The Wizard of Oz – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center, Phoenix

Remarkable, but true. In 1939, when MGM released the American movie musical The Wizard of Oz, it may have garnered great reviews, six Oscar nominations (it won two) and more publicity than almost any other film in a year considered a landmark for classic Hollywood, but there was just one problem: audiences were small. The film bombed at the box-office, and with no home video or DVD releases at the time to keep its memory alive, it all but disappeared. It wasn’t until 1956 when CBS premiered the film on television and made it an annual event that viewers took notice. In other words, it took seventeen years for The Wizard of Oz to become an overnight sensation.

Today, the movie musical is an icon, a film officially listed in the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. It’s also tops the list of many who consider it one of the greatest, if not, the greatest movie musical of all. Among those is Producing Artistic Director of Valley Youth Theatre, Bobb Cooper. It’s his favorite film. In the liner notes to this year’s VYT production at the Herberger Theater Center, he tells why.

Cooper was among those millions who watched the annual CBS showing. But while many of us saw it as entertainment, he saw it as inspirational. He even wrote a script and directed his own version when he was just ten. With all this in mind, little wonder that the version currently playing at the Herberger is neither one of the many re-imagined revivals available for live theatre, nor the new large-scale musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice adapted from the film; it’s the original, MGM movie version transferred intact from screen to stage, including the Jitterbug sequence, a movie outtake. Knowing what we now know of Bobb Cooper’s passion for those beloved characters of his childhood, you wouldn’t expect it any other way.

After a somewhat shaky start from the orchestra pit during the opening moments of the overture, the show begins as the film begun: in black and white. Technically, the opening of the movie was sepia-toned, but early versions seen on TV came across as black and white, and that’s how most remember it. It’s the Kansas farm of Aunt Em (Tatum Grell) and Uncle Henry (Jack Walton). The scenic designers have produced a colorless painted set that gives the impression of angled-depth. Even the costumes are mostly grays and whites, and it all corresponds with our memories of the film, made all the more effective after Dorothy (Kendra Richards) crash lands in Munchkinland where the stage suddenly becomes ablaze with color in the grand tradition of MGM’s movie technicolor.

Some mic cues were missed, and a careful rein on some recorded dialog needs to be better handled, plus there’s the occasional tendency to have sets and characters stand upstage, which on the Herberger stage gives an impression of characters dwarfed by a lot of open space, particularly as many of the actors themselves are still growing, but once the Munchkins and the Poppies enter, the arena fills. Plus, the use of an extended stage that juts out, circles around the orchestra pit, and becomes a lighted yellow brick road, is hugely effective.

The tornado sequence is done with smoke and a lot of revolving lights, and was only partially successful in creating the illusion of a house in flight until director Cooper added an unexpected element. With the use of a harness, the image of Dorothy holding onto the side of the house while her body was held aloft was one thing, but once the annoying Miss Gulch cycled by in flight from stage left to stage right, then re-entered stage right as the Wicked Witch (Alexis Harris) on her flying broomstick, defying gravity, the cheers and applause were deafening. Just hearing Dorothy moments later say, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” warmed the heart.

The theatrical magic of this undeniably fun and even exciting VYT production is illustrated in the whole Munchinkinland sequence. With color, the exemplary costumes of the Munchkins that echo the look of the film, and the energetic way this youthful supporting cast inject life into their miniature characters (look for The Lullaby League and The Lollipop Guild) plus their rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead, the show has already won you over.

If a youth production of Oz is to be taken seriously in order to be considered more than community theatre and raised to professional level, then casting the right leads is of paramount importance. Asher Sheppard’s Tin Man wins on makeup and appearance alone, but he also manages to convey a sense of heart and vulnerability, and that’s not easy when doing it through the considerable layers of metal makeup he has to endure, plus he has a great speaking voice. Jared Barbee’s Scarecrow is immensely likable the moment we meet him, while Steven Enriquez’s Cowardly Lion nicely captures that vaudeville essence that made the original Lion, Bert Lahr, and his distinct comical vocal delivery so popular.

