Monday, November 4, 2013

Don't Have Two Hours to Spare? The Alley Gives You "The Princess Bride" in 30 Minutes

Edward Streeter, Joey Arena, Jenna Bain, Kenn Parks and
Christie Troxell in Cliffnotes of Insanity. Photo – Emily Browne.

Cliffnotes of Insanity: The Princess Bride in 30 Minutes

By Ray Robinson
Directed by Martin French & JoAnne Sweeny

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

The Alley Theater has lately adopted The Princess Bride as something of a mascot, having used the cult movie as the basis of an annual fundraiser for the past two years, which in turn gave birth to this new entry in the trend of highly accelerated lampoons of popular culture mainstays.

Although the curtain time is 8 p.m., Cliffnotes of Insanity would seem to belong in the late night series of Flash Gordon and Commander Cody improvisations that are staples of The Alley lineup. The difference is a solid script by Ray Robinson that provides structure and a more disciplined ensemble that sticks to business, with just enough ad-libbing to conjure an air of the unexpected.

It also repeats the gimmick of recruiting a cast member from the audience to play a character – in this instance, the villainous Prince Humperdinck. The “volunteers” were actually more like “draftees” for opening night, but good fun was the result and nobody got hurt as emcee Joey Arena kept the preamble audition process moving at a brisk pace.

The script builds slowly at first, so that the 30-minute finish time seems a long shot. But this careful approach pays off, and the abbreviation is accomplished through a self-aware series of gags in which the audience is repeatedly reminded that this is a silly business. Missing is the breakneck, shot-out-of-a-cannon, manic energy of other similar shows – like Star Wars in 60 Minutes or Less – so this Princess Bride, oxymoronically, is allowed to breath a bit in half the time.

The aforementioned Mr. Arena also plays the Grandfather who tells the tale with easy gruff charm and pops up several times as a Greek chorus to urge things along. Jenna Bain is a commanding presence as the P.A. who prods the volunteer Humperdinck along, who this night was a game, if slightly sheepish, Jordan Diebold. Edward Streeter is almost age-appropriate as the sick boy who hears the tale, and made for a functional but tame Miracle Max. Kenn Parks was a funny Westley and managed a fair approximation of Carey Elwes’ fey British accent; while Christie Troxell endured the least interesting role of Buttercup, who is basically pulled and prodded through the action without real purpose. As if out of frustration in playing so passive a character, Ms. Troxell jumps into the brief but outrageous role of Miracle Max’s wife with a vengeance, injecting a jolt of ferocious comic energy just where it is needed.

Daniel Smith has fun with the dual roles of villains: the scheming Vizzini and the purely evil Rugen, also known as the six-fingered man; and Alan Canon fights through a wig somewhat more absurd than Mandy Pantinkin's to render the movie’s most famous line as Inigo Montoya. Jimi Fowler was a good Fezzik (“Does anybody want a peanut?”) and, in a different role, suffered one of the most difficult gags of the night with aplomb, perfectly milking the effect of a face full of talcum powder.

Directors Martin French and JoAnne Sweeny have done a good job keeping this a tight production that doesn’t settle for a fast pace to engage the audience. By including some incongruous references and poking fun at The Alley Theater itself, Cliffnotes of Insanity is smart, easily accessible and entirely winning.

Cliffnotes of Insanity: The Princess Bride in 30 Minutes

Fridays and Saturdays in November 2013

Tickets $10
All shows at 8 p.m.

The Alley Theater
1205 East Washington Street
Louisville, KY 40202as

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Interview with Christy Corbitt Miller, Louisville Ballet

Christy Corbitt Miller dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. 
Photo by Peter Mueller. 

by Scott Dowd

Entire contents copyright ©2013 Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.

The appearance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is one of the most magical  moments in ballet, which is exactly what Tchaikovsky intended. On March 19, 1892, the composer introduced his St. Petersburg audience to the ethereal sound of the celesta, an instrument he described as a hybrid of a tiny piano and a glockenspiel. The sound has become as synonymous with the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy as The Nutcracker has become with Christmas. Regardless of the season, those twenty notes are all that is needed to evoke the joys of the holiday. I spoke recently with Christy Corbitt Miller, one of the artists who will interpret the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy this winter in Louisville Ballet’s The Brown-Forman Nutcracker.

