Review: Nunsense

Brenda Williams with Brooke Melton in Nunsense                            Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
April 22, 2021

Well, we have to start somewhere bringing back theater. Lyric Theatre decided to go with the 1985 crowd-pleaser Nunsense. This show will not burden you with thought-provoking ideas or an intricate musical score. But theatergoers can hardly blame Lyric for it. We’re just relearning to walk, theatrically speaking.

Directed by Ashley Wells at the Water Stage, this production may look incomplete to fanatics of Nunsense and its several sequels. The show has been trimmed to a not-always-so-brisk 90 minutes without intermission. But it’s not that Lyric is defacing a great work of art here. It’s not like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

With book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin, the show is rife with corny jokes, ribald dialog, and a score of jaunty showtunes of the last century variety with country and gospel inflections and even a few bars of opera. It has pop culture references galore (some updated from 1985). Try to resist tapping your toes to the penultimate “Holier Than Thou.” Can’t be done.

In case you need a refresher, the show concerns nuns of The Little Sisters of Hoboken who are putting on a show to raise funds for some clean-up work after an unfortunate incident at the convent.

Wells has assembled a fine cast of well-known and new triple threats. None other than Brenda Williams anchors the ensemble as the Mother Superior. Williams has long been one of our most treasured artists, a saint of the theater, if you will. Ashley J. Mandanas always gives top notch performances. Cheyanne Marie, Brook Melton, and Viviana A. Goodwin are new to me, but all have strong voices and solid acting chops.

Matthew Sipress did the choreography. But how do you create dances for nuns in traditional habits? All you can see are their feet. Sipress goes retro with moves that would look vintage in 1985, including one tap dancing number. Lighting designer Fabian J. Garcia does his own choreography illuminating the trees across the pond from Water Stage. Scenic designer Kimberly Powers has decorated the stage with props for Grease. Why Grease is explained early in the show.

It’s not a deal killer, but the big disappointment in this production is the recorded soundtrack that accompanies the show in lieu of a live band. Theatergoers can cut Lyric some slack on this matter for a while. Pit bands are expensive; Water Stage presents challenges, although I bet if money were no object, Lyric would figure out a way to have musicians here; the show is being staged for greatly reduced audiences, which doesn’t help the finances. Lyric has been good about employing sizeable orchestras (West Side Story and Titanic in recent seasons). So, we’ll assume the soundtrack is a temporary measure, and when we’re back in the theaters, we’ll have living, breathing musicians accompanying the shows.

A professional production of Nunsense has not been done around here for a long time. For young theatergoers, this is a good chance to add it to their experience. For the rest of us, it’s a link back to normal.

Nunsense by Dan Goggin (book, music, lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through May 9
Myriad Botanical Gardens Water Stage
301 W. Reno Ave.
405-524-9312

Review: Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds

Denise Lee in Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds                     Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
March 28, 2021

Attention theatergoers! Lyric Theatre is back on the boards—well, concrete—at the Myriad Gardens Water Stage with a new, cabaret-style show and, brother, is it a welcome sight to behold. The bulkily titled Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds features none other than Denise Lee and a crack, four-piece combo in a pleasing production that way outshines anything you might see on Zoom.

A Dallas-based singer and actor, Lee has been seen here before. She was in three Lyric shows and played Gary Coleman in Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s Avenue Q in 2016.

Her strong voice and engaging stage presence, honed through years of cabaret experience, give Lee the chops to hold the stage—and the audience—by herself. She has selected an eclectic program. Most of the songs are not the usual standards. A soulfully sung “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is the most well-known. It’s great to hear the immortal “Pig’s Foot and a Bottle of Beer.” A feisty song subtitled “Musical Apology” (the title is far too long for here) shows the singer as someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. “Push Da Button” delights in double-entendre.

Lee and Monique Midgette, who also directs, wrote the between-song banter. Lee explains the show’s title early on. It’s mostly light stuff, but parts are deadly serious or poignant. The account of an ugly incident when Lee was a college freshman in 1979 at East Texas State University in Commerce leads to “I Gotta Sing My Song.” Midgette staged last year’s, pre-pandemic Having Our Say for Lyric.

The company has not skimped on any part of this production. Kimberly Powers’s clean, simple scenic design fits the cabaret format neatly. Lighting designer Fabian J. Garcia has illuminated every part of the park visible to the audience. The full moon at the reviewed performance held its own. The men in the band wear matching black suits and neckties with white shirts. Lee’s dress sparkles diamondlike (costumes are by Jeffrey Meek). The show runs around 75 minutes without intermission, which is about right. Shows should leave the audience wanting more, not wanting to get out of there.

