – the 3 ½ hours felt pretty svelte to me this year. We packed in 6 musical performances, 20 awards, a couple dozen silly jokes, several special recognitions, 2 intermissions and 1 angry bear into that time. I think 3 hours is probably a good target but, as big and fun as the night is, I wouldn’t want to cut it much shorter than that.

Finally, thanks again to everyone who came together to make the night a success. Bryan and the band were incredible; Chase, Wendy, Hans, Andrew, all of the bartenders and everyone working that night at the Empire did a great job; the crew of teen volunteers were crucially helpful; the singers were exceptional; the presenters seemed game for anything; the audience was boisterous but generally well-behaved; and my producer and partner-in-crime Amy was as calm and cool-headed as always. I’ve received a lot of very nice congratulations, which I very much appreciate, but it took quite a big team to make it all happen and the credit goes to all of them.

So I think I’m ready to call it a wrap (though recommendations and suggestions continue to be welcome). Time to focus on what’s next. I hear CAT’s opening their season with “Home Fires” this weekend…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stats and stuff

The twin patinas of exhaustion and excitement from Sunday night have started to melt away which has allowed me to focus on a couple of things besides eating and sleeping. Among those are the various statistical reckonings that can be done in the aftermath of this year’s RTCC awards.

First off: attendance. According to the Barksdale ticketing system, 472 people officially attended the event on Sunday. However, my understanding is that the Governor’s boxes live outside the official system and there were 8 people distributed between the two boxes. Also, I had an incredible crew of teenage volunteers working the show and the 9 of them shared 3 seats between them, meaning that there were really an additional 6 attendees, meaning that in my own personal accounting attendance was more like 486. Why do I care whether it’s 472 vs. 486? I don’t really but I expect to be telling people that “nearly 500” people attended and this is my public justification for that claim.

The awards have been held at the Empire twice before. Official attendance was 395 last year and 469 the year before that. So however you slice it, attendance was up this year, which makes me very happy.

Also, I reviewed the People’s Choice vote last night and was pretty amazed at the broad range of selections. Twenty-four different productions received at least one vote, plus there was a vote for Hairspray (which wasn’t officially eligible), one vote in general support of Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and one vote that didn’t actually have any production selected. I also know that a couple individuals used the People’s Choice voting just to make donations, as the money collected exceeded the number of votes – thank you generous people!

There was a total of 101 votes cast and the top five productions in order were This Beautiful City, [title of show], Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Once on this Island. While the popularity of these productions didn’t surprise me, it was interesting to note what shows were tied for 6th: Dog Sees God and Theatre IV’s The Velveteen Rabbit. While those shows didn’t garner a lot of love from us critics, the productions clearly had their fan bases.

I’ve just started to peruse some of the pictures on Facebook from the evening. And while it was mentioned several times on Sunday what a great and supportive theater community we have here, I’d just like to add that it’s a pretty damn attractive crowd as well. Later today or tomorrow, I’ll address some of the questions and comments that I’ve fielded in the wake of the awards. And then I expect it will be time to (reluctantly) move on…

Monday, October 17, 2011

And the 2011 Artsie award goes to...

Wow. What a night. I was trying to think this morning of what I would highlight about the evening if I were trying to recap it for someone who wasn’t there and realized that there were so many exceptional moments both big and small that it would be impossible. I’d basically just have to recount the entire evening and try to capture just a fraction of excitement and fun and fellowship I felt throughout the evening.

There are things that probably could use some ‘splainin’, the tie for Best Musical being one big example, highlighted in the Times-Dispatch article this morning. But I’m still a little too exhausted for cogent thought so I’ll talk a little more about that perhaps later in the week.

In the meantime, I’d just like to extend a huge heartfelt thanks to everyone who played a part in making last night work out. There are literally dozens of people who came together and did incredible things all focused on the success of last night. All of their work is very deeply appreciated.

Finally, below is the list of Artsie award recipients that were announced last night. Congratulations to those honored for some well-deserved recognition. But even greater congratulations to the community at large for coming together and supporting this event. I probably won’t know the final numbers for a couple weeks, but I expect we raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,500 for the Theater Artists Fund last night, 2.5 times what we raised last year and 3 times what we raised to years ago. A good time for a great cause – it doesn’t get much better than that.

