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.