Review: An Act of God

By Larry Laneer
August 28, 2018

Fans of the actress Brenda Williams (count me among them) have reason to shout hallelujah. At last, she appears in a role worthy of her talent, experience, and stature in the theatrical world. She is now playing God.

You can see this theological and theatrical phenomenon in the pleasant-enough play An Act of God by David Javerbaum, which opens Pollard Theatre Company’s 32nd season. Timothy Stewart directs the production. The play will make both believers and non-believers feel comforted and uncomfortable.

To say Williams plays God isn’t quite right. The play’s conceit is God has taken over the body of our beloved actress Brenda Williams and has come to the Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, Oklahoma, with a few things to say to audiences who gather there. (And Williams doesn’t even know this is happening!) At times in language that would make a preacher blush, God offers some explanations and clarifications and makes some revisions. Through this process, we get to know him better. It turns out God is a left-of-center progressive on issues of the day, including guns, abortion, and the LGBTQ community, among others. He has the same self-doubts and insecurities we all have. But as God says, and this is an important point of the play, “Belief and faith are no excuses for abandoning sound judgment.” Javerbaum was a writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which explains a lot about his version of God.

The play consists mainly of a monologue for the actor inhabited by God (the television actor Jim Parsons played the part in the 2015 Broadway production). God gets assistance from angels Gabriel (James A. Hughes) and Michael (Dakota Muckelrath).

Theatergoers will not be surprised at Williams’s command of the stage. She has done the one-woman tour-de-force The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Pollard and elsewhere. Williams completely captures the playwright’s view of God as divine but flawed. Hughes and Muckelrath do fine jobs as angels who are sycophantic and insubordinate.

The production comes off both solid and out of kilter. Michael James costumes God in a tasteful two-toned white robe with a subtle gold lining. The angels appear in white suits with wings. Hughes, who plays Gabriel, also did the scenic design (this doubling happens often with PTC), but it doesn’t jibe with Javerbaum’s script. The multilevel set depicts billowing clouds against a blue sky. In other words, the heaven cliché. But the play is supposed to be taking place in Guthrie’s Pollard Theatre where God has come in the body of Brenda Williams. It’s not supposed to be Pollard Theatre Company doing a play set it heaven. It seems to me a bare stage would be more faithful (no pun intended) to the script.

God gets prickly with some of Michael’s questioning. Why does God let bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? Why the Holocaust? Why not just get rid of child cancer? It won’t be revealed here, but the playwright comes up with God’s cogent answer that makes theological sense. It might even make you say amen.

An Act of God by David Javerbaum
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p..m. Fridays-Saturdays, through September 8
2:00 p.m. Sunday, September 2

8:00 p.m. Thursday, September 6
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
$25
405-282-2800

Review: Sense and Sensibility

By Larry Laneer
August 14, 2018

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park continues its summer season at their Paseo venue with a bewildering production of Sense and Sensibility that raises far more questions than it answers. The main question is “What are they trying to do?”

The playwright Kate Hamill based her script on Jane Austen’s novel about the triumphs, small as they may be, and tragedies of the Dashwood family in early-19th-century England. In the playscript, Hamill advises “I encourage you to be as creative as you wish; it’s meant to be a bit of a funhouse!” The director, Laura Standley, may have taken Hamill a tad too literally.

Standley has staged the play with both economy and a heavy hand. The first act comprises 20 mostly short scenes, and the second act has 25 scenes. The playing area is the middle of the rectangular Paseo space with the audience seated on risers at both ends (sight lines are not bad). Using two tables on rollers, several chairs, and many props, the cast creates indoor and outdoor settings throughout London and rural England. Standley keeps the action moving with efficiency.

