Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pieces and Parts

I’m a little melancholy these days so I apologize in advance for any world-weariness that might seep onto these virtual pages. Memorial Day hit particularly close to my late dad’s birthday this year and I also was recently reminded of a co-worker who died 6 years ago this coming Friday. One of this co-worker’s verbal tics was to include the phrase “pieces and parts” into almost every description of a project. She was kind of a legend around the Sauer’s plant, having worked there some 30-odd years. May all of those we remembered this past weekend rest in peace.

Newspaper and magazine articles are usually referred to as “pieces,” and one of mine was in this past week’s Style. It’s a preview about “Live Art,” a somewhat generic name for what is a truly transformational project. I’m glad that Style devoted a full page to the piece but I’m also a little disappointed. They didn’t tease the article on the front cover and the picture that ran with the piece doesn’t really capture the expanse and vitality of the effort. The picture is also just a bit dark which is unfortunate for a project that is so full of light. Still, I’m glad the piece ran and I don’t know if any picture could really have given a sense of what magic will unfold this Sunday evening. I have been very excited to see several of the other local media outlets have been talking up the big concert. It should be a very cool evening.

The Style website also features a review of "The Musical of Musicals" that didn't fit in print and a preview of the Tony awards that seems to have been written by the former Richmond Ballet managing director, Keith Martin. Style loves us theater goers, really it does! (And since sarcasm and the lack of it don't always come across in print, I'm NOT being sarcastic. The Style editors really are pretty great about squeezing theater coverage into their ever-decreasing pages.)

Part 2 of the “Spring Awakening” rehearsal video diary was posted yesterday. In it, parts of a couple of songs from the show are heard. There is also plenty of energetic and goofy footage of the cast frolicking and lip-syncing. What comes across most clearly is that these are people having a great time working together. If even a small slice of that energy comes across on stage, this is going to be a hell of a show.

“Catfish Moon” and “The Musical of Musicals” close this weekend – you can see them both and still go to “Live Art” on Sunday! “Dessa Rose” was scheduled to close but was extended for another week. Clearly this show has found its audience, always a good indicator of the power of strong work of mouth.

And in case news of this slipped past in the midst of the other media clutter, RTP and the Firehouse are collaborating on a reading of “8,” the show about California’s Prop 8 legal battle that was famously read by a slew of A-list celebs in LA earlier this spring (a great series of clips from the Broadway reading are posted on the Firehouse site). The Richmond A-list has stepped up to fill the parts in the show, including Gordon Bass, David Bridgewater, Katie McCall, Melissa Johnston Price, Adrian Rieder, Irene Ziegler and more. Leave a space on your social calendar for this one, set to run June 13 and 14.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Video Bonanza

Giving people a taste, generating buzz, whetting appetites: it’s a strategy as old as the ages. It’s popular because it works. As a regular patron at Once Upon a Vine’s Friday taste-testings, I know from personal experience. I taste a beer, I like a beer, I buy a beer. Simple capitalistic magic.

There has been a little outpouring lately of great video related to local productions. You can see a trailer for “Dessa Rose” that shows you that the Firehouse has transformed it’s sometimes cramped stage into an expansive space for this expansive show. Not to mention giving you a taste of the rousing music that powers the show.

Virginia Rep has put out what I hope is just the first of a long line of promotional bits for “Spring Awakening,” highlighting the kick-in-the-pants song “The Bitch of Living” and interview snippets with some of the key cast members. Well produced and fun, this piece already has my wife (a true “Awakening” fanatic) practically peeing in her pants.

And SPARC’s “Live Art” project has been putting out a regular stream of video pieces on their blog, also incredibly well-produced and snappy and giving people a nice slice of what to expect. For a project where people won’t necessarily have a clear idea of what they’ll see the night of the performance, this is a great way to get potential patrons to shake loose that $35 for a ticket.

If I was someone working on “Rocky Horror” this summer, I’d take note. Nothing like a little “Time Warp” promo to get people excited for that one.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


It's been a week full of discoveries for me, these last 7 days or so. I discovered -- thanks to an alert by Phil Crosby at Triangle Players -- that this blog was offline for a half-day or so because of attempted hacking. I think that's somewhat comical -- was someone looking for a venue to post some malicious theater gossip?

I discovered just how amazing the "Live Art" project that SPARC is organizing is going to be. Or more specifically, I got a more complete sense of what it's going to be and it is indeed going to be an extravaganza. Erin Thomas-Foley has brought together an incredible fleet of people, all of whom seem to have a special glow emanating from them, and they are working with scores of kids whose earnest dedication is a real inspiration. Get tickets now.

I also had the chance to discover what people have been talking about as far as "Scorched Earth" goes -- both good and bad -- as it closed down its world premiere run at (what was) the Barksdale at Willow Lawn. I'll write more about that in the next day or so.