Kendra Richards’ Dorothy is exactly as you would want; plainspoken and take-charge, looking resplendent in her blue and white gingham dress, the character’s trademark look. And just as you would hope, with a clear, strong projection, her Over The Rainbow stops the show. But there’s something else to the ballad. In addition to the inclusion of the rarely heard introduction, instead of the most famous of Judy Garland songs to be sung as a solo, before Kendra has concluded and makes her exit, the farmhands have entered, one by one behind her, listening to the young girl’s wistful ode for a life elsewhere. Once Dorothy leaves, they proceed to sing their own version, a cappella. It’s an inspirational, haunting sound, so effective and so completely unexpected that you can’t fail to be moved. This additional moment to the classic song (which, incredibly, MGM wanted removed from the film) is a production highlight.

There are also two other memorable leads that make an impression due to director Cooper’s eye for good casting. Tiana Marks, complete with red wig in the tradition of the film’s Good Witch of the South, is a wonderful Glinda. Tiana’s appearance, due to her youthful good looks as she floats down in her own harnessed bubble, makes for an even more eye-catching sorceress than the movie’s original, Billie Burke. Tiana even employs Burke’s unique voice intonation without it sounding piercing, and that’s a considerable achievement.

But it’s Alexis Harris’ principle villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, that yanks the show from under Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. As Miss Gulch, Alexis never quite threatens in the way the meanest woman in town should, the energy and voice projection are missing, but as the Witch with her maniacal laugh and the evil way she revels in the delight of causing Dorothy misery, Alexis becomes the center of the production. You can’t help but take to her every time she enters.

In some regards, director Cooper himself may even be a star of the show. On opening night, walking on stage in front of a sparkling, emerald green curtain before the musical began, ready to deliver his customary welcoming, introductory speech while wearing his shiny, sliver/gray suit that competes with his rock ‘n roll silver/gray, combed back hair, it’s as if Conrad Birdie had made a comeback. The applause he received sounded equally as appreciative as the applause given to the show itself during the final bows. Clearly, producing this musical means a lot to him, and it was a feeling that everyone in the theatre sensed. In later years, when this young cast looks back on its days of youthful theatre, it’s Cooper they’ll thank for their opportunities to perform, and it’s their appearance in this 2017 production of The Wizard of Oz they might remember the most.

Pictures courtesy of Cliff Cesar

Posted in Theatre

The Mummy – Film Review

Look back to the 1932 Universal Pictures classic, The Mummy with Boris Karloff, and you’ll recall a horror movie with story, lots of atmosphere, but little action. In the pantheon of Universal horror, admittedly it wasn’t the best, but on reputation, it remains a classic.

Watch the new re-boot from Universal of the same name, this time with Tom Cruise, and you’ll find an adventure with lots of action, no atmosphere, and a minimum of story. If anything, it actually looks as though story and atmosphere were the last things the filmmakers were going for; they’re just annoying requirements to get a new franchise off the ground. And there’s certainly no horror here, not in the traditional horror movie sense, just horrific images.

Universal has seen the success that DC Comics and Marvel are enjoying, so, like Sir Joseph Whemple’s archaeological expedition in the original, the studio opened its vaults and unearthed its own cinematic treasures; not with costumed-clad super-heroes but with the classic black and white monster characters, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dracula. There’s even a Bride of Frankenstein remake set for a 2019 release. On the evidence of the concluding scenes from this new Tom Cruise outing, there’ll be more Mummy movies on the horizon, too.

What disappoints the most is that if Universal is going to raid its own material and resurrect the very things upon which the studio was built – namely classic horror – then turning them into large-scale violent action flicks for current teenage tastes to compete with the excess of super-hero movies will be like desecrating those Egyptian tombs, and leaving a mess in its wake. By all means, clean, polish and update the treasures you’re sitting on, but at least respect the tradition of horror upon which they were created, and include a sense of slow-burn mystery. In this update, being a Mummy is merely a way to transport a character from ancient times to present-day. Once that occurs, it might as well have been the release of an evil genie in a bottle, running amok in the streets of London, literally sucking the life out of everyone it meets in order to build back its own strength.

From the way the film jumps from place to place and introduces us to characters who may be in it for the long haul, meaning the subsequent sequels, it all feels messy. There isn’t really a story, just a series of setups, and that’s not the same as telling a story.

