Review: An American in Paris

Allison Walsh and McGee Maddox (l-r)                             Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
June 7, 2018

An American in Paris features ballet and a little tap dancing, which makes the show light on its feet. Such weightlessness can be good choreographically and bad dramatically. But late in the second act, this musical gains enough heft to leave the audience pretty much satisfied.

“Inspired by” the 1951 motion picture (starring Gene Kelly), the show is technically a jukebox musical. But, oh, what a jukebox! George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin wrote all the music. From “I Got Rhythm” to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the Gershwins created nary a weak song or false note. The playwright Craig Lucas wrote the book for the show, which opened on Broadway in 2015. This is the touring version, presented at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway series. It’s directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who won a Tony award for his dances.

The choreography consists almost completely of ballet, giving the show a distinctive look from today’s musical theater. (The cast biographies show much ballet experience.) But in the second act, Wheeldon brings out men in white tie and tails and women sporting spangling, feathery costumes tap dancing to “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”

Set in 1945 Paris, still in post-war shock, the show concerns Lise, who goes from being a French shop girl to prima ballerina while being wooed by two American ex-G.I.s and a Frenchman who are friends but don’t know, for a while, they’re romantic rivals.

More than about any other modern musical, this show requires true triple threats—and proficient in ballet, mind you—in the lead roles of Jerry Mulligan and Lise Dassin. McGee Maddox (whose name sounds like a character in a musical) displays the dancing, singing, and acting chops for the male lead. In fact, Maddox plays Jerry so well he makes it look easier than it surely must be. As Lise, Allison Walsh does everything Maddox does; she just does it with a credible French accent (her program bio does not indicate Walsh is French).

The rest of the cast do top-notch jobs. Matthew Scott plays Adam Hochberg, the other ex-G.I. (played by Oscar Levant in the film), a composer who struggles to complete a concerto while cracking wise. Ben Michael is Henri Baurel, Lise’s French wooer, who aspires to be a crooner playing Radio City Music Hall. Kirsten Scott nails the role of Milo Davenport, an American philanthropist angling for both a husband and modern art. The large ensemble of triple threats give fine performances. A thirteen-piece pit orchestra, large for a touring company, accompanies the show and is led by David Andrews Rogers, who often conducts for Lyric Theatre.

The production consists of a complicated combination of parts, which are always in motion. Bob Crowley designed the set and costumes, and they fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. An outfit called 59 Productions created animated projections, a prominent visual element of the show, sometimes to the point of almost overwhelming the cast. You see many references to mid-twentieth century art: a Picasso-like painting depicted in 3D; costumes for the long “An American in Paris” dance at the end look inspired by Mondrian.

In many ways, An American in Paris is an odd musical. The songs, setting, and period costumes reside in early to middle last century. Some innuendo about Henri’s sexuality and reflections on the Holocaust are current. Depicting the earlier period via a modern technological spectacle bridges the gap between the two in an unusual, but mostly pleasing, way.

An American in Paris by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics) and
Craig Lucas (book)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 7
8:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 8-9
2:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, June 9-10
7:00 p.m. Sunday, June 10
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.


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.

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.

Review: The Little Mermaid

Jared Blount, Emily Paige Cleek, and Emily Pace in The Little Mermaid          Photo by Joshua McGowen

By Larry Laneer
April ­­­17, 2018

Musical theater swings between substance and spectacle. You rarely see both in one show. With neither substance nor spectacle, Pollard Theatre Company’s production of The Little Mermaid risks sailing right into the rocks.

The show is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story and the 1989 Disney animated film. Disney Theatrical Productions staged the original musical, and the touring version played here last fall. The sole purpose for this musical’s existence is to present a great spectacle, including mermaids and other sea creatures “swimming” by means of flying apparatus above the stage and other effects.

The pop score (Alan Menken, music; Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, lyrics) has its charms, and the book (Doug Wright) teems with puns that will delight any fifth grader.

Pollard has “reimagined” the show for its compact theater and perhaps more limited budget than what was available to Disney Theatrical. Pollard has had great success reimagining big, glitzy musicals for a chamber-like staging, last season’s The Producers, for instance.

The problem is Little Mermaid isn’t a good show for a Pollard reimagining. A Disneyfied fairy tale about a mermaid who longs to trade her fins for legs and marry the handsome prince doesn’t offer as much substance as even a light comedy like The Producers.

The co-directors W. Jerome Stevenson and Timothy Stewart must have thought seasoned theatergoers would be skeptical about the company presenting Little Mermaid. They first make their case for the production in a program note. Then, before the show starts, the cast in street clothes enters through the house trying to psych up the audience. They especially target children, who were plentiful at the reviewed performance. “Are you here to see the Little Mermaid,” an ensemble member exclaimed superfluously to some little girls. “Yaaaaaaay!” They encourage us to cheer the hero and boo the villain. Or villainess, in this case.