Then, she gets heavy handed. Here are a few of many possible examples: For the first five minutes, the cast comes out and mingles with the audience. Point being? I don’t know. Next, they exit but soon return to the stage and start the play. Much of the movement is choreographed to the extreme. To begin each act, the cast assembles in two lines on opposite sides of the stage and walks across it in formation while contemporary electronic music plays and, then, back again. Other contrived movements occur both standing and seated throughout the play. What does this mean? It’s beyond me. A dinner scene includes mechanical gestures sort of like what diners may make but done by the cast in unison. In other scenes, characters’ feelings and  emotional experiences are acted out. A character is literally swept off her feet (by other cast members) in elation one time and in despair another. These movements must have taken lots of rehearsal time, and the cast executes them smoothly. Maybe these additions to the script indicate Standley thinks Austen’s story and Hamill’s adaptation are not strong enough on their own to hold the audience’s interest. You can decide for yourself whether these extraneous movements justify the production’s three-hour running time.

In several scenes that involve characters walking or taking carriage rides, Standley has the main actors mimic movement while other actors pass beside them holding tree branches aloft. It’s like the illusion in old films where stationary actors mimic riding a horse while a moving backdrop rolls by behind them. In one scene, two actors play dogs. One yelps, while the other raises his leg on an audience member. The production has sight gags galore. The many music cues range from the Italian baroque to 21st-century electronica. Elisa Bierschenk’s period costumes are in modern hues.

Standley has drawn fine performances from the top-notch cast, some of whom will be familiar to theatergoers, while others are new. Madeline Dannenberg as Elinor Dashwood gives a heartfelt performance. You can see the weight of the world on her shoulders as scandal bears down on the family. A close second is Ashley Frisbee as Marianne Dashwood (the “sensibility” to Elinor’s “sense”). She has complete command of the role as the character whipsaws between highs and lows of love. The delightful Bianca Bulgarelli plays the young Margaret Dashwood.

Hamill includes all the main characters from Austen’s novel and several secondary ones, so the cast doubles some roles. At one point, Becca Mitchell, playing two characters, has a slap fight with herself. She drew audience applause at the reviewed performance. Joseph Burleigh, Wil Rogers, David Fletcher-Hall, Tyler Woods, and Lindsey Rollins play main and secondary characters. The cast keeps up an admirable amount of energy during this long, demanding production.

Sense and Sensibility isn’t exactly a comedy, although this production has quite a bit of humor, or, rather, attempts at humor. In fact, the story gets harrowing in the second act. Austen fans can decide for themselves about Hamill’s adaptation and the OSP production. The rest of us should be prepared for a long sit.

Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamill (based on the Jane Austen novel)
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through August 25
2:00 p.m. Sunday, August 19
Shakespeare on Paseo
2920 Paseo
$25-$30
1-800-838-3006

Review: Mamma Mia!

The cast of Mamma Mia!                                                                                      Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
July 25, 2018

Mamma Mia! wasn’t the first jukebox musical, and it may not be the worst one, but it is the show often cited as giving the genre a bad name. And to the show’s legions of admirers that matters not a whit.

Two or three touring productions of Mamma Mia! have played here, but Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s sharp-looking production, now at the Thelma Gaylord, is the first by a city theater company of this dramatically and comedically jejune musical.

The show’s score was selected—as if punching up records on a jukebox—from the catalog of the Swedish pop band ABBA, which flourished in the late 1970s. The rickety scaffolding on which the songs are hung concerns Donna who runs a struggling taverna on a small Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie, is getting married, but her father won’t be walking her down the aisle because she doesn’t know who he is. Sophie reads her mother’s diary and identifies three paternal prospects from 20 years ago. She invites them to the wedding hoping to figure out which one is dear old dad. Surprisingly, their mailing addresses are still good after 20 years (the show is set in 1999). All three show up with no idea of what Sophie is doing. Let’s just say complications and misunderstandings ensue.

Thus, the creators (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, music/lyrics; Catherine Johnson, book) have to force songs that weren’t written specifically for this musical into the flimsy story line. Some of the tunes will be familiar to anyone who frequented discos or had a radio tuned to a Top 40 station about four decades ago: “I Have a Dream,” “Chiquitita,” Dancing Queen,” and the title song.

