Review: Evil Dead: The Musical

By Larry Laneer
October 22, 2019

Some theatergoers may think taking Sam Raimi’s cult films of the 1980s and basing a stage show titled Evil Dead: The Musical on them sounds like a terrible idea. But not so fast. Take a look at Pollard Theatre Company’s current production of the musical and see what a feat of theatrical transmogrification it is.

This show may sound familiar. PTC did Evil Dead: The Musical in 2014. The company has said they revived the show because of “audience demand.” That seems odd at once, because it had played for a week by the time I saw it, and at the reviewed performance, the theater was barely half full. But that’s not the only odd thing about this show.

Rodgers and Hammerstein created their catalog of musicals with just the two of them. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Hamilton all by himself. But Evil Dead: The Musical took the committee of George Reinblatt, Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, and Rob Daleman to birth it.

First, their pop/rock score is an unusual achievement. I would give you the titles of some of the songs, but PTC has saved me the trouble by not printing them in the program. Anyway, these composer-lyricists have written an entire show of songs that you will have forgotten by the time you get to your car. Or maybe seconds after they come out of the actors’ mouths. But the songs don’t matter much, because the cast in this production has a clever way of disguising the lyrics, so you can’t understand most of them.

Next, the show relieves audiences of a logical plot, cogent dialog, and thought-provoking ideas. Lines such as “What the fuck?” and “The trees are alive!” are clear, to the point, and delivered forcefully by the cast. A reference to the actor Henry Winkler causes the cast to give the double thumbs-up sign and exclaim “Aaaaaay!” And you thought Shakespeare was a great playwright.

The cast includes some of our leading actors. Wil Rogers, Megan Montgomery, and Jon-Philip Olson return from the 2014 production. Kristin Küns, Ian Cummings, Laura Renfro, and Kaleb Bruza are new to this revival.

The director Jared Blount must have coached the actors to give intentionally “bad” performances. And they nail it. The inferior acting fits the clichéd characters: the obnoxious jerk, the ditzy blonde, the bookish nerd, the country bumpkin. We’ve all seen most of these actors several times and know they are capable of giving “good” performances.

The show is inspired by gore cinema, but Blount limits the sanguinity mainly to some thin streams of stage blood sprayed on the first row of the audience. Granted, this show is bloodier than your average musical. Some directors might stage this play as a Grand Guignol. If this production were done that way, however, PTC stagehands would mop up the stage blood and dump it into the Guthrie sewer system, and it would eventually end up in the aquifer. Thus, a show that could be blood red is actually “green.”

Heidi Hoffer’s set design has been reincarnated from the 2014 production. Let’s just say strange things happen with the set. Objects move mysteriously by themselves.

The production employs the recorded voice of the great actor and long-time PTC company member James Ong. This is eerie in itself. Ong died in 2018. But it’s wonderful to hear his distinctive voice again.

So, theatergoers, let’s not dismiss Evil Dead: The Musical out of hand. You may never again see anything quite like it.

Evil Dead: The Musical by George Reinblatt, Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, and Rob Daleman
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through November 2,
8:00 p.m. Thursday, October 31
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison, Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

Review: Hello, Dolly!

Cast of Hello, Dolly!                                                                         Photo by Julieta Cervantes

By Larry Laneer
October 16, 2019

Theatergoers may wonder if the classic musical Hello, Dolly! is relevant in today’s strident times. Is it anything more than two-and-a-half hours of escapism? Probably not, but if you’re looking for a respite from wars and investigations, you could do worse than this show.

With music and lyrics by the legendary Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, Hello, Dolly! represents an ideal example of the mid-20th-century book musical. It’s hard to believe, but this 1964 musical could be a new show to a couple of generations of theatergoers. That’s  reason enough for OKC Broadway to present it now at the Thelma Gaylord.

This is the touring version of the 2017 Broadway revival, which starred Bette Midler in the title role until she was replaced by Bernadette Peters. It’s easy to see how director Jerry Zaks has staged the show to feature Dolly even more than usual. Alas, no Midler or Peters here, but we do have Carolee Carmello as Dolly Gallagher Levi in an affecting, sincere performance that ranges from poignant to sassy. In addition to a fine singing voice, Carmello has the chops for comic acting required for the role. The audience gave her entrance applause on opening night, and she lived up to expectations.

 The cast in this production consistently sings Herman’s tuneful and lyrical songs with nearly perfect clarity. John Bolton as Horace Vandergelder gets the curmudgeonly part down, but you feel his Vandergelder is an old softie at heart. Bolton does “Penny in My Pocket” in front of the curtain to open the second act, and the song has a certain sweetness. It’s Herman’s version of a patter song.

Daniel Beeman as Cornelius Hackl has a beautiful singing voice, as does his female counterpart, Analisa Leaming as Irene Molloy. Sean Burns (as Barnaby) and Chelsea Cree Groen (Minnie Fay) give equally fine performances.

