Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seeing Red

It seems like there is always something interesting going on down at Sycamore Rouge. Even right now when they don’t have a main stage production open, they have a burlesque thing happening this Sunday, they had one of their 24-hour theater experiences a couple of weekends ago, and on April 7th they’re sending 2 busloads of people up to New York to support hometown success story, Blair Underwood, who is appearing on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if that last excursion gains some national media coverage. It really is a fabulous idea and, given that kb saine and her cohorts were able to keep the cost of the whole deal below $160, a great bargain for a really good time.

One of the things happening down there in Petersburg is not so great, though. Because of one of the company’s major funders “changing their priorities” (i.e., cutting them loose), Sycamore Rouge is now trying to raise a big chunk of change so they can buy their building and provide a buffer from future funding swings. $300,000 is not small potatoes, even in an improving economy, and it’s going to take a groundswell of support to make up that sum.

I know a big percentage of the people reading this blog (1 out of 2?) work for some organization that is struggling to get funding. I know this because all of the theater companies in town struggle to get funding, from the largest to the smallest. But even though the search for money is an ongoing predicament, there are special cases. It was a special case when Firehouse Theatre Project was in danger of losing their building. It was a special case when Triangle Players was moving into their new location and building a theater space from scratch. And this situation with Sycamore Rouge is a special case as well.

So I hope any and everybody who is able will chip in something for Sycamore Rouge. And probably even more important, please let other people know about what’s happening down there. Like I said, it’s going to take a lot of people working together to keep them afloat. And, based on the creative and exciting things they are doing, it would be a shame if this ship sinks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Now that’s more like it

To be honest, I’ve not always been a big fan of CenterStage’s “Broadway in Richmond” series. This past year, in particular, seemed uninspired to me. “The Lion King” and the return of “Wicked” were the biggies and they didn’t really do much to raise my blood pressure. And I say that having seen “The Lion King” and thinking it was pretty magnificent. But still, “South Pacific” was the most recently produced Broadway show and that’s from 2008. Also, it was “South Pacific” which I enjoyed when I saw it on Broadway but that would not have inspired me to pay big bucks for the muddy acoustics of the Landmark Theater.

In contrast, I’m nearly giddy about the announcement of the 2012-13 series. It’s a line-up with four shows I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing and one that I could easily be talked into seeing. Of course, “Les Mis” I’d go to almost anywhere and almost anytime. “Billy Elliott” is phenomenal. “Mary Poppins” takes the strong foundation of the movie and the old musical and melds them into a vibrant new concoction bolstered by “dazzling stagecraft” (as the news release puts it). The revamped “West Side Story” was glorious on Broadway. And I saw the stage version of “The Grinch” in NYC several years back and, even though my expectations were low, it proved a thoroughly entertaining production (I had the benefit of sitting in the front row with my two boys who were tiny at the time, meaning that some of the action nearly landed in our laps, an extra bonus!)

So, for perhaps the first time in my life, I’m considering investing in a season subscription. That either means that Broadway in Richmond has finally put together a truly inspired slate of shows or that I’ve finally landed firmly in middle age. Or perhaps both.


My anticipation for “The Hunger Games” has abated somewhat since the movie has opened (though I still haven’t had a chance to see it...). So that allows me to get more focused on what will be my next movie obsession, the big-screen adaptation of “Les Miserables.”

Last thing I had heard was that Taylor Swift was going to be Eponine, which threw my feelings about the whole enterprise into a tizzy. Swift is a fine singer / songwriter but she didn’t seem to me to have the dramatic heft to pull off Eponine. But somewhat along the way, Swift fell out of the running and a much less well-known actress, Samantha Barks, was announced as having the role. Based on the video embedded in this story, Ms. Barks certainly has the vocal chops to pull it off and she looks adorable, but some of her phrasing or her accent or something in this particular performance just doesn’t quite sit right with me. Still, she’s not Taylor Swift.