So, has director and choreographer Lyn Cramer found new insights or hidden gems in this musical? No, but she’s working with inferior material. That’s not to say Cramer hasn’t done a top-notch job with the show. She has staged almost two dozen musical numbers and maneuvered a cast of 27 to their marks. Theatergoers will appreciate the all-male chorus line in wet suits and flippers.

Lyric and Cramer are putting on a big production here. Even the polka dots that adorn Kimberly Powers’s scenic design are huge. Jeffrey Meek produced a burst of color with his costumes two weeks ago for Hello, Dolly! Mamma makes Dolly look downright drab. Vibrant colors abound in the scenery and costumes, brilliantly lit by Helena Kuukka. And get those eight—eight!—reflective disco balls hanging above the stage like planets in a solar system.

The performances are fine, but the cast is saddled with doing pop ditties from the 1970s and subpar dialog. Meredith Inglesby plays Donna with Jessica Martens as Sophie. Donna and two chums had a pop band in their youth, which oddly resembles ABBA, and her musical mates come for the wedding. Barb Schoenhofer gives a cheeky performance as one, and the great, magenta-haired Renee Anderson plays the other. Steve Blanchard, Gregory DeCandia, and Tommy Glenn are the dads in question. The ensemble does an impressive job with the choral singing and acrobatic choreography.

I once asked a friend who is a big fan of this musical why he admires it so much. He said “I just like smiling for two hours.” It’s a short distance from a smile to a grimace. Lovers of the show will revel in Lyric’s production. Loathers will not be changed by it.

Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (music/lyrics) and Catherine Johnson (book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through July 29
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
$42-$93
405-524-9312

Review: Hello, Dolly!

The cast of Hello, Dolly!                                                                                              Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
July 11, 2018

Attention fans of mid-twentieth-century book musicals (count me among them). If you haven’t heard, Hello, Dolly! is back in town in a limp production that looks like an opportunity missed.

With music and lyrics by the legendary Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, the show is most associated with Carol Channing, who starred in the original Broadway production and played Dolly in Oklahoma City in a mid-1960s national tour. In fact, Channing performed in the same room where the show is running now. Recognizing this musical is worthy of regular revival, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is putting it on at the Thelma Gaylord, directed by Ashley Wells.

It’s not that the production doesn’t try. Take Jeffrey Meek’s sumptuous costume design, for example. In the opening scenes, the period costumes are in muted earth tones. Then “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” comes on, and the stage bursts with colors: oranges, purples, yellows, ochres, blues, hot pink. The costumes stay vivid for the rest of the show. Dolly’s red dress in the title number draws entrance applause. The detail in the white dress she wears in the finale is visible all the way to the back of the lower orchestra. The costumes include matching hats and even shoes in matching hues.

Matthew Sipress’s period-faithful choreography would not look out of place in the original 1964 production. The huge cast of 34 looks sharp and has fine ensemble in the dancing. No one simply walks across the stage. They march, tiptoe, hop, bounce, float, glide, sashay, polka, and waltz. And that’s not the complete list.

Dee Hoty, a bona fide musical theater star, plays the title role as a thoroughly modern Dolly. She has not an iota of vulnerability or self-doubt. Thus, Dolly is not a particularly sympathetic figure. She’s frustrated with her situation and schemes to marry Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder strictly for his money (he’s “half a millionaire”). Hoty is an accomplished actor and is in fine voice in this show. And she’s not above low humor, such as the long, drawn-out face-stuffing scene in the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.

Although he gives the usual fine performance, not even Matthew Alvin Brown can lift the production much. In his long career, Brown has played both leading and featured roles as if they’re the most important thing in the world. Here he is in comedic mode as Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder’s chief clerk. His “It Only Takes a Moment” is the sweetest moment in the show.