The film begins with a brief introduction dating back to 1127 AD during the Crusades when a mysterious ruby red stone is buried in a tomb under the streets of London. It then jumps to present-day when construction workers digging a new underground tunnel accidentally discover those ancient 12th century burials, along with piles of human bones scattered all over the place. As a TV talking-head on the BBC states, London is a modern city built on a century of death; the place is one, huge cemetery.

Next we’re off to Northern Iraq which, if you remember the opening scenes to The Exorcist, is where excavation sites abound in archaeological remains. Tom Cruise plays Nick Morton, a kind of thieving adventurer with an overbearing need to put himself and those around him in danger, as long as it means finding a valuable trinket or two. He’s meant to be likable, but he’s really just reckless, and annoying, even if he’s played by Cruise.

Jake Johnson plays best friend Chris who is constantly pulled into Nick’s shenanigans. As things fast develop, it turns out Johnson is really playing the Griffin Dunne role in the ‘81 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London. (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you’re worried about plot spoilers, but it actually happens early, so what the heck.) Chris becomes an early victim of the Mummy’s hypnotic powers, resulting in a fate of un-death, except he keeps coming back in a decaying, colorless form to haunt Nick and to tell him to get his act together or they’ll both be doomed forever. Just like Dunne’s humor in American Werewolf, Chris will suddenly pop up at the end of a death-defying action sequence and tell a breathless Nick, “Wow, that was intense.”

From Iraq where an Egyptian mummy is found buried way below the surface – “This is not a tomb,” insists intrepid archaeologist, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), “This is a prison” – the film then jumps back to England where the plane carrying the tomb of the mummy crashes in the county of Surrey, narrowly missing the ruins of Farnham’s Waverly Abbey, releasing the ancient evil known as Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). When Cruise reminds the evil princess what she did during those days of Ancient Egypt – she murdered her father, then his wife, then their newborn child, all for the lust of personal power – she responds, “Those were different times.

At this point, you may already feel tangled in too much detail, but there’s so much more, like Russell Crowe’s suspicious Governmental department that specializes in investigating infectious diseases. He’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, and, yes, he really is the doctor of Jekyll and Hyde fame. At this point you won’t be the first to think of the disastrous 2003 adventure The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen if it wasn’t for the fact that the film already resembles a low-rent Indiana Jones, closer in tone to the National Treasure series than Raiders of the Lost Ark, despite the presence of an A-lister like Cruise headlining the marquee.

In its favor, that plane crash sequence as it falls from the sky is portrayed well, and there’s something about Annabelle Wallis that makes you hope that if there has to be a follow-up, make sure the makers bring her character back. Plus, its running time is slightly less than two hours, which in these CGI-laden adventures is always welcomed. But in the end, the film really isn’t about much other than wanting you intrigued enough to see what’s going to happen in the next one.

For the less critically inclined who are happy to settle for lots of noisy stuff happening, The Mummy may work as a brief, early summer, popcorn flick. But as the over-hyped season of multiplex fantasies continue until school is finally back in session, the film will find itself buried deeper than Imhotep’s ancient tomb far sooner than Universal had hoped.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 107 Minutes    Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Megan Leavey – Film Review

Knowing all the sacrifices, the physical demands, the potential dangers, plus the strict adherence to following commands, why would someone want to join the Marines? Perhaps it’s a need for order in a world full of chaos; maybe it offers a future when civilian life offers none; or maybe it’s a genuine desire to do some time, honorably serving and protecting the country against those who would want to forcibly change our western way of life.

For Megan Leavy (Kate Mara), according to the new, biographical drama of the same name, it was a combination of things; an unsettled home life, separated parents, getting fired from a succession of dead-end jobs, and perhaps worst of all, waking up after a heavy night of pills and partying when you best friend doesn’t. “It’s just you don’t connect to people very well,” an employer tells her following yet another firing.

It’s 2001. While waiting for the bus that will take her from small town New York to Parris Island Marine Corp Base, from civilian life to the military, Megan reflects on all of those things. She has no clue what’s ahead of her – at this point she appears to have little perspective on anything in life; she hasn’t even told her mother what she’s doing – but she’ll survive the hell of Boot Camp, start as Private First Class, leave as Corporal, do her duty as a Military Police K9 handler, bond with her combat dog Rex, experience two deployments in Iraq, receive a Purple Heart, and complete over a 100 missions that, together with Rex, will save countless lives. It’s when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) sends both Marine and dog hurtling through the air that their time together comes to a halt, but that’s only half the story.

