Monday, July 30, 2012

“A Bright New Boise” at The Bard’s Town Is Brave and Funny

A Bright New Boise
By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Doug Schutte

Reviewed by Rachel White

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Rachel White. All rights reserved.

Megan Brown, Ally Giesting and Ben Gierhart in Samuel D. Hunter's
A Bright New Boise at The Bard's Town Theatre.  Photo by Doug Schutte.

If you’ve ever worked in any kind of grocery store retail outlet, you know what that break room smells like: old cigarettes and old food. There is always something you’d rather not watch on the fuzzy television:  workers wander in and out, managers yell and cajole, and everyone complains. This is the setting of A Bright New Boise, opening this weekend at The Bard’s Town – a play set in the break room of the Hobby Lobby in Boise, Idaho. It resembles a proverbial hell on earth with little promise of promotion or escape. Into this world walks Will (Doug Schutte) – a bland, somewhat timid, middle aged man. He is looking for a job, but it becomes clear that he is looking for more than that. Will, we quickly learn, is an ex-attendee of a cultish church. The church is now defunct due to a disturbing crime committed by the pastor. Haunted by his past, Will has come looking for his long lost son, Alex (Ben Gierhart), who works at the store. Will is also waiting for the rapture.

What I admire about this piece and its directorial handling is that it deals with the subjects of religion, of fanaticism, and even of secularism but never tries to make fun of or judge them. It asks big questions, and it’s clear that the performers are invested in those questions. Will, we come to understand, waits for the rapture not because he is a fanatic, but because life to him seems so unbearable and empty. He has a fervent belief in something is better than nothing at all. His need for belief is so strong that when Anna (Megan Brown) invites Will to her church by saying, “We accept everyone,” Will verbally attacks her, telling her that her life and her religion are meaningless. His words are horrific and deeply bigoted, but from them the audience can understand his deeper need.

The production is bare bones and not perfect. There were several private scenes between Alex and Will that could have used more specificity in terms of space; it wasn’t always clear to me where the characters were coming from or where they were going. Yet the performances are strong and truthful. There is a scene where Will unexpectedly embraces Alex, and Alex is completely caught off guard, revealing the tenderness between them. Schutte’s performance as Will is painful. He plays him with a small town niceness that belies a deeper turmoil. Megan Brown is extremely natural as the store clerk, Anna, as are Ben Geirhart as the troubled Alex and Corey Music as the rage-filled Leroy.

In spite of its darker subject matter, A Bright New Boise is not without humor. Ally Geisting as the loud-mouthed store manager is extremely funny. More importantly, the play is about the human condition. It asks fundamental questions about why we are here and what we have to live for. I’m not sure the writer and director ever answer these questions. But they are clear on one point:  Surely there is more to life than the end of the world. This is the kind of independent theater that we need to keep doing – maybe not completely polished, but brave, funny and intelligently rendered. 

A Bright New Boise

July 26-28, Aug 2-4, Aug 9-11 (7:30 p.m. all shows)
Pay-What-You-Can for Thursday shows
$15/$16 for Fri/Sat shows

The Bard's Town Theatre
1801 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40205
(502) 749-5275

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Committed Cast Captures the Zaniness of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Craig Nolan Highley & Corey Newt Hall in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Photo courtesy of Shelby County Community Theatre.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Review by Rachel White

Shelby County Community Theatre gave a solid production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Saturday night. With a great energetic ensemble, some genuinely funny actors, and a couple of strong singing voices, the show took off at a great pace. These qualities are essential to Stephen Sondheim’s farcical, vaudevillian style musical set in ancient Rome. I had never actually seen this play performed, so in that sense it was a treat for me. 

As the director notes in the program, this musical, beyond some satirical social criticism, is basically a cartoon, and very little happens that isn’t in the name of pure silliness. The show’s premise is that Pseudolus, a Roman slave, is scheming for his freedom. He makes a deal with his master, Hero, that in exchange for his freedom, Pseudolus will hook Hero up with the beautiful courtesan Philia. The cast embraces the ridiculousness of the piece and takes character exaggerations to the extreme. There is one scene where the ditzy Philia tries to pull open a door that says push. She then leans on it in frustration and of course falls right through. There is a commitment to that kind of physical comedy throughout the production that keeps the play fresh and the action moving forward. 