It’s easy to forget that Hello, Dolly! with one of the great scores in musical theater is also a dancing show. Warren Carlyle’s choreography looks up-to-date while being faithful to both the show’s 1885 setting and its mid-20th-century nascence. The dancers execute the choreography with expert precision. Carylye’s dances range from feathery (“Before The Parade Passes By”) to acrobatic (“The Waiters’ Gallop” stopped the show on opening night).

Santo Loquasto designed both scenery and costumes. The scenic design’s backdrops have the rich look of late-19th-century postcards and match his tasteful period costumes. The neon costumes of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” seem to come from way beyond Yonkers, New York, where the show is partly set, but don’t ask me where.

The songs and dance wouldn’t come off right without a solid pit orchestra, and this production features a band of close to 20 musicians with string, reed, and brass sections. This is a good size orchestra for a touring show.

In this production, you have a quality performance of a worthy musical. The show may not send you trippingly out of the theater, but you should feel entertained.

Hello, Dolly! by Jerry Herman (music/lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Sunday, through October 20
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300

Review: The Tempest

W. Jerome Stevenson in The Tempest                                      Photo by Kathryn McGill

By Larry Laneer
October 14, 2019

Oklahoma Shakespeare is presenting The Tempest in a production that makes you feel you should root for it but lacks much that’s likeable. If I hadn’t seen this play done before with more appeal, I would have thought the fault lies with Shakespeare himself.

Granted, director Tyler Woods has taken a slightly unconventional approach to the play, and goodness knows theatergoers like shows that take risks. But this production never gels into a clear, cohesive whole. It is difficult to keep up with the storyline and who some of the characters are and their relationships with each other.

In a nod to western expansion by Europeans in the 17th century, Woods includes elements from the West Indies and Irish isles, which explains why Ariel is a voodoo princess and Caliban speaks with an Irish brogue. You may not understand the presence of these affectations watching the play, which was first performed in 1611. I wouldn’t have. They are discussed in a helpful dramaturg’s note by Hailey Stephan in the program. Stephan also provides an informative video display and binder of dramaturg’s notes in the lobby.

The production features some notable acting—or overacting. None other than W. Jerome Stevenson is a commanding Prospero, who rules his enchanted isle with a magical staff Moses would envy. Miranda Summar (as Prospero’s daughter, also named Miranda) and Nick Hone (Ferdinand) make a sweet couple. In a mohawk with devil’s horns growing out of his head, Tom Orr amps up Caliban until you think he’s about to pop. Playing the part as a wild-eyed voodoo princess, Mariah Warren will be the scariest Ariel you may see for a while. The West Indies accent Warren speaks in (“de” for “the,” “dem” for “them,” and so on) muddles too much of her dialog. It isn’t clear why Woods has cast females in some male roles.

As with recent Oklahoma Shakespeare productions at the Paseo venue, this one looks sharp. If the actors want to chew some scenery, Ryan Fischer’s scenic design provides a smorgasbord of more fully realized detail than you usually see in Elizabethan-style theater. Emily Herrera has designed appealing, if conventional, 17th-century-style costumes, although they aren’t much help in differentiating the Neapolitans from the Milanese.

In addition to playing Gonzalo (and guitar), Stephen Hilton composed music and designed sound for the show. He employs both recorded and live music, mainly contemporary sounding. The sound design contributes largely to two of the best scenes. Woods stages the opening scene of a ship in a storm (the “tempest”), including the vessel’s figurehead and sails, with an artistic simplicity that creates high expectations for the rest of the play. Later, Ariel scares some reprobates by conjuring dogs and hounds that send them into a frenzy. Sound and some hand-held red lights are spare and highly effective.

It takes quite a bit of effort on audience members’ parts to keep up with what is going on in this production. This need not be. Oklahoma Shakespeare has proven before it can stage clear, convincing shows at their Paseo space. A case in point is the company’s Twelfth Night earlier this year.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Oklahoma Shakespeare
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through October 26
Oklahoma Shakespeare on the Paseo
2920 Paseo
1-800-838-3006

Review: The Rocky Horror Show

Eric Ulloa as Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Show  Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
October 10, 2019

Lyric Theatre says it will put on a new production of the musical The Rocky Horror Show every three years. We now have the latest version at the Plaza Theatre, the company’s fifth staging of the show since 2008. The production provides an excellent opportunity for Lyric to rethink its plans. Rethinking plans is good.

This inane musical with book, music, and lyrics by Richard O’Brien achieved cult status in the last century through the 1975 film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Today, theatrical productions all over the country, including, unfortunately, Lyric, have adapted some conventions of the movie to the stage show. Someone comes out before the show and coaches the audience on the movie’s shout outs: yell “asshole” when you hear Brad’s name and “slut” when you hear Janet’s and other sanitized naughtiness. Lyric’s production seems to have slightly deemphasized that silliness now. That’s good, because these movie practices do not work with the stage show.

Because directors are dealing with inferior material in Rocky, they have trouble making it look fresh. They can make it look different. But fresh, not so much. And director J. Robert Moore (who played Frank ‘N’ Furter in Lyric’s 2016 production) does make the production look different, beginning with the red curtain across the Plaza stage. In a day when many shows eschew the curtain, it’s a welcome sight. Then, you have Frank ‘N’ Furter’s entrance, which will look familiar to theatergoers who are regulars at Lyric. I don’t think they’ve done the entrance this way before, but it’s surprising they haven’t. Oh, and Moore adds a snippet from Cats near the end, among other movie and theater references.

