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…

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