Andrew K. McGill as Pseudolus is a bright actor and captured some of the craftiness of the character. He developed a strong rapport with the audience, and I could sense that he was holding the story together. Craig Nolan Highley as Hysterium, with his dead-pan delivery, had many strong moments and was one of the most grounded actors of the play. The scene where he pretends to be the dead Philia was one of the best scenes of the night. The ensemble parts were great fun as well and were extremely effective at moving the action along.

Other notables include Wayne C. Muscar as Senex, Hero’s father, who falls for the young Philia. His high tinny voice and rubbery facial expressions as he dreamily sings “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” makes him seem like an especially unsavory option for her.

The set is minimal and brightly colored, and the costumes are evocative of a farcical ancient Rome. The dresses of the courtesans are duly scandalous, with one character dressed like a modern day dominatrix.  All of this worked to support the overall humor and sensibility of the play.

The show began to drag a bit toward the end of the first act. The trap of this play is that it is so over the top that many of the characters can begin to feel one note. What may have helped is to even further differentiate a crafty character like Pseudolus from the other characters who are less conniving. If his intelligence and craftiness were specified even further, the ridiculousness of the other characters would have been enhanced in contrast.

This show is filled with unabashed wicked humor, dirty jokes, slapstick, sleeping potions and all the best tricks of the stage. It has a cast willing to commit to it all, which makes it a night of zany fun.    

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Mike Seely
Musical Director Lynne Chenault

July 20-22, 27-29, 2012

Shelby County Community Theatre
801 Main Street
Shelbyville, Kentucky 40065
(502) 633-0222

Monday, July 16, 2012

New Work from Local Playwrights Is Entertaining and Thought-Provoking Theatre

Circus Circus

By Eric Welch and Brian Walker
Directed by George Bailey

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Craig Nolan Highley.  All rights reserved.

The debate over whether marijuana is a justifiably illegal substance has raged for the better part of a century. Ever since early twentieth century paper peddlers rallied to extinguish hemp from giving them competition, and sensationalist anti-weed propaganda appeared in the publications of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hurst, it has been successfully demonized over the decades to the point where pot peddlers arguably serve harsher prison sentences than rapists and murderers.

That is the central theme behind Circus Circus, a thought-provoking and surreal new play by actor and new playwright Eric Welch and seasoned vet Brian Walker, and also the premiere production of a new theater company in the Louisville area – Loyalty Productions.

It’s not a new viewpoint to be sure; the 1936 camp classic film Reefer Madness was an attempt to further terrify audiences of the devil weed and only succeeded in making it look like a good time (to the point that in the late 1990s it inspired a stage musical that makes comedic commentary on a lot of the same themes as Circus Circus). Even more recent fare like any Cheech & Chong or Harold & Kumar film further drives the point home.

But Circus Circus may be unique in that it takes a far more serious, dramatic and even tragic approach to the debate. Its tale of a basically good-hearted and decent young man who gets busted for selling ganja is at times inspiring and at other times painful to watch as we see our main protagonist put through constant abuse and inhumane treatment alongside pedophiles, murderers and cocaine dealers.

Welch & Walker’s script blends a reality-based storyline with a hyper-real circus setting, complete with an evil warden depicted as a ringmaster and clowns and showgirls as the prison guards. This was a clever idea that I thought more could have been done with; and along with some video screens that displayed a constant commentary on the proceedings, it ultimately seemed more of a distraction than a complement to the action.

That’s a minor complaint, though, and is more than made up for by strong direction by George Bailey and a uniformly strong cast of actors. Welch in particular makes a lasting impression as our protagonist Robert; his raw emotions that are laid bare never feel anything less than genuine, and he makes you feel every heartbreaking turn of the story. Also particularly memorable is Sean Childress as the Ringmaster/Warden, a role that is vile and repugnant and still made real despite all the surreal trappings it is wrapped up in. Jeremy Gutierrez is heartbreaking as a doomed cocaine dealer pining for his family on the outside, and Corey Long gives some surprising humor and pathos to a complete pervert.

I did feel that a few times the play got a little too preachy with some monologues that went on too long (I think the show’s point was made already with more subtlety), and there were some obvious attempts to stretch the running time. But overall I was captivated by the theatricality of it all. It moved me to tears at one point, and I can’t really think of any better recommendation than that.

A new theater company has emerged, and the Louisville theater community needs to take notice. Loyalty Productions has made an impressive debut with their original play Circus Circus, an entertaining production that definitely will make you think, even if you don’t necessarily agree with its message.