2011 RTCC Award Recipients

Best Play
Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Best Musical
Tie: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels & [title of show]

The People's Choice Award
This Beautiful City

Best Direction - Musical
Chase Kniffen, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Best Direction – Play
Rusty Wilson, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Best Actor in a Leading Role – Play
Alan Sader, King Lear

Best Actor in a Leading Role - Musical
Scott Wichmann, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Best Actress in a Leading Role – Play
Laine Satterfield, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Best Actress in a Leading Role - Musical
Rachel Abrams, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Play
J. Ron Fleming, Jitney

Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Musical
Andrew Hamm, This Beautiful City

Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Play
Maggie Horan, Legacy of Light

Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Musical
Kathy Halenda, White Christmas

Ernie McClintock Best Ensemble Award
Jitney

Best Choreography
Leslie Owens-Harrington, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Best Musical Direction
Sandy Dacus, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Outstanding Achievement in Set Design
Brian C. Barker, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design
Lynne Hartman, Legacy of Light

Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design
J. Theresa Bush, Legacy of Light

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design
Derek Dumais, White Christmas

Special Awards:
Outstanding Achievement in Puppetry
Terry Snyder

Liz Marks Memorial Award
Michael Gooding
Don Warren & Jay McCullough

Friday, October 14, 2011

Where the action is

I've spent much of the last week swamped under RTCC awards related stuff and an unexpected bout of single parentage but I'm emerging just a tad, at least enough to show up on the noon news at NBC 12 WWBT to talk up the awards show. But luckily while I've been submerged, my pal Mr. Porter put out a good summary of some of the things that are going on around town. It's worth a peruse because, damn, there's just a lot going on.

Hope to see you on Sunday, if not before!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Richmond Magazine

I know I don’t usually promote Style’s “competition” but there are so many reasons to pick up this month’s Richmond magazine that I can’t be quiet about it (also, as a glossy monthly, I don’t actually think of RichMag as the competition but anyway…)

First off, right there on the cover is a picture of U of R basketball coach Chris Mooney (and some other coach you’ve probably heard of too…) Coach Mooney will be presenting an award at the RTCC awards with co-presenter Susan Greenbaum. So if you check out the magazine you’ll have a preview of who this guy is and will be able to spot him sidling up to the bar on Sunday.

Also, you’ll see that this month’s issue announces the winners of the Theresa Pollak awards (and there’s an awards ceremony tomorrow –Tuesday – night if you’re interested. I don’t have the details, but maybe someone out there does???). Among the honorees is the inimitable Scott Wichmann who just celebrated the premier of the movie “Lake Effects” where he costars with Ben Savage and Casper Van Diem, among others. He also is continuing to celebrate, I’m sure, the ongoing success of his latest directorial effort, “Lend Me a Tenor.” Scotty is of course in contention for an RTCC award for Best Actor in a Musical so be sure to come on Sunday to see if this week will include a hat trick of big wins for Mr. Wichmann.

Finally, there is a sister publication called Dine included with this month’s RichMag that has a great article called “Dinner and a Show.” In this piece, several local theater folks give their recommendations of where to go to eat before seeing a show. It’s a great piece and one that I’ll be keeping around for reference.

And if I haven’t mentioned it enough already, go ahead and get your tickets for the RTCC awards already! If you are nominee and want to be there to collect your award (potentially), you need to get a ticket! If you are a performer, you still need to get a ticket! If you are a critic, you still need to get a ticket! Thanks to our grant this year, everything you spend associated with the event should go directly to the Theatre Artists Fund so get those tickets and come out and celebrate with us!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Additions, Corrections

Can you tell I'm distracted these days? Mr. Griset's review in this week's Style is for "Suddenly Last Summer," not "Becky's New Car." I did get the subject of my review right, it's for "Merchant of Venice."

Also, yesterday I mentioned the video piece I did this summer but forgot the link to it.

Finally, I went to see "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" over the weekend but haven't had a chance to write out my thoughts. It's a very good production, though, and my quickest capsule review would be: if you thought Alan Sader and Adrian Rieder were incredible in "King Lear" this past summer (which they were IMHO), they're even better in "Cat."

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Suddenly

Luckily, others are keeping track of this stuff more closely than I am. Reviews of "Suddenly Last Summer" are currently available at the T-D website and on GayRVA.

