Thursday, July 26, 2012

Randy Raucous Ridiculous Rocky

There are few things I like more than being genuinely surprised by a live theater production. So I was particularly happy that the current production of “The Rocky Horror Show” at Firehouse Theatre packs quite a few genuine surprises. As a theatrical experience, the production is a bit of a mess – endearingly so – but it’s an undeniable good time and unlike anything else I’ve seen on stage in a while.

Surprisingly, an overabundance of sexual salaciousness is not one of the evening’s surprises. Oh, there’s plenty to get hot and bothered about but the most overt stuff – specifically, the from-behind ravaging of both Brad and Janet by Dr. Frank – is handled comically and with relative discretion. I guess after seeing masturbation and S&M-tinged sex played out somewhat explicitly a couple of times on the prim and proper November Stage in the past few weeks, some randy breast-grabs and comic humping don’t seem so shocking.

The most striking surprise to me about the production was the ferocious performance by Nick Aliff as Riff-Raff. When the character first came out on stage, I had no idea who the actor was, Aliff has so completely transformed himself. And even when he wasn’t front-n-center, Aliff made Riff-Raff full of tripwire energy, an edgy element of entropy in the midst of the already chaotic Castle.

Among the other “wow” moments offered by the production are some inspired costumes by Holly Sullivan, rousing choreography by Maggie Marlin, and a fabulous star turn by Terence Sullivan as Dr. Frank N. Furter. Sullivan’s costumes consist of some of the most striking and intricate leather and bondage-ware I’ve ever seen; though I’m hardly an expert, the costumes set the mood more effectively than any other production element. The ensemble numbers were some of my favorites because of Marlin’s choreography, energetically performed by director Jase Smith’s young and physically fit cast.

And Sullivan just owned the stage from the moment he made his entrance. His imposing physicality – amped up by 6 inch heels – made his presence overwhelming in all the right ways. There were times I didn’t know what exactly he was going for in terms of his accent, but his body language was as important as the words he was saying. There was no doubt that Dr. Frank dominated this dungeon and he did so in a winning and consistently engaging way.

I had some problems with the production. I had heard about some technical issues during opening night and one of the entrance doors to The Castle fell apart on the night I saw the show. The stage seemed cramped at different times, in stark contrast to the expansive and airy set the Firehouse constructed for their last production, “Dessa Rose.” I don’t think the female characters came across as strongly as I would have expected, even though they were played by some of my favorite actresses in town (Maggie Horan as Columbia, Joy Newsome as Magenta, etc.) Having said that, Aly Wepplo as Janet ravaging Chris Hester’s Rocky during “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” was definitely a highlight.

But my biggest problem with show has to do with the pretty ridiculous storyline which, while also being the source of a lot of the fun, just seems more thrown together and random than I remembered it. If you didn’t know the key role of Eddie (here played by Matt Beyer) from the movie or previous productions, I don’t know that you’d totally get it here. Maybe I’m just turning into an old fuddy-duddy, but a little bit of narrative cohesion even in a show as envelope-pushing as RHS would be nice. Smith seems to be trying valiantly to add some depth with the addition of new material like Horan’s quiet and sweet “Love you like a Record” but his efforts are largely for naught.

Which isn’t meant to dissuade anyone from seeing this show. The pleasures are many; in addition to what I’ve already listed, Leilani Giles has assembled a great band and their onstage accompaniment of Brad (Nick Shackleford) when he sings “Once in a While” is another highlight. Chris Hester makes a buff and perky Rocky; eye candy that can also sing really good.

Perhaps most of all, the show is a good time. While there is no audience participation allowed, there were plenty of raucous hoots, hollers, and catcalls flowing the night I attended. This is a show that engages the audience and you can’t help be caught up in the fun, whether it’s in hailing the dramatic entrance of Frank or hanging on as he teases you with “antici…..pation.” So throw on some leather and head on down to the Firehouse. Just leave your expectations for sense behind and open up to your affinity for buff bodies in bondage-ware. It’s really not that difficult.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

First Things First

I want to talk about “The Rocky Horror Show,” the fun, sometimes frenetic production I saw at the Firehouse on Saturday (review in the T-D last week). But first, there are a few other items I need to put out there.

First, since this is more of a journalistic thing versus a strictly theater-related thing, you might not have heard that Arts and Culture editor Don Harrison has left the staff of Style Weekly magazine. If you are a theater admin type, you probably know Don and you know that he has always been a supporter of live theater in Richmond. As the number of pages has continued to shrink in print media, Don gave the go-ahead on more stories and reviews that would show-up online only. He has always been open and amenable to the various and sundry theater-related pitches I’ve thrown his way over the years.