Lyric has put together a 2021 season that in normal times would leave theatergoers mainly nonplused. Nunsense at the Water Stage, Grease at a high school football stadium, for example.  On the other hand, the company is staging the first local production of Terrence McNally’s 1995 Master Class, long overdue here. But these are about as far from normal times as you can get, so theatergoers should appreciate the effort. At least, Lyric is doing something when other theater companies shut down or stuck to fundraising. The company’s board, management, and artists get full credit. They are one of a handful of theater companies in the country who are operating right now. And do we ever need it.

Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
2:00 p.m. March 28, 7:30 p.m. March 30-April 1, 8:00 p.m. April 2, 2:00 p.m. and
8:00 p.m. April 3

Myriad Botanical Gardens Water Stage
301 W. Reno Ave.
405-524-9312

Review: A Christmas Carol

W. Jerome Stevenson in A Christmas Carol                           Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
November 12, 2020

This marks the tenth year Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma has been staging A Christmas Carol. The production is revamped every five years, so this was to be last of the current version. Then, things went to hell in the pandemic with theater hit as hard as any industry.

Doing a show every year can become ritualistic, but one of the amazing facts about Lyric’s production has been how they’ve kept Christmas Carol fresh season after season for a decade. Thus, theatergoers will not be surprised the company came up with a brilliant concept and presents the familiar story in a completely new light.

Under the leadership of producing artistic director Michael Baron, who adapted Charles Dickens’s story for the stage, and top-notch collaborators, the company is presenting the show outdoors at the Harn Homestead, a territorial era farm smack dab in the middle of Oklahoma City, just a few blocks south of the state capitol. We’re used to seeing scenery move across the stage, but in this production, the scenery stays put, and the audience moves with the scene changes. It’s a pleasure to report this adaptation maintains the high standards Lyric has always had with this show.

The Harn Homestead has a two-story farmhouse, a wonderful stone barn, and other buildings. Lyric consulted a designer who’s an expert on outdoor theater. Scenes take place on front porches or rustic platforms built for this production, creating fine sightlines for the socially distanced audience, limited to 100 per performance. All this is seen under Fabian J. Garcia’s lighting design that about equals anything you would see Lyric do at the Plaza or Thelma Gaylord. Audience members are required to wear masks, so the fog on your eyeglasses adds to the atmosphere. Sound design has always been an important part of this show, and Josh Schmidt and Corey Ray have brought the electronic torrents to the farm. (One wonders what the neighbors think, though.)

Costumed “lamplighters” lead audience members in groups through the show. Directed by Baron and Lyric associate artistic director Ashley Wells and running one hour, 15 minutes without intermission, the show flows with the intricate smoothness of the first-class marching band. We still see the Ghost of Christmas Past aloft, while the Ghost of Christmas Present is in a loft. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes retain the subtle sumptuousness and edge of the indoor version. You wouldn’t want to meet the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a dark alley. By keeping it simple, Lyric achieves a total effect that’s remarkably appealing. Something about several actors holding lanterns and spread across a lawn in a late scene has a quiet, dignified beauty.

The unmasked, socially distanced actors wear body microphones, and cleverly disguised speakers set throughout the playing area. The show plays for a much longer run than usual, so all roles are double cast, not just the children. At the reviewed performance, Jonathan Beck Reed, who originated the role of Scrooge in the first Lyric production, railed in top form as the world’s most infamous curmudgeon. W. Jerome Stevenson will alternate with Reed. This may inspire theatergoers to go twice to see both casts.

How Lyric leadership, staff, and artists came together to find the venue, adapt the show, and make it happen to a high degree of quality would be an outstanding theatrical achievement in any season. Now, it’s downright inspiring. Just when inspiration is one thing we need more of in these harrowing times.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Baron
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:00 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, through December 23
Harn Homestead
1721 N. Lincoln Blvd.
405-524-9312

The Twilight Zone Redux

By Larry Laneer
October 31, 2020

The Great Interregnum of 2020 has given me a chance to revisit television’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  A while back, I acquired a boxset of all 156 episodes. The episodes are around 27 minutes, so three or four about equal an evening at the theater.  I just completed the first three seasons.