I like this picture of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert looks fine. What I’d really like though is a sense of how they are going to sound. Anyone got some YouTube of Crowe singing “Stars?”

Monday, March 26, 2012


With CAT’s “Children’s Hour” opening this past weekend, the spring slew of new shows begins. This seasonal onslaught is more gradual than the Jan/Feb deluge, maybe because some local companies aren't opening a new show until the end of April (Sycamore Rouge) or May (Firehouse) or even June (Richmond Shakespeare).

Though it is now old news, here are a few thoughts on “Next Fall,” which closed two weekends ago at Triangle Players. I’m glad I was able to sneak out to see this show before it closed if, for no other reason, to see Dawn Westbrook again, an accomplished actress who graces local stages way too infrequently. She inhabited the role of flawed matriarch Arlene perfectly, capturing that sort of blunt inappropriateness that can be charming when done well. Her portrayal set the tone for all the performances in the show, all of the actors getting all the character traits right and not pushing anything too far toward caricature. Barry Pruitt’s homophobic dad could just be loud and a bully, but he’s simply set in his ways. Denis Riva’s Luke could be overtly self-deluding or even self-loathing, but Riva made him a generally sunny individual dealing with a difficult core conflict.

The real discovery here is Chris O’Neill in his role of Adam. He is given the richest material to navigate and a character who weathers many ups and downs, and he really embraces the challenge with winning gusto. In smaller but pivotal roles, Georgia Rogers Farmer and Matt Mitchell both made their characters real people, not just “the Christian friend” or “the fag hag.”

Overall, I really liked this production because of those performances. The show also does a good job of introducing subjects of faith and sexual orientation; as Susan Haubenstock put it, it’s a “real conversation starter.” However, I do share the opinion of my colleague, Rich Griset, that there is a lot, perhaps too much, left unclear. Among the questions Griset mentioned were “How does devout Luke reconcile his evangelical Christian views with his homosexuality?” and “How does Luke’s father, Butch, deal with the realization that his son is gay?” As an audience member, I don’t necessarily need answers to these questions, but more insight into how the characters wrestled with them would have been appreciated.

Also, at this point, homosexuality-denying parents are a little boring to me as characters, even as expertly portrayed by Westbrook and Pruitt. I’m not saying that they aren’t still out there in force in the real world or that the issue of gay people telling their parents about their orientation isn’t still a very real issue. But I guess I’m hopeful that the tide has truly turned on some issues and when you have a loud and proud gay couple at the center of the country’s top rated sitcom (Modern Family), more interesting dramatic constructs now can be explored involving kids who come out at earlier and earlier ages, or ones that come out as gay and then ending up having heterosexual relationships later on.

What was interesting to me were the two devoutly Christian gay characters and the contrasts in the ways they maneuvered through their lives. One was seemingly sunny and well-adjusted, the other seemed a bit tightly wound and obviously conflicted. But both clearly struggled with reconciling their faith and their sexuality. I would have loved to see a little more of those struggles brought to the fore but, to the extent that “Next Fall” explores this otherwise under-represented realm, I think it is an admirable work.

One final word on the Daisey controversy I’ve been dwelling on: the storyteller posted the kind of comprehensive and unequivocal apology that people have been waiting for on his blog last night. While I’ll never quite understand why he didn’t do this weeks ago, it’s heartening to me to see him respond to the vehement and legitimate criticisms launched his way. Time to turn the page on that story…

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stinky Daisey

I usually enjoy “meta” devices in movies, books and plays and while “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” doesn’t approach “Adaptation” or “[title of show]” level cleverness, it was certainly a fun introduction to the “meta” construct for kids. The danger with any work of this kind, of course, is that it struggles to be about anything except itself. Even with that limitation, “Stinky” was an entertaining romp and an hour of ridiculous was welcome after the run of shows I’ve been to lately (“August,” “Next Fall,” “Sweeney Todd.”)