And then you have the 22-musician orchestra under the baton of David Andrews Rogers. Hear the full sections of strings, brass, and reeds!  The choruses are well sung by the ensemble. On opening night, the amplification sounded muddy at first but was corrected later, or we just got used to it.

George Dvorsky is fine as Vandergelder. He gets one of the great showtunes, “It Takes a Woman.” Kristy Cates does a good job as milliner Irene Molloy.

But it’s hard to find characters to really like in this production. The bumblers Cornelius and his co-clerk, Barnaby (Gordie Beingessner), are affable enough. Mrs. Molloy has a down-to-earth genuineness. But they are minor characters. Vandergelder is written to be irascible and close with money. Dolly is opportunistic but without the charm that would make her appealing. Who are we supposed to connect with emotionally?

Lyric reduced the number of shows it does in the summer to three from four. They promised, however, to do more elaborate productions at the Thelma Gaylord. Based on the evidence of two shows, I can confirm the productions are more detailed, fully staged with artistic three-dimensional sets, creative lighting, and fully realized props.

Hello, Dolly! remains one of the great mid-twentieth-century musicals. The Lyric production isn’t completely unsatisfying. But the show probably won’t have you marching, floating, polkaing, or waltzing out of the theater.

Hello, Dolly! by Jerry Herman (music/lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. Sunday, through July 15
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
$37-$98
405-524-9312

Review: The Revolutionists

Amanda Lee in The Revolutionists  Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
July 8, 2018

The playwright Lauren Gunderson subtitles her play The Revolutionists as A Comedy, A Quartet, A Revolutionary Dream Fugue, A True Story.  It turns out the play is a true story in a way. The question is whose story?

According to American Theatre magazine, Gunderson is the most produced playwright (not named Shakespeare) during the 2017-2018 season. Small casts and easily adaptable settings have something to do with that, but Gunderson is an able writer who can turn a clever phrase and coin a quip.

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park is presenting The Revolutionists at its Paseo space under the sure hand of director Tyler Woods. This is by no means a great play, although it is worthy of staging. But OSP provides first-class performances by four actresses in a sharp-looking and well-conceived production.

The play takes place in 1793 Paris during the French Revolution, although Gunderson’s language and syntax are completely 2018. Three characters were real people, and the other is Gunderson’s creation. The real playwright Olympe de Gouges struggles to write a play. It’s the French Revolution, for goodness sake! She must write something important! The real playwright Charlotte Corday stops by on her way to assassinating Jean-Paul Marat to get a good line from de Gouges, which she can use just before being guillotined when they ask if the condemned has any last words. (Corday did kill Marat in his bath, as depicted by painter Jacques Louis David in The Death of Marat. The assassination is also in an influential 1964 play by Peter Weiss, the long title of which is usually shortened to Marat/Sade.) We also see Marianne Angelle (created by the Gunderson), a Haitian who has come to Paris to join the revolution. Before long, Marie-Antoinette (yes, that Marie-Antoinette) shows up.

Without outstanding performances by the cast, this play wouldn’t amount to much. As Marie-Antoinette, Amanda Lee almost makes off with the show in a case of grand larceny. Her Marie swings from total ditz to screech owl. She’s Trumpian in her unusual hair color and obsession with being liked. But Lee reveals the character’s greater depth in the second act. As written by Gunderson and performed by Lee, it’s an exercise in creating sympathy for a tyrant (or queen in a tyrannical regime).

Erin Woods (wonderful to see her on stage again) plays Olympe de Gouges, a writer who struggles with being relevant in turbulent times.  That Woods gives a solid performance comes as no surprise to theatergoers.

As the Haitian Marianne, Alexis Ward nails the character as the voice of reason among the self-possessed and discombobulated around her. Madison Hill knocks it out as Corday, a revolutionary who sacrifices her art for a higher political cause.

