Review: Almost, Maine

Timothy Stewart, Renee Krapff, and Kris Schinske Wolfe in Almost, Maine
Photo by Jennifer Jones

By Larry Laneer
February 18, 2019

Pollard Theatre Company has brought us a popular trifle titled Almost, Maine by John Cariani. The play takes place in the fictional berg of Almost, Maine, and the characters will be familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town anywhere. But the overall effect is as insubstantial as the artificial snow that covers the Pollard Theatre stage.

 Almost, Maine isn’t really a play. It’s series of 11 loosely connected scenes about that old dramatic staple, to wit, L-O-V-E. In this cubic zirconia of amour, the author focuses on various facets of the subject: the awkwardness, broken hearts, breakups, chance encounters, reconciliation, travail of dating, falling in love (a little too literally), falling out of love, dashed hopes, and the inconvenience of layering (as in clothes). A few seasons ago this was the most produced play in the country (by any playwright not named Shakespeare). It’s hard to say why. Well, no it isn’t. The play is relatively inexpensive to stage: four actors, minimal scenery, few props, off-the-rack costumes, no musicians.

The playwright hasn’t given director Matthew Alvin Brown a lot of substantial material here. Much of the storyline and dialog are predictable or repetitious, with a couple of notable exceptions. The “Story of Hope” scene has some delicious, wince-inducing dialog. Some things in the play could not happen in real life, usually to comic effect.

Brown has cast four of our top actors in the show: Timothy Stewart, Jared Blount, Kris Schinske Wolfe, and Renee Krapff. They play various characters who run the gamut from goofy to jilted to hopeful. Schinske Wolfe and Krapff are similar actors, both highly professional and accomplished at their work. Their voices range from screeching sirens to smoky contraltos. They play comic and serious roles with equal sharpness. Stewart and Blount are a study in contrast but are natural fits in their roles here. In their only scene together, Stewart’s facial expressions say more than the dialog, to great effect.

The uncredited scenic design consists of side wings of horizontal boards and a few vertical pillars in a greenish color that suggest the land around Almost, which if it really existed would be in far northern Maine. An upstage park bench plays an important role. Brown leaves a prop or two from each scene onstage, so by the end, the stage holds detritus of Almost life. This must be some device to link the scenes into a whole.

The play takes place during a Maine winter, and Michael James’s costumes look like a mix of L.L. Bean and thrift store. W. Jerome Stevenson’s lighting suggests the northern lights in some scenes, and you can see the starry night viewable around a remote outpost like Almost.

Like dry snowflakes on warm terra firma, this wisp of a play evaporates as soon as it hits the ground. Maybe more of that fake snow at the denouement would help.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani
Polllard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through March 2
2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 24
8:00 p.m. Thursday, February 28
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

Review: Twelfth Night

Kaleb Michael Bruza in Twelfth Night                                    Photo Provided

By Larry Laneer
February 11, 2019

In this cold season, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park offers up a warm surprise in its nifty staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Theatergoers suffered through a lack of quality play productions last year, so let’s hope this show presages things to come in 2019.

Directed by Kathryn McGill at OSP’s Paseo space, the play involves separated twins, a favorite Shakespearean theme. A ship carrying twins Viola and Sebastian sinks, and each thinks the other has drowned. But they wash up separately on the shores of Illyria. Viola disguises herself as the eunuch Cesario to get into the court of Orsino, duke of Illyria, where she falls in love with him, while he is infatuated with Olivia, a rich countess. Orsino sends Cesario (that is, Viola in disguise) to help woo Oliva, and the countess falls in love with “him.” Soon, Viola realizes Olivia loves her (as Cesario), while Viola loves Orsino, and Orsino loves Olivia. Confused? So is Viola. She says: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.”

McGill has brought together an outstanding cast, several of whom are new. Jessa Schinske could hardly be a more appealing as Viola. Emotions riddle the character. She has just lost her twin brother, disguised herself as a young man, fallen love with the duke, and become the object of an older woman’s eye—all in the play’s first five scenes. Schinske’s strong performance ranges from heartfelt to slapstick.

Kaleb Michael Bruza as the fool Feste, Stephen Hilton as Sir Toby Belch, and Nicholas Sumpter as Sir Andrew Aguecheek give the show a comedic edge. Bruza’s Feste is an agent provocateur (like Trump’s Roger Stone!). As Sir Toby, the seasoned professional Hilton gives the production a credibility few other actors could achieve. (Interestingly, for all the time Bruza and Hilton have worked in city theater, this is their first OSP show.) Sumpter plays Sir Andrew as a slightly addled, if benign, goofball. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew could be called the Two Stooges.

As Olivia, Sarah Lomize goes from widow’s weeds to full cougar in pursuit of young Cesario. Onnika Hanson pulls androgynous triple duty in three roles, one female and two males (McGill changed Antonio to Antonia) and nails the trio in a remarkable supporting performance. Lindsey Rollins is excellent as Maria, and she’s a terrific singer.

Jordan Nicholes as Orsino and Kris Kuss as Sebastian (both new to me) give fine performances with relatively little stage time compared to the other characters. Theatergoers should look forward to seeing more of them.

None other than Hal Kohlman does a top-notch job (no surprise) as Malvolio. The character comes as close to being a villain as Twelfth Night has, but Kohlman’s performance gains the audience’s sympathy. His final exit at the reviewed performance drew “aws” from the audience.