The production featured two actresses who I always enjoy on stage, Maggie Roop and Alison Gilman; an actor who is quickly becoming a favorite, Todd Patterson; and a gang of people I’d never seen before but hope to see again. Deejay Gray and Mauricio Marces engaged the audience with many comic pratfalls, their running about before the show started delighting the kids. Though making her Theatre IV debut, Betzi Hekman fit in to the antics well, making quite a fetching Frog Princess. Statuesque and versatile in her protrayals, Sarah Roquemore seems like someone out of TV sitcom to me: I just expected her to be funny as soon as she walked on stage and she didn’t disappoint. I’m hoping she’ll be gracing more Richmond stages in the future.

The costumes by Elizabeth Weiss Hopper were particularly spectacular for this production; so good that I was hoping (probably in vain) the wee ones in the audience were appreciating the level of artistry they were being exposed to. The only somewhat odd thing was that the show was a musical but I didn’t notice any specific musical credits given. I guess all the music was canned and/or public domain? Anyway, though I expect some kids – and even a few adults – were a little befuddled by the “meta” material, I thought it was a peppy little diversion and a great way to spend an hour at the theater.

I keep trying to get around to writing down my thoughts about “Next Fall” but time and work keep conspiring against me. I also continue to be distracted by the whole Michael Daisey thing. Both CNN and EW have done well-considered and literate commentary on the whole thing. I’ve read these eagerly, hoping someone will encapsolate eloquently the reason the whole thing ticks me off so much. The CNN piece gets close in talking about how blasé many students are about this kind of thing. I guess I’m old fashioned but I still believe in something at least close to objective truth. And I can’t help but see this kind of distortion of the truth as just another flavor of the distortion political ranters and ravers spew, the kind of people who call Obama a “socialist” or who deny the Holocaust. Sure, Daisey was trying to do good, but he was also trying to forward his career. And there is something slimily political about his continual inability to take responsibility for out-and-out lying.

Perhaps the most concise summary of what I think of Daisey is reflected in this, from the EW piece: “He's like a cop who plants evidence on someone he believes in his heart to be guilty. Maybe the suspect is guilty, but now it's harder to know. And Daisey's arrogance in the glare of getting caught makes it increasingly difficult to empathize with him.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Demon Barber of Maggie Walker

Watching a high school production always provides something interesting. I don’t go to a school production expecting Broadway-caliber stagecraft so I’m often surprised by a) talent that exceeds my expectations and b) missteps or deficiencies that happen in ways that provide insight into the theatrical process.

I saw Maggie Walker’s production of “Sweeney Todd” on Thursday and it delivered everything an audience member could have expected and more. The show only ran last weekend so unfortunately it’s too late to see it if you missed it. (But I hear from very reliable sources that there is another quality high school show around: a collection of one-acts called “An Evening of the Absurd” at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg that runs through this coming weekend – check it out!)

You really have to start at the top when considering these shows. “Sweeney” was directed by Matt Polson so you know a talented and experienced hand was at the helm. (ARGS’s “Evening” is directed by Morrie Piersol, also no slouch.) Polson clearly had a vision of a dank and spooky London underbelly that he wanted to realize on stage and he succeeded. One of the highlights for me (and something not uncommon in a high school production) was the commitment of the chorus. To a member, they imbued every mention of “the demon barber of fleet street” with as much sinister vigor as they could.

I was impressed with the level of male talent in the production. “Glee” notwithstanding, talented, singing boys willing to commit time to the stage are still not that common in high school. I thought Andrew Morton did a fine job as the title characer, Jacob Wilson was a stand-out as Toby (how can you not melt at the song “Not While I’m Around”?), and Daniel Burruss had a creepy old man vibe about him unusual in one so young. The star of the show for me was Annie Hulcher as Mrs. Lovett, who has a great strong voice and was appropriately creepy but also relatable as the ethics-free Mrs. Lovett.