As Frank ‘N’ Furter, Eric Ulloa makes a tall, overbearing mad scientist in drag. Antonio Rodriguez’s Brad is more sweet than dorky (no problem with that), and Emily J. Pace as Janet is appropriately uptight.

In the second act, Janna Linae Schmid as Columbia does a frenetic solo in which she evokes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hillary Clinton, and Jimi Hendrix in the course of about four minutes. It’s the highlight of the show. Matthew Alvin Brown plays Dr. Scott as Dr. Strangelove. His costume reveal late in the show is a clever sight gag. It’s nice to see Brett Young (surprisingly, making his Lyric debut) doing an appropriately reserved Narrator. The buff Haulston Mann returns from the 2016 production as Rocky with a tan that looks spray-painted on. Elvie Ellis is fine as Riff Raff, as is Kat Metcalfe as Magenta.

The production underutilizes the excellent choreographer Hui Cha Poos. The show just doesn’t have that much choreography, although you will see a Poos kickline, something completely unexpected from her.

Armando Ortiz’s costumes are over the top, but Rocky can stand the highest level of garishness in costumes. Jon Young has designed a serviceable set. Twelve posters advertising real horror and sci-fi movies such as the show spoofs adorn the walls of the theater, including Queen of Outer Space (starring Zsa Zsa Gabor!) and the obscure The Day of the Triffids (with Howard Keel, who was in the original Oklahoma!).

If Lyric wants to present a new Rocky Horror every three years, that’s their business. But I wonder if this project has run its course. Five productions in 11 years is a lot of Rocky. If Lyric would like to do an old show in the same vein, how about a new look at Little Shop of Horrors in 2022 at the Plaza? It’s something to think about (and Little Shop is a much better show).

The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien (book, music, and lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. and 11:59 p.m Fridays-Saturdays,
5:00 p.m. Sundays, through November 2

Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
405-524-9312

Reflections on the Theatre Crude Fringe Festival

By Larry Laneer
October 7, 2019

When the couple Jenny Brand and Adam Brand moved to Oklahoma from Minneapolis three years ago, they came with fringe festival experience. They saw the need for a fringe festival in Oklahoma City and took it upon themselves to make one happen. Their fringe experience explains why the Theatre Crude Fringe Festival was so well run during the past two weeks.

We were long overdue for a fringe festival. Antecedents of fringe theater go back to 1947. The form really took off in North America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Theatre Crude Fringe Festival had a quality mixture of 10 different acts, both produced locally and from out of town. I saw eight of them. I don’t know of any theatrical production around here that ran as punctually as the Theatre Crude Fringe Festival. We were not forced to sit through droning curtain speeches and pre-show sales pitches to captive audiences. Performances started precisely on the curtain time. Some of the productions looked like they were done on a budget of $1.98, but that’s in the fringe tradition. For the performances, an event center on the first floor of the Old Surety Life Insurance Company building on North Lincoln Boulevard was transformed into a functional, comfortable black box theater.

I saw three productions the second week. The dystopian drama 3/4 Empty, written and performed by Justice von Maur and Jonathan Jarmon, recalled Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: a post-electric play. A catastrophe has happened. It may be a revolution or invasion. We never learned exactly what it was, but something caused a big societal upheaval. References were made to “the election,” an occupying force, torture, and someone who “used art as a tool and a weapon.”  I think the authors were suggesting a future under Trump or a Trump-like despot.

3/4 Empty was the most fully realized play of the festival. Von Maur and Jarmon wore identical dark blue coveralls, and the play took place in a wooden frame supported by four posts. As the play opened, papers and other debris littered the stage floor. This could be an early draft of a longer work by von Maur and Jarmon.

In an act called Jamie Campbell: Professional Idiot, the eponymous Jamie Campbell did 55 minutes of stand-up comedy, barely stopping to take a breath. He gave a game performance before a small audience.

Surprisingly, the biggest disappointment of the festival was the enticingly titled The Ultra-Conservative Theatre Summit, a production of Next Stage. Rodney Brazil wrote the play, and it was directed by Holly McNatt. Producers were Brazil, Todd Clark, and Rebecca McCauley. The cast included Clark, McCauley, Tiffany Tuggle, and Kaleb Bruza. These are some of our top theatrical artists.

The play took shots at some easy targets favored or loathed by ultra-conservatives: gender fluidity and identity, removal of offending statues, corporate hegemony, and a vague scene involving a prison group therapy session. Not many of these attempts hit the bullseye. The play ended with the cast singing a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I couldn’t tell if the irony was intentional, but these ultra-conservatives were singing a song by a composer who was accused of being a Communist sympathizer.

The Brands and their crew of about 20 volunteers gave us a strong start to our very own fringe festival. They should be encouraged by theatergoers and performing artists to bring it back next year. Writers and performers who want to try edgier, more provocative material will have an excellent venue for it. Everyone should start preparing now.