The show solidly reflects its era. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation informed the early seasons. People at the time pretty much assumed the world would end in an atomic holocaust; it was just matter of how soon and who would survive. And would surviving a nuclear conflagration be the most desirable outcome? Other differences from today stand out. It’s odd to see the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling, making his famous introductions to each episode, often with a cigarette in hand.

Although some storylines lean a little maudlin or far-fetched, most of the teleplays stand up to scrutiny today. The second season included one of the most famous episodes, titled “Eye of the Beholder.” It’s the one where a family’s “ugly” daughter undergoes a facial operation to improve her looks. At the end, the bandages are removed before her grotesque-looking family to reveal the failed surgery and comely visage of Donna Douglas, who later played Elly May in The Beverly Hillbillies. Several episodes are westerns, a nod to the popular television genre of the time. At the end of some, James Arness does a promo for Gunsmoke, which also aired Saturdays on CBS.

The second season also included a one-hander titled “The Invaders” in which the great Agnes Moorehead has not a single word of dialog. Just some grunts, gasps, moans, snorts, and other gesticulations. Her performance should be studied in drama schools. An intense, suspenseful score by Jerry Goldsmith also enhances the episode.

Most of the actors are not well-known today, but many were big stars of their era, future stars, or familiar character actors, some in the same episode. The list is almost hard to believe. Season one had Ed Wynn and Murray Hamilton (Mr. Robinson in The Graduate); Dan Duryea and Martin Landau; Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam; Gig Young and a young Ronnie Howard together.

Season two brought Art Carney playing Santa Claus with the character actor John Fiedler; Dick York; Burgess Meredith and Don Rickles; Buddy Ebsen; Billy Mumy; John Astin; and Dennis Weaver.

Season three glows more star-studded: Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson; Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters (really!); Peter Falk playing a Fidel Castro-like figure; Lee Marvin and Strother Martin; Cloris Leachman; Buster Keaton in a time-travel episode harkening back to silent films; Dean Stockwell and Leonard Nimoy; Robert Redford as the Grim Reaper (I kid you not); Burt Mustin; Barry Morse as an irascible theater critic named Fitzgerald Fortune who lives in an garishly opulent apartment (file this one under fantasy); Edgar Buchanan and Dub Taylor; J. Pat O’Malley and Nancy Kulp (Mr. Drysdale’s secretary in The Beverly Hillbillies); Claude Akins; Theodore Bikel; Andy Devine and Howard McNear (Floyd the barber in The Andy Griffith Show); Cliff Robertson playing a ventriloquist who thinks he’s going insane and Frank Sutton (Sgt. Carter in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.); Jesse White and Carol Burnett; and Donald Pleasence.

Ray Bradbury penned the teleplay for an episode titled “I Sing the Body Electric” (after Walt Whitman and about a cyborg nanny), which included a young Veronica Cartwright. Bernard Herrmann’s score for a 1962 episode closely resembles his music in the early scenes of Psycho.

The nuclear holocaust never happened (yet). The show with Pleasence playing an elderly teacher at a boys’ school gives a poignant lesson on how we can enrich the lives of others, even when we don’t know it. That theme still rings true today.

 

Review: Moonlight Cabaret

The socially distanced cast of Moonlight Cabaret.     (Photo Provided)
The socially distanced cast of Moonlight Cabaret                                                                            (Photo Provided)

By Larry Laneer
September 19, 2020

It’s a helluva lot better than nothing. It’s a million times better than Zoom. It is Lyric Theatre’s Moonlight Cabaret, now live and in person at the Myriad Gardens Water Stage. And not a moment too soon.

The song list of this musical revue looked odd at first, then I noticed the show sports the theme  “Super 70’s Cabaret.” (Lyric sent me the song list in advance; they do not provide printed programs at performances, but you may be able to get one with your cell phone.) Director Ashley Wells has brought together six of Lyric’s well-known artists plus two newcomers. The show’s lone instrumentalist, music director Eric Grigg, emcees from an electronic keyboard onstage behind plastic barriers.

This is one of the few shows in the country being staged with the approval of theatrical unions or professional associations. Lyric went to great lengths to prove the production would be done under pandemic precautions. Audience members wear masks but may take them off when seated in the theater. Only 100 theatergoers will be allowed in a house that seats probably four times that. Michael Baron, the company’s producing artistic director, acts as a kindly traffic cop before the show routing the audience to their well-spaced seats. Cast members are not masked but are placed apart onstage.