Scott Dowd:  Tell me about your life. Where did you start?
Christy Corbitt Miller:  I started my life in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. I started “Nutcrackering” there when I was very young as part of a regional pre-professional company.

SD:  As opposed to?
CCM:  As opposed to being part of a school attached to a professional company like the Louisville Ballet School. When my school produced The Nutcracker, we did all the roles:  young dancers started out as an angel or a mouse and worked their way up to roles like the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Nutcracker as they got older. When you have a school attached to a professional company like we have here, those bigger roles are filled by Company members. For me personally, I started out as an angel and had dreams of being the next thing and the next thing and eventually…the ultimate!

SD:  Just how young were you when you began dancing?
CCM:  A lot of people begin when they are three years old. I started ballet when I started first grade. I stayed in that school until I graduated from high school.

SD:  So that was your entire childhood. Did you do other things? Did you play soccer?
CCM:  Piano…for a short while. Scheduling became too difficult and there came a time when I had to make the choice. I had homework, and ballet was two, three, four times a week and all day Saturday. I promised my mom I would pick it back up again someday.

SD:  Have you made good on that promise?
CCM:  I have. It’s recreational. There just weren’t enough hours in the day to become a concert pianist and a professional ballet dancer.

SD:  So your parents were a big part in all of this. 
CCM:  Yes and no. My parents have been extraordinarily supportive of anything I wanted to do regarding dance. But they kept themselves apart. They never wanted me to wonder if I got a part because of how much my parents contributed. They were exactly what I needed them to be. I didn’t know that then, but I appreciate it now.

SD:  Do you teach at the Louisville Ballet School?
CCM:  I did until eighteen months ago when my daughter was born. Now I rush home to be with her.

SD:  Are you seeing an increase in the number of boys attending ballet school?
CCM:  I think there are. The stigma seems to be less prevalent.

SD:  Are they starting younger?
CCM:  Yes, they are and I hope that more will over time. There are some gentlemen here who began as teenagers. It’s rare for a woman to start that late.

SD:  But that isn’t just a preference. Professional dancers, especially women, typically start young.
CCM:  If you think about the skeleton, dancers fight against nature. We need our feet turned out, and that is not what most of us are built to do. We have to train our ligaments and tendons and strengthen muscles that usually carry a lighter load. Our bones actually form differently to allow us to work en pointe. The closer we get to adulthood, the more difficult it is to make those adaptations.

SD:  And then there is all the technique.
CCM:  And then there is technique, of which there will never be enough. It will never be perfect, which is what is so fun and challenging.

Christy Corbitt (center angel) in one of her first roles in The Nutcracker

SD:  Let’s discuss your technique. Do you approach a role objectively? Or does it develop organically?
CCM:  For me, it’s more from the inside out. I know how certain things should feel, especially now that I’ve been at this for a while. Having a baby has also made me more aware. In coming back, I’ve rediscovered all the little muscles that atrophied. Knowing how things should feel, what muscles should be firing, and finding those again has been a learning experience. 

SD:  How do you create a role like the Sugar Plum Fairy?
CCM:  I always think about the character first as a human being – not as a dancer.

SD:  Is every role a character in that you are something other than yourself?
CCM:  Not always. Some ballets are really more about technique than about creating a persona. It’s showing your body and your line and demonstrating technique and knowledge as opposed to trying to be a nineteenth century peasant woman.

SD:  So there is no single approach.
CCM:  Fortunately, not with this company.

SD:  The Brown-Forman Nutcracker is set to begin December 7. You will be dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy again this year. Tell me about your first experience with this show.
CCM:  My little angel self. We hardly did anything but hold our candles and skitter across the stage. I learned something even then about communicating with children.

SD:  It must have made an impression.
CCM:  Yes! In all the rehearsals, they told us, “You’re going to be following the bed” that Clara was in. “Follow the bed.” What they didn’t tell us was that there was going to be someone under the bed making it move! I was the first angel in line…directly behind the bed. First dress rehearsal, which was also the final dress rehearsal, we’re all in costume, in our makeup, the lights are on, everything is ready to go, when from under the bed comes this gruff male voice saying, “All right girls. Come on!” I just stood there staring in horror with my mouth open! That was my first experience with The Nutcracker.