ArtStars, Amazing and other things that start with A

I went through the summer thinking about how crazy-busy it was, what with more shows opening in the traditional “down” time than I can remember. But now that we’re really getting into the heart of the fall, I’m realizing I had forgotten how truly crazy-busy things are once the summer’s over. Among the things to talk about:

The Dominion ArtStars awards are being handed out today, perhaps even as I write this. Arts organizations from all over the state were given recognition and cash awards as either “Shining Stars” or “Rising Stars.” Several theater companies were among the winners, including central VA’s Sycamore Rouge (congrats, kb!), Signature in NOVA, and Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center. It’s a great program that Dominion’s kicked off and I hope they keep it up.

The Amazing Raise starts tomorrow. The folks at Henley Street have been getting the word out about this. It’s an online event where leading non-profits can be awarded $10K based on donations of others. If you want to help groups like Henley Street, Gallery 5, Theatre IV, SPARC, the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen and others get a shot at that payoff, check out the Amazing Raise website.

My review of “Merchant of Venice” should be out today as well as Mr. Griset’s take on “Becky’s New Car.” I’m still waiting for the first words on “Suddenly Last Summer.”

Among the Broadway news is that Billy Elliot will be ending its run on the Great White Way in January.

As if there weren’t enough shows out there right now, the “Wicked” tour lands here again, opening tomorrow night. In the past two days, I’ve heard two people who I would never imagine in my life going to a musical say “I’m taking my wife to ‘Wicked.’” It reminds me of this little video piece I did out in California asking people going to “Les Mis” if they were aware of local theater. Some things never change.

I enjoyed my little online chat with James Ricks about artistic issues related to “Merchant.” It has often occurred to me that Shakespeare might lend itself better to talk-backs BEFORE the show, to allow people to get some education on the play’s background. I think it would enhance their enjoyment of a show where they are more than likely going to have trouble parsing the language, let alone separate out the social, political and metaphysical issues.

And of course finally, we have the Artsies. Please get your tickets and please come. I think it’s going to be a good time. All the pieces are in motion, the question will be whether they all fit together before next Sunday. Come and find out! Oh, and tell your friends to come too!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah

Mr. Griset has added to the chorus praising “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with his review this week. Sycamore Rouge kicked off its season last weekend with the Langston Hughes-oriented joint, “Simply Heavenly,” that received a less than stellar assessment from Ms. Haubenstock.

The folks at Henley Street are initiating what sounds like an intriguing series of talk-backs this weekend and their “Merchant of Venice” is a great show to kick it off with. This is a show that almost demands conversation and processing. I really admire James Ricks and his company for choosing this show to produce and then really committing to a serious re-imagining of the work by placing it in a modern context.

My review in Style is going to be fairly short – once upon a time I would have had 500 to 600 words for a review. This one had to be trimmed to 350. It’s the sad reality of print journalism these days and particularly brutal when you are trying to cover any Shakespeare, let alone this Shakespeare. So I may talk about “Merchant” a couple of times in this space to flesh out some of my thoughts.

First off, it’s kind of astounding that the show will be running through the Jewish high holy days (Happy Rosh Hashanah, y’all!) The anti-Semitism in the play is bracing, there’s no getting around it. Mr. Ricks has said he has put the most clear anti-Semitic sentiments in the mouths of the lowest class characters, making the issue a bit more about class rather than overall cultural prejudice. I don’t know that this choice comes across so clearly, particularly in the modern context where, even though there are clearly class lines, we are told and taught that they don’t exist.

I also found the secondary characters laughing during Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech disconcerting. Beyond this being one of the more famous monologues in the canon, this speech is also a universal plea for understanding (and a little vengeance) on behalf of all victims of persecution. This seemed like part of the lower class idea, given that the snickerers were patrons at a bar, and as such was consistent in theory. But in practice, I simply didn’t like it.

However, on the flip side, there were many ways I thought the anti-Semitism issue was handled masterfully. Jeff Clevenger’s performance is exceptional. I saw his actions not at all as a rabid anti-Christian but as a battered individual, pushed by the last straw of his daughter’s elopement to try to exact brutal retribution against a world that had stolen his wife, employee, dignity, and finally, his daughter. Clevenger never lets you forget Shylock’s basic humanity.

Also, the infamous court scene had a significant change from the original text (unless I missed it somehow) in that Shylock was not forced to convert to Christianity, among all of the other indignities he is forced to submit to. Finally, there is the issue of Jessica. Her deportment at the play’s end is distinctly different from Jessicas I’ve seen in other productions. I won’t spoil this for you in case you haven’t seen it but it isn’t expected given her economic situation at the play’s end.