Style came out with its “Best Of 2012” issue, though good luck discovering a copy at a local newsstand (I hear there are some out there but haven’t yet seen proof). Among the theater-related entries are: Best Local Actor, Best Local Actress, Best Local Comedy Group, and Best Local Theatre Company. A couple of “wild cards” I threw in were Actress Most Likely to Suffer Psychological Whiplash (there were a few options for this one) and Best Under the Radar Theatre Company.

Of course the big discovery -- the big unveiling really -- was the introduction of Virginia Repertory to the world. It was a move that had been rumored to be happening for years and Mr. Miller actually had a chat with a group of critics in town more than a year ago where he laid out the rough plans for this move. As such, my excitement about the reality of it was somewhat muted until I happened to drive by the November Theatre yesterday and saw the new marquee. There is something about seeing the name big and bold that really makes an impact.

Of course, my excitement also comes with some melancholy. Theatre IV, in particular, is a name woven into the fabric of many of my memories. I met some of my first friends in Richmond working a Theatre IV show. I met my wife during one of their productions and one of my sons and both of my daughters have spent time working on Theatre IV shows. It’ll be a while before Virginia Rep rolls off my tongue as easily as Theatre IV or Barksdale did. But, unlike a huge swath of Richmonders, I’m not a stasis-obsessive – I like change. And this is a big, bold change that bodes well for the future of local theater, I think. So welcome, VA Rep! I can’t wait to see what fun you have in store for all of us.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Awakening Indeed

Given the generally sparkling reviews for “Dessa Rose,” I was wondering whether folks would rise up in indignation after my not-always-positive ramblings about the musical a couple of days ago. In case anyone is holding back, I’m more than open to well-reasoned or at least articulate rebuttals to the things I said about the show. If I’ve missed points other people got, I’d love to be enlightened.

Kind of suddenly – or at least suddenly for me since I’ve been kind of out of the loop for a few weeks – spring is full of music in Richmond. At the beginning of 2012, we had “Patsy Cline” and hardly anything else musical-wise (“Stinky Cheese” notwithstanding). But now, “Church Basement Ladies” is still hanging on and three musicals opened over the course of the past 3 weeks. And Facebook is already rumbling about the beginning of rehearsals for “Spring Awakening” and talk of “Rocky Horror” is starting. And there’s this little thing SPARC is doing called “Live Art” – OK, I jest; it’s going to be huge – that’ll have its day in the sun in a couple of weeks. Tunes are flowing freely now from our stages – it’s a good time to see, and listen to, a show.

A few weeks ago, the eloquent John Porter talked about themes running through local productions. Personally, I’ve been noticing an interesting willingness so far this year for local companies to jump into the race discussion. This will move to a new level with Henley Street’s “Yellowman,” opening next week, but we’ve already had the subject put out there for consideration in “You Don’t Know Me,” “Scorched Earth,” “Dessa Rose,” and maybe even a little bit in “Topdog/Underdog.” I find this very intriguing. It’s been my thinking for years that Richmond could be a particularly potent location to bring the American conversation about race to new places. We have a diverse community in here – there are significant African-American, Latino, and Asian-American enclaves – but, in my own probably very limited view, there isn’t a whole lot of intermingling between these populations. Any time race is brought to the fore, certainly the potential for conflict and a rise in tension is possible. But particularly when art is the medium, I think the potential for insight and even revelation is great.

I’ll look forward to hearing what people say about “Yellowman.” And maybe, someday, I’ll be reading something in some national publication about the boldness of a Richmond artistic community willing to plumb the depths of Richmond’s tortured legacy when it comes to race.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


(Note: after writing this blog post, I realized that I expose MANY plot points of “Dessa Rose.” So please take this as a big fat SPOILER ALERT and don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens in the show.)

The production of “Dessa Rose” at the Firehouse has received many accolades and I’m glad for that. The show has clearly moved several of my critical compatriots in town and they have responded with hearty endorsements. Which is great: producing the show was a bold move and the Firehouse deserves as much audience as it can get for it.

I certainly was impressed by the production. Just walking into the theater, with the surprisingly deep stage populated with finely costumed actors and infused with atmospheric stage fog, was a transformative experience. The technical elements were stunning. I didn’t have space in my Style review to do justice to the fine work by Rebecca Cairns and Ann Hoskins, whose costumes firmly places the characters in the antebellum south, or to the moody, nuanced lighting design of Robert Perry. 

But it wasn’t long after the show started that my enchantment dimmed. The generation shifting narration that forces both Desiree Roots as Dessa and Stacey Cabaj as Ruth to switch back and forth between youth and age is simply cumbersome. Also, for me, the narration seemed to echo the “why we tell the story” format of “Once on this Island” but in a clunkier and more pedantic way. Perhaps it was unfair to open my review by comparing “Dessa” to other Ahrens-Flaherty shows – why would the average theater-goer care, right?