Next, gathering on stage, the cast demonstrates the magic of theater. How, for example, two actors stretching a rope into a vertical rectangle can create a “door,” which someone pantomimes opening and walking through and then forgetting to “open” when he exits, fake bumping his noggin. “Make-believe is what actors and audiences do,” the actor playing the Little Mermaid says encouragingly. Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then, the music starts, and off we go to Poseidon’s realm. But what’s Pollard to do next? It’s hard to tell if they are staging a satirical stab at glitzy musicals or a trying to stage a glitzy show on a budget. Either way, the staging doesn’t demand much make-believe on the audience’s part. Those pre-curtain street clothes are a prelude the costumes by Michael James. Most of the costumes look like they came from a retail costume store (those awful fake boots Prince Eric wears over black shoes) or off the rack at a dollar store.

The same can be said about the props, and this show employs many. In the delightful to the point of being foolproof “Under the Sea,” the props depicting sea life look like what might be bought or homemade for a PTA talent show.

Stevenson also did the scenic design, and it’s a step up from the costumes and props. Fully realized, solid-looking backdrops depict lairs of King Triton and the evil squid, Ursula. Shimmering blue cloths stretched across the stage and kept in constant motion serve as the ocean.

The show features some engaging performances in supporting roles. It’s a treat to see Doug Ford as Scuttle the seagull. Cory Fields makes a menacing Ursula. Kaleb Bruza has a comical, if brief, scene as Chef Louis in “Les Poissons.” As Sebastian the crab, Brandon Stalling benefits from having the best songs.

The leads are uneven. Emily Paige Cleek is appealing as Ariel, the lovesick mermaid. The handsome Griffin Maxwell (new to me) is fine as Prince Eric as long as he’s singing.

Theatergoers appreciate Pollard’s reimagining shows and giving us a fresh look at familiar or rarely seen work. In this case, one wishes they were reimagining a better show. This Little Mermaid founders at sea.

The Little Mermaid by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater (lyrics), and Doug Wright (book)
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through May 5
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

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

Review: Greater Tuna

Jonathan Beck Reed and Donald Jordan in Greater Tuna  
Photo by Mutz Photography

By Larry Laneer
March 22, 2018

Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre is providing a tremendous public service by staging Greater Tuna for all of us who lack enough goofballs, idiots, bigots, slackers, drunks, rednecks, ass scratchers, and sanctimonious pricks in our lives. Or if you have gotten this far in life and never seen this comedic two-hander, you have what may be your last chance to see the show before it rides off into a much-deserved sunset.

As with all City Rep Tuna plays (they’ve done multiple stagings of A Tuna Christmas), this production features Donald Jordan and Jonathan Beck Reed, both doing 10 characters. Jordan and Reed have already proven themselves in these quick-change shows playing male, female, and canine roles. They have not lost a step and are sharp as ever.

Now at CitySpace, the play centers around two yahoo announcers at radio station OKKK, broadcasting at 275 watts in Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas. Both Jordan and Reed play three or four main characters, but it’s refreshing to see them again in some interesting supporting roles. (It’s too bad City Rep doesn’t list the character names in the program; they can be hard to keep straight.) Jordan plays Leonard Childers, the blowhard station manager of OKKK with the call-in show “Leonard on the Line.” Reed plays Chad Hartford, a Truman Capote-like reporter from Houston who interviews a town busybody. His wordless reactions steal the scene. Jordan has the play’s best scene as Reverend Spikes, a bloviating preacher in a three-piece white suit and black string tie who gives a eulogy consisting completely of familiar clichés.

City Rep has done Greater Tuna only once before, in 2013. Steve Emerson directed that production and this one. Emerson also did the sound design. It adds something the show, which is done largely in pantomime: a squeaky screen door, panting and barking dogs, clucking chickens, slamming car doors, chirping crickets.

Danielle Trebus designed the costumes. The show has 24 costume changes for each actor, so it’s appropriate to cite the backstage dressers: David Mays, Michael J. Greene, Kris Schinske, Jon-Philip Olson, and Heidi Sue Wallace. Ben Hall’s set design looks like the 2013 production.

No one will argue that the Tuna plays are great works of art. In fact, they’re barely more than party skits. But they have something to say about their times. Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard wrote Greater Tuna in 1981, and it’s a subversive play. One character gets away with a gruesome murder.

The City Rep production hasn’t changed much since 2013. What has changed is the world we live in. This first became evident when City Rep did A Tuna Christmas in 2016, about a month after the Presidential election. After Trump, Black Lives Matter, sanctuary cities, The Wall, Charlottesville, and multiple church and school shootings, the play takes place in a different context today.

