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

Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In

By Larry Laneer
July 22, 2020

As far as the theatrical world goes, not much good has come out of this pandemic, but we have some artists giving it their best shot. One delightful surprise has been Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In. PTC’s artistic director, W. Jerome Stevenson, has conducted video interviews with some of our leading theatrical artists and made them available on the company’s web site. The interviews are in the tradition of James Lipton on television’s Inside the Actors Studio. You hear the interviewees say their favorite curse word.

Stevenson said the idea for the program originated with the company’s board of directors. All interviewees have worked at some time with PTC.

Theatergoers have seen the work of these artists for years, if not decades. It’s nice to get to know them personally and hear their experiences. The director/choreographer/actor Matthew Sipress speaks movingly about being in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway and seeing Carol Channing at the top of the stairs in the title number. Choreographer Hui Cha Poos and Stevenson have a thoughtful discussion about the art and current issues of the day. (Her dances for PTC’s In the Heights in 2014 still linger in my mind.)

Kolby Kindle, a young actor from Edmond who was in In the Heights, has embarked on a successful career in touring musicals. He was in Australia with Come From Away when theater shut down. Brenda Williams and Elin Bhaird detail their long careers on the stage. In aggregate, how many shows have theatergoers seen these two wonderful actors in? It must be in the high two figures, if not three.

And anyone would benefit from spending time with the great Albert Bostick, who grew up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Bostick is a master teacher and performer who has worked in about every art form, both performing and graphic.

Stevenson conducted the interviews remotely, and they all run about an hour. He always asks about the artist’s “point of no return,” when they knew theater was to be their world. We hear about their education and training and how they broke into their first theatrical jobs. Every interview is laced with humor; some are disturbing.

Stevenson said he hopes to continue these interviews “even after we’ve found a way back to our preferred art.” It would be a treat to see our top theatrical artists interviewed live with a chance for questions from the audience.

More episodes of Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In will be available, including one soon with Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre artistic director Donald Jordan.

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

Review: The Cat in the Hat

The cast of The Cat in the Hat                                                                         Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
January 27, 2020

You never can tell what you’ll get when you go to the theater. What may look good on paper can flop onstage. A case in point is Lyric Theatre’s The Cat in the Hat, adapted from the popular children’s book by Dr. Seuss and now at the Plaza. It would seem you couldn’t go wrong with Dr. Seuss, but under certain circumstances, you can. This show is a surprising disappointment, considering the tremendous success Lyric had last season with the children-oriented Curious George: The Golden Meatball.

The problem is although it’s fun for young readers to read, The Cat in the Hat does not cut it as material for the stage. The thin storyline doesn’t come to much of a point, unless it’s “pick up your playthings.” And at the end of this production, the cast raises doubts in the minds of children about whether they should withhold important information from parents.

Speaking of parents, most of them around me at the reviewed performance sat mainly stone- faced. A man who looked as if he could be someone’s great-grandfather slept through most of the show. The production runs just under 45 minutes, and I didn’t see much restlessness, but who knows what would have happened if it lasted much longer.

Katie Mitchell did the stage adaption, which was produced originally by the National Theatre of Great Britain. Lyric is doing the show as a co-production with Adventure Theatre in Washington, D.C., where it was designed and originated. Scenic designer Matthew Buttrey and lighting designer Alberto Segarra (with assistance from Fabian J. Garcia, a Lyric regular) have given the production a colorful look that recreates Dr. Seuss’s style down to some detail. Sound designer Evan Cook (with assistance from Bryson Ezell, another Lyric regular) makes sound effects ranging from realistic to cartoonish. Notice the splash when the fish dives back into her bowl. Danielle Preston’s costumes blend in with the rest of the design.

Oddly, the production employs a recorded score that seems to include no original music. The music is incidental; this is not a musical, although it includes a little dancing. Some of the music is so familiar it seems out of place here, Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme and the “Final Jeopardy” music from television’s Jeopardy, for example You even hear a few bars of the ominous minor second from Jaws.