And, in the end, this is a play largely about economics, or the “commidification of relationships” as Mr. Ricks says in his director’s notes. As such, I think making Antonio into a female character is also a masterful change and one I may talk about further in another post.

But before I sign off and since I have “merchants” on my mind, I really am overdue in giving a shout out to the sponsors of the RTCC awards this year. We’ve really had a great stepping up of people in commercial ventures who are supporting the event. Among those who are helping us this year are Style Weekly magazine, which is giving us a bunch of advertising both online and in print as well as hosting the pre-event reception; 103.7 The River, a radio station guided by the fabulous Melissa Chase who has promised to put the word out about us this year; Gay RVA.com, which is also providing us with scads of online advertising; Popkin Tavern, which is hosting the pre-event reception this year; Carreras Jewelers, which of course donated the great raffle prize of a gorgeous diamond necklace; and the extremely talented Jay Paul who is once again donating his photographic services to help memorialize the event.

Given how many “merchants” we have on board this year (not to mention the non-profits also supporting us, which I will at some other point), I’m a little surprised at the somewhat anemic ticket sales so far. Are people holding out until the last couple of weeks? Or have the awards kind of run their course and the excitement has passed? I’m really curious.

Regardless, I’m still excited about the big night and, while I’ll be disappointed if fewer people come than last year, I’ll also have a better chance at going home with that little Carreras bauble…

Monday, September 26, 2011

Institutional

All three of the Times-Dispatch freelancers who cover theater were busy this past weekend. Ms. Haubenstock reviewed Henley Street’s “Merchant of Venice,” Ms. Lewis took a ride in “Becky’s New Car” out at Hanover Tavern and Ms. Wren gave some context to the Mill’s “Keep on the Sunny Side.” That’s a pretty impressive flurry of theater coverage.

I’ll be offering some thoughts on “Merchant” as early as tomorrow, perhaps, but I also want to put out a quick endorsement of the local university shows. Both VCU and U of R are kicking off their seasons with extremely interesting productions, “Shakespeare’s R&J” at the former, and “Trojan Women” at the latter. The U of R show, with a cast that includes the enthralling Alex Wiles from last year’s “Arcadia” at Richmond Shakespeare, runs for a tragically short one-weekend run. If you want to get some sense of what you’ll see if you go, see this interview with the insightful and interesting Dorothy Holland.

I know it’s a crazy busy season but these are a couple of productions worth checking out. Pass on the “X Factor” (you’ve see it all before anyway) and go see one of these shows instead!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sunny Side

You have to forgive me not writing (ok, you don’t have to, but I ask you to), but I’ve had so much reading to do. A review of “Keep on the Sunny Side” came out in the T-D yesterday and also in the Progress-Index (signaling the premiere I believe of actress-icon Una Harrison as a critic).

Reviews of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” showed up at GayRVA and on WCVE (or John Porter’s blog). JP’s rave about “Lend Me a Tenor” – complete with a general endorsement of farce -- aired last night while my “Tenor” review was oh-so-eloquently dismissed as a “book report.” Those anonymous commenters – they’re so insightful!

Also out there to read up on has been the previews of “Merchant of Venice,” which I’m looking forward to this weekend. This promises to be a production unlike any other “Merchant” you might have seen before and it’s in a new space for Henley Street, two significant endorsements for sure.

I promised to talk about “Sunny Side” but I won’t go on too much because Ms. Haubenstock expressed most of my thoughts for me. The heart of her review includes the phrases “historically interesting,” “musically delightful,” and “limp drama.” I think that encapsulates the show for me. The voices musical director Drew Perkins leads through the Carter Family canon are all excellent – I think I would have loved this show if it had been just a tribute concert. But I don’t think it works great as theater. There are a few too many “…and then this happened…” kind of transitions and not enough meaty interpersonal business to work through. This weakness was not helped on the night I saw the show (the last preview on Friday) when there were numerous lines of dialogue either dropped or repeated.

But there were unmistakably magic moments, too, most of them when stage novice Jackie Frost was given room for her voice to reach its full-throated glory. I was introduced reluctantly to old time music decades ago by my lovely wife and have since come to appreciate the simple beauty of Carter Family standards like “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” and “Worried Man Blues.” Most of the songs are delivered with energy and clarity by gifted musicians like Emily Cole, David Janeski and Lucas Hall. Multi-instrumentalist Ms. Cole should think about a putting a concert together; I know I’d go.