Thomas E. Cunningham, Mandy Jiran, Vince Leseney, Justin Larman, Olivia Yokers (a newcomer to the city; theatergoers look forward to seeing more of her), and Kat Metcalf make up the ensemble cast along with young Erica Burkett and Skylar Hemenway. All give fine performances. The between-song banter is pretty good at times and could use editing at others.

In fact, the spare musical forces work to the production’s advantage. The songs come across with a clarity that would be lost in a raucous arena show or even a stage musical. It’s a pleasure to hear them sung in this setting by the top-notch cast.

The 1970s was a huge decade for pop music, so any 80-minute show can strike only a glancing blow against the musical catalog. Wells has programed familiar songs by big names: Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Carole King, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon, Dolly Parton, Maureen McGovern, Elton John. She includes three show tunes, to wit, “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line and songs from the obscure musicals Starting Here, Starting Now and The Baker’s Wife.

This is an ensemble show, so cast members don’t outshine each other. But Leseney’s performance of Elton John’s “Border Song” rings true as a song of our times.

Lyric will do three completely different productions of Moonlight Cabaret. Each one runs for only four performances and will have different directors and casts. The next two come under the unrevealing titles “Silver Linings” and “Welcome to the (New) World.”

It is so good to see live performances again, and a show a fraction the quality this one of would be satisfying. But Lyric has gone to great lengths to stage a production, in context, as fine as anything they would do at the Plaza or Thelma Gaylord. The show never feels skimpy or lacking the energy you would expect from musical theater. We’re now into nice weather, and in a beautiful setting, Moonlight Cabaret provides a fine evening of post-canicular theater.

Moonlight Cabaret
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:00 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, September 19-20
Myriad Gardens Water Stage
301 W. Reno Ave.
405-524-9312
Cast:  Thomas E. Cunningham, Mandy Jiran, Vince Leseney, Justin Larman, Olivia Yokers, Kat Metcalfe, Erica Burkett, Skylar Hemenway, directed by Ashley Wells, music direction by Eric Grigg

7:00 p.m., Thursday-Sunday, September 24-27
Cast:  Michael Andreaus, Stephen Hilton, Lexi Windsor, Helen Han, Cristela Carrizales, Ashley Mandanas, Devi Peot, directed by Matthew Sipress, music direction by Brian Hamilton

7:00 p.m., Thursday,-Sunday, October 1-4
Cast:  Jennifer Teel, Courtney Crouse, Antonio Rodriguez, Charlie Monnot, Renee Anderson, Campbell Walker Fields, Cheyanne Osoria, directed by Michael Baron, musical direction by Corie Melaugh

Review: Anastasia

Lila Coogan and company of Anastasia                         Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

By Larry Laneer
March 4, 2020

When you hear the musical Anastasia was inspired by a 1997 animated film, which was based on 100-year-old rumors, you may think it doesn’t sound very promising. Although it won’t raise your consciousness or blow your mind, the show is a surprisingly satisfying two-and-a-half-hour diversion.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway touring series, the show takes some explaining. Soon after the Bolsheviks shot to death the abdicated Tsar Nicholas II along with his wife and children in 1918 rumors began circulating that one family member survived and was among the people. This set off a flurry of imposters and pretenders to the Romanovs’ supposed vast wealth.

In this show, the conmen Dmitry and Vlad scheme to find a young woman who could pass as Anastasia Romanov and present her to the Dowager Empress, guardian of the Romanov fortune, who packed off to Paris before the Russian revolution. But what if they accidently stumble upon the real Anastasia, who is now destitute and fending for herself? It could be enough of a story to make a musical.

This production features an outstanding scenic design (by Alexander Dodge) and the most effective use of projections (by Aaron Rhyne) I’ve ever seen. Until now in theater, projected backdrops usually have been inferior to those built in three dimensions. Projections typically appeared flat, fuzzy, and unconvincing. But Rhyne’s high-definition images have an extraordinary depth and clarity. The only time the projections become obtrusive and distracting is when they go into motion. Then, they can overpower the action on stage and turn the show into a movie. But most of the time, the projections are highly effective. With Donald Holder’s lighting design and Linda Cho’s costumes, the show looks elegant and elaborate. Darko Tresnjak directed the production, and he covers a lot of ground, both geographically and chronologically, and in some scenes supernaturally, with smooth efficiency.