For the past several seasons, OSP has been known for outstanding costume design by Robert Pittenridge, who died last year. In this production, Elisa Bierschenk achieves the Pittenridge standard and raises questions. It’s hard to take your eyes off that red hat Erin Woods wears. But why does Hill wear nine wristwatches?

The play takes place mainly in de Gouges’s slightly seedy quarters (designed by Richard Carl Johns). Red painted wallpaper with gold fleurs-de-lis and red cloth dominate.

The director Woods employs music and sound to fine effect. In addition to playing Corday, Hill plays cello on recorded music that serves as an ostinato to the first act but pretty much disappears in the second act. Songs in the second act raise the emotional level of the play. To say more here would reveal too much.

To me the true story of Gunderson’s subtitle refers to her own story. In the first act, the characters say that a play about writing a play is the worst kind of play, which is the playwright preempting criticism. While the acting, staging, and design in this production make for an entertaining evening of theater, the play does not give the audience a particularly compelling story. Yes, playwrights and other creative souls may risk making the ultimate sacrifice for their art. But the same could be said of many other professions and endeavors.

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through July 21
2:00 p.m. Sunday, July 15
Shakespeare on Paseo
2920 Paseo
$25-$30
1-800-838-3006

Review: Freaky Friday

Celeste Rose in Freaky Friday                                                                              Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
June 27, 2018

The musical Freaky Friday hews to the tradition of good-natured little shows you can’t help but like, if only a little bit. It’s a Disney product, so it sports a reliable quality level without being awe-inspiring. That said, the show definitely has more substance than some of the Mouse’s musicals adapted from animated films.

With music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and book by Bridget Carpenter, the show was inspired by the 1972 youth novel Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Oklahoma! composer Richard Rodgers) and two Disney films of the same title. But the musical shares with the novel and films only the premise of a mother and her teenage daughter switching bodies for a day. Other than that, it’s a quite different story.

The Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma production now at the Thelma Gaylord is one of the first few stagings since the show opened in 2016. No one can accuse Lyric of not doing the show justice. In fact, the company may be making this musical look better than it really is.

Michael Baron directs, and he keeps the action moving, abetted by his artistic designers. Katie Sullivan’s emblematic, op-art scenic design includes several rolling set pieces that allow a smooth flow through many scene changes. (The first act has 18 musical numbers. Granted, one is about two seconds long.) But Helen Kuukka’s lighting design amps up the look and feel of the show. She employs a modern palette and some projections. The scenery and lighting verge on being stand-alone works of art themselves. Take away the cast and the music, and you’d still have an evening’s entertainment (I think).

But the production would be a much lesser show without actors of the caliber of Jennifer Teel (as the mother) and Celeste Rose (as the daughter). Equally accomplished actors and singers, Teel and Rose make the body switch exceptionally convincing. They also switch attitudes, mannerisms, vocal inflections, and body language and maintain them for almost two-and-a-half hours.

The supporting cast is fine. Maggie Spicer plays the assistant in a wedding planning business with delightful insecurity. The reliable Mateja Govich is the mother’s fiancé, a plot change from the novel and films. The young Noah Waggoner gives an extraordinarily sensitive—and brash—performance as the daughter’s little brother. As one of the teenage daughter’s antagonists, Madison Hamilton, in a strong performance, reflects how the musical has been brought into the present.

The updated story involves parental death, mean girls, bullying, and body image issues, among others. But it also has such usual high-school show elements as (perceived) maternal nagging, a boy crush, and a frog dissection in biology class. Late in the first act, the daughter (in the mother’s body) dashes her little brother’s hopes and aspirations in the song “Parents Lie.” It’s amusing and wince-inducing.

But whatever the show and the Lyric staging are, they are thoroughly modern. The production ends with the entire cast taking a selfie.

