Reivew: Pride and Prejudice

Grace Evans, Michael Page, and Elizabeth Ann Townsend in
Pride and Prejudice                                         Photo Provided

By Larry Laneer
September 19, 2021

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park has brought back “in the Park” after a brief flirtation with just Oklahoma Shakespeare. So, we have the alliterative Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park is putting on Pride and Prejudice on the Paseo. Other than that not much more can be said about the show.

Erin Woods adapted the popular Jane Austen novel for the stage. Alissa Mortimer directs this production at OSP’s new and still-developing outdoor venue. Woods’s script sticks to the novel in spirit and storyline. Several epistolary monologues keep the action going. Mortimer’s staging moves efficiently through many scene changes, using only lighting (by Rebekah Garrett) and a few props. Thus, Woods’s script and Mortimer’s direction come off as, well, Shakespearean.

With young actors cast in certain roles, the play looks and sounds like a college production. It feels every bit of its two-and-a-half hour running time. The few dances, which are done to recorded music, could be cut and not be missed.

In the novel and play, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett face the complications of marrying off five daughters with little to offer as dowries. A legal entailment encumbers Bennett’s substantial, if not lavish, estate, so it can be inherited only by a male heir. Marriage is as much a business transaction as it is a romance in this story.

As the Bennetts, Michael Page and Elizabeth Ann Townsend give the production some maturity and gravitas it would lack without them. Townsend’s Mrs. Bennet flips back and forth between exasperation and delight. Bianca Bulgarelli shows emotional range as Elizabeth Bennett, and Kirby Dixon Crosbie is fine as Jane Bennett. Kamron McClure plays Mr. Darcy with studied aloofness. Matthew Alvin Brown tries to add a little levity with some extraneous mugging. When Mr. Bingley (Nick Hone) proposed on bended knee to Jane and she accepted, it drew audience applause. That’s the production’s high point.

OSP is still experimenting with its new outdoor space. For this production, they placed shotgun microphones in front of the stage. The amplification gives the voices a subtle foundation without drowning out the actors. In two shows done here this summer, the acoustics have been surprisingly good, considering the stage has no roof.

At least, the production looks sharp, up to the standards we expect from OSP. The action takes place before a floral and greenery background by Catherine Pitt. Lloyd Cracknell’s early-19th-century costumes are in muted, pleasing colors with nice detail.

Casting college students and recent graduates as the Bennett daughters and their suitors fits the story. This production would be stronger and more enjoyable to watch with age-appropriate actors in all roles.

Pride and Prejudice, based on the novel by Jane Austen, adapted for the stage
by Erin Woods

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, through October 3
Shakespeare Gardens
2920 Paseo
405-235-3700

Review: Master Class

Jennie Rupp (left) and Natalie Cordone in Master Class   Photo by Miki Galloway

By Larry Laneer
September 16, 2021

Lyric Theatre continues to ease theater back into existence with an engaging production of Master Class by Terrence McNally, who died last year of Covid. Directed by Michael Baron at the Water Stage, this play with music brings to life the great Greek soprano Maria Callas, La Divina to fans.

Master Class reportedly was inspired by an actual master class Callas gave at Julliard shortly before her death in 1977. I’ve sat in on some master classes, and the play looks authentic. Callas hails from the tear-them-down-so-you-can-build-them-back-up school of pedagogy. She refers to students as “victims” and, then, immediately says it’s a joke. She’s imperious and in turn both solidly confident and paralyzingly insecure. She asks her husband before a performance if he has “paid the claque.”

In a scene in each act, the lights change, and Callas is alone on stage. Her superego turns off, and we see her backstory. Callas survived the Second World War in Athens, required to perform for Nazis. She has to decide between having a pencil for music lessons or a rare orange for food. She opts for the pencil (every music student will get the joke). Both earthy and disturbing, the scenes give one an appreciation for the nearly overwhelming circumstances Callas overcame for her art. It explains why she considers the theater and stage and opera as sacred. In opera, these would be called “mad scenes.”