Well, for this theater-goer, part of my eager anticipation for this show was the result of my adoration of their previous work and I couldn’t help but hear those echoes and find them wanting in comparison. The narration also highlighted a “…this happened and then this happened…” kind of feel to the episodic first act, complete with a complicating extended flashback. Part of the reason I enjoyed the second act so much more is that the focus was more on the relationships of the characters, the wonderfully unexpected dynamic of a plantation owner taking in runaway slaves almost inadvertently and her feeling their derision and having them teach her important lessons about life. These were quietly surprising and engaging scenes. They still had little hiccups – as incredible a performer as Durron Tyre is, in Ahren’s story his noble Nathan strays dangerously close to one of those magical Negro stereotypes – but they affected me more then all of the escapes and pregnancy-related melodramatics of the first act. 

Throughout the show, I kept waiting for that moment where I would really care for these characters, feel their pain, experience the transformations they were going through. Musicals are generally great at engendering this kind of response because the music operates on a different level than just the words, soaring melodies or bold phrases giving the plot gyrations a big psychic push. But as well delivered as the songs were by an excellent orchestra led by Leilani Giles and the cast of exceptional voices, they struggled to resonate with me and, apparently with the rest of the audience in the theater with me that night. Most songs came and went without applause, perhaps in part because of the flow of the show but more likely, I think, because people’s emotional buttons weren’t being pushed. “In the Bend of My Arm” is a very lovely song and was the first time I really took notice of how the music was enhancing the story. Then when Katrinah Carol Lewis ripped into “White Milk and Red Blood” my heart finally raced like I had been hoping it would, in part because of Lewis’s skill and in part because I think the song really connected.

Another thing I found discomfiting was what I considered a weirdly shifting moral and emotional compass in the story. Usually I am more than happy to be discomfited in the theater; some shows that pushed me out of my comfort zone are among my favorites (“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” comes to mind most readily). The practice of slavery was savagely and horribly wrong; there is no question about that. But Dessa’s owner’s killing of Kaine (a fabulous performance by Keydron Dunn that I also didn’t get a chance to lavish praise on) seems so arbitrary and in contrast to later callous sentiments about “not killing perfectly good merchandise” in reference to Dessa’s unborn child. So all white people were brutal AND stupid, is that the message? When Dessa kills her potential rapist, I understand that we’re supposed to be OK with that. She is being taken advantage of by someone who sees her as nothing but property to be exploited. But then when Ruth is nearly raped later in the show, the dynamic is so completely different, with Ruth clearly flirting and enjoying it and then the attacker being run off with pillows, well it’s almost comic. Are these incidents meant to be equivalent? Are the similarities to Dessa’s earlier scene supposed to highlight something? If Ruth had killed her attacker, would the audience be OK with that?

The two strains of interracial attraction also confused me. Nehemiah (an always impressive Nick Aliff) is clearly falling for Dessa who almost callously takes advantage of that attraction to escape. Again, we’re supposed to be OK with that because Dessa is our heroine and she was unfairly sentenced to die. But then the other “forbidden” attraction, between Nathan and Ruth, where Nathan is Ruth’s savior is a completely redemptive situation. So is the subtext that relationships between white men and black women were always fraught with unfair power dynamics while those between black men and white women weren’t? I guess I would have liked to see a little more frisson as a result of the Ruth/Nathan affair to show that interracial love was always problematic, no matter what the gender mix was.

Finally, for a show about the bitterness of slavery, some aspects of it came off without the impact that I would have expected. When Dessa is traveling with a bunch of other imprisoned slaves, they sing an uptempo song, surprisingly positive about their circumstance. The scheme that Nathan hatches that essentially involves repeatedly swindling buyers seems like it would be terrifying. The slaves would be sold over and over into unknown situations, somehow confident that they would be able to escape. It seems like a plan fraught with danger but only a sliver of that comes across in one of the most intense scenes of the show, where Dessa is almost exposed because of her branding. The effectiveness of that scene made me wish for a show that was just the second act allowing more of the scheme to play out for the audience.

While that seems like a list of complaints, I found plenty to like about this show. As I mentioned in my review, I generally appreciated Richard Parison’s direction and he cast some exceptional performers. Among those who haven’t received enough recognition are Todd Patterson as Harker who makes a fine compliment to Tyre’s Nathan and Fran Coleman whose strong soprano voice I hope will be heard on more Richmond stages in the future. The most telling emotional point where Ruth realizes that she doesn’t know Dorcus’s real name is well dramatized, a high point for both Cabaj and Lewis. I also applaud a show that doesn’t shy away from the reality of breast-feeding and the underplayed importance of Ruth taking over that function for Dessa. I ended my review on a positive note because of good things like these.

As part of my reviewing process, I generally refrain from reading other reviews until I’m done writing mine. After I’m finished, though, I’m often ravenous for the opinions of others. Richmond reviewers have been positive about “Dessa Rose” but those reviewing the New York production were more mixed, with the word “dour” appearing in both the NYTimes review and the TheatreMania review. While I used that word comparing “Dessa” to “Seussical,” I don’t think that’s the final impression left by the Richmond production. It’s an ultimately triumphant experience, but I do think the road to that ending is a bumpy one.