Megan Leavey might not quite be the film you were expecting. Film clips and trailers suggest a military combat movie with a marine and her dog at the center, which the first half certainly is, but the second half is back on home turf, and it’s there where the psychological trauma of healing begins, including the desperate need to reunite with the one thing that meant everything to the Marine: her dog, the one she wants to adopt, the one that the military have deemed unadoptable.

Kate Mara appears short and slight of weight. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking she would never survive the first few minutes of Boot Camp. But as the film progresses and Mara dons those boots and camouflage fatigues, she soon conveys an acceptable sense of movie realism behind the performance, and it’s not long before you fully believe her as the PFC who becomes a Corporal with the Purple Heart.

Rapper and poet, Common (real name Lonnie Lynn Jr.) is not a particularly great actor, but he’s good as hard-nosed Gunnery Sergeant Massey. There’s a likable presence, and given the right role, as he has here, he can be surprisingly effective.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is English actor Tom Felton in the small though important supporting role as a veteran Marine dog handler. More popularly known as young Draco Malfoy with bleached white hair in the Harry Potter movies, and more recently as an English snot in the period drama A United Kingdom, Felton convinces as American Marine Andrew Dean without a trace of Brit in his voice.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, previously known as a documentary filmmaker for her work on 2013’s Blackfish, does a fine job resisting the urge to overstep the deployment scenes by holding back on the shooting, the destruction, and the spilling of blood. Considering the second half is more a home-base drama, too much aggression on the war front and the film would have felt unbalanced. Here, the tone between halves is just right.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of all to Megan Leavey is discovering the differences between the real-life story and how it’s told as entertainment. Real life has an irritating habit of not agreeing with a good yarn; it can often ruin the rhythm of a tale that needs to be told in a certain way in order to work at the movies. In Megan Leavey’s case, comparing reality to invention becomes a study for film students on how a film that states that it’s based on a true story needs to be done.

In real-life, Megan joined the Marines in 2003, not 2001 as the opening titles suggest. Why the difference? In story-telling terms, maybe it’s because 2001 is a more important year for the military. Post 9/11 saw a spike in recruits; Americans signed up with a fervor more patriotic than usual. As a result, 2001 has a more dramatic heft to the numbers than 2003.

In reality, Megan informed her parents of her joining long before leaving. They were not happy. Dad even tried to talk her out of it. Plus, it’s part of the recruitment process that parents discuss the oncoming tour with a recruitment officer before service begins. It’s to stress the importance of positive reinforcement to their son or daughter in advance of the hell known as Marine Boot Camp. But that’s not how it’s shown in the film.

The film shows Megan’s mother (Edie Falco) discovering a Marine recruitment pamphlet in the back of her daughter’s bedroom drawer, then immediately calling her adult daughter on her cell asking what does it mean, right at the time when Megan is arriving on base, seconds from Boot Camp, and just as a Drill Instructor is yelling through the window, “Hang up that phone!

New recruits usually arrive for Boot Camp in the early hours of the morning, around 3 am or so. It’s by design; it disorients the newbie as instructors scream “You’re an embarrassment!” from within an inch of the recruit’s face even before the recruit has done anything wrong. If that’s the case, that would mean that for some reason mom was up at 3 am going through her daughter’s bedroom, then making a call expecting to get an answer in the middle of the night. Events are unlikely to unfold like that. But that’s how it happens in the film, and for story-telling purposes filled with audience-grabbing conflict, drama, and tension, the script skillfully weaves all of those elements into less than a minute of screen time, all within one page of dialog.

Also, that Purple Heart was stolen from the barracks at Camp Pendleton, never found. Plus, much is made in the film of the emptiness of Megan’s homelife without Rex at home. In the film, Megan’s mom tries to help by buying her daughter a puppy, but Megan is having none of it; no dog but Rex could ever fill the void in her life. In reality, Megan actually had four animals (two cats, two dogs) in the house while trying to locate her military K9. As a documentary filmmaker, Cowperthwaite would have used all of those details, including the name of the senator who aided Megan in her search for Rex (Democrat New York Senator, Chuck Schumacher) but when the need to narrow a focus for something designed as principally entertainment, the director and the four writers credited for the screenplay have made the right editorial decisions. As it stands, Megan Leavey’ s adapted, more streamlined screen story works, and the film should have a much broader appeal as a result.