SD:  You danced your way up through the ranks. Did you have favorite roles that you hated to leave?
CCM:  I think, because there are so many young dancers involved in every production of The Nutcracker, wherever it is, they want to grow up to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. But when I started out, I couldn’t wait to be a party child. Then I couldn’t wait to be a soldier. Every year I watch these babies watching the snowflakes. The snowflakes may be thinking, “I want to be the Arabian dancer” or “one of the dolls in the party scene”; but the babies all want to be a snowflake.

SD:  So the Sugar Plum Fairy is not the pinnacle?
CCM:  Yes and no. Everybody is different. There are a lot of great roles in the show, including Marie.

SD:  Marie, not Clara?
CCM:  Yes. That role is now danced by a company member rather than a child. When Val Caniparoli choreographed his version five years ago, he went back to the original story. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, the daughter’s name was Marie, and Clara was one of her dolls.

SD:  How old is she in this version?
CCM:  Val never gets too specific with her age, but she is probably a preteen or just a teenager. There are four or five of us who share that role as well.

SD:  You don’t dance the same role every performance?
CCM:  No – we have to rotate to give our bodies time to recover. It also gives other people an opportunity to dance. But Marie is a fun role because she gets to dance the “Snow pas de deux,” which is glorious.

SD:  You have been with the company here in Louisville for eleven years now. Are there other big changes from the Alun Jones version being performed up until five years ago?
CCM:  Absolutely. Marie being danced by an adult has made a huge difference. In Alun’s production, the Snow Queen became the Sugar Plum Fairy. In this production, you see two different people, which gives more people an opportunity to dance and adds a layer to the show. There is also a lot of magic involved in this production. Val’s pacing is pretty brisk as well, so the audience doesn’t get much down time.

SD:  Have you ever had the opportunity to see the production with an audience?
CCM:  I have and what I love about it, sitting in the audience, is that it looks like a storybook tableau. When the curtain goes up, you are immediately embraced by the magic of the ballet. It’s such a special time of year, and this experience puts you right in the mood to enjoy it.

SD:  I’ve seen mothers in the audience whom I remember as little girls in velvet gowns waiting for the curtain to rise. As a dancer, do you ever lose your enthusiasm?
CCM:  It’s been two-thirds of my life, so I can’t imagine the holiday season without it. And the generational element you described keeps it new. Every year is some child’s first experience of The Nutcracker, both in the audience and on stage.

SD:  You mentioned the younger children and their desire to ascend the metaphorical steps of the ballet as you did. How many carry on from year to year?
CCM:  Sadly, as the years go by, the numbers get smaller and smaller. Ballet takes a great commitment, and a thousand obstacles present themselves. Choices are made. But almost every year, we have one or two Louisville Ballet students who performed with us as children in The Brown-Forman Nutcracker join the company as trainees. It is wonderful to see them progress from that stage to company member.

SD:  A dancer’s life is hard and it can’t be for everybody. It must have been a lot of work for you to come back after the birth of your daughter.
CCM:  She was born April 1 of last year, so I had the whole summer to prepare for coming back last August. It took a year for me to even feel remotely normal again. But after eighteen months, I do think I’ve made it to whatever my new normal is.

SD:  It won’t be too long until she is ready for first grade. Will you encourage her or discourage her from studying ballet?
CCM:  I’m going to let her tell me. If it’s something she wants to pursue, then we will. But I have no need for her to follow in my footsteps. I know what dance has given to all of us here in terms of discipline and life skills. But we will support her in whatever she chooses.

SD:  You have said a couple of times that this production of The Brown-Forman Nutcracker gives more people the opportunity to dance. Artistic director Bruce Simpson has made some changes in the company’s structure – a shift to an ensemble company – to address that as well. How is that affecting the dancers now that we’re a few seasons in?
CCM:  I love it! I think that it has liberated Bruce to give people opportunities that were not there when we had “Principals” and “Soloists” to consider first. We have seen some magic from people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to dance certain parts. And it is a recognition of who we really are. Louisville Ballet is an ensemble. Our numbers are not massive and we are very family-oriented. I love this group of people.

SD:  Isn’t it always that way?
CCM:  Having been in other companies,
I can say that in Louisville we genuinely want each other to succeed and do well. I think the move to an ensemble company was a case of form following function.

SD:  What companies have you been with in your career?
CCM:  I danced with Atlanta Ballet, Texas Ballet Theatre (Ft. Worth), Ballet Memphis and Ballet Dallas.