The show’s creators, Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) (Once on This Island, Ragtime) and playwright Terrence McNally (book), have musical and theatrical bona fides.  Flaherty’s jaunty score is mainly in the style of contemporary musical theater, melodic division. But some musical numbers set in 1927 Paris are appropriately jazzy. I was struck by how much of the score is in triple meter. Peggy Hickey’s choreography closely matches the music. A 12-piece pit band accompanies the production, including (small) brass, reed, and string sections, not bad for a touring show.

But this 2017 musical really looks back to the old-fashioned book musicals of yore. It’s the story of a young person striving to overcome abject circumstances and an apparatchik villain with a glib love story or two added to hook the audience. It’s a proven formula.

The appealing Lila Coogan plays the title role, also known as Anya. She has a solid singing voice. Her Anya shows appropriate feistiness, and her Anastasia possesses authentic insecurity. The handsome Jake Levy plays Dmitry, both conniving and conflicted. Edward Staudenmayer is the roguish Vlad. He has some scenes with the fine comedic actor Alison Ewing as Countess Lily, especially “The Countess and the Common Man.”

Overall, the show is a sum of its parts, no more, no less. Whether that’s enough to spend some time with it is up to you.

Anastasia by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and
Terrence McNally (book)

OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through March 8
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300

 

Review: Romeo and Juliet

Nikki Mar as Juliet                      Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
February 24, 2020

Oklahoma Shakespeare has revamped how it will do shows, and the change looks highly promising. They plan to do most plays at their space on the Paseo and make improvements to that challenging venue. If this longtime, venerable company can make this change work, we should have a lot of quality theater ahead.

A case in point is Romeo and Juliet, in a wildly uneven production now at the company’s Paseo space. The director Kris Kuss has trimmed the script judiciously and cast some excellent actors in key roles.

The first act is a good cure for insomnia. The second act comes alive, stays taut, and picks up the pace. Kuss inserts the intermission right after Romeo kills Tybalt and the Prince banishes him from Verona. Kuss’s staging is especially strong from the point Juliet drinks the potion Friar Lawrence gives her and on until the end of the play. The ending is so effective it even overcomes some maudlin recorded music that threatens to drown out the Prince’s final words.

The first act features Romeo, but the second act belongs to Juliet, played here in an outstanding performance by the young Nikki Mar. The second act begins with Juliet’s soliloquy (“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, towards Phoebus’ lodging!”). This soliloquy had never stood out to me, but Mar delivers it with such understated strength, it brings up the quality of the production. Juliet is in ecstasy over her marriage to Romeo. But the speech is interrupted by Nurse bringing the news Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, has been killed by her husband. Mar handles the transformation from joyousness to gloom and conflict with the skill of a seasoned professional. Theatergoers should look forward to seeing her in more roles.

Juliet contrasts with the callow Romeo played by Bryan Lewis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Joaquin Phoenix. At times, his performance hints slightly at some of Phoenix’s more out there work.

Like the entire production, the acting ticks up a notch or three in the second act, with two exceptions. Theatergoers will not be surprised to read those exceptions are the always solid Renee Krapff as Nurse and the great Hal Kohlman and his prodigious beard as Friar Lawrence, who are both first rate from the moment they step on stage. In this production, Krapff’s Nurse is about the only comic relief you get and, per usual, she nails both the comedy and tragedy. In any role, Kohlman commands the stage or provides firm support, depending on what the part and scene demand.

By the end, Michael Page and Mariah Warren do fine jobs as Lord and Lady Capulet. Kevin Cook as Benvolio, Marcus Popoff as Tybalt, and Paxton Kliewer as Paris are also sharp until their characters are killed or become irrelevant. It’s a mystery why Kuss changed Mercutio to Mercutia and cast Allie Alexander in the role. It’s more of a mystery why he has Alexander play the role in male drag, although she handles it with aplomb. The slow-motion knife fighting looks hokey.

Lloyd Cracknell’s costumes set the play in the 18th century. Ruffled shirtsleeves shoot from some of the men’s jackets. Rebekah Garrett’s lighting is subtlety effective.

Oklahoma Shakespeare has been in business since 1985. It’s hard for any theater company—or any kind of company—to last 35 years. But OS has done it by changing with the times, and it looks like they are continuing to do so. Good for them (and us).