Animal lovers, particularly dog lovers, will understand the connection and will root for the corporal to give her dog a loving home after its military retirement, but it might take a Marine to fully understand the bond and Megan’s unstoppable drive.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 116 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

It Comes At Night – Film Review

Despite the promises of a lurid sounding, B-movie drive-in title, It Comes At Night doesn’t have zombies, there are no ghosts, and no crazed creatures lurking within protective daytime shadows that emerge once the sun sets. The film is terrifying, and what has happened in the world is the very essence of horror, but It Comes At Night is psychological horror, and its audience, at least its American home-based audience, will probably be less mainstream and more art-house.

Something has happened in the outside world. We don’t know what, we don’t know how. But the result of whatever occurred is the stuff of nightmares. From Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family’s point of view, all they know is this: There’s a terrible virus out there and it’s killed almost everyone. The infection comes swiftly. You catch it from another, either from breathing the same air or by body sweat from a simple touch, and the symptoms are immediate. You cough, you vomit, you quickly develop skin sores – imagine a medieval plague – and you slowly die. It’s truly the apocalypse, and it’s closing in.

The first time we see the results of the infection is in the opening shot. Paul’s father-in-law has it. The family live in an isolated cabin in the woods, and it’s this very isolation that has kept them alive. They’re secluded, hidden, living a claustrophobic existence behind boarded windows and padlocked doors, but, still, the virus has found its way, and the elderly man has somehow caught it.

Without the knowledge of what has happened in the world, what follows may initially seem like an act of cruelty, but for Paul it’s a non-negotiable, necessary step for everyone’s survival. Action needs to be taken before whatever is eating away at the father-in-law passes on to everyone else. Paul and his seventeen year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) don gas masks, wrap the still breathing, plague-infested old man in tarpaulin, wheel him out of the house to a hole in the ground, cover his face, where he is then shot. Once rolled into the hole, his body is burned; the dark fumes of the fire rising up among the trees of the surrounding, dense woodland, unintentionally signaling where everyone is hiding.

What is now left of the family in their holed-up cabin is Paul, son Travis, and Paul’s wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), plus the family dog, Stanley. What’s interesting is this is a racially-mixed marriage, though curiously it’s never mentioned, nor is it used as a plot point. The other family that will soon become part of the story never mention it, either.

In the middle of the night, an intruder breaks in, perhaps attracted to the area by viewing the dark fumes of that earlier fire rising up out of the woods, though it’s merely another father from another desperate family, looking for water. Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their little boy, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) prove to be just as ignorant to what has happened out there in the real world, plus, they’re not plague-carriers. After hesitation, Paul allows the family to stay in their secluded home. Maybe there’s safety in numbers.

But Paul still has his rules that can’t be broken. There’s only one way in and out of the house, and that door is padlocked. No one goes out at night, and if you have to leave the house during the day, then it’s always in twos. Plus, paranoia is ever increasing. Once the new family settle into their room, Paul pulls his son aside. “Keep it in perspective,” he quietly tells young Travis. “Can’t trust anyone but family.”

The It of It Comes at Night might be interpreted in several ways, but its overall meaning could be the unstoppable nightmares that young Travis experiences each restless night. One night his nightmare might be that of his virus-ridden Grandpa seated in the bedroom, silently watching him, or later it’s the dream of an adolescent being seduced by the young, attractive wife of the new family, starting off as a horny fantasy then turning into the horrific passing of the plague from one to another. Most of the action takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the home where the sound of any unusual noise results with Paul leaping from his bed, grabbing his rifle with the flashlight attached to the end, and slowly creeping along the passages in search of whatever may or may not have entered their cabin in the woods, his wife and son following behind.