Circus Circus

Starring Christina Biller, Sean Childress, Andy Epstein, Kayla Gill, Deanna Gillespie, Jeremy Gutierrez, Robert Hatfield, Corey Long, Taylor Olivia Roebuck, Eric Welch and Benjamin Wood

July 12-22, 2012

The MeX Theatre
The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202

Hayswood Relies on Strong Singers to Put On Challenge of "South Pacific"

Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Clinic Sites:
Laura Van Fossen and Gary Crockett in South Pacific.
Photo courtesy of Hayswood Theatre.

South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II 
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan 
Directed by Charles Swarens

Reviewed by Rachel White

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Rachel White. All rights reserved.

It takes some courage to roll out a three-hour, made-for-Broadway musical on a small budget in a tiny theatre, but the players of Hayswood Theatre seemed to be up for the challenge. The playmakers pulled it off with simple sets and props and several strong vocalists. 

There were many good singers in the cast, including Laura Van Fossen as Nellie, who had a strong voice and an innocent, slightly apologetic quality that was really charming. This worked for the character and brought the show along. I believed her as the pretty young nurse in love and far from home. The scenes between her and Emile were among the strongest of the play, and her rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening toward the end of the show was quite touching. 

Another notable was Jonathan Driver as Lt. Cable. He was humorous, and natural, and of all the actors reminded me the most of a young soldier in terms of age and type.  

Lyn Benson as Bloody Mary was also a strong singer. Ms. Benson captured the humor and mischievous energy of Bloody Mary; I liked her most in “Happy Talk,” where she seemed to connect with the emotion of the song. This gave her character nuance. 

The moments between the sailors were the weaker of the scenes, with some actors being very slow to pick up cues. Many of the group scenes felt disorganized as though they needed more rehearsal. Part of the issue may have been the stage itself, which was probably not made to accommodate a large-scale musical. I also felt that more could have been done with the posture and physicality of the soldiers and nurses. At times they felt more like a rag-tag gang than a group of U.S. soldiers fighting the Japanese in World War II. However, as an ensemble they really seemed to enjoy themselves, and this brought a great deal of energy to many of the group numbers.     

Overall, the performances were committed and heartfelt. The director made a point before the play to recognize the veterans in the audience, and there were many there. It made me realize why South Pacific is still an enduring and relevant American musical. I’m glad they took it on. 

South Pacific 

July 13-19, 2012 
Hayswood Theatre 
115 South Capitol Avenue 
Corydon, Indiana 47112 
(812) 738-2138

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Much Ado About Nothing"

Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Clinic Sites:
Liza de Weer as Beatrice and Grant Goodman as Benedick in
Much Ado About Nothing. Photo courtesy
of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jane Page

Reviewed by Rachel White

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Rachel White. All rights reserved.

Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s production of Much Ado About Nothing claims to be Gunsmoke meets Shakespeare and melds the campy television American western style with the heightened Renaissance poetry of Shakespeare.  In so doing, it turns Much Ado About Nothing into a slapstick romantic western comedy.  

It took me a minute to adjust to hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken in a thoroughly western setting, but soon the play and the setting began to mesh very well. The story is set in the small town of Messina and follows the escapades of two sets of lovers: the quipping, fiercely independent Beatrice (Liza de Weer) and Benedick (Grant Goodman); and the sweet, young Claudio (Ian Kramer) and Hero (Paige Herschell). Like the American West, the town of Messina is a wild place. The men come home from wars, there are sheriffs and there are duels. It is a place where men rule – and women are subject to them.

For a modern audience, the western backdrop also highlights several ideas in the play: ideas about marriage, freedom and romantic love. To Americans, the West is often thought of as a place where you go to find your freedom, to be single and to live out your dream. By placing the play in a familiar landscape like the Wild West, the plight of freedom-loving independent characters like Beatrice and Benedick come into focus.

Shakespeare’s language does not feel at all out of place in this world, and it occurred to me that the language of 19th century Wild West was probably much closer to Shakespeare’s than our own language. The language did the job of placing the audience in another time and culture. Western accents are used sparingly by the minor characters, and this is effective as it immediately puts those characters into a class that the audience can identify with. 