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Oklahoma Shakespeare
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through March 1
2920 Paseo
1-800-838-3006

Review: Having Our Say

Julia Lema (l) and Terry Burrell in Having Our Say              Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
February 20, 2020

The playwright and director Emily Mann adapted the 1993 memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth into a theatrical version. This is not a new play; I don’t know why it has taken so long for it to be done around here. But thanks to Michael Baron, Lyric Theatre’s producing artistic director, and the company, we now have the pleasure of spending a couple of hours, including intermission, with two of the most interesting people you’ll meet anywhere, anytime.

The book adapts smoothly for the stage because it’s told in the sisters’ own voices. Two actors break the fourth wall and tell their stories directly to the audience. And what stories! Their father was born into slavery in 1858. But he was unusually fortunate to be taught to read by his owners. After emancipation, he went to college—something rare at the time—where he met the sisters’ mother, who was almost born into slavery. Thus, the sisters knew from childhood the importance of education and lifelong learning.

The Delanys reared 10 children in Raleigh, North Carolina, all of whom went on to achieve notable personal success in professions or business. The last two survivors and the subjects of this play were Sarah Louise (1889-1999), known as Sadie, and Annie Elizabeth (1891-1995), known as Bessie. Sadie earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia and had a career teaching in the New York City public schools. Bessie studied dentistry at Columbia and was known in her Harlem practice as “Dr. Bessie.” How the sisters went to New York City from North Carolina is told in the play.

At the time of the memoir and the stage adaptation, Sadie is 103 and Bessie is 101. Lyric has engaged two highly experienced and capable actors to play them. Terry Burrell (Bessie) and Julia Lema (Sadie), who are decades younger than the women they play, capture the sisters’ vivid personalities with remarkable authenticity, while staying in character as centenarians. The sisters are sassy, pert, no-nonsense, opinionated, well-informed on events of the day, and feisty as 16-year-olds. Burrell and Lema have sibling chemistry and show the distinct characteristics of each sister. Plus, during much of the play, they go through the stage business of preparing a meal while continuing the dialog.

Now at the Plaza and guided by the sure hand of director Monique Midgette, the production creates the welcoming feeling of a visit to the sisters’ tidy, comfortable home in a New York City suburb. The scenic design by Debra Kim Sivigny teems with details of the sisters’ lives. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes are so naturally appropriate you may not notice them, and I mean that as a high compliment.

The Delany sisters’ story is extraordinary almost beyond belief. They were witnesses to practically the entire 20th century, sustained by wry senses of humor and religious faith. They saw Halley’s comet twice. They remember America before Jim Crow laws. They rushed down to register when women got the right to vote in 1920. They met Eleanor Roosevelt. Sadie and her mother saw Paul Robeson play Othello in London and were invited backstage to meet the actor. They have choice comments about former Vice President Dan Quayle and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In Sadie and Bessie, you have two people who some might say were born with no advantages. But as their stories reveal, they were born with the greatest advantages: parents who valued learning and caring for their fellow human beings. The Delany sisters never had great monetary wealth, but they made the most of what they had. Sadie and Bessie make some of today’s billionaires look like paupers.

Having Our Say by Emily Mann, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and
A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays,
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through March 8
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
405-524-9312

Review: Love Letters

Billie Thrash and Stephen Hilton in Love Letters                                                    Photo by Jared Blount

By Larry Laneer
February 17, 2020

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, from 1988, passes the test of time as one of the great American plays of the 20th century. The script’s elegant simplicity and integrity make it a dramatic gem. But the flawed production now by Pollard Theatre Company exposes the play’s fragility when not handled according to the playwright’s intentions.

Directed by Gregory Hopkins, the production features the most spot-on casting we may see all season. Stephen Hilton (as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III) and Billie Thrash (as Melissa Gardner) play two upper-class East coast WASPs who correspond with each other over 50 years, beginning in 1937 when they were in second grade. The characters should not be that sympathetic. Melissa is a poor little rich girl, and Andy goes into politics as a “liberal Republican,” a species that is now extinct. But Gurney, who died in 2017 and specialized in these types of characters, makes them as human as you and me.

The play’s conceit is two actors sit at desks and read the letters, cards, notes, and miscellaneous missives from the script. Thus, Love Letters works like drama on radio: the play doesn’t take place as much on stage as it does in audience members’ imaginations. When done properly, the play comes off vivid and meaningful to audience members who fill in the details of the characters’ lives. Our imaginations can produce costumes, scenery, lighting, and staging even the best designers and directors can never match.

