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


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


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


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!