Personally, I’ll always be grateful to Don because he was the first Style editor who considered my reviews worthy of submission at the Virginia Press Awards, resulting in a 3rd place in critical writing in 2010 and a 2nd place last year. Professionally, I have ongoing respect for his fervor for holding city officials accountable for the management and development of CenterStage. If you are a city resident, or if you eat in restaurants in the city, you are paying for CenterStage and you should be more concerned with what’s happening with that money (I say that with the acute sense that I should be more concerned). Don can’t do all of the work, though apparently he is among the only people paying attention, as per this $250,000 a year “oops” he uncovered just recently.

If you want to continue to follow the things that Don is interested in, you can tune into his blog for the latest.

A week ago, I was lucky enough to catch “As You Wish: An (un)staged reading of ‘A Princess Bride’” down at Sycamore Rouge, and, if you missed it, well, you missed out on a treat. Putting the classic movie on stage diminished the fun visual moments inherent in the story but put the focus squarely on the fantastic dialogue throughout the script. And even if it was a reading, there were some standout performances, the trio responsible for kidnapping Buttercup being most prominent. Foster Solomon garnered the most laughs with his Fezzik the giant, Walter Schoen was a spot-on Vizzini and Jeff Cole a stalwart Inigo Montoya. An additional shout-out must be given to Stacie Rearden Hall who made the most of her “ancient booer” tirade: “Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence!”

I saw “Spring Awakening” for the second time last Thursday. As many shows as I see in a year, I don’t usually make a point to see a production twice (unless there’s a Timberline directly involved somehow…) But besides indulging my lovely wife in her ongoing SA fanaticism, I was curious to see what the difference might be between the opening night performance and a show later in the run. I think there were differences and though they might have been subtle, they were significant. I think the Sandy Dacus’s band rocked a little bit more; in particular, I heard more percussion on some songs than I remembered hearing on opening night. Also, I think rather than trying to take in the production as a whole, I spent more of the show zeroing in on specific aspects. I spent less time watching the video screen which made it on ongoing pleasure to turn my attention back to it and notice how the images enhanced the production. While transfixed by Ali Thibodeau on opening night, this time around I had trouble taking my eyes off Oliver Houser. Within a sometimes extreme and emotional production, he gave a stunningly naturalistic and honest performance.

Perhaps most of all, the stirring “Purple Summer” at the show’s end grabbed a great deal more than on opening night. I felt the intense emotion of that song like I hadn’t before and it made the whole night a bit more cathartic.

The night I saw the show, the orchestra was nearly full and the overwhelming majority of folks in the audience were older folks (i.e., like me). But unlike opening night, I didn’t notice any major holes in the crowd when I came back for the second act, signifying a lack of major walk-outs during intermission. Maybe it took until the last week of the show, but it seems like people finally understood what they were in for with the show and didn’t turn away shocked or dismayed. So that’s a good thing.

As for that other possibly shocking musical making a splash this summer, stay tuned for my take on the Rocky Horror Show tomorrow. Oh, and, in case you happen to read this, I love getting your arts calendar email blasts but there’s no “Picture” in this show. Just FYI.

Friday, July 20, 2012


I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy two wonderful entertainment experiences this week: the (un)staged reading of “The Princess Bride” at Sycamore Rouge on Wednesday and a second viewing of “Spring Awakening” on Thursday. This morning, I’m sickened and saddened and just stunned in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting. I try to imagine what it would have been like if a gunman had invaded either of my previous nights’ experiences. But I don’t think there is any way to imagine the terror and confusion unless you were there.

Smarter and more eloquent people than me will pen insightful or stirring responses to this tragedy. Personally, I’m beyond any kind of comprehension right now. I remember my sense of thrill and anticipation at a midnight showing of the last “Harry Potter” movie last year. The thought of that excitement being turned completely on its head is heartbreaking and just despicable.

I’d like to talk about the Princess Bride reading and renew my thoughts on Spring Awakening sometime. But for now, I think some quiet mourning is all I can muster. Be safe everyone.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Of Wives, Brides, and Girls

I think some people aren’t going to like my review of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in this week’s Style because I start out talking about a production that happened many years ago. What relevance, you might wonder, does the old production have to a current audience?

That question rang in my head as I was writing the review and I considered other directions but in the end I thought the comparison was relevant. To me, “Merry Wives” is a great comedy to go a little crazy with. Falstaff is Shakespeare’s great comic gift and, as broad (both physically and dramatically) as he is, I think you can go pretty far toward the absurd around him without risking being just flat-out ridiculous. And even if you err on the side of ridiculous, the opportunity for fun can make the show a winner.