We don’t know much about Paul, he’s understandably tightly wound, secretive, and not one for conversation with those he’s not sure he can trust. But in a brief moment when his guard is down, he tells Will he was once a school teacher. “You want to know about the Roman Empire, I’m your guy,” he smiles. For the record, Will tells Paul he was in construction, and for a moment it feels as though the two fathers and their families living under the same roof may be bonding, but as events unfold, and Paul’s anxiety and fear develops into exaggerated distrust, and boils to a point of dangerous delusion, irrationality kicks in. There’s horror, but the horror is all human, and that sense of claustrophobia eventually becomes all enveloping when even the frame of the film’s widescreen ratio appears to be closing in, as if the roof is lowering and the floor is rising, narrowing the view

As for audience reaction, there will be those who’ll undoubtedly admire the film’s craft, while others will leave disturbed, and not altogether entertained or satisfied. It’s worth noting that at an advanced local screening attended by both press and regular movie-goers, when one attendee was asked for his opinion, he waved a dismissive arm at the movie rep with the clipboard, and with a morose expression as he walked away, said that he didn’t want to talk about it.

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, with convincing, haunted performances from the small cast, the film is a long, dark, slow-paced, uncomfortable ride. It’s like watching the stretching of an elastic band that keeps on stretching, inches from your face; you flinch and continue to do so in the anticipation of a snap that is yet to come.  Fear and mistrust spreads throughout the cabin as fast as the virus itself. And, yes, there really is a monster, but it doesn’t come at night, it comes from within, and it’s face is all too human.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 97 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

unexpected – Theatre Review: Brelby Theatre Company, Glendale

There’s something you have to admire about The Brelby Playhouse, the small, intimate theatre in Glendale, near the corner of N. 58th Avenue; it’s the support it gives to playwrights, new plays, and the forum on which to present them, and that’s an exceptionally positive thing. The end of May saw the premiere of a new play by Brelby Playhouse company member and a facilitator of Write Club, John Perovich.

unexpected (lower caps intentional, though I missed the reason why) is billed as a comedy exploring themes of love, hope, and desire, and all presented in an off-kilter world of magic. Though it appears to combine stories inspired from characters of Greek Mythology, there’s also a skewed nod to Shakespeare. By the play’s conclusion, you sense Perovich has just presented his own oblique version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with a psychotically demented, knife-wielding mother at its center. There’s even a winged fairy creature that comes out at night; not as mischievous or as energetic as Puck, but somewhere in that vein.

The setting is a village by the sea where a man known simply as the Merchant (Cliff Williams) arrives ashore. “You smell that?” he asks the audience. “Love, my friends. It’s in the air.” Merchant is part of the story that’s about to unfold, but he’s also our narrator, talking directly to the audience in a casual, conversational manner, suggesting he hasn’t exactly stepped off a boat with his bag of swag over his shoulder, but wandered off N.58th Ave in Glendale, found the theatre, walked in without a ticket and can’t find a seat. He’s not only bought a bag of Doritos from concessions and offers a chip to someone in the front row but asks if anyone has been to Brelby before? It’s amusing, but with such a low-budget, no-frills approach to the black painted set behind him, the idea you’re on the shore of a village by the sea is never allowed to establish, even once the action begins.

This is a story about love,” Merchant tells us, proclaiming that love is very, very scary. It’s at this point where pink-haired, hippie earth mother, and ukelele-playing, Olivia (Marina Sharpe) enters, looking for her pet snake, Seth. Evidently, Seth has slithered off and may be somewhere among the seats of the audience. Olivia climbs the aisles searching for it.

Because of this introductory fussy business, there’s a long moment of adjustment before you start to feel whether any real sense of narrative is going to kick-in any time soon, especially when Carolyn McBurney as Ann, an obsessively protective mother of three daughters, continues to enter and interrupt Messenger and his tale, demanding to know why he’s even bothering talking to that bunch of people before them sitting in chairs.

As things continue, a story does begin to take shape, heralded by the arrival of Ann’s three daughters, Penelope (Anabel Olguin), Phoebe (Bertah Cories) and Emma (Mia Passarella). Taking his cue from the world of Greek myths, playwright Perovich uses the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe to tell of first daughter, Phoebe, and a hopelessly romantic bricklayer named Taylor (Devon Mahon). Like those characters from the city of Babylon who talk through cracks in the wall because their of their parents’ rivalry, Phoebe and Taylor exchange their flirtations through a wall that the bricklayer has just built. The Fantasticks may also spring to mind.

Then there’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice used as a gender-bender backdrop to Olivia and another daughter, Emma, where Orpheus’ harp becomes Olivia’s ukelele while the fate of Emma, like Eurydice, reveals where Seth the snake was hiding all this time.