The set designed by Rebekah Barnett was remarkable for a high school production – particularly the mechanism Sweeney uses to send his “customers” on their way – as was the lighting design by Lucie Hanes. The only place where the production kind of let me down was in the “beggar woman” reveal. To me, this is the lynchpin of the tragedy (and what a devastating tragedy it is) and it didn’t quite come across as big as I’d have liked it. I mentioned this moment in the show to the suave and talented Stephen Ryan who I saw on Sunday and he suggested that maybe in high school, actors don’t quite have the life experience to embody such a massive moment of inadvertent self-destruction. I think that’s probably a wise insight.

However, that one moment did not significantly detract from a production that was affecting in most other ways. Sondheim is a pretty high hurdle to leap and the Maggie Walker crew cleared it nicely, particularly for a still aspiring young troupe.

I had the occasion to talk to Mr. Ryan because I ran into him at the final performance of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Theatre IV. I’m glad I got to see this wacky little show before it closed and I’ll tell you why tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"It’s not journalism, it’s theater"

Sorry y’all: I’ve been trying to keep up at least a weekly presence on this here blog but I missed yesterday due to a Mac-to-PC conversion fail and my thoughts on Maggie Walker’s “Sweeney Todd,” Theatre IV’s “Stinky Cheese Man,” and Triangle Players’ “Next Fall” are now being reconstructed by a diligent but slow-moving team of squirrels working in the bowels of my laptop. I’ll get them posted tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’ve been following the dust-up over the Mike Daisey monologue show with much interest and was finally able to listen to the “This American Life” retraction last night.
I don’t know if anyone else out there in Richmond theater land is as interested but there are intriguing definitional issues being discussed here, all with the backdrop of our tortured relationship with China as the context. I’m a long-time fan of This American Life and I heard the original broadcast of Daisey’s monologue. It is a very powerful story and taps into some of the main reasons I have been so interested in China for the past 6-7 years.

When questions were raised about the truthfulness of Daisey’s account, it took the whole subject to another level for me. The irony is that, while Daisey’s monologue explores the way an American company exploits Chinese workers, the resulting fabrications show that Daisey himself was exploiting the situation in China for his own gain, that is, to develop a powerful – and lucrative – performance piece. So while we could be spending time looking at this messed up economic and cultural relationship we have with China, instead the focus turns to more esoteric questions about what is truth and what responsibility an artist has to label what he or she does.

These are certainly interesting questions. But, in the end, I think Daisey blew his credibility by not coming clean when asked directly about whether something was truthful or not. Sure, an artist has license and, in the context of a stage show, may wander freely from the strict bounds of journalistic integrity. But still, I think when someone is fact-checking your piece and you outright lie, it no longer becomes about the freedom of expression of an artist. It comes down to a person simply not having integrity.

Those are my thoughts on the Daisey question. If anyone cares to hear my thoughts on broader questions about China, buy me a beer sometime and we can talk (don’t everyone rush to get in line at once!) And whether anyone buys me a beer or not, I’m posting some thoughts on the shows I’ve seen lately tomorrow. Because, instead of having to choose between journalism and theater, I’m still playing at being a theater journalist. I'm hoping that'll work out for me in the long run.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Adjectives are among the most potent tools a critic has. Particularly with the shrinkage of newspaper inches devoted to arts journalism, other tools like the elaborate metaphor or the perceptive historical parallel don’t get used nearly as often.

In his review of “August: Osage County” (link on the right), Mr. Griset at Style used the following four adjectives in one of his concluding sentences: Intense, angry, epic and devastating. This is the kind of show that prompts such an overflow of superlatives. After I saw it this past Saturday, the word that seemed most appropriate to me was ‘staggering.’ Thanks to the incredible writing by Tracy Letts, time spent with the Weston family is never boring but often brutal. Many of the revelations and interactions are pretty staggering but so are the biting intrusions of humor that, as an audience member, have you reeling back and forth between elation and despair. For people (like me) who like shows that are like roller coasters, it was exhilarating.