Each of the cast members has his or her strength. Mr. Hall has a great scene to really chew some scenery as Dr. Brinkley and he makes the most of it. As I’ve expressed here before, I adore Ali Thibodeau’s voice and she kicks off the show with a great take on “Will You Miss Me?” But since she’s playing one of the next generation Carters (Janette), she doesn’t get as much front-and-center performing time, which is too bad. Mr. Perkins does a fine job as the somewhat drifty patriarch A. P. Carter, though I think it’s a curious challenge to give a focused performance of a distinctly unfocused character. Still, at the show’s end, his transition into the elderly A.P. is subtle but distinct.

One of the things I will remember most about this production is the gorgeous set. Director Tom Width has outdone himself with this set design, with a big assist from Adam Dorland and his vibrant scenic backdrop, not to mention the typically lush lighting by Joe Doran. The rendering of a log cabin’s front porch looks so cozy it’s hard not to want to join the cast on stage and spend some time working the rocking chair.

Susie also mentioned “historically interesting,” and I have to admit that one of the first things I did when I got home was Google the Carter Family. It was also great to see the neat YouTube clip that Emily Cole found of the real Sara and Maybelle Carter introduced by Johnny Cash. So, while it may not have invigorated me with dramatic intensity, “Sunny Side” certainly provided some diverting songs and a sparked interest in a slice of music history.

If your bent is historic, you have two shows opening this weekend that should appeal, the previously mentioned “Merchant,” plus “Simply Heavenly” at Sycamore Rouge, which is grounded in the historically significant stories of Langston Hughes. If you just want comic drama, “Becky’s New Car” out at the Tavern may be a better choice. Regardless, there is kind of an embarrassment of riches on local stage right now. What better way to spend a rainy weekend then at a show or two, no?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In the Interim

Here's a link to my review of Barksdale's "Lend Me a Tenor." Still nothing from the T-D on "Keep on the Sunny Side." However, at the T-D site you can find a link to this news story on a new musical in development based on the film "Diner," significant among other things for the foray of Sheryl Crow into the stage world.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What a difference a valet makes

The season of Tennessee Williams is now in full force. Both Style and the Times-Dispatch have done stories on the Williams festival in the past week and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has opened to at least one largely positive review. How can you not love it? Big characters and intense stories and all sorts of interpersonal craziness. A fall full of Williams will make us all grateful to be able to go home to a relatively quiet and normal life after the curtain falls.

I’ve yet to see a review of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” the cheery and tuneful musical that opened at the Mill this past weekend. I caught the last preview on Friday and will talk more about the production on Thursday. My review of “Lend Me a Tenor” should show up in this week’s Style (crossing fingers, still haven’t had it confirmed by my editor…) Ms. Tupponce chimed in on “Tenor,” adding to the chorus of those who have enjoyed the rollicking farce. The mini-blogosphere-firestorm that erupted after the first “Tenor” review seems to have died down, though I’m still fielding any comments on the objectivity-subjectivity discussion. If you want to just bash people, I’d prefer you’d go elsewhere but I’ll field those comments as well.

Some additional news on the RTCC front: we have secured a donor to subsidize valet parking for the awards event. So if you don’t want to wander up and down Broad Street looking for a space on that Sunday night, you can just pull up to the under-construction Empire Marquee and stroll right in, leaving the search-n-park job to someone else.

It may seem like a small thing but valet parking is one of those little amenities that make an event seem more special, a little more luxurious, and a lot more convenient. It also means that that extra 10-15 minutes that you usually budget to find a parking spot and walk to the theater can be spent IN the theater, voting for the People’s Choice award, catching up with friends and colleagues, or enjoying a refreshing beverage. Won’t that be nice?