So, the play depicts in gritty detail the life of a great artist. The actor playing Callas carries the entire two-and-a-half-hour show practically by herself. The supporting cast has few lines of dialog and not much singing (Callas keeps interrupting them).

Lyric has brought in actor/singer Natalie Cordone for the job (she and Baron are fellow theater alumni from Wake Forest). The role is like a Paganini concerto for violinists. If you can do it, it’s a great chance to show off skill and artistry. Cordone gives one of the most remarkable performances seen here in many seasons. You have to admire an artist who can memorize pages and pages of dialog and deliver them with convincing force and feeling. Cordone never leaves the stage once she enters (Callas is big on entrances). Cordone sings a few bars of Verdi and makes one want to hear more. I don’t know of many roles in modern drama that require this much sheer stamina. Music and theater students should take the rare opportunity to see this play and Cordone’s performance.

Lyric has cast three sets of performers in the roles of Callas’s students, all of whom are current music students or recent graduates. At the reviewed performance, Jennie Rupp,  Macey Trussell, and Christopher Richie, all from Oklahoma City University, were notably fine. With few lines of dialog, they nail the clueless awe and nervousness of students in the master class of a living legend.

Jan McDaniel plays Manny, the pianist who accompanies the master class. McDaniel may have played this part in real life. His Manny is both flattering and aloof.

Uldarico Sarmiento’s scenic design and Fabian J. Garcia’s lighting take us into a modern, woody recital hall, as much as is possible on the outdoor Water Stage. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes are tastefully fashionable for Callas and accurately inappropriate for the singers, just what you would expect from college students on a tight budget.

The actors wear microphones, and the sound is amped up enough to drown out their voices most of the time. You see the actors on stage and hear their voices coming from the right side of the theater. This diminishes the experience, but under the circumstances, it may the best Lyric can do. It would be nice to see this play unamplified at the Plaza Theatre.

As far as I know, this 1995 play has never been staged here before. I don’t know why it has taken so long. Maybe the word “opera” scares producers and artistic directors.

Late in the second act, Callas asks the audience what we would do without artists. When McNally wrote the play, it was a rhetorical question. Now that we’ve experienced a year and a half largely without art, we can answer the question in fact. Without artists and the arts, we live in a grossly bleak world. To live a full life, we need the arts as much as we need food, water, and air. Theatergoers can now partake at the Water Stage.

Master Class by Terrence McNally
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through October 3
Myriad Botanical Gardens Water Stage
301 W. Reno Ave.
405-524-9312

Review: The 39 Steps

Jessa Schinske and Wil Rogers in The 39 Steps                         Photo by Jared Blount

By Larry Laneer
August 8, 2021

Good news, theatergoers, Pollard Theatre Company is back in business. They’re putting on what some may think would be a crowd pleaser, but that is questionable.

Patrick Barlow adapted The 39 Steps for the stage from an unreadable novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same title. The play’s spy thriller-murder mystery plot is hackneyed beyond all get out. The novel is worse, and the movie is about as bad. This stage version of The 39 Steps was created to display clever uses of props, quick costume changes, wordplay, and a wide variety of characters and accents.

The director Jared Blount has assembled an outstanding cast, each actor suited smartly to their role or roles. As the English fop Richard Hannay, Wil Rogers brings leading-man good looks and a studied aloofness to the character. His Hannay has sangfroid. Under extreme circumstances, he never cracks, although you think he comes close a couple of times. It’s nice to see the experienced and capable Rogers anchor this production.

Playing three female roles, Jessa Schinske almost commits grand larceny by making off with the show herself. Schinske has a distinctive voice, and here she employs it in a wide range of accents, timbres, and volumes. In an early scene, she plays Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious German caught up in a spy ring. When Schmidt asks Hannay if he wants to be “involved,” Schinske pronounces the “v” with the “w” sound: inwolved. (Some German speakers make this error. I have a friend from German-speaking Switzerland who pronounces “vegetables” as “wegtables.”) This wordplay must have come from Blount and Schinske; it’s not written that way in the script I consulted. This is the type of detail that marks an extraordinary performance.