Freaky Friday by Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (lyrics), and Bridget Carpenter (book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. Sunday, through July 1
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
$37-$93
405-524-9312

 

Review: Always . . . Patsy Cline

Kara Chapman in Always . . . Patsy Cline                                         Photo by Joshua McGowen

By Larry Laneer
June 10, 2018

You can’t completely dismiss an evening of artfully crafted songs performed by top-notch musicians. And that’s what you get in Pollard Theatre Company’s Always . . . Patsy Cline. Why Pollard wanted to revive this production after staging it in 2015 remains a mystery. Opening night had a full, if not sold-out house, and Pollard reports this show sold well three years ago. Maybe that’s the answer. The show sells tickets. Or to put it less capitalistically, audiences want to see this show.

Kara Chapman returns to play Patsy Cline, and Jodi Nestander reprises her role as friend Louise Seger. Created by Ted Swindley, the show is based on a true story. Louise, an avid Patsy fan, meets the singer early in her career, and they become lifelong friends. The title refers to how Patsy would sign her many letters to Louise.

Timothy Stewart has staged the production again with costumes and scenery by Michael James. James’s scenic design consists of several panels of dark wood slats, giving the set an appealing, uncluttered look. His costumes reflect Patsy’s success and transition from “country gal” (her term) to country/pop star. In her first scene, Patsy wears a red dress with long white fringe. She evolves to more stylish suits and dresses. Louise wears jeans tucked into her red cowboy boots with a matching red belt and fringed western shirt.

Chapman and Nestander have grown into their roles. Chapman’s credible rendition of Patsy’s songs and between-song banter bears confident authenticity.

But the show is as much about Louise and devoted fandom as it is a dramatized biography of Patsy. Nestander has broadened and deepened her performance. She goes up to the edge of being over the top. Her Louise is down-to-earth, but a little of her goes a long way. It would be nice to see Nestander stretch out the tragic scene a little more. (Patsy died at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash that also killed country singers Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas.)

But Louise’s scenes exist to segue from one Patsy song to another. The singer did not write her own music, but she selected work of some of the leading songsmiths in the last century, including Cole Porter, Willie Nelson, and Neil Sedaka. Avid Patsy fans may not hear every favorite, but they will get a variety of songs from throughout the singer’s short career. The first act opens with “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round” and ends with “Love Sick Blues.” The second act begins with “Sweet Dreams” and winds up with “Bill Bailey” (audience sing along encouraged.) Several songs get recognition applause. A sharp four-piece band in black cowboy hats accompanies the show (electronic keyboard, bass, drums, and fiddle doubling guitar).

Always . . . Patsy Cline has been staged here several times. This is at least the fourth production I’ve reviewed. Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre did a different Patsy Cline show earlier this season. Enough already with the Patsy Cline shows. Theater companies should shelve Always . . . Patsy Cline for a few years. But it rates revival in the future.

Always . . . Patsy Cline by Ted Swindley
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through June 30
2:00 p.m. Sunday, June 17 and 24

8:00 p.m. Thursday, June 21 and 28
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
$30
405-282-2800

Review: An American in Paris

Allison Walsh and McGee Maddox (l-r)                             Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
June 7, 2018

An American in Paris features ballet and a little tap dancing, which makes the show light on its feet. Such weightlessness can be good choreographically and bad dramatically. But late in the second act, this musical gains enough heft to leave the audience pretty much satisfied.

“Inspired by” the 1951 motion picture (starring Gene Kelly), the show is technically a jukebox musical. But, oh, what a jukebox! George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin wrote all the music. From “I Got Rhythm” to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the Gershwins created nary a weak song or false note. The playwright Craig Lucas wrote the book for the show, which opened on Broadway in 2015. This is the touring version, presented at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway series. It’s directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who won a Tony award for his dances.

The choreography consists almost completely of ballet, giving the show a distinctive look from today’s musical theater. (The cast biographies show much ballet experience.) But in the second act, Wheeldon brings out men in white tie and tails and women sporting spangling, feathery costumes tap dancing to “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”

Set in 1945 Paris, still in post-war shock, the show concerns Lise, who goes from being a French shop girl to prima ballerina while being wooed by two American ex-G.I.s and a Frenchman who are friends but don’t know, for a while, they’re romantic rivals.