Of course, Keri Wormald needs to be singled out for putting this whole thing together and the set by Phil Hayes was particularly impressive. There are marquee roles here: Melissa Johnston Price is magnificent as Barb and Melanie Richards does fine work as Violet. The show is so stuffed with great performances, however, that pulling out favorites simply isn’t possible. One minute, Katie McCall is amazing, the next minute Gordon Bass impresses. Jodie Smith Strickler commands the stage, then Karen Stanley demands attention for completely different reasons.

But since plenty of praise had been handed out related to this production, I want to recognize two possibly less obvious components that really enhanced my enjoyment of the show. One was the quiet but still extraordinary performance by Carolyn Meade as Johnna. She is like the calm in the midst of the storm, a slice of relative normalcy that makes the madness around her all the more affecting. She also communicates as much in her sharp look in response to the word “costumes” as some actors do in a whole soliloquy.

And lastly, the original music by Steve Organ both sets the stage for the action and provides welcome respite during the intermissions. It helps establish a somewhat rural Gothic vibe and is just plain good stuff to listen to.

In addition to the obvious emotional and comic gifts the show provides thanks to its epic story and fantastic writing, it also leaves you with one last one: no matter how messed up your life seems, you can be thankful you are not one of the Westons.

One last note: since this is an online forum of sorts that you are reading right now, you might be interested in the opinions of one leading tech innovator on the role of comments. In the past there has been wrangling about comments left here or on the Style site. You can tell from this article that these kinds of issues are being debated all over the place, with no real clear ideas about what to do to improve the situation. If you have any ideas, please feel free to comment!

Monday, March 05, 2012


When it comes to theater, Los Angeles has always suffered in comparison to NYC. A lot of virtual ink was spilled on that subject last summer thanks in part to a celebrity panel that was held at the time (my somewhat caustic response to the hubbub can be read here.)

But one very compelling theatrical event happened in L.A. this past weekend that doesn’t seem like it could have happened anywhere else. A reading of the play “8,” a dramatization of the Prop 8 gay marriage trial in California, featured some of the A-listiest of A-list movie stars. You can see the reading in its entirety on YouTube. I think this is an awesome use of old school theater, modern media, and convenient location to create a truly unique event…that’s also pretty entertaining. I haven’t watched the whole thing but there are some definitely funny bits near the beginning. I wish the event had received a little more coverage but hopefully friends will continue to tell friends about this as time goes on (and perhaps as so-called “lifestyle” issues come into play later on in the presidential campaign.)

I also had L.A. on my mind this weekend because of seeing “God of Carnage” at the Barksdale on Thursday. I saw this show with its original Broadway cast out in L.A. last summer. As much as I try to approach each production without baggage from previous stagings of the same show, this one was hard. I had a good time at the Barksdale and my lovely wife liked the production quite a lot. But while very entertaining, this production didn’t rock my world. As much as I have adored Bo Wilson’s direction of other shows, aspects of this one felt rushed to me with some of the swings in dynamics between the foursome of characters happening too quickly for my tastes. I wondered about other choices as well; e.g., Michael’s wearing of the wall-hanging was more awkward that revealing to me.

Still, the comedy is sharp in this show and all of the actors had their moments to shine. In general, I ended up liking the women better than the men but it probably isn’t fair because Dan Stearns and Jay Millman were competing with the echoes of Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini in my memory. Susan Sanford rarely disappoints and she certainly doesn’t in this show, showing the most skill in navigating the wide range of emotions spanned in just over 70 minutes. Jan Guarino’s bitingly insightful commentary delivered as a genial drunken rant was one of the highlights.

You have to applaud Barksdale for mounting this production and challenging Richmond audiences to come out for some adult humor with a distinct edge. I hope they’ve been getting good houses and the tepid response the screen adaptation of the show received hasn’t adversely affected public sentiment about checking it out.