David Fletcher-Hall and Kris Kuss play characters called Clown 1 and Clown 2, but really, they are actors, stagehands, and props movers. The play may appear to be written with leading and supporting roles but in fact, it has an ensemble cast. Fletcher-Hall and Kuss have the expert acting chops to pull off a wide range of characters and accents and impressive physical comedy. Some moments are brilliant, such as when Fletcher-Hall switches between playing a railroad porter and policemen in one scene.

The production relies heavily on recorded sound effects and music. You will recognize much of the music, which has been lifted from Hitchcock film scores.

The complete focus on spectacle is both the play’s strength and weakness. The stagecraft and stage business aren’t equaled by a storyline and characters that are no more than caricatures. In what is supposedly a comedy, the audience has much to admire in this show but little to laugh at out loud. Despite some excellent performances and mainly solid direction, the show is less than the sum of its parts. I’ve reviewed three productions of The 39 Steps (two by Pollard), and, alas, this surplus of schtick and lack of depth has been the same with all three.

Blount has replaced W. Jerome Stevenson as Pollard’s artistic director. He has already put some fresh programing ideas into place. As Pollard and other theater companies ease back into business, it’s a good time to rethink what theater companies are doing.

The 39 Steps adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and based on the Alfred Hitchcock motion picture
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through August 22, and 8:00 p.m. Thursdays, August 19 and 26
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Larry Laneer
August 1, 2021

What a joy it is to behold a stage of mask-less actors. You can catch this phenomenon now in a vastly uneven production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Oklahoma Shakespeare (formerly Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park).

The company has opened a new performance venue called Oklahoma Shakespeare Gardens behind its Paseo location. It’s an outdoor stage with a slightly sloping lawn where audience members can set up blankets or lawn chairs. Oklahoma Shakespeare encourages picnicking and BYOB. The space has an intimate charm and recalls the company’s nascence. It’s a miniature version of Edmond’s Hafer Park where the company began in 1985. Other improvements also have been made with a renovated indoor theater opening later and, equally important, more restrooms. The acoustics are pretty good, and directors will continue to figure how best to use the space.

The director Kathryn McGill gives this production a modernish setting with pop music, modern acting, and contemporary costumes (by Chloe Mullin), except for the fairies. Oberon looks like a goth sailing ship, and the fairies wear unfortunate tutus in green and lime green. I’m not sure how to describe Puck, except to say they sport a black porkpie-like hat with eye goggles.

Matthew Alvin Brown plays Theseus and Oberon, surprisingly in his first work with Oklahoma Shakespeare and reportedly his first Shakespeare ever. Not surprisingly, Brown gives a fine, coolly restrained performance. His Oberon comes off as the benign leader of a hippie commune as much as king of the fairies.

Nikki Mar, who won fans last year as Juliet, plays Hermia opposite Bell Reeves as Helena. Together, they provide high points of the show. Both can be convincingly indignant and love struck in turn. Their love interests are played by Josue Dooley as Lysander and Austin Lewis as Demetrius in strong performances.

Levi Hawkins shows real promise as Puck. I’d like to see this young actor in more and different roles.

The always solid Mariah Warren is Hippolyta and Titania, but she seems underused here. Michael Page is commanding as Egeus and timorous as Snout. Nicholas Bartell, Justin Marlow, and Andrea Beasley play double roles, all fine.

Then, we have Doug Brown as Nick Bottom. First, it’s great to see him on stage again. You can see why McGill would cast him as Bottom. Brown can play comedy with universal appeal and here wins over the audience from his first lines on stage. But then, things go terribly wrong.

McGill does a fine job keeping the play moving often at a farcical pace. That is, until the production bogs down late in the second act during the performance by the “rude mechanicals” of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the play-within-a-play. As Bottom, Doug Brown does a death scene by pantomiming Grand Guignol in which he chomps the scenery, regurgitates it, gnaws it some more, and, then, does the same thing over again stage right. At this point, he’s about a third of the way through the scene. This interminable stoppage of action drew heckling from the audience at the reviewed performance. Alas, McGill and Brown forgot the old show business admonishment to leave the audience wanting more.

