Thursday, July 20, 2017

Elaine Page comes to Richmond

I apologize up front for my naked attempt at clickbait. Ms. Page IS coming to THE Richmond, not to Richmond, Virginia.  
But it’s hard when you scroll past a headline that includes “Elaine Paige” and “Richmond Theatre” not to do a double-take. So I just shared that experience with all (both) of you. 
If your interest is piqued, the lovely Richmond Theatre outside of London has a glorious glossy brochure with some amazing acts planned for the upcoming season. Anyone interested in a road trip?

In addition to diva-related double-takes, I’ve subjected myself to a lot of talk about casting out on the internets. Stephen Sondheim came out in hearty support of mixing things up gender-wise. Good on you, Mr. Sondheim, for pushing the narrative about theater being a living, breathing art form. 

More intriguing: a Richmond outlet I’d never heard of called The Legacy Newspaper did a lengthy piece about “color conscious” casting (page 10-11 in the online version). It’s a good piece but I’m a little perplexed that no local voices were included. Particularly given the big picture featured from “In The Heights” – not the current Richmond production – this just seems odd.

Hey, and the Artsies were officially announced! More on that in the days/weeks to come!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody and Will

I didn’t see either “Da” or “Musical of Musicals, the Musical” this past weekend. After 3 shows in quick succession, I needed a little break. But, so far, both the comic drama and the comic musical have been generally well-received so far.  

I did see that “Da” is dedicated to the late Woody Eney, which it still surprises me to realize that he’s gone. If you haven’t heard of him, Woody had a long list of relatively minor parts in many TV shows and movies. There isn’t much evidence of his career on YouTube; unfortunately, all I could find was a pretty ridiculous set of scenes from “Greatest American Hero” and an awful recorded-from-TV episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.” In the former, Eney plays the bad guy; in the latter, he’s an even worse guy.

But I’ll always remember him from his lighthearted turn in “Golf with Alan Shepard” at the Barksdale some 18 years ago. Woody settled into a nice career as a playwright here in Richmond and several of his plays were produced around town, most recently (I think), “40 Acres and a POW.”

It’s weird what you find when you start Googling someone. Apparently, there is a resume of Woody’s from 1974 that you can buy online, if you are so inclined. The most recent news I could find on him was this touching tidbit about a video greeting Woody received from Henry Winkler just last year.

In my memory, Woody was a member of the Barksdale old-timers, like Pete Kilgore and Muriel McAuley. Even the most crotchety of them was lovingly regarded in Richmond. (Pete was so acclaimed he got a house resolution passed in his honor.) These folks were true groundbreakers.

So, if you go see “Da” or “Musical of Musicals,” as you settle into a comfy seat in a lovely historic old building, you might give a thought to the great ones who worked so hard to create the local theater scene. We have them to thank for building the foundation.

On another note, people can’t seem to stop mining the Shakespeare legend for modern TV and movies. Tonight, “Will” debuts on TNT and the movie “Lady Macbeth” just opened in selected markets. What do you all think: will productions like these increase interest in live theater productions, or have no effect? Hmmm. It’d be nice if TV or movie producers would do some local promotional tie-ins. Somehow, I don’t expect Quill got a call from TNT or Roadside Attractions. Boo.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Practice, People, or Perspective?

Often, all the critics in town will love a show. Sometimes, opinions will be mixed. Seldom is condemnation unanimous.

I’ve been somewhat bewildered that critical opinion of the latest Quill production, Macbeth, has seemed universally negative. Quill hits more often than it misses so I couldn’t believe that they’d put on a total mess. I had to see for myself.
I went to last night’s show and I had a fine time. I can see some of the deficits in the production and it would be hard to match the dynamism of Jan Powell’s Macbeth five years ago. But still, I’ve seen Macbeth more times than any other Shakespearean drama and I’ve seen much worse than the current offering directed by Jemma Alix Levy. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise but it’s still praise.