The production was often very campy and very much in the American Western tradition in terms of set design and costumes. I like more romance and wit and a little less camp; but it got good laughs from the audience. There is a scene where Benedick hides in a barrel with only his cowboy hat sticking out as he listens in on a conversation. This was cartoonish slapstick; but in a way it made the play accessible and fun, and all of the kids sitting next to me thought it was hilarious. Several of Shakespeare’s songs are sung to the tunes of “El Paso” and “Amazing Grace.” These western clich├ęs were in abundance, and it made me wonder how the play would fair if the designers had conjured a more specific and authentic western world, rather than one directly out of pop culture. But like Shakespeare’s time, the production plays on familiar cultural references and stereotypes that the audience can pick up on and enjoy.

Liza de Weer as Beatrice in Much Ado
About Nothing
. Photo courtesy of
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
The cast is excellent. De Weer and Goodman as Beatrice and Benedick are great sparring partners. Their witty banter is sharp and fast; but they manage to keep the audience up on the jokes, and so the humor is never lost. The young lover Claudio is sweet and young, and I believed his devastation when he hears of Hero’s betrayal. All of the performances are strong, and even the minor characters are all in support of the story. What I loved most were the subtleties and vulnerabilities that the actors convey in the midst of the comedy. At one point Benedick says of Beatrice after complaining about her, “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs”; I got a sense of his love for her in that line. Little hints of melancholy like these made me attach to and root for these characters throughout the play. 

I recommend this production to anyone who wants to get out on a warm summer night and see some Shakespeare. The play was great fun with highly professional, polished performances, all in the serene beauty of Central Park. And the weather was (at least when I was there) perfect. 

Much Ado About Nothing

July 12-29, 2012 
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival 
1340 South Fourth Street 
Louisville, KY 40208

(502) 574-9900

CenterStage Gives Their Best to Tony-Award-Winning "Rent"

Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Clinic Sites:


Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by John R. Leffert

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

I have a confession to make: I love Rent. I always have and always will. Jonathan Larson’s opus about a group of friends fighting through inner demons, the AIDS epidemic and heartbreak premiered on Broadway in 1996. Since then, there have been a movie adaptation featuring original players, countless tours, and a revival; and now the production rights have been released to the public and it has hit the local theater circuit. Larson based the play's key issues on what he encountered during his everyday life as a struggling playwright in New York City. Whether it was toying with giving up artistic integrity for the sake of financial gain or falling in love with a high risk of getting tremendously heart broken, the themes addressed in Larson’s work are momentous and emotional. Tonight, I saw a production at CenterStage and I had doubts. Artistic Director John R. Leffert assured me and the rest of his audience that “we’re going to do it and we’re going to do it very well.”

For starters, many elements of this small-scale direct send-up to the Broadway production were pitch-perfect. Jordan Price as Roger was the washed up, aloof, AIDS-inflicted punk rocker. His rendition of “One Song Glory” could rival Adam Pascal’s Original Broadway Cast recording. Price is strong during his emotionally fueled argument with the ever-flirtatious Mimi (Kate E. Reedy) during “Another Day.” Reedy and Price’s vocal chemistry were superb throughout the production in “Light my Candle” and “Without You.” As Maureen, Lauren McCombs was a fun combination of no inhibition and heaps of exhibitionism. She completely owned “Over the Moon.” Brian Bowles plays Mark, the musical’s narrator. As the play centers on Mark’s nearly obsessive filming of a year in the life of his friends, Bowles provides sweetness as he watches his friends suffer with illness and triumph in their victories. Bowles meets his match with his ex-girlfriend’s current lover, Joanne, played with sassy strength by Tymika Prince. In “Tango Maureen,” Bowles’ and Prince’s voices blend as well as their comedic timing. Bowles gained a few extra laughs when he delivered a line about Jewish Community Centers directly to the audience; a smart comedic choice, indeed.

As this is a play which runs on high octane energy, the mechanics of this beast of a show are only as a strong as its weakest parts. This is a rock opera, and Rent incorporates a live band on stage, a concept that has been repeated in other shows like Spring Awakening and American Idiot. Perhaps it was the faulty sound system within the theater itself, which kept cutting in and out at vital moments of the production, or a conscious choice of pulling back on the musicians’ volume to provide clearer quality for the vocals. Regardless, I expected loud rock-and-roll music and received a muted collection of musicians.