For example, a character named Elmer Watkins (played by Jordan) calls for vigilante vengeance against immigrants near Tuna. He later calls global warming “fake news.” He wears a red “Make America Great Again” cap. A character that may have been buffoonish in 1981 comes off as sinister today.

DiDi Snavely (played by Reed), owner of Didi’s Used Weapons, says if you don’t have a weapon that can kill, she will fix you up with one that can. At the reviewed performance, the audience reacted—thankfully—with an uncomfortable titter.

Jordan, who is also City Rep’s artistic director, has said this will probably be the company’s last Tuna. That’s good. The plays have run their course and had several other productions here. Surely, everyone who wants to has seen them already. Now, if a playwright would like to write a new quick-change comedy, goodness knows the world is supplying plenty of material. In Greater Tuna, you’ll hear nary a mention of the National Rifle Association, Fox News, or the alt right.

Greater Tuna by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard
Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays, through April 8
Freede Little Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.

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.

Review: A Few Good Men


Ellie Valdez, Dakota Muckelrath, and Joshua McGowen in A Few Good Men . Photo by Jared Blount.

By Larry Laneer
February 24, 2018

Who could’ve guessed playwright Aaron Sorkin would be so prescient in his 1989 play A Few Good Men? Or is it just that everyplace we look now, we see the grimy pawprints of Donald Trump?

A Few Good Men was one of Sorkin’s early successes. He went on to adapt the play for the 1992 film version and write the screenplay for The Social Network and create the television series The West Wing, among many other projects.

Real events inspired the play, now being staged by Pollard Theatre Company in Guthrie. It concerns the murder of a young Marine at the United States Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A court-martial drama, the play features all the charms and flaws of the genre. It can be compelling, but it includes that hoariest of courtroom-drama devices: the witness stand confession. Lawyers tell me that does not happen in real life.

Like much work today by playwrights who grew up on movies and television, the script is cinematic with many short scenes that leap miles between locations. (No worries; Shakespeare did the same thing.) This presents director Linda Lee McDonald with challenges, and she handles them efficiently. I was surprised at the end when I looked at my watch and saw the production runs two-and-a-half hours.

Joshua McGowen brings the right mix of acerbic wit and intelligence as the Navy lawyer defending two Marines who have been charged with murder. The character is a wiseacre who went to Harvard law school on a Navy scholarship. He seems to be biding his time while fulfilling his three-year obligation to the Navy handling minor cases, until this one.

Crystal Barby (solid, as usual) and Keegan Zimmerman give fine performances as the other defense lawyers. They are idealistic and committed to justice as much as they are to the Navy, as military lawyers should be.

Dakota Muckelrath and Ellie Valdez play the Marine defendants. The characters’ blindered devotion to “unit, Corps, God, country” makes you wonder if they’re expertly trained military professionals or victims of brainwashing.

The villain and source of the vileness that’s poisoned Gitmo is Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup, played convincingly (and surprisingly) by James A. Hughes. A longtime Pollard company member, Hughes may not be the first actor who comes to mind to play the Trumpian base commander. But insidiousness can take different forms, and as the play goes on, Hughes’s Jessup grows seamlessly credible. He is arrogant, demanding loyalty, and won’t hesitate to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wants. Unlike Trump, Jessup appears to have genuine beliefs. When he says we live in a “world of walls” and he is the man on them defending America, he seems sincere in his own perverted way. To Jessup, the end justifies the means. Why wouldn’t it?

McDonald has assembled an able supporting cast. Alison Chambers seems young to be a military judge. Kevin Moore plays a Marine captain who has more integrity than a thousand Jessups.

Jerome Stevenson’s scenic design consists of four tiers painted institutional green with several wooden chairs and tables. The simple, flexible design helps McDonald keep the action moving.

The costumes (by Michael James) and how they are worn are mostly inauthentic. They are not ironed to military crispness; headgear isn’t worn when it should be; most footgear isn’t close to regulation. But military costumes are tricky. It isn’t against the law for costumes to be military uniforms, but the U.S. Code restricts the use of uniforms in films and plays. You can decide for yourself whether this production gets close enough. If you are military or a student of uniforms, you may be pleased or bothered by the costumes. If you’re neither, the costumes may seem fine.

Sorkin’s play shows what can happen when an entity (a military, government, or country) loses integrity and a sense of proportion. The characters talk a lot about honor while doing the most dishonorable deeds. That message remains completely relevant today.

A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through March 3
2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 18 and 25
8:00 p.m. Thursday, March 1
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison, Guthrie