Review: Theatre Crude Fringe Festival

By Larry Laneer
October 4, 2021

The Theatre Crude Fringe Festival returns for a third season, now at Factory Obscura, and is almost an embarrassment of riches with 20 performance events in 10 days. The performances reviewed were what I could work into my schedule. Undoubtedly, other worthy events appear in the festival.

The clown show Alone: In a Crowded Room is the most mindless, pointless 50 minutes of theater seen around here since maybe Menopause: The Musical. One thing Alone: In a Crowded Room is not is funny.

Created by an outfit called Clownlife Arts, the show begins promising enough with an underlying industrial roar like you hear in David Lynch films. The set includes a door with a sign over it reading “The Beyond.” Pretty soon a guy in a clown suit appears with the standard clowning props: rubber chicken, balloons, a little juggling. The periodic announcement “Welcome to the existential void” looms over the production in a professional-sounding female voice.

Eventually, we hear a recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci (Italian for “clowns,” natch). Somewhere in all this, the dancing cupcake makes a few appearances. Yes, a dancing cupcake.

An accordionist greets the audience before the show and provides some honks, bleeps, and incidental music during it. I’d like to hear more from the accordionist.

Individual stories seem big at this season’s festival. This makes sense. For more than a year, writers and performers have been holed up, and no casts of any size have assembled in rehearsal rooms. The Role of Other is written and performed by Tyler Dobies, whose handsome, long, wavy, dark hair plays a supporting role in the show. A personable and attractive performer, Dobie refers to himself as “brown.”

He has always felt he’s one of the “other.” So, he tells his story of coming of age, coming out, wanting to “fit in” from an early age when he was “timorous Tyler.” He wants to use his knowledge and experience to help those of us who might feel like one of the other. In dialog with the audience, he first asks everyone’s pronouns. Not a single singular “they” was at the reviewed performance.

Dobies doesn’t have much new or particularly interesting to say on the subject. It pains me to write that, because Dobies is such pleasant person and enthusiastic performer, you can’t help but like him. He leaves each audience member with a card of “affirmations.” They range from “i embrace the parts of myself that are other with abundance” to “i love myself” (capitalization his). Why, thank you, Tyler.

In Something in the Loss of Leaves, writer and performer Don Russell tells of people who molded his life: hunting with his father as a boy; a girlfriend; ex-wife; an oracle at a drive-through window who dispenses advice on music and life along with the coffee.

Dressed in baggy black shirt and trousers, Russell draws with chalk on a large, flat blackboard that’s laying on the stage. It’s hard to see what he’s drawing. We hear pop/rock music from his formative years. He sings a few bars and reads poetry. He executes some movements that really aren’t dancing exactly. Then, in about 45 minutes, he’s done.

For something completely different—and I mean completely different—, we saw In Due Time, PANTOMIME by Poetic Thespian Productions. One characteristic of fringe festivals seems to be they don’t provide much information about who created the works and who performs them. Although the title has “pantomime” in it and the actor wears mime makeup, he was not a mime. He explained the contradiction early in this dramatic monologue.

The non-mime said his name is Terry Peterson. I’m not sure if that’s the name of the writer, the actor, or the character played by the actor. Or if those three are the same person. The story sounded so authentic and was performed with such unguarded genuineness one wondered if it’s autobiographical.

The actor told the harrowing story with an understated energy that held your attention for a full 60 minutes. He did cleverly find a way to get some help from others in the room.

In Due Time had the edginess that I would like to see from all fringe festival performances. But fringe festivals are about risk taking and experimentation. Sometimes experiments don’t work out. That’s the thrill of trying them.

Alone: In a Crowded Room, The Role of Other, and Something in the Loss of Leaves continue this week.

Theatre Crude Fringe Festival
Factory Obscura
25 NW 9th St.

Various performances and times through October 10
More information:  https://www.theatrecrude.org/

Review: My Fair Lady

Shereen Ahmed in My Fair Lady  Photo by @Joan Marcus

By Larry Laneer
September 29, 2021

Things are looking better and better, theatergoers. OKC Broadway has returned to live performances. And they do so with a sure bet, the classic My Fair Lady by the masters Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). Plus, the cast is thankfully unmasked, although the audience is not.

It’s not a risky show, but it’s a quality show. This is the touring version of the Lincoln Center Theater production that garnered much acclaim in 2018.

Bartlett Sher, a highly regarded director of musicals, directs the show. You may remember his Fiddler on the Roof that OKC Broadway presented here in 2019. So, it’s nice to see his homage to this staple of the repertory. With one or two exceptions, Sher stages the show with respect to the past.

The production stimulates the senses. Michael Yeargan’s set design fits into the Thelma Gaylord like it had been designed specifically for that theater. A moving, revolving centerpiece creates various rooms and levels of Henry Higgins’s flat in authentic detail. Catherine Zuber’s costumes have an understated, tasteful look. I’m no expert, but Eliza’s gown and red cape for the embassy ball may be appropriate for embassy balls today. The nifty shades of gray for “Ascot Gavotte” reflect the intentional colorlessness of the number.

The sound design by Marc Salzberg graces the production in both obvious and subtle ways. First, race horses pound across the turf  from left to right behind the audience. Even more impressive is when Higgins plays a wax cylinder of Eliza’s voice and the sound seems to come from the exact point onstage where the wax-cylinder player stands.

A full-sounding pit orchestra of at least a dozen musicians accompanies the show. It includes string, woodwind, and brass sections.

Shereen Ahmed gives Eliza Doolittle backbone and a heart of gold. Ahmed gets the English accent down pat. In the first scene, a lot of her dialog comes off as unintelligible. (The same can be said of other cast members.) With a beautiful singing voice and strong acting skills, Ahmed gives a highly satisfying, sweet performance.

The role of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, passes the test of time as one of the great parts in musical theater. A “philosophical genius of the first water,” Higgins calls him. And Adam Grupper as Alfred wrings every bit of comic subversion out of it. His “Get Me to the Church on Time” is one of the great numbers in musical theater. In this production, Sher introduces a chorus line of drag queens to “Church,” but what the heck. This is musical comedy, not real life.

Laird Mackintosh plays Henry Higgins with equal parts imperiousness and confused astonishment. Over drinks after the show, theatergoers can discuss whether to feel sorry for Mackintosh’s Higgins or think he got what he deserved.

Although it runs three hours, the production’s solid musical and  acting  performances, elaborate set, and sharp staging make it a nice return to live theater. Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park have led the way, so it’s good to see OKC Broadway return to the boards.

The management and staff of Civic Center Music Hall and OKC Broadway have done an extraordinary job bringing back live performance safely for audiences and artists. At the reviewed performance, all audience members wore masks as casually as they wore shoes. Good for us.

Before they began the choreographed curtain calls on opening night, the cast stood onstage and applauded the audience as we applauded them. It was brief, beautiful moment. Theatergoers and theater artists look forward to more time together from now on.

My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (book/lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music)
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 October 3

Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300

 

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