There is much to like about the current “Merry Wives” production, as I hope comes across in the review. The key triangle of Todd Schall-Vess as Falstaff, Melissa Johnston Price as Mistress Page and Cynde Liffick as Mistress Ford all do great work and I loved all of their scenes together. But a key to where the production could have gone lies in the performances of Evan Nasteff and Brooke Turner. Nasteff does everything short of salivate to make Dr. Caius the image of a hyper-egotistic Frechmen. On the other side of the emotional scale, Turner is like a lusty little sprite flittering about her scenes, occasionally singing her lines. The two of them were the flirty/furious yin/yang of the piece and the source of much of my enjoyment with this production.

There are a lot of great comic performers involved in this show – Thomas Cunningham, David Janosik, Stephen Ryan, etc. – and while they are nicely entertaining here, I’ve seen all of them do better work in other shows. It could be a problem of expectations: I guess I was hoping for a more furiously funny production. Still, there are plenty of laughs here and, after hearing mixed things about “Cymbeline,” I was happy that the show seems like a solid return to form for Richmond Shakespeare. I just hope they don’t shy away from pushing the envelope a little further in the future.

I’ll be trekking down to Petersburg for “As You Wish,” the staged reading of “The Princess Bridge” tonight. The show is a pay-what-you-will benefit for Sycamore Rouge and features quite an exceptional cast. It’s inconceivable that people would pass up the chance to see this show! They’re doing it again tomorrow night so you don’t have to.

I also just heard that the Indigo Girls are playing at Maymont next Thursday. This has nothing to do with theater really except that I used to be such an Indigo Girls geek that I bought their take on the music from “Jesus Christ Superstar” way back in the mid 1990s. Funny thing: all the proceeds from the sale of that CD went toward supporting gun control. Wow, those were some idealistic days!

Finally, just to follow up on my “Dark Knight” mention yesterday: apparently commenters on Rotten Tomatoes have gone so far as to make death threats against critics who have published negative reviews about the movie. Really? I can understand passion about art but that’s just crazy. I expect some people won’t love my “Merry Wives” review (and feel free to post any rebuttals or counter-criticism) but the level of crazy here in our little community isn’t as high as in the public at large. Or at least, so I hope.

Monday, July 16, 2012


So possibly the biggest selling movie of the summer – maybe even of all-time when all is said and done – will be opening in a few days. “The Dark Knight” currently sits at #4 in all-time domestic box office. Given the acclaim of that movie, plus the promise that it’s the last of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, there is a chance that “The Dark Knight Rises” will beat out “The Avengers” for the summer’s box office crown. (Of course, without the Heath Ledger effect, I’d say that chance is 60/40 versus guaranteed.)

I mention this because it means that movie theaters are going to be swamped this weekend. Beyond the Batman saga, “Spider-Man” is still selling, the kids have “Ice Age” and “Brave,” big boys have “Ted,” and little girls have “Katy Perry.” The Cineplex is awash in content.

So I’d recommend avoiding the crowds and checking out the parallel cavalcade of live theater in town. Specifically, SPARC is offering two new productions that sound very promising. SPARC’s summer musicals have always been spectacular – I know I’m biased but last year’s “Ragtime” had some truly breath-taking moments in it – and I expect “Chicago” will not disappoint. This summer, the Summer Stock program takes on a new challenge – the slamming-door comedy, “Noises Off.” Just like young energy can make old musicals seem fresh and alive again, youthful vigor can enervate the funny and farcical. There are several veteran actors in town that have slogged through a dozen or so such comedies in their careers; with SPARC, you’ll be seeing many performers discovering this genre for the first time. What they bring to it will be intriguing to watch.

I’m very interested in seeing Firehouse’s “Rocky Horror Show” because of the oft-repeated warnings being issued about the production pushing of the envelope. “Not your parents’ Rocky Horror” definitely peaks my interest since I’m probably one of the parents they’re talking about. With “Spring Awakening” already making patrons blush at VA Rep, I can’t wait to see more unabashed programming heating up this summer.

Both “Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music” and “Merry Wives of Windsor” received good reviews from the T-D in the past few days, Ms. Lewis even using the word “flawless” in reference to “Nice People.” With all of this good – and challenging and different and entertaining – theater around, the playhouses in town are the best places to stay cool this summer, not the movie houses.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Critical Departure

“Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music” opens out at the Tavern tonight. Who wants to take the over/under with me on the number of patrons who are confused because this is not a musical? It sure looks like it’s going to be a fun show though, based on the preview pictures. Who doesn’t love a set dominated by a pick-up truck?