In part two we’re in the land of the dead, the afterlife, where characters murdered in the first half reappear in the second. That winged creature seen in shadows in the first half is Connor (Jonathan Gradilla) and it’s his job to collect those bodies and move them to the depths below. But the problem with Connor is not that he’s been seen by the third daughter, Penelope, it’s Connor’s mother. Based on the goddess Venus, but portrayed as a crass, beauty-obsessed vulgarian straight out of Burlesque with all the vocal characteristics of a cliched, overbearing Jewish mother from Queens (again, Cliff Williams), the woman, like Venus to Psyche, who in Greek Mythology wandered where she should not have wandered, gives Penelope three tasks if she’s ever to be released back to the world above. Frankly, it’s not funny, and worse, the mix of comedy and drama throughout doesn’t work. Sadly, neither does the play.

You can always be hopeful,” the narrator tells us as plot points and characters begin to tie-up, but having the demented murderess mother Ann find love and expect the audience to ignore everything she’s done and said before, then to root for her because a love has returned is really asking a lot. Love’s labours are truly lost.

Performances range from good to mediocre. All three daughters enliven things, particularly Anabel Olguin as daughter Penelope whose bouncy enthusiasm to complete the three given tasks is infectious, but there are times when certain cast members talk as if they’d rather be anywhere other than in a darkened theatre on a sunny Sunday afternoon matinee; occasionally the energy is so low as to appear as if they’re talking among themselves, while the audience strains to catch what they’re saying.

In the play’s favor, there are times when elements of the production begin to look promising, particularly when you realize what Perovich is doing with the legends and myths of classic characters and setting them in a seaside village, but with clunky direction, odd timing, and a rhythm that never quite finds its footing – there are pauses between scenes long enough to make you wonder if something’s gone wrong – the production falls apart. There’s black humor to be found when the narrator loses control of his own story and witnesses a bloody murder that he never expected – “Plot twist,” he announces, looking spooked – but once the second half concludes, you find that, unfortunately, neither the play nor the production has delivered.

Posted in Theatre

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

You’d think after the popularity of the 1991 animated musical, then all the anniversary home entertainment formats, the 1994 Broadway musical, the national tours (not one but four), the regional productions, the high-school adapted productions, then this year’s mammoth, global hit of a live-action movie musical, whoever was interested in seeing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast would have already seen it in one form or another, and had seen it several times. Yet, on the evidence of this past weekend’s packed house at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria, the piece remains as magical at the box-office as it appears on stage; in fact, in any format. The tale as old as time will continue to be told time and time again, and there’s just no stopping it.

What may surprise those who leapt to their feet and applauded with wild enthusiasm at ABT is this: When the show first opened in ‘94, the reviews were harsh. The musical garnered nine Tony nominations, but won only one (Best Costume Design), and The New York Times criticized the show as simply a tourist attraction; one that resembled little more than a production ready for regional dinner theatre. The irony here, of course, is that ABT is a dinner theatre, and its production may well resemble the version currently in development for tourists who’ll be cruising aboard the Disney Dream vessel this November, but so what? The snark of Broadway press bemoaning a lack of great theatre on the Great White Way is a Manhattan issue. In a vibrant theatrical community such as here in the valley, the point is moot; there is room for all. True, the musical really isn’t great theatre in the way that Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, or Cabaret is, but its surface sparkle, its glitz, and its sugar-coated, fairy tale concoction has proved irresistible; it’s a crowd-pleaser on a grand scale, and if ABT knows anything, its how to present a crowd-pleaser and make it shine.

With ABT‘s Beauty and the Beast, even before the show begins and you’re putting down your knife and fork, you’ll be struck by how effective the look of the towering, bricked, castle turrets appear, paraded either side of the stage. They flank a forest painted scrim, that special type of theatrical fabric which with special lighting can suddenly become translucent and, like a magic trick, reveal sights and characters you never knew were there, standing behind it.

During the introduction where the Enchantress (Hannah Fairman) pretending to be an old beggar woman offers the prince (Tony Edgerton) a single rose in exchange for shelter, then curses him with the look of a beast when he rejects her, the sequence is played out from behind that scrim, the characters revealed in ghostly lighting as images appear then fade before us. It’s as if we’re watching a dream. Then Belle (a thoroughly delightful and engaging Jill-Christine Wiley) appears, already there in the center of the small, provincial town, greeting the new day, as everyone in the French village is getting ready to declare, “Bonjour!” The lighting brightens to a daylight setting, the scrim rises, and we’re suddenly there, right in the middle of town, with painted flats of the town’s buildings standing up-stage, resembling the 3D pop-up look of a child’s fairy tale book. It’s a great opening.