Check back here on Thursday for more on “Sunny Side” and, in honor of the positive attitude title song, a few local media-related appreciations.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Responses

Mark,

I appreciate you taking the time to respond with your clearly stated and rational comments (as opposed to “Humble Opinionator’s” self-important and ridiculous ramblings…but I’ll get to that in a second…) I don’t agree with the bulk of your perspective, however, and I think you hold theater critics to an impractical standard. I remember when reality TV first became a big thing, I read plenty of stories by plenty of TV reviewers whose message was (either explicit or implicit): “god, I can’t wait for this reality TV fad to pass.” Then at some point they all seemed to heave a collective sigh and realize that it wasn’t going to pass and so now they grit their teeth and do their best. You can still read the same kind of bias in reviews of “torture porn” movies like the “Saw” franchise, a reviewer saying, “this stuff is generally crap but this is how this crap rates against all of the other crap.” For a more immediate and local example, Daniel Neman used to call out almost every movie that had some “daddy issue” at it’s foundation. He had obviously tired of those kinds of movies, but he went on reviewing them.

Should editors hire a specific reality TV critic to just cover that beat because every other critic hates the genre? A specific “torture porn” critic to cover those movies? A specific stage farce critic to cover “Lend Me a Tenor?” That would be impractical and that’s why no one does it.

There are three points I think are worth making: first, a theater critic has a job to do. At your job are you often given the liberty to “pass on assignments” that don’t endanger you or aren’t morally reprehensible but are simply not your favorite thing? If you do, I want your job.

Second, yes, I absolutely agree that if a critic has a passionate distaste for a specific genre, they should not review shows in that genre. But if their distaste is so passionate that it impairs their ability to deliver a coherent review, he or she shouldn’t really be a critic at all. Say what you will about Susie’s review, but it is well written and coherent, reflecting careful consideration of technical elements, direction and performance. You may not like the way she did her job but you can’t argue that she didn’t do it. I, like Susie, rank farce near or at the bottom of the genres of theater that I enjoy. That doesn’t mean I (and I expect Susie) prefer being poked in the eye to seeing a farce. I don’t want to be taken off the “farce beat” because farces aren’t my favorite. Why? Because I love theater in general and so an evening spent at even a mediocre “Lend Me a Tenor” (which Barksdale’s production isn’t) would be more enjoyable for me than a night watching, for instance, the best “torture porn” movie in existence.

Third, part of the artistic experience involves surprise. How many men are dragged to a romantic comedy with their wives or girlfriends and actually end up, against every expectation, enjoying the experience? If you asked such a guy afterwards, his summary might be “You know, I don’t generally like these kinds of movies, but this one was pretty good.” I know as a critic I go into a farce bracing myself for the worst. And whether I state it explicitly or not, my review will reflect an underlying attitude of “you know, I wasn’t expecting to love this but I did.” On the converse side of things, I love “Godspell” and “Les Mis” and plenty of other shows and there are times I’ve come out of certain productions feeling “you know, I generally love ‘Les Mis,’ but this production just didn’t measure up to my expectations.” These kinds of reactions are an inescapable aspect of the subjective artistic experience and they can’t be extricated from it, no matter who the audience member is, critic or non-critic.

As far as “Humble’s” extended tirade goes, there are so many ways I could respond that I’m a little at a loss at where to start. Perhaps with: as good a writer as you may be, HO, you’re an awful reader. You title your rant, “An Answer to Some of Dave’s Questions About Subjectivity and the Function of Critics.” I wrote exactly one sentence in my post that could be construed as a question, which was “how exactly [is] a critic…supposed to review a play “for what it is,” in other words, in some completely objective manner.” In all your extended spewing, you didn’t come close to answering that question.

What you essentially did was take the opportunity to randomly and anonymously bash all of Richmond’s critics while taking broad swipes at the local artistic community as well. Bravo! Quite a feat, that!

I would give some credence to some of your comments if they didn’t start from a foundation that undermines everything that follows. You say, “I have seen exactly zero truly critical reviews written with the aesthetic and mastery that is the standard for critique. Very loosely defined, a critic is someone who writes for a publication or blog about what they see.”

By applying some ridiculous standard that nullifies everything I’ve ever written, you have lost my interest in anything you have to say. If I am not a critic by your standards, why should any supposed insight you have about critics apply to me? And furthermore, by misunderstanding the basic idea of a “strictly-defined” critic – that is, someone who is a paid journalist doing a job for their employer, who strictly-speaking only has to answer to that employer and not every idiot with grandiose ideas – your succeeding assertions are essentially worthless. Thanks for playing, though, and as strong as your opinions are, I hope you take a step out from behind your cowardly anonymity and try being a critic yourself some day. I’m sure my fellows in the RTCC could gain a lot of backbone under your guidance.