So why was my experience so different than the critics’ in town? I have some thoughts.

n  Practice. The reviews generally described the fight scenes as tentative. That was not the case during the performance I saw. It seems perhaps the fighters in question spent at least some of the time during their off days practicing their fight choreography, or maybe the actual steps got pumped up a bit. Last night, Alex Burtness as Macbeth and Jeff Coles as Macduff went at it with a determined vigor, generating a great number of clanging sword sounds and convincing “oofs” and “ughs.” Their big fight scene actually got an ovation. Which brings up…

n  The People. The crowd last night was a bit odd – 20 priests were in attendance; honest! I was there as their programs were counted out. There was also a strong contingent in the front section that was very engaged – booing softly at Lady Macbeth or Macbeth himself later in the play, laughing at even the smallest jests, and even emitting emphatic “mm”s in response to some of the more dramatic lines. It’s hard to know if the cast responded specifically to that energy but it certainly contributed to that magic sense of communal enjoyment of an experience.

n  Perspective. Macbeth is an amazing and odd play: The supernatural elements, the brutality, the constant gendering of the action (here’s an interesting, possibly controversial article that talks about gender and Lady Macbeth and ultimately connects the dots to Hillary Clinton of all people!) The critics gave some pretty specific reasons why they didn’t like this production and I’ll agree with some of them in a minute. But it’s a pretty straightforward, uncluttered rendering and I appreciate that. The benefit of keeping things simple is that the two most powerful scenes – Macbeth sees a vision of Banquo at a dinner party and Macduff finds out the truth about his family – stand out in stark relief. In the former, Macbeth’s horror and confusion is palpable and ably mirrored in the dinner guests’ reactions. In the latter, Macduff’s naked grief is overwhelming and cuts through the decorum and formal language of the play with laser-sharp emotion. If other scenes were more intense, I don’t know that those two would land with such power.

Having said that, I had my issues with the production as well. I’ll echo others and say that I’ve seen some amazing things done with the weird sisters scenes and the approach here was just OK. I’ll also have to agree with my friend Mr. Porter and suggest that Rebecca Turner is a bit underwhelming as Lady Macbeth. It’s hard to compete with the echoes of Zoe Speas from Powell’s production and, while I did like some of Turner’s choices, the role is an epic one and it requires a pretty epic rendering.

In general, the supporting cast was fine but could have used the bolstering that actors like Bob Jones or Alexander Sapp have brought to supporting roles in previous Quill productions. Jeff Clevenger is always good but his comic chops might have been well used as the night watchman. One small issue is that Mr. Clevenger is brought on as a not-overly-costumed old man not too long after Duncan is killed and I wonder if some audience members get confused about the character change.

Mr. Burtness is a powerful Macbeth, though, and his transition from humble hero to reluctant murderer to full-blown treacherous paranoid is strongly realized. Cole is a noble Macduff and Thomas Hockey is a winning Banquo. The realization of the weird sisters’ predictions in the second act is underscored in a crystal clear way that I think makes the production work well for Bard novices.

So if you have read the reviews and are on the fence about Macbeth, I’d suggest you hop off the fence and give it a shot. The 20 priests sure seemed to enjoy it; you probably will too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Did you see the video of the on-stage proposal to Alana Thomas during the "In the Heights" curtain call last weekend? It’s just about the most adorable thing ever. Congrats to Ms. Thomas and her fiancĂ©; may they have many decades of happiness together! (And thanks Rich for the head's up on this.)

In contrast to a young couple making big plans for the future, I’m just trying to make plans for the this weekend and beyond. The arrival of the Modlin Center 2017-18 season catalogue has forced the reservation of several nights in the future.

The one absolute must-see down the road is the appearance by Lynn Nottage next February. Nottage is one of the most vital voices currently writing for the stage and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about her creative process.

Before that, the National Theatre Live series will kick off in September. There are several of these broadcasts that I’m interested in with the Angels in America doubleheader being at the top of the list.

For this weekend, a stop by Hardywood for a refreshing downpour of Purple Rain is a must. These "Cover to Cover" events are incredible and one of many great ideas from the Shofner/Roop team. As anyone who has been to one of these before knows, most of the big voices employed are local theater vets or mainstays. The Prince lineup is impressive throughout but I’d probably go just to hear Jessi Johnson let loose on some his majesty’s classics. 

The Heathers continue to be mean girls and selling out the performances I can get to. What can you expect from a show that’s literally killing it? Between Heathers, Macbeth, Toxic Avenger and Game of Thrones restarting this weekend, the blood is running like a river this summer. What could be making us look toward so many artistic expressions of violence? Could it be feelings of frustration and powerlessness amidst big-picture calamities we can’t control? Hm. I’m thinking both Prince and the “In the Heights” lovebirds might be pointing us toward better coping mechanisms.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Weakness

I used to get some ribbing from friends and colleagues whenever I’d recognize the talents of an attractive young woman in a review. “Of course you singled her out,” the good-natured banter would go, “because she’s pretty.”