Paul A Black’s set design continues to transport, particularly in the way the Beast’s castle slides from either side on stage, then twists and turns, and pieces together at different angles, forming various areas of the Gothic looking setting, whether it be the doorway opening, the bedrooms, the hallways, or the towering West Wing that houses the ever-important rose in its glass casing.

The show can also boast a great cast with outstanding voices. In addition to Wiley’s thoroughly pleasing Belle and Edgerton’s terrific hairy beast, there’s great support from Christopher Michaels as LeFou who, in both sight and sound, is a dead-ringer for his animated counterpart; TJ Nelson’s Gaston, whose pronunciation of rendezvous as ren-dayz-vooz is all the funnier when you know he’s supposed to be talking French; and Jon Gentry as Belle’s eccentric father Maurice who makes his entrance on a wheeled contraption that could well have been a left-over invention from Caractacus Potts.

But what works really well in the show is how the musical has enlarged upon the characters of the enchanted castle servants, doomed by the Enchantress to become living figurines along with their cursed beast of a master (which, personally speaking, always seemed rather mean-spirited of the woman). All of them are presented with a lot more personality and conflict than either the animated or the live-action feature had them, and in ABT’s production, all performers excel, particularly Zachary Spiegel’s fussy Cogsworth the mantle clock, and Ben Stasny’s Lumiere, the candelabra whose outrageous French accent is less Maurice Chevalier and more Inspector Clouseau.

As Mrs. Potts the teapot, Gerri Weagraff’s rendition of the romantic, titular song is every bit as delicate and as charming as Angela Lansbury’s original, whose singing voice Weagraff faintly echoes. Eleonore S. Thomas as the operatic singing wardrobe lives up to her name of Madame de la Grande Bouche (it means ‘she of the big mouth,’ or perhaps, more politely in Thomas’ case, the great mouth). Even Babette, the feather duster, has more to say and do in the show than she did in either of the films, played with all the fun and sauciness of a flirty French castle maid by Melissa Jones. The young teacup, Chip is shared on different nights by Corban Adams and Corinne Seaver.

Plus, those three women usually portrayed as Gaston’s groupies, swooning in the background, have a lot more to do and say in the live musical. Billed as the three Silly Girls, as played with near pantomime, lusty, comical broadness with a touch of arm-pulling slapstick by Hannah Fairman, Renee Kathleen Koher and Lauren Morgan, they’re more like the Three Female Stooges, and they’re fun every time they appear.

Music director Adam Berger does a tremendous job of making a seven-piece band sound more like a full orchestra pit, while Kurtis W. Overby’s choreography livens those big production songs. In truth, there’s a certain lack of spectacle in some of the larger numbers, particularly with Be Our Guest where local theatrical invention appears somewhat scaled back, but what those sequences lack in the glitzy magnitude that Broadway offered is compensated by the energy and invention of Overby’s steps. The beer swigging lineup to Gaston is a standout, though you might question Belle’s inclusion with the dancers in Be Our Guest. True, the show has always had her joining in with the high-energy sequence, but you have to ask, would the world’s most charming and demure girl-next-door really raise her skirt, kick her heels up quite as high, and reveal those French undies with the same enthusiasm and exuberance as the professional Can-Can dancers? I’m thinking no.

As with the theatre’s earlier presentation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, there’s an opportunity after the musical to have your family take pictures with members of the cast still in character in the lobby. Perhaps, just as those New York reviews were only too willing to point out, Beauty and the Beast isn’t groundbreaking theatre, and maybe those bewigged, animated-inspired characters are best seen when riding by them in a theme park cart rather than on a Broadway stage, but that’s New York. As presented here at ABT, it’s a great night for a family outing. And if it’s the first time your child has seen a musical as sparkling and as colorful as this and it inspires a new generation to return and see more kinds of theatre, then in its way, the musical is ultimately just as important as any other Broadway show.

Pictures Courtesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre

Also note that this production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will move to Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, July 7-16

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