Directed by Adam Immerwahr, the youthful cast presses on gamely acting and manipulating puppets. Josiah Brooks plays the eponymous cat in the hat. Eli Bradley plays Boy and Kalyn Glover is his sister, Sally. As Fish, Lexi Windsor brings some experience and solidity to the cast. Operating puppets, Katelyn Curtain plays Thing 1/Kitten 1, and at the reviewed performance, Jonah White was Thing 2/Kitten 2 (Kaleb Michael Bruza usually plays these roles). Regular listeners to NPR’s All Things Considered will recognize the recorded voice of Ari Shapiro as the Narrator.

Be sure to stay afterward for questions and answers. Cast members introduce themselves and tell their colleges and hometowns and take questions from the audience. One youth asked how long they rehearsed the show (five hours per rehearsal for two weeks). A lad asked how they “make the lights go on and off real fast,” which let the cast explain the strobe effect and introduce the light crew seated behind and above the audience. A girl asked if Thing 1 and Thing 2 are boys or girls (Thing 1, a boy; Thing 2, a girl). Another girl asked about the “sticks” she could see onstage. A cast member explained sheepishly the sticks are used to manipulate “rod puppets” and are painted a color to camouflage them, so they blend in with the scenery. It didn’t work for at least one viewer. Alas, just like much of the show.

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, adapted by Katie Mitchell
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
10:00 a.m. Thursdays, 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Fridays, 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Saturdays, 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Sundays, through February 9
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
405-524-9312

Review: Miss Saigon

Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista in Miss Saigon                                  Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
January 16, 2020

It takes a real tragedy to make you feel good at the theater. And the more they pour on the spectacle, the better it gets. A case in point is the musical Miss Saigon, the Vietnam War story that’s based on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an earlier operatic drama about havoc wreaked by Americans in Asia. Both the opera and the musical today raise whole new controversies.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord as part of the OKC Broadway touring series, this production is the road version of the 2017-2018 Broadway revival, directed by Laurence Connor. Set in Saigon and other locations between 1975 and 1978, Miss Saigon closely follows the Madama Butterfly story line. An American soldier (Chris) meets a young Vietnamese woman (Kim) and love ensues, although they may not have the same understanding about the true nature of the relationship.

With a score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., Alain Boublil, and Michael Mahler, this musical is operatic. The sung-through score soars from aria to—oh, sorry—song to song, while a large cast fights through war and its aftermath. The original London and Broadway productions of this 1989 show famously featured a realistic helicopter flying onstage. When the first touring version of the show played here in 2004, the aircraft was depicted in an inadequate video. Stagecraft has made advances since then, and this production includes a pretty good onstage helicopter.

The production design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley features large set pieces that move fluidly through many scene changes. Projections by Luke Halls, chiaroscuro lighting by Bruno Poet, Andreane Neofitou’s costumes, and Mick Potter’s sound design combine to create a spectacle worthy of grand opera. A few times, this production even sounds like it’s being sung in a foreign language. Miss Saigon isn’t a dancing show, but Bob Avian’s musical staging features some acrobatic moves in the first act.

The first-rate cast gives strong performances throughout the show. Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) have convincing chemistry, strong singing voices, and solid acting chops.  J. Daughtry goes from jerk to humanitarian as the soldier John. Jinwoo Jung as Thuy (and Thuy’s ghost!) and Ellie Fishman as Ellen are fine in featured roles. As The Engineer, Red Concepción is excellent as the smarmy opportunist. Actually, the character illustrates achingly  the desperation many people find themselves in during times of strife. Conceptión’s second act “The American Dream” rings ruefully true. At the reviewed performance, young Ryker Huetter as Tam got the loudest curtain call; I bet this happens no matter who plays the role.