Well, maybe. I can admit some bias, one that is not uncommon: “conventionally attractive” people draw my attention. But if they aren’t talented, they don’t hold my attention. And there are dozens of “unconventionally attractive” people that I find fascinating.

There are other reasons to single out actresses, besides being male and tilting heavily toward the hetero on the Kinsey scale. Even in our increasingly egalitarian world, there remains many more women chasing a lot fewer parts written just for them. I would argue that, just based on statistics, the average female actor that actually gets a part is intrinsically more talented than the average male actor (that is, has trained more broadly or longer, has had to audition more often, has had to overcome rejection more frequently, etc.). 

Applying statistical reasoning to artistic expression may be inherently specious and generalizing over an entire art form is dangerously business. Still, it’s reductive to think that just because someone is “pretty” a critic is going to automatically notice them more. It impugns the critic, for sure, but also undermines the talent of the pretty person and the integrity of the director who chose that actor as part of their artistic vision. 

That’s a lengthy and over-serious intro to my thoughts on a delightfully silly production, 5th Wall’s “The Toxic Avenger.” And I lead with it because I am indeed going to single out a lovely young woman for her exceptional performance in this show. And while certainly easy on the eyes, what sets her apart is her disarming comedic talents, her sporting willingness to be randy and ribald, and her phenomenal voice that shines even amidst a cast overflowing with vocal power. 

Of course, the beautiful actress I’m singling out is true Richmond treasure Debra Wagoner. I have a great deal of respect for this extremely talented singer and repeatedly acclaimed actress when I think of her reviewing this script, seeing that she’d be singing a song called “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” and thinking, “yeah, I wanna do that!” 

This production does more with 5 actors than some big fat productions do with 20. It helps that, in addition to Ms. Wagoner, the cast is busting with talent. The fact that Wagoner’s opera-level singing chops are not even the strongest here (I’d have to give that title to William Anderson) is both amazing and indicative of director Keith Fitzgerald’s ability to attract some serious people to a wonderfully frivolous show. 

As I’m thankfully free of having to provide a plot synopsis or anything else a traditional review would include, here are some random thoughts:

n  The other woman. I had never seen Rachel Rose Gilmour on stage before. Wow. Another skilled comedian with a killer voice. How does Richmond continually end up spoiled with new and surprising superstars? 

n  Argggg!!! I singled out a tech superstar in “It Shoulda Been You.” For “Avenger,” the standout is sound designer/sound board operator Joey Luck. He even gets his own personal joke in the show. Less obvious than the reverb effects are the sound balance he gets on the band. Musical director Starlet Knight and her awesome crew are rambunctious as hell but they never overwhelm the singers. In such a small space as The Basement, this is an amazing feat. 

n  Feet feats. In several numbers, Emily Dandridge’s choreography is the comedy. A choreographer’s challenge in a comedy is underestimated (IMHO) because, while most jokes are scripted, funny dance moves usually aren’t. Ms. Dandridge clearly has some sharp comic chops of her own. 

n  The boys. Alexander Sapp managing to be alternately nerdy and hunky requires a skillset I’m not sure I even know how to explicate. And for a couple guys tossed off in the cast list as “The Black Dude” and “The White Dude,” William Anderson and Chris Hester are the steel fiber that holds this rollicking affair together. They essentially play the whole town of Tromaville and the characterizations they provide are delightful. 

n  One liners. So many wonderful ones in this show. Wagoner’s tossed off line about “indeterminate accents” was the quick, small moment that had me LOLing. 

n  Clean up on Stage 1. This show succeeds because it is built to be messy and continually makes fun of itself. There were a few moments that were not crisp or well-defined in this production. Luckily, that was all part of the charm. 

n  The only true problem. Starley Knight’s band is not identified in the program, Ms. Knight doesn’t get a bio, and there is no song list. Really? 

I haven’t seen a show this summer yet that is anything less than stellar. I have some misgivings about the rumblings I hear about “Macbeth” but I love going to Agecroft and am approaching it with an open mind. If nothing else, maybe the witches are cute…

Friday, July 07, 2017

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

You can read what the critics said about RTP’s “It Shoulda Been You;” they were all appropriately enthusiastic about what an amazing production it is.

I finally saw it last night and was similarly blown away. I did all of the things: laugh, cry, etc. As with many productions, I wish I had seen it earlier in the run so I could have seen it twice. It is indeed that good.