More than about any other modern musical, this show requires true triple threats—and proficient in ballet, mind you—in the lead roles of Jerry Mulligan and Lise Dassin. McGee Maddox (whose name sounds like a character in a musical) displays the dancing, singing, and acting chops for the male lead. In fact, Maddox plays Jerry so well he makes it look easier than it surely must be. As Lise, Allison Walsh does everything Maddox does; she just does it with a credible French accent (her program bio does not indicate Walsh is French).

The rest of the cast do top-notch jobs. Matthew Scott plays Adam Hochberg, the other ex-G.I. (played by Oscar Levant in the film), a composer who struggles to complete a concerto while cracking wise. Ben Michael is Henri Baurel, Lise’s French wooer, who aspires to be a crooner playing Radio City Music Hall. Kirsten Scott nails the role of Milo Davenport, an American philanthropist angling for both a husband and modern art. The large ensemble of triple threats give fine performances. A thirteen-piece pit orchestra, large for a touring company, accompanies the show and is led by David Andrews Rogers, who often conducts for Lyric Theatre.

The production consists of a complicated combination of parts, which are always in motion. Bob Crowley designed the set and costumes, and they fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. An outfit called 59 Productions created animated projections, a prominent visual element of the show, sometimes to the point of almost overwhelming the cast. You see many references to mid-twentieth century art: a Picasso-like painting depicted in 3D; costumes for the long “An American in Paris” dance at the end look inspired by Mondrian.

In many ways, An American in Paris is an odd musical. The songs, setting, and period costumes reside in early to middle last century. Some innuendo about Henri’s sexuality and reflections on the Holocaust are current. Depicting the earlier period via a modern technological spectacle bridges the gap between the two in an unusual, but mostly pleasing, way.

An American in Paris by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics) and
Craig Lucas (book)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 7
8:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 8-9
2:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, June 9-10
7:00 p.m. Sunday, June 10
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
$33-$98
405-297-2264

 

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Rick Nelson and Andi Dema (l-r)                                    Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
June 3, 2018

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park has opened its summer season with a tedious, butt-numbing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The company is promoting the show as “family friendly.” If that means bring the children, it may not be a promising idea. Almost three hours of this muggy, sticky production could turn off youthful minds to Shakespeare, if not theater generally, forever.

It needn’t be this way. Dream lends itself to wide and creative interpretations by directors. It’s hard to say what director D. Lance Marsh is trying to do here. The costumes (by Elisa Bierschenk) look to be from an indeterminate time and place but not the present, with notable exceptions (those tee shirts and boxer shorts in the second act). It doesn’t look like ancient Athens, where Shakespeare set the play. Or any other Athens for that matter (Ohio? Georgia?). Flowers sprout from Puck’s head, while Oberon has grown several horns on his. Marsh throws in a few anachronisms, seemingly as an afterthought: one of the “rude mechanicals” wears modern eyeglasses; in an early scene, a fairy reads “Fairy Beat” magazine; Peter Quince pulls out a cellphone to check if the moon will shine the night of Theseus’s nuptials, among others.

Although they do the expected fine acting jobs, even seasoned professionals Rick Nelson (Theseus/Oberon) and Alissa Mortimer (Hyppolita/Titania) can’t lift the overall production. One problem is Nelson and Mortimer are mere humans. They need the extraordinary powers of the King and Queen of the Fairies to work the magic needed here. Wil Rogers’s hammy Nick Bottom bookends Andi Dema’s over-the-top Puck. The young actors who play the love quadrangle—Carley Dickey (Hermia), Harrison Langford (Lysander), Rachel Necessary (Helena), and Preston Chapman (Demetrius)—give performances filled with youthful exuberance. Mark Johnson makes kind of a sweet Peter Quince.

