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: 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

Review: Fun Home

Taylor Yancey, Lyn Cramer, and Reese Freund in Fun Home             Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
April ­­­12, 2018

Well, theatergoers, it’s my pleasant duty to report that Lyric Theatre is putting on a genuine hit at the Plaza Theatre. This should come as no surprise, as Fun Home has been one of the most lauded and awarded musicals since it was first staged in 2013. This is just the type of edgy, provocative work Lyric should be doing at its 16th Street home.

The show is based on the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, “a lesbian cartoonist,” as she self-identifies early in the musical. With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, the show closely follows Bechdel’s memoir. The Bechdels live in a small Pennsylvania town where Alison’s father, Bruce, is a high school English teacher and funeral director at the Bechdel Funeral Home (the “fun home”). It’s not giving away anything to reveal that Bruce is gay (and deeply closeted), because Alison does so early in the show. The Bechdels are a classic dysfunctional American family.

That’s not to say they lack style and wit. They revel in music and good books. The mother plays classical piano. Bruce and Alison beat out a fine “Body and Soul” on the family grand piano to which they’ve written their own literary lyrics. But trouble brews beneath the intellectual and artistic façade.

This production deserves praise all around, so let’s start with the scenic design by Dawn Drake and lighting by Art Whaley. In a brilliant move, Lyric got Bechdel’s permission to use images from the book in the set design. Drake and Whaley adopted Bechdel’s bold, honest style for the entire set. And her color palette, which explains why glasses of sherry and wine look like they’re filled with Windex.

The story goes all over the place and back and forth in time. Three different actors play Alison at various ages. Michael Baron’s efficient staging keeps the show moving at a quick pace for two hours without intermission.

It’s almost unfair to single out particular performances, because the entire cast excels. But you will have your favorite moments. Mine begin with Taylor Yancey as Medium Alison. Her scenes with her first girlfriend in this coming-out story are some of the most intense ever seen on the Plaza stage. We look forward to seeing a lot more of Yancey.

Mateja Govich gives an unparalleled dramatic performance as Bruce. When Bruce begins to change late in the show, you can even see it in Govich’s face. Reese Freund carries a big load as Small Alison and shows extraordinary acting and singing chops for a young artist. As Alison’s mother, Mandy Jiran has her big moment in “Days and Days” late in the show in what may be her top performance after many years with Lyric. She also plays some fine piano.

Taylor Blackman in various roles and Coulter Hershey and Connor Willis as Alison’s younger, rambunctious brothers give strong performances. The Bechdel children make a completely inappropriate, but fun as hell, jingle for the funeral home in “Come to the Fun Home” early in the show.

Baron has made some interesting casting decisions. He cast Lyn Cramer as Alison. Cramer is one of our most highly regarded musical theater professionals as an actor, singer, director, and choreographer. The character Alison is 43 years old. Baron changed the dialog to make her 53, but Cramer is a bit older than that. Thus, Cramer is older than Govich and Jiran, who play her parents. This isn’t a flaw in the production. It means the show comes off as a memory play. Nothing’s wrong with that. Tennessee Williams did pretty well with his memory play, The Glass Menagerie. And it’s nice to see Cramer in the role.

Also, Baron cast Sandra Mae Frank, who happens to be deaf, as Alison’s first girlfriend, Joan. Frank was in Lyric’s 2016 American Sign Language production of Fiddler on the Roof. The show’s creators didn’t make the character deaf, but it doesn’t matter. As Frank signs, Joan’s dialog appears in projections in a Bechdel-like font. And Frank gives a feisty performance.

The show takes place in the 1970s, reflected with scary accuracy by Jeffrey Meeks’s costumes. Bruce would never wear a white belt with white shoes, but he’s not above plaid polyester trousers with a sport coat. Matthew Sipress’s choreography for “Come to the Fun Home” oozes with period accuracy.

You aren’t likely to walk out of the theater humming any of Tesori’s tunes, but her austere score fits well with this production and even has a few Coplandesque licks. It’s well played by a seven-piece onstage band that includes strings and woodwinds.

This show will not put a spring in your step; it’s not designed to do that. For some, it will be “there but for the grace of God go I.” But the show is that delightful convergence of worthy material and a quality production. It’s a theatergoer’s dream.

Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and 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 April 29
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
Tickets start at $45
405-524-9312

Review: Finding Neverland

Cast of Finding Neverland                                                                                         Photo by Jeremy Daniel

By Larry Laneer
March 16, 2018

It will take more than fairy dust to get the musical Finding Neverland off the ground. Fairy dust: I guess that’s what the glittery stuff swirling around the stage is. Even the shaggy dog that elicits entrance “aaws” isn’t enough.

Based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee and on the 2004 motion picture Finding Neverland, both of which were inspired by true events, the show is about
J. M. Barrie and his writing the play Peter Pan. But shows about writing are hard to do, because writing consists mainly of someone sitting and staring at a blank piece of paper (or blank computer screen). So the creators (Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, music and lyrics; James Graham, book) tell about Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, to wit, a widow with four rambunctious boys.

What the production’s thin story line lacks in substance, it tries to make up for in volume. The thumping, seat-shaking first-act finale is louder than the second-act finale.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord as part of the OKC Broadway touring series, the show engages the audience visually but falls flat dramatically. The pop score is pleasant enough. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s period costumes are fine.

But Scott Pask’s scenic design, Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and projections by Jon Driscoll create impressive visuals. The set consists mainly of flat wings and a backdrop on which the projections depict 1903 London streets, an empty stage, verdant Kensington Gardens, a roiling sea, billowing clouds, other clouds that drift by a full moon, and what looks like a Barrie nightmare worthy of The Twilight Zone. The high tech is fine, but what Posner’s lighting does with shadows is equally effective. And projecting shadows is about as low tech as you can get. Other three-dimensional set pieces and props add various degrees of realism. This design team also did the Broadway production of 2015-2016. The director Diane Paulus and choreographer Mia Michaels from the Broadway show staged this version.

Will Ray gets lots of stage time as Barrie, while the bubbly Lael Van Keuren plays the widow. None other than John Davidson (yes, of Hollywood Squares fame) plays the American theatrical producer who puts Peter Pan on the boards. Davidson’s long, gray ponytail surely would have looked unusual for a man in the character’s position in 1903 London.

A highly synthesized eight-piece band accompanies the show. This ranks about average for a touring production orchestra.

At one point, Barrie advises the real Peter, inspiration for the Pan, “Life is too absurd to be taken seriously.” In these days and times, it’s hard to argue with that.

Finding Neverland by James Graham (book) and Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics)
OKC Broadway
8:00 p.m., Friday, March 16
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Saturday, March 17
2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., Sunday March 18
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
$44-$119
405-297-2264