Recently, some commentators have raised legitimate objections about the opera and musical regarding racism and denigration of Asian women. You will get no disagreement about that from me. But I saw the show with a friend who lived in Saigon until 1979, and she was then only a few years younger than Kim is in the show. My friend said she did not see the musical as racist or denigrating. In fact, she said Miss Saigon depicts precisely life in the city and the desperate measures some young women like Kim had to take at the time.

Like art works throughout history, Miss Saigon shows war to be what it is:  Hell for everyone, not just the soldiers and those in the theater of war. Will humanity ever learn its lesson? I’m not optimistic.

Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr.,
Alain Boublil, and Michael Mahler
(lyrics)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 16, 8:00 p.m. Friday, January 17, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 18, 1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, January 19
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

By Larry Laneer
December 9, 2019

Pollard Theatre Company has revived It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from last season. I see a few changes from the previous staging. But the production is still so far off the mark, it could be accused of false advertising.

PTC put its long-running A Territorial Christmas Carol on hold last year, replacing it with It’s a Wonderful Life. On paper, this looks like a great idea. The playwright Joe Landry adapted Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” and Frank Capra’s 1946 film into this stage version. Landry sets the play in the late 1940s, when dramas were performed on radio before live audiences. The actors wear period clothing, read from scripts, and a sound-effects man provides slamming doors, splashing water, breaking glass, punches to the jaw, among numerous other noises.

I saw this play at the University of Oklahoma in 2006, so I can vouch for the script’s worthiness. In fact, it’s great fun to see actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in conversation with themselves, and the clever ways sound effects are created. If you close your eyes, you can hear the show as if it’s on the radio. That’s the point of Landry’s adaptation. Radio dramas take place mainly in audience members’ imaginations.

The PTC production begins true to the script, following the movie storyline. George Bailey strives to save the family savings and loan in Bedford Falls, New York, and gets into such a mess, he’s thinking of ending it all. He wishes he’d never been born.

But about an hour into the show, director W. Jerome Stevenson spoils the magic of a live radio drama by inexplicably inserting an intermission into the production. Radio dramas do not go off the air for 15 minutes, so audiences can take care of business or buy drinks at the bar. What I guess would be called the “second act” takes up where the story left off, but before long Stevenson completely abandons the live radio play conceit. The lights change and the actors put down their scripts and go off microphone, performing as if this were a conventional stage play. Oddly, the sound-effects man continues his work.

It took me a while from last season’s production to figure out what Stevenson is doing. The switch away from the live radio play comes in the scene where the angel, Clarence, saves Bailey from doing away with himself by drowning and, then, shows him what would have happened if he had never been born, Bailey’s expressed wish. In the movie, this scene is fantastical. Angels do not come to Earth and show people what life would be like if they’d never been born. Stevenson seems to be trying to achieve the same fantastical effect by changing the production from a live radio play to a 21st-century stage drama.

Landry has not written the script this way, so why Stevenson would make these intrusions is beyond me. Throughout the production, Stevenson lays a heavy hand on the show. He has actors constantly moving around the stage to different microphones and has them pantomime action in the script (such as eating or talking on telephones). Would radio actors do these things?

Stevenson is the director; he can do whatever he wants.  But some fine performances are lost in the superfluity. Joshua McGowen plays a credible George Bailey, although you may wonder why the upstate New York character sometimes lapses into a Southern drawl. James A. Hughes is terrific as Old Man Potter and in several other roles. Kara Chapman and Kris Schinske Wolf play multiple females. The always-solid David Fletcher-Hall is Clarence, the angel second class. Timothy Stewart does a fine job in several roles. So, you see the production has a highly qualified cast.

This play is an excellent fit for PTC. The theater makes a realistic setting as a radio studio. If the company would do the script as a live radio play, replace the recorded music with a musician (an organist!), make the sound effects even better than they are, and let the actors focus on creating characters without a lot of extraneous running around, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play could be a highlight of any theatrical season. But, alas, it is now an opportunity missed.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through December 22
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800