As “Today for You” began, and Darius Kenner-Williams appeared in his glorious Santa drag, I couldn’t help but wonder if the music I heard was a recorded track. As this song has major dance club elements, perhaps the pulsating beats and fast rhythm was too advanced for a theater like CenterStage. While on the subject of Kenner-Williams, he had some very big, sparkly shoes to fill. Wilson James Heredia won the Tony for his portrayal as the innocent victim of AIDS. It is a character who keeps the circle of friends together and breathes life into an otherwise dreary play. Kenner-Williams fully grasped on to Angel’s flamboyant elements but lacked chemistry with Tom Collins (played with beautiful vibrato by Alonzo Richmond). Although his leaps and flips were impressive, it could not save “Today for You” from nearly falling flat.

“Take Me or Leave Me” and “What You Own” provided impressive singing for sure but lacked the powerful punch in the gut. Maureen and Joanne are in the midst of yet another fight, and this number lacked the pent-up aggression that such a couple would have. McCombs and Prince are equally talented, but I wanted them to be yelling at each other. That’s the point of belting in this song, after all. “What You Own” is perhaps the most difficult song within the play. Mark is giving up job security for his passion and Roger is gaining the courage to come home and find the woman he loves. It is the turning point of the second act and, in this production, regrettably forgettable.

All is not lost for this production of Rent. This is a play that won many Tony awards and shaped the contemporary world of musical theater. The cast truly shines in the most popular number, “Seasons of Love,” a beautiful choral piece that starts the second act. “La Vie Boheme” is a celebration of rebellion and life as the cast dances and cheers their way to intermission. As I mentioned before, I had my doubts about this production. I had total faith in CenterStage, as I have seen past productions of Cabaret and Evita that were incredibly moving. I knew that the company had talented resources to be taken advantage of; yet I was skeptical. I knew that I did not want to see a complete copy of the Nederlander Theater production. As expected, Mark wears a striped scarf, Mimi wears her shiny pants, and Angel wears her Santa Clause dress. Although it’s important to incorporate such key identifiers within any production, it’s also important to bring your own creativity to the production as well, and I think CenterStage did their best.


July 12-29, 2012

JCC CenterStage
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Home-Grown Syndicate for a “Rough and Corrupt Business”

The Cornbread Mafia
by James Higdon
Lyons Press:  376 pp., $24.95

Review by Katherine Dalton

Entire contents copyright 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.

The “Cornbread Mafia” that made national news in the 1980s wasn't exactly a mafia, in the sense of being one organization; and the term wasn't originally used by the men involved either. But when it came time for Kentucky prosecutors to talk to the press, “Cornbread Mafia” is what they called the Marion County, Kentucky-centered ring of marijuana growers and distributors. And being a vivid term, it stuck. 

Before its ringleaders were arrested and/or disappeared, this geographically-connected syndicate of sometime-friends, sometime-rivals became the largest known American pot-growing operation in terms of tons harvested. It was run by Americans, with no foreign nationals involved – also unusual. And these Americans were all from Kentucky; all from three contiguous counties; and mostly from Marion County, just south of Bardstown. The pot was grown in many places, from Michigan to Minnesota to Nebraska (and probably several undiscovered spots to the southeast). But all the roads led back to Kentucky.

When seventy of the Kentuckians involved were arrested between 1987 and 1989, not one of them agreed to testify against others in exchange for a lighter sentence. They remain a remarkable example of “omerta,” though probably none of them knew the word. One of the principal organizers, Johnny Boone, only learned it while in federal prison in Terra Haute – and then had it tattooed across his back. 

This syndicate's success and silence, plus the relative nonviolence of Mr. Boone (if not of others), the excellence of their farming, the roots of Marion County's pot-centeredness in its hempseed farming of the 1940s, and bootlegging during Prohibition all make for a great story. It is told here by Lebanon, Kentucky, native James Higdon, currently a contributing editor for PBS Frontline's Teheran bureau. 

Author James Higdon.
Mr. Higdon leaves the reader with the impression that perhaps only a local boy could have done this reporting. (Lebanon is Marion County's seat.) A community that had both become accustomed to this much lawlessness and – on the flip side – sick of it, and become wary of critical outsiders who were willing to swallow every rumor and accusation about a “hick” place will not easily respond to a reporter's blandishments. A curse or buckshot is probably what most journalists could expect. Kudos to Mr. Higdon for spending a good part of five years getting detail upon detail, and for persuading Johnny Boone to talk to him.