We’re still in a grace period with theater. It’s been so long since theatergoers have been in the room where it happens (please forgive the Hamilton reference) under normal, mask-less conditions, so we appreciate any competent, live performance. Oklahoma Shakespeare and other companies are doing their best to restart theater season under safe conditions for casts, crews, and audiences. Goodness knows theatergoers appreciate their efforts.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Oklahoma Shakespeare
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, through August 15
Oklahoma Shakespeare Gardens
2920 Paseo
405-235-3700 or www.okshakes.org

Review: Grease

Cast of Grease                                               Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
June 16, 2021

Can you believe Grease turns 50 this year? Any production today will likely have cast members whose parents are younger than the show. That could be the case with the version Lyric Theatre is putting on now.

Lyric has done a fine job in 2021 bringing us (mostly) live performances in outdoor venues. Theatergoers greatly appreciate the company doing its best to tide us over until theater comes back onstage and in person this fall.

With book, music, and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease is about high school students in 1959. So, it sort of makes sense for Lyric to do the show at the Bishop McGuinness High School football stadium. The audience sits in the stands (on cushioned seatbacks provided by a Lyric sponsor), and the action takes place on the field.

Michael Baron directs, and he must know now what it’s like to be a marching band director. He marshals a cast of 30 and a “teen chorus” of 32 over an area between the 20-yard lines. This is a  huge number of people on a large field. Baron generally fills the space effectively and keeps the action moving. Much of the show takes place on several large, wheeled platforms. The platforms let Baron stage a lot of unnecessary scene changes. Less time spent moving scenery and props would make a tighter production. The show runs just under two hours with no intermission but with a seventh-inning stretch, if you can excuse a baseball reference on the gridiron.

Baron does a remarkable job of slipping in many subtle details. My favorite is seeing the “audience” at a drive-in movie theater watching a 3-D picture through their special, cardboard-framed glasses.

Kimberly Powers did the scenic design, which includes several large pieces making the scenery proportional to the outdoor setting. I never cease to be amazed at how far lighting technology has come. Lighting designer Fabian J. Garcia creates big effects with what looks to the untrained eye like relatively few lighting instruments. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes go for period authenticity rather than parody, which fits the setting just right. The at times exuberant choreography is by Vincent Sandoval.

Lyric again has used canned accompaniment for this production. Under today’s circumstances, theatergoers can forgive them once more for doing so, but that cat is running out of lives. At the reviewed performance, the recorded music seemed at first to overpower the singers resulting in drowned-out lyrics. But the show soon settled in, and the sound is fine.

Grease will appeal to nostalgia buffs who like mindless entertainment. It has just enough plot to get from song to song. The score sounds like it could have been written in 1959 but not as musical theater. The rock-and-roll and pop songs snap with period authenticity. The nonsense wordplay of “We Go Together” and the poignant “Hopelessly Devoted to You” pass the test of time.

The youthful ensemble cast does a fine job. The McGuinness football stadium is not the most desirable setting for musical theater. But Baron and music director Eric Grigg have taught the cast to do the show to its full force and effect under the circumstances. Best example: late in the show, Sydney Jones, as Sandy, sings the slow “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” across the multilane running track that circles the football field and a four-foot chain-link fence, with the same power and presence she would achieve downstage at the Plaza Theatre.

That song as sung by Jones summarizes what Lyric has done this year. Through sheer force of will and professionalism, they have done what needs to be done to bring us theater at a high standard. I hope everyone associated with the company knows how thankful theatergoers are for their efforts.

Grease by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (book, music, lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
8:00 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays through June 27
Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School Pribil Football Stadium
801 NW 50 St.
405-524-9312

Review: Nunsense

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

By Larry Laneer
April 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds

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

By Larry Laneer
March 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

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

By Larry Laneer
November 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Twilight Zone Redux

By Larry Laneer
October 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Moonlight Cabaret

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

By Larry Laneer
September 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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