SD:  How did you end up in Louisville?
CCM:  I followed Bruce. We first met when he came to Ft. Worth to set his Swan Lake in 1999. After working with him over the years, I decided to follow him to Louisville.

SD:  The Louisville Orchestra has not been available for a while. Will they be in the pit for some of this season’s performances?
CCM:  With the exception of the student matinees, Louisville Orchestra will be with us for the entire run of The Brown-Forman Nutcracker this season! I would like to say thank you again, Brown-Forman, for underwriting the Orchestra for all of the public performances.

SD:  Is it very different dancing to recorded music?
CCM:  Vastly different, especially when you are on stage. For example, in terms of performance, one of my favorite parts with a live orchestra comes at the very beginning of “Waltz of the Flowers.” As the Rose, you come out alone and the harpist plays a freely interpreted opening. For me, it’s like electricity because there are just the two of us and we are collaborating in real time. I’m listening to her and we are creating a moment that only exists for that audience on that day. It requires my full attention and puts me at the top of my game.

SD:  So this is good for the Louisville Ballet and the Louisville Orchestra as well as for the audience.
CCM:  The dancers are thrilled. I’m sure the musicians of the Orchestra are thrilled. The Brown-Forman Nutcracker is a vital community event. With the return of the Louisville Orchestra this season, our community has so much to celebrate. My hope is that parents and grandparents will make this the year to introduce the young people in their lives to this wonderful experience.

The Brown-Forman Nutcracker returns to Whitney Hall December 7 and continues through December 22. Tickets begin at only $30 and may be purchased through The Kentucky Center box office (502.584.7777) or online at

Eve Theatre’s “Bingo!” Finds Good Moments Despite Uneven Script and Score

Bingo! The Winning Musical

Book by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid
Music & Lyrics by Michael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg
Directed by Nancy Hoover

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents copyright © 2013 by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Well, they aren’t talking about Old McDonald’s dog, folks.

I suspect your appreciation of the latest offering by the Eve Theatre Company, Bingo! The Winning Musical, will depend largely on how much you revere or despise the whole culture of the Bingo game industry in the U.S., particularly in the South.

Much is made of how addicted the central characters in this story are to the game, and we are even treated to some recitation of the game’s history. The women in the story take their Bingo VERY seriously, ready to terminate decades-long friendships over the possession of a winning card. And that’s my problem with the piece: with only one or two exceptions, all of the characters are self-centered and unlikeable, making it very difficult to root for any of them.

The story takes place in pretty much real-time and is set at the all-purpose room of the VFW hall, which has been set up for a regular night at Bingo. We, the audience, are set up to be participants in the game. (We are even given cards to play a couple of rounds.) Vern (Cindy Smith), Honey (Susan McNeese Lynch) and Patsy (Jackie Carrico) arrive late to the game, whining, bickering and sniping at each other about missing the first round. In short order, we learn that Vern hasn’t spoken to her best friend Bernice (Diane Stretz-Thurmond) in fifteen years after falling out over a Bingo game. When a new, younger player (Hannah Clore) joins the game, it’s pretty easy to guess where the story is going. And you’d be right.

The main cast do very nice jobs in bringing these characters to life, but they aren’t given much to work with in Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid’s script. It tries very hard to emulate the white-trash hilarity of playwrights such as Del Shores or Jones Hope Wooten. But except for a very few genuinely funny moments, it fails to live up to the potential of its premise.

The songs by Heitzman, Reid and David Holcenberg are not very interesting and almost instantly forgettable. I’m a big fan of musicals, but not one of this show’s melodies stuck with me after, even though several numbers are performed with high energy and gusto by the talented, nearly-all-female cast.

Director Nancy Hoover has done a great job staging the piece, though. She makes good use of the space at the Henry Clay Theater and coaxes strong performances out of her entire troupe.

Critiques of the source material aside, though, it is a show that does have its moments and deserves a chance to find its audience. Unfortunately, it’s had to close early due to an injured cast member and has canceled all of its remaining performances. It may be revived at a later date, however. So if it sounds like something that would appeal to you, keep an eye on the local listings.

Featuring Della Brown, Jackie Carrico, Hannah Clore, Darren McGee, Phil Lynch, Susan McNeese Lynch, Cindy Smith and Diane Stretz-Thurmond

Bingo! The Winning Musical

October 24, 25, 26, 2013

Eve Theatre Company
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202