This book is full of the sort of real life that you could never make up. For example:  At a bust of a marijuana farm in rural Minnesota, the police drove up hiding in a Trojan horse trailer. For a vital few minutes, the pot growers thought they had just a lost rider to deal with. In that raid, the lone woman at the camp was quickly caught because she was the dog handler for the eight voiceless Rottweilers who policed the fields, and she chose to stay with the dogs to keep them controlled rather than leave them loose to attack and get killed themselves as a result.

Somewhere out in the world resides a man called “Mr. X,” a Marion County native who traveled the world to hippie pot-smoking enclaves gathering seed, which he brought home to Kentucky to be tested, bred and grown into the high-quality pot that made this syndicate's product so successful. Mr. X has never been identified.

Then there are the tales of the lion one of the Bickett brothers owned in the late ’80s (which finished its life in a Texas zoo), and Charlie Stiles' bear from twenty years earlier, which would escape into town occasionally and get drunk but never violent. Mr. Higdon also briefly retells the bizarre, interconnected story of Harold Brown, formerly the top federal drug enforcement official in Kentucky, who died of a gunshot wound to the head; and his close friend, former cop and drug smuggler Andrew Thornton, who died in 1985 in Tennessee when his parachute failed to inflate. For that jump he was wearing $15 million worth of cocaine strapped to his chest. (His story and the speculation around it are told at greater length in Sally Denton's The Bluegrass Conspiracy.)

One other thing about Cornbread Mafia:  Mr. Higdon has some axes to grind, and he makes or repeats a number of accusations about certain lawmen – though not all of the lawmen – mentioned in this story. In addition to mentioning the Thornton case, in the final chapter he does everything but call out a deputy U.S. Marshall named Jimmy Habib. And because his interviews with Johnny Boone (now a fugitive) were done in person at a location Mr. Higdon will not disclose to the government, Higdon enjoys the distinction of being the first journalist subpoenaed by the Obama Administration to either testify before a grand jury or be imprisoned.

It is also clear that Mr. Higdon has great respect, and I would have to say some empathy, for Johnny Boone. Readers will have to judge for themselves. Mr. Boone seems to combine canniness, farming skill, and physical courage with an honorable willingness to pay in prison time for his silence about his friends. But there is also clearly implied violence in some of Mr. Boone's reported statements and actions, which are reminders that whatever one's opinion of the merits of marijuana, and whatever respect Mr. Boone enjoys from his former neighbors, growing and selling an illegal crop remains a rough and corrupt business

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Leapin’ Lizards! “Annie” Is Back at Derby Dinner Playhouse


Book by Charles Keehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by Lee Buckholz

Reviewed by Emily Pike

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Emily Pike.  All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Loos, Megan Bliss & Matthew Brennan in Annie.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.
The musical Annie, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and libretto by Thomas Meehan, is loosely based on the popular Depression-era Harold Gray cartoon strip Little Orphan Annie and was originally produced on Broadway in 1977. It won seven Tony Awards; enjoyed a six-year Broadway run; and has since given rise to countless touring, regional and community theatre productions around the country and the world. (A Broadway revival is due this fall.)

It is remarkable how appropriate this Broadway favorite, set in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, is to the national climate of today. As producer Bekki Jo Schneider mentioned in a (particularly well-done) curtain speech of Derby Dinner’s current production, the unemployment statistics, wealth gap and widespread pessimism mentioned throughout the play are uncannily similar to our modern socioeconomic environment. The key, however, is to look to our next generation for the same optimism and hope that little Annie is able to bring to the adults in her life.

For those of you unfamiliar with this play, the story follows 11-year-old Annie as she escapes the hard-knock life of a New York City orphanage through a chance invitation to spend the Christmas holiday season at the home of billionaire tycoon Oliver Warbucks. Annie’s boundless optimism and indomitable spirit soon capture Warbucks’ heart and prompt him to arrange for her adoption. But when he learns that Annie’s parents could still be alive, Warbucks selflessly gives up his own hopes of having Annie for a daughter and launches a national search. This catches the attention of Annie’s nemesis, orphanage headmistress Ms. Hannigan, along with her smarmy brother Rooster and his flavor-of-the-week gal pal Lily. They devise a plan for Rooster and Lily to pose as Annie’s parents using information that only Ms. Hannigan knows so that they can share a three-way split of the handsome reward Warbucks has offered. Everything comes to a head at Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion on Christmas Eve, when identities and old secrets are finally revealed and we learn what Annie’s past is and what her future will hold.