That production is sponsored in part by Altria. As you may have heard, Altria recently sprang for the naming rights to the former Mosque Theatre for $10 million. I’m not sure whatall comes with naming rights but I hope some of that money goes to spiffing up the place. It’s an OK place to see a show I guess, but it also still has a 1960s feel to it in some ways, and I don’t mean in a good way.

One piece of news that may have slipped past some people this week: Susan Haubenstock and her lovely husband are leaving Richmond at the end of the summer, meaning Susie will no longer be writing theater reviews for the Times-Dispatch. Thanks to the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle, I’ve gotten to know Susie a bit and so her departure saddens me personally very much. She is a lovely, generous person who is also clear-headed, intelligent, and charming. Meeting her and finding her so easy and interesting to talk to was one of the main reasons I thought something like the RTCC could even happen. Getting to know her and Mike a little better was one of the best side-benefits for me that came from creating our little group.

But beyond my personal feelings, I am also very sorry her voice will be missing from local theater commentary. Susie’s knowledge of theater springs from an earnest love of the art form and it seems to me that her criticism always starts out from that place. In her 10 years here, she not only saw literally 100s of local productions but traveled regularly to Washington DC and New York to see shows there. Her perspective has been forged by many hours seeing both the best and worst ends of the theatrical spectrum. I always found her criticism to be concise and engaging, not too flowery or effervescent. She has always given the benefit of the doubt to local productions but has not shied away from sharper criticism when warranted. I don’t remember her ever being mean.

Susie and I haven’t always agreed on shows but some of my favorite conversations have been with her, debating the pros and cons of different productions. I have great respect for her insight and more than once I’ve read one of her reviews and thought, ‘she made that point better than I did.’ The declining number of column inches given to critical content in print media has constricted all of us reviewers. Susie always made the most out of the space she was given.

So long, Susie, I will miss you. And everyone else, be prepared for a new (if perhaps not unfamiliar) byline in the T-D’s reviews down the road a piece.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Midnight Blogging

After a week’s vacation (ahhhhh…), I am back in town and trying to organize both my wits and the scattered aspects of my life. I’m not having a whole lot of luck yet so the following is a pretty random collection of theater-related thoughts.

I had planned to attend the performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” this past Saturday but it was canceled because of the excessive heat. While I was disappointed, I’m glad the management made that decision because I don’t expect actors passing out from heat exhaustion would have enhanced the entertainment value of the play at all.

I came back for the Sunday performance, where unfortunately the audience numbered only a couple more than the cast. The skies threatened throughout the evening but they never opened up, making me think it would have been the perfect night for a performance of “The Tempest:” built-in celestial lighting design!

Richmond Shakespeare’s next season was listed on the “Merry Wives” program (spring show = “The Tempest”) and I was particularly excited to see “King John” listed. This is one of those Bard plays that doesn’t get produced very often so I’ll be looking forward to seeing it staged. It also seems to have a couple of particularly meaty roles; who could resist a character called simply “the Bastard?”

Because I can’t seem to leave this subject alone (and it doesn’t seem to be going away), I was intrigued by this Playbill ettiquette item on handling patrons who text during a performance. I also found it interesting that the second question concerns snoring, a more prevalent problem in my experience but one that doesn’t seem to result in the same kind of vehement reaction.

I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified to think of “Magic Mike: The Musical.”

The theater season doesn’t come to a screeching halt in the summer like it used to, but it does taper off a bit. If you are finding holes in your social calendar, you might consider taking in a show at ComedySportz improv. Beyond the regular “Hams” vs “Legends” go-rounds, they have been doing some interesting alternative programming lately. For instance, last Friday there was a Middle School league versus the Major League show (in the interest of full disclosure, I should say there was a Timberline on the Middle School team). The ‘young and cute’ versus ‘old and clever’ dynamic made for some unexpected highlights. As always, you never know what’s going to happen at an improv show.

And just to bring everything Full Circle (and hey, did you hear there’s a new theater company in town called Full Circle?), one of the highlights of “Merry Wives” was the performance of Brooke Turner as Mistress Quickly. Turner has trod the ComedySportz stage on numerous occasions and joins the ranks of other prominent Richmond thespians (Jeff Clevenger, Jennifer Frank, Chris Evans who has since moved to NYC, etc.) who have used improv to keep their talents honed. Pretty nice company to be in!