I’m not going to give a full review – to do this production and the incredible cast justice would require too many words. I will offer a few random observations, though:

n  The big surprise. I’m not going to ruin the show for anyone even though by the time anyone reads this the show will only have a couple of performances left. I was delighted by the reveal and it was pulled off smartly. I’m not meaning to throw any cold water on its effectiveness to point out that it replicates a surprise included in an RTP show produced not too long ago. Will there eventually be enough of these kinds of shows to build a weekend theater festival around?

n  Oy the goys. Here’s a topic for discussion: does it matter if a cast full of characters who are explicitly Jewish is made up of actors who mostly are not? Is this different than “In the Heights” where ethnicity is explicit? The show was using a lot of culturally Jewish tropes; is knowledge of those tropes – and a passing ability to do a New York Jewish accent – enough? The privilege of being welcomed into a Jewish family more than 25 years ago makes me a little sensitive about this one. Having said that, I only cringed a couple of times and, overall, didn’t really give it a second thought.

n  The lighting. The technical elements of the show were fabulous, with particularly impressive costumes by Tyler Carlton Williams. But man, that lighting! Sometimes, a great lighting design will be like the sumptuous sweet frosting on a yummy cupcake and that was certainly the case here. Michael Jarett bathed the walls in pink at times, had some fun functional elements with lights coming off and on alternately, and best of all, framed Grey Garrett’s lovely face at the finale of “A Little Bit Less Than” in the most exquisite way. In a show so strong technically, Mr. Jarrett pushed it up an extra notch.

n  All for one, one for all. This cast was the very epitome of an ensemble, each performer supporting the other to create a fine and balanced production. But having said that, there were some amazing singular moments: Jessi Johnson and Durron Tyre just destroying “Love You Till the Day,” Susan Sanford’s imperial “Where Did I Go Wrong?” and just about everything that came out of Kirk Morton’s mouth. I could go on but really, the whole thing rocked. 

n  And if that wasn’t enough. Last night, Louise Ricks was not able to do her role as Aunt Sheila/Albert’s Minion. So Nancy Collie stepped in pretty much at the last minute (from what I hear) and did a phenomenal job. Having only glanced at the cast list before the show, it didn’t dawn on me until someone pointed it out today that Collie was not in the original cast. She fit in seamlessly and, together with fellow multi-role player John Mincks, added some delightful grace notes to an already resoundingly funny show.

Having seen “In the Heights” on opening weekend, I’ve now seen two of the summer’s blockbuster hits. I’ve got to hustle to see “Heathers,” “MacBeth,” and “The Toxic Avenger” before it’s too late. Remember when summertime was sleepy time for theater? Thank goodness those days are gone!

Thursday, July 06, 2017

I missed it

Specifically, I missed the "Hamilton" performance at Dogwood Dell this past weekend. Everything I heard about the event was positive, effusive, glowing with effervescent praise. The cast of performers was top-notch and I've been a fan of Mr. Trinh since his early days with the Mills Family Band. Happening just a stone's throw from the first local staging Lin-Manuel Miranda's first monster triumph, "In The Heights," I'm sure the evening was epic.

And I was out of town. Based on what people have said, the Dogwood Dell performance was not unlike the concert production of "Ragtime" that I was lucky enough to see many years ago. It seems I missed the latest possibility for that kind of transformative experience. Damn.

But the potential silver lining for me is that seeing the glowing Facebook posts about "Hamilton" gave me the same kind of antsy feeling that finally pushed me to start a blog more than 11 years ago. Even when I wasn't seeing theater then, I was thinking about it and I wanted to talk about it. This blog started many online conversations, many of which were then continued IRL (as the kids text). The whole experience deepened my appreciation of the people involved in the Richmond arts scene, even when I wasn't seeing every production or performance.

I have missed writing these random missives about local theater. I'm not a critic anymore; I hung up my poison pen last December. But I still have opinions and I still occasionally see a show here and there. In fact, I'm planning on stepping up the theater viewing again as the summer heats up. There's just too much good stuff going on to stay away.

So if you liked or were vaguely entertained or maybe even modestly enlightened by some of the stuff I posted here oh so many years ago, tune back in and I'll try to provide a forum filled with better-than-mediocre conversation about live theater, art, culture, and maybe some gossip about stars of the local scene. Sure, since I suspended activity on the blog 4 years ago a bunch of other forums have sprung up for online chatter. But I'm hoping there's still some value in a good old fashioned blog. Please feel free to tell me if you disagree.