McGill has done something interesting with the relationship between Orsino and Viola disguised as the young man Cesario. The older Orsino, who has been relentlessly pursuing Oliva, seems somewhat mystified by his attraction to Cesario. McGill skillfully keeps it subtle, but you can see hands held a little too long, a lingering look, or an innocent, but suggestive, kiss on the forehead. Of course, at the end Orsino and Viola get together, but McGill has given a contemporary tint to the play.

The production’s design also bends time. Emily Herrera’s tasteful costumes look like they range from 1950 back to about 1750. Scenic design by Robert Rickner replicates an Elizabethan theater in miniature with a Juliet balcony upstage center flanked by two matching wooden doors. OSP’s Paseo venue can be frustrating. This production takes place on a raised platform at one end of the long, rectangular space. Sightlines are pretty good for the most part.

The production features a fine musical score. In addition to acting in the show, Hilton and Bruza set Shakespeare’s lyrics to music and composed two original songs. Hilton’s jaunty “Magic in the Moonlight” opens and closes the second act and sounds like it could have been written in 1919. The entire cast sings and plays accompaniment on guitar (Hilton), banjo (Bruza), soprano saxophone (Kuss), and light percussion. Bruza also takes a turn on accordion early in the show.

Overall, the production is more sweetly good-natured than hilariously side-splitting. But the show better be good because it runs almost three hours. It’s a nice start to the year for plays.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through March 2
2:00 p.m. Sundays, February 17and 24
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
2920 Paseo

Review: On Your Feet!

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and company in On Your Feet!  Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
February 7, 2019

One could note the jukebox musical On Your Feet! leaves the audience on their feet, but every show at the Thelma Gaylord, no matter how mediocre, gets a standing ovation, so that’s no big deal. The production does have high energy that’s way beyond the weightiness of the show.

As part of the OKC Broadway touring series, On Your Feet! tells the middle-class-to-riches story of pop singer Gloria Estefan, who flourished late in the last century. With music by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and book by Alexander Dinelaris, the show has its musical and visual charms but seems flimsy compared to how the singer actually achieved world-wide fame.

The Estefans’ story has enough tragedies and triumphs to fill an evening of musical theater. The couple’s families fled Cuba when Castro came to power. Gloria’s father suffered multiple sclerosis after serving as an Army captain in Vietnam. The family lived a modest, if comfortable, life in Miami. Gloria studied psychology in college, but her first love was music. Encouraged by her grandmother, she attracted the attention of Emilio Estefan and the band Miami Latin Boys, which became Miami Sound Machine when Gloria joined the group while still a teenager. Her mother’s opposition to Gloria’s going on the road with the band led to a years-long rift between them. Gloria and Emilio struggled for airplay on radio stations and in dance clubs. They got flak from record company executives. A devastating tour bus crash could have rendered Gloria permanently paralyzed (but didn’t). Gloria achieved huge success as a pop music superstar and, eventually, a Kennedy Center Honors.

The score consists entirely of music from the Estefan songbook, although one number was written just for this show. Songs are performed as if in rehearsal or performance or as non-diegetic songs. (In non-diegetic songs, which are common in musicals, the characters are not aware they are singing. “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music is an example of a diegetic song, because Captain von Trapp is singing it to other characters in the show.) This works out more smoothly than you might think and better than in some jukebox musicals (we’re looking at you Mamma Mia!)

Directed by Jerry Mitchell, this production does have the flashy look and sound the music demands. David Rockwell’s scenic design features tall moving panels that float around the stage and a backdrop, which display the many locations where the story takes place. Kenneth Posner’s excellent lighting comes off both subtle and (literally) in your face. Costumes by Emilio Sosa start with soft tones in the Latin neighborhoods of Miami and grow more glittery in a pre-revolution Havana nightclub and as Gloria gains fame. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography stays period authentic and is danced sharply by the cast.

A 10-piece onstage band highlights the show. And they can wail. In an age when touring shows come through with a couple of wheezing synthesizers and a drummer, this band gives the production a musical edge.

Christie Prades and Eddie Noel play Gloria and Emilio, both fine. Gloria aficionados can weigh in on the credibility of Prades as the singer. Her voice has an appealing smoky quality at times. Nancy Ticotin gives a strong performance as Gloria’s mother. Debra Cardona wins over the audience as the grandmother. At the reviewed performance, young Jeanpaul Medina Solano kept up with the adult dancers by literally shaking a leg and ending his steps with a cartwheel. This music needs exuberant, strong performances, and the cast gives the production a solid core.

One problem with doing show about real people is the audience knows how the story ends before leaving home for the theater. Mitchell and Dinelaris don’t find a way to create dramatic tension or suspense. No matter the disagreement between Gloria and her mother, regardless of the Estefans’ frustration at getting their music heard beyond weddings and bar mitzvahs, never mind the nearly career-ending bus accident, you know everything will be fine. It’s possible to create dramatic interest in a true story, but it doesn’t happen in this show.

Gloria Estefan fans may not care about those details. They like taking a time machine for two-and-a-half hours back to the singer’s heyday and their own giddy youth. (A woman near me sniffled through the scene with Gloria in her hospital bed.)  This well-done production will put some theatergoers on their feet. For others, it might bring tears—or produce yawns.

On Your Feet! by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine (music) and Alexander Dinelaris (book)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through February10
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
Ticket prices vary