The concept is so beautifully complete it is easy for directors to mess it up. If the director takes a heavy hand to the script, he wrecks the effect. The Pollard production begins well enough with two simple escritoires with red leather chairs on stage under focused lighting. But at the back of the stage, projections are shown relating to the action. Granted, it’s only two different projections per act, but they are superfluous and intrusive.

Gurney includes ellipses throughout the script that indicate, I guess, brief pauses in the dialog. During these pauses, which last only seconds, the lights in this production go down and, then, almost immediately come back up for the next lines. This business with lights is annoying and distracting, and it happens constantly throughout the play’s two acts. One more flicker of the lights and Pollard will have to post a strobe warning in the lobby.

Hopkins has the actors’ performances amped up to high levels. They act out the letters more than read them. This is not how Gurney intended for the play to be done. Hopkins seems to lack confidence in what Gurney has written. (It could be worse. This is at least the sixth production of Love Letters I’ve seen, one was by Pollard in 1993. In a couple of them, directors had the actors stand up and walk around the stage with scripts in hand, which does not happen in this production. The playwright’s intended effect was completely destroyed, because the play took place mainly on stage, not in audience members’ imaginations.)

It’s a good idea to rethink plays and find other ways to do them, seeking new insights. It’s also wise to avoid trying to fix things that aren’t broken.

Love Letters should be revived regularly so every generation of theatergoers can see it. When done properly, it is brilliant theater. But when mishandled, it’s a huge disappointment.

Love Letters by A.R. Gurney
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through February 29,
8:00 p.m. Thursday, February 27, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, February 16 and 23
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

Review: Come From Away

Cast of Come From Away                                                                                   Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
February 5, 2020

Human creativity never ceases to amaze. You might not think the tragic events of September 11, 2001, would provide fodder for a musical, but two Canadians found stories from that time and created the best-natured show to come down the pike in a long time, the delightful Come From Away.

When all aircraft were ordered to land immediately on September 11, 2001, Gander, Newfoundland, became a refuge for 38 planes carrying some 7,000 passengers to a town of only 9,000. This small Canadian burg became an emergency aeronautical center because in the early days of commercial flight, Gander had one of the largest airports in the world. Before the era of jet travel, transatlantic flights stopped there to refuel on the way to the States. But on that fateful day, the resourceful Canadians suddenly had to feed, water, house, clothe, and take care of air passengers of numerous nationalities, languages, religions, creeds, and even species.

On the tenth anniversary of the event, the Canadian married writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book/music/lyrics) visited Gander and interviewed residents and returning passengers. The stories and inspiration they garnered led to Come From Away, so the characters in this musical documentary are real people.

The show opened to much acclaim on Broadway in 2017, where it’s still playing. Presented by OKC Broadway now at the Thelma Gaylord, this is the touring version of that production.

The director Christopher Ashley has taken a less-is-more approach to the show, and he nails it. First, the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt consists tall tree trunks flanking the stage and a stonework-like backdrop. Add several chairs of various kinds and a couple of tables and the cast has everything they need to recreate numerous locations, both aerial and terrestrial, all subtly enhanced by Howell Binkley’s lighting design. This isn’t a dancing musical, but Kelly Devine stages the musical numbers appropriately for the story and naturally for a cast who aren’t the usual buff, athletic dancers seen in musicals.

The show features an unusual ensemble cast as Gander denizens and “plane people.” Kevin Carolan as the mayor of Gander and Marika Aubrey as an American Airlines pilot more-or-less act as our guides through the show. All the actors give strong performances creating various characters.

The creators have composed a serviceable score, often driving and exuberant. A top-notch combo of eight musicians accompanies the show. They have an extended curtain call that had the audience clapping along and dancing at the reviewed performance.

Come From Away makes a couple of points relatable to us all. A strong sense of humor sustained the Canadians and their unexpected refugees through disturbing, often confusing circumstances. This show is not a musical comedy, but it has more genuine humor than many musicals that go low for the cheap or inane laugh.

Next, it reminds us about the ingenuity and resilience of our fellow human beings in the worst of circumstances. And this is often done without training, preparation, or even much notice. The people of Gander went to extraordinary lengths to improvise solutions to urgent, tragic events. This should come as no surprise. Something similar happened here on and after April 19, 1995.

In recent years, the world has seen many other tragedies besides September 11 and April 19. This musical shows how people find a way to do what needs to be done in the face of manmade or, even, natural disasters. It may even give you a little hope.

Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book/music/lyrics)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday,
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through February 9
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300