It doesn’t help that the moat around the Water Stage is horribly polluted. Trash and some kind of scum are floating on the water. I saw those giant gold fish or whatever they are nibbling at the pond scum. It looked tasty to the fish and watching them feed was more interesting than what was happening on stage at the time. Okay, here’s one good thing: I didn’t detect a foul odor from the moat (as has been the case in other summer seasons).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be sassier and saucier than the unfocused production OSP is putting on here. So, nobody’s perfect. The company is just starting on its 34th season. They have more theater to come.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through June 23 (no performance June 9)
Water Stage Myriad Gardens
301 W. Reno Ave.
$15-$20
1-800-838-3006

Review: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon                                                                                        Photo by Joan Marcus

By Larry Laneer
April 26, 2018

A touring production of the critically acclaimed, lavishly awarded, and wildly popular musical The Book of Mormon must contend with the show’s gargantuan reputation. How could the show possibly meet expectations? With a second touring production now playing in Oklahoma City, how could the show ever hold up to repeat viewing? Theatergoers, it holds up and seems as fresh as ever.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway series, the production is the touring version of the Broadway production, with the same creative team and directors. And the show features an outstanding cast.

Trey Parker (who co-directs the show), Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone together are credited with the book, music, and lyrics. Lopez composed the music for Avenue Q, and Parker and Stone created the animated comedy South Park. Thus, you get an appealing score in a variety of musical styles and humor that has few limits when it comes to raunchiness.

Despite the subject matter and content, the show bears all the conventions of a mid-twentieth-century book musical. It’s about two young Mormons who just graduated from missionary training and are sent on their two-year proselytizing tour with their “mission companion.” But instead of being sent to someplace exotic like Norway or Orlando, they draw an assignment to a rural village in Uganda. Can you say “culture clash”?

You’ve seen pairs of Mormon missionaries roaming the streets. They’ve probably rung your doorbell. If you think they couldn’t look any more ridiculous than they already do in their short-sleeved white shirts and neckties with name badges that identify 19-year-olds as “Elder” somebody, you’d be wrong. Casey Nicholaw’s choreography (he also co-directs with Parker) is a comedic feature of the show unto itself. It looks like a parody of traditional musical theater choreography. He even includes a tap number. Plus, the cast does the dances with skillful exuberance.

Kevin Clay and the hyperkinetic Conner Peirson play the missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Both are fine actors, singers, and dancers. Kayla Pecchioni is the sweet Ugandan, Nabulungi. The entire cast delivers strong performances.

The show’s strength lies in its skewering aspects of modern life, such as the preposterousness of organized religions. Granted, the Mormons are easy targets. The first act’s jaunty “Turn It Off” shows how people (and this doesn’t apply only to Mormons) deal with diseases, catastrophes, sexuality, or just the vicissitudes of life by consciously ignoring them. But the highlight is the second act’s “Joseph Smith American Moses,” where the Ugandans present (their version) of the Mormon story. The number employs ancient theatrical techniques, such as outrageous props, in unexpected ways. I won’t describe it more than that.

The production is top notch. The scenic design includes impressive wings and three-dimensional set pieces, which flow smoothly in numerous scene changes ranging from Salt Lake City to Africa, to, well, Hell. An ecclesiastical-like proscenium with an oscillating golden statue of Moroni at the top frames the stage. While heavily synthesized, the pit band sounds to me about the same as the original orchestration, which was for a 9-piece combo, including horns and strings.

The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in 2011 (where it’s still playing). It first played here around New Year’s 2015. I wasn’t sure if the show would have legs after seeing it then, but the current production erases all doubt. It’s a classic. One of those shows you’ll want to see about every 10 years or so.

The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone (book, music, and lyrics)
OKC Broadway

Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, 8:00 p.m. Friday, April 27
2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 28
1:30 p.m and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, April 29
201 N. Walker Ave.
$50-$162
405-297-2264