Derby Dinner’s cast is filled with local actors of all ages and levels of experience, all of whom do a fine job of telling the story clearly and enjoyably. Still, there were a few too many missed opportunities for character development that together could have amounted to a stronger story arc from beginning to end and a bolder expression of the point-of-view offered in Schneider’s curtain speech.

The role of Ms. Hannigan can present a tremendous set of shoes for any actress to fill, having been immortalized by the inimitable Carol Burnett in the 1979 Columbia Pictures film version; though in this production, Elizabeth Loos plows through any imagined confidence barriers, pulling no comedic punches and milking the material for all it is worth. Her performance does feel a bit self-indulgent at times – but, then again, so is Ms. Hannigan. Fully to Loos’s credit are the strong choices she has made, her unwavering commitment to them and the fact that the audience loves her. As mentioned, however, there are some notable opportunities for character development that seem to get lost in the shuffle, such as a moment when Ms. Hannigan sincerely hesitates at Rooster’s plans for Annie, yet giddily returns to song and dance seconds later as if nothing happened. Still, Loos’s performance is a gratifyingly outrageous interpretation of this iconic role.

Jeff March as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks looks every inch the part and has a gorgeous singing voice, but on the whole, his acting was a bit too one-note. He starts out fairly likeable and ends up more so by the final curtain, diminishing the potential arc of this character. March’s moment-to-moment work is good, as are his pacing and sense of who Warbucks is at heart; but he does not take enough of a journey. There is too little of the brusque, gruff, hard-hearted business man when first we meet Warbucks to be able to appreciate how completely he is won over and transformed by the spunky, optimistic, utterly foreign presence of little Annie.

To be fair, part of March’s problem undeniably lies in the casting of the title role. While actress Lauren Petrey certainly possesses talent and a strong singing voice, she is unfortunately not well-cast here; the pink elephant in the theatre is that this actress is not a child, and it is difficult to pretend that she is. Petrey is a 14-year-old high school sophomore, and while she is small for her age, smaller does not equal younger. Even among today’s 11-year-olds it would be difficult to find someone with the sheer, unadulterated, quintessentially childlike enthusiasm that is Annie’s trademark – let alone expect a modern-day adolescent to still emanate this quality at the apprehensive age of 14. Petrey’s Annie is not the plucky, cute, optimistic little girl the script calls for but rather a sweet, strong, conscientious young lady. To extend a casting analogy, she is more on the Judy Garland than the Shirley Temple side – and no matter how much we all love Judy, the role of Annie wouldn’t have suited her well either. Petrey is not unenjoyable to watch. But the Annie-Warbucks relationship never quite attains the dynamic called for by the script because a 14-year-old actress is hard-pressed to act her way back to 11 years old, and a grown adult cannot relate to a 14-year-old girl the same way he or she would to a child. There are certainly instances in theatre where a three-year age difference would not matter, but this is not one of them.

Young Petrey should not take this as a criticism, however, but rather as an invitation to build on the work she is doing and to explore areas farther outside of her natural range. She can’t fix a casting error, but that is okay. This role is a great opportunity for her as an actress to practice stretching her boundaries.

Other performances include solid work from Colette Delaney as Mr. Warbucks’ sophisticated secretary Grace; a Lily St. Regis with just the right combo of ditz and cheap glam from Megan Bliss; and a chorus of impressively precise orphans. Matthew Brennan stands out as Rooster Hannigan, Ms. Hannigan’s greasy, beanpole ex-con of a brother with a taste for the quick-and-easy. His dialect is appropriate, his movement and physical presence are spot-on, and his words and interactions consistently feel spontaneous and believable. This is a role both well-cast and well-executed. Props to Brennan for a job well done.

On the whole, while admittedly peppered with noticeable flaws, Derby Dinner’s production is still a pleasant and likeable piece of entertainment. While its shortcomings are evident and not ignorable, they do have the good fortune of being easily forgivable. The script and story themselves are good enough to shine through any minor mishandling. Plus, it is too difficult not to enjoy a production where the cast is so clearly dedicated to and excited about what they are doing. Actors Theatre of Louisville or PNC Broadway In Louisville this show is not; but Annie at Derby Dinner still offers a lovely evening of dinner theatre that is well worth the price of a ticket.

Oh, and not for nothing – the food is fantastic. Do yourself a favor and try the Hummingbird Cake.


July 3 – August 12, 2012

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281