Thursday, August 29, 2013

“Va Va Carnivale” — A thrill a minute, however you spell it!

Bethan Kannapell in Va Va Carnevale.
Photo – Gary Quick Photography.

Va Va Carnevale
Produced by Lisa Fry

Review by A.S. Waterman

Entire contents copyright © 2013 A.S. Waterman. All rights reserved.

I wasn’t sure whether the name represented “carnevale” (a masqued and costumed revel, usually associated with Lent or fundraisers) or “carnival” (a traveling entertainment venue). From the name “Va Va Vixens,” I expected to see a type of show that, well, normally isn’t my cup of tea.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, or more impressed.

The show is perhaps more “Burlesque meets Cirque du Soleil,” although even that description falls far short. This thrill-packed evening features daredevil acrobatics, amazing costumes, intricate dancing, intriguing sketches and outstanding vocals, as well as recurring characters who win our hearts. Surprises are non-stop, and the evening remains fast-paced despite its three hours’ running time. In addition to the dark and sophisticated masquerie of carnevale, the carnival aspect delights throughout, with a stilt-walker, strong-woman, mime/clown and “freak” animal-human combinations, all strolling among the audience when not on stage, allowing everyone to see firsthand how much creativity and detail went into this production. The large cast, consisting of lovely young women and two very attractive young men, does an outstanding job with nary a weak spot in the bunch.

To quibble, an earlier start time might have allowed more people to see it all, and I would have liked a printed program so that I could credit the choreographer, writers and performers by name. However, since the production was so carefully crafted, I have to assume that these decisions were made for a reason.

Yes, the name “Va Va Vixens” is accurate, and the R-rated sexuality is prominent; but so is amazing talent, skill, grace and art — and it is beautiful. But like a carnival, it’s here and then it’s gone.

See it, and catch this moment before it becomes just a memory.

Va Va Carnevale

Aug. 22, 23, 24, 30 & 31
Headliners Music Hall
1386 Lexington Road
Louisville, KY 40206

Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8.
Tickets $20/VIP $30
For ticket purchase, contact Headliners Music Hall at 502.584.8088 or online at

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If Old-Time Bluegrass Is Your Cup of Tea, "Southern Crossroads" Is Highly Recommended

Paul Kerr, Elizabeth Loos, Scott Anthony, Scott Bradley and
Chris Bryant (back) as The Greene Family Singers in
Southern Crossroads. Photo – Derby Dinner Playhouse.

Southern Crossroads

Written by Warner Crocker
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

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

You know, there is a certain sense of comfort and welcome that comes from an evening of listening to familiar music, especially the sounds of your childhood. For me, that would be pure, downhome bluegrass. It takes me back to the years of being driven to school in my father’s car, and to the long car trips my family took every year to Florida – in both cases with that old-time country music blaring on the radio.

And it’s those pleasant memories that were evoked for me while watching Derby Dinner Playhouse’s latest offering. Southern Crossroads is another in the Playhouse’s seemingly endless parade of jukebox musicals, and one of their better examples. While a lot of the classic songs presented were new to me, standards like "House of the Rising Sun," "Tom Dooley" and "Midnight Special" really evoked that sense of nostalgia.

The loose storyline presented tells the tale of down-on-their-luck musicians, The Greene Family Singers. In the middle of the Great Depression (1933, to be specific), they have arrived by train for a performance only to discover that the theater has been closed down. Without enough money to book another train out of town, they decide to set up on the sidewalk in front of the theater and perform for the pocket change of passers-by. Add in an out-of-work drifter (J. R. Stuart) who is mesmerized by the group, and a villainous banker and his wife (Cary Wiger and Janet Essenpreis) who want to stop the show, and that’s about all the plot you get.

But it is such a nice set-up; the plot really becomes incidental as we fall in love with these characters and get immersed in the music. All of the performers play their own instruments, adding to the realism of the experience. The only theatrical flourishes are the opening and closing narrations performed by Stuart; otherwise it is a completely immersive experience that feels nothing if not genuine.

Performances are, as usual for Derby Dinner, top-caliber. Stuart’s down-on-his-luck Jake is lovable from the moment he steps onto the stage, and his enthusiasm for the music troop is infectious. Scott Anthony is also quite strong in his portrayal of hapless percussionist Loomis, who has impregnated a local girl (Jillian Prefach) and lost what little money the group had. Paul Kerr is a strong presence as Wallace, nominal leader of the group; and Wiger’s portrayal of William the evil banker doesn’t go at all the way you expect it to. Scott Bradley and Chris Bryant also get some nice moments.

Special props have to be given, though, to Elizabeth Loos as Shannon, the group’s leading lady. She is in fine voice and has the saddest of all the back-stories, and gives the role a tortured dignity that is unexpected for this kind of material.

On the technical side, Lee Buckholz’s scenic design is impressive and realistic, and yet another welcome example of the Playhouse’s recent migration away from arena staging. The façade of the 1930s’-era vaudeville theater is impressive and really adds to the overall immersive experience. It is nicely complemented by Ron Breedlove’s lighting, Ron Riall’s props, David Nelson’s sound and Sharon Murray Harrah’s costumes. Well done all around.

I really don’t have any negative criticism of this entire production. If old-time bluegrass (and a couple of ragtime numbers thrown in as well) is your cup of tea, then I can’t recommend this show enough. If not, it may not be your thing. For this reviewer, though, it created nostalgia for a time other than what it portrayed, and that could not have been an easy task.

Southern Crossroads

Featuring Scott Anthony, Scott Bradley, Chris Bryant, Janet Essenpreis, Paul Kerr, Elizabeth Loos, Mark McCulloch, Jillian Prefach, Jim Schweickart, J. R. Stuart and Cary Wiger.

August 20 – September 29, 2013

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive30
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281

Come Back to the Park! A Conversation with Kentucky Shakespeare’s New Producing Artistic Director: Matt Wallace

Walden Theatre Artistic Associate Julane Havens met her friend and colleague Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare’s new Producing Artistic Director, to dream about the future of Shakespeare and reminisce about the community experience that brought both of them to live in Louisville.

Entire contents copyright © 2013 by Julane Havens. All rights reserved.

Matt in Much Ado About Nothing, Kentucky Shakespeare, 2003.

Julane Havens: Let’s close our eyes and dream for a moment. If there were no obstacles and if money was not an issue, what does the park look like five years from now?
Matt Wallace: Can we do that please?
JH: Yes! I’m sure there has been a lot of focus on the recent problems. Let’s leave them out of this for a minute and dream.
MW: The word festival was dropped from the name of the company, but I want the park to feel like a festival – like a community experience.
JH: You know I love that word, community.
MW:  That is what I said when I interviewed for this job in 2008. We first have to embrace our Old Louisville community, and then we embrace the Louisville community, and then the state. But somewhere along the line during the last three years we started going outside for everything. You know that if we start with wonderful festival work (exciting, unique, coming-together experiences), then people will come. If you build it, they will come.
JH: Five years from now, what’s been built?
MW: I see multiple productions. More than three plays all produced by Kentucky Shakespeare, running in rotating repertory. I see the possibility of an indoor option for people who don’t want to come to the park as a part of that. I want community partners performing in the park. I want students performing in the park. The festival will last from Memorial Day to Labor Day. And when you walk into the park, I want you to feel like you are at a Renaissance festival. The service-based mission of FREE Shakespeare in Central Park is why I moved to Louisville. I also want our education program to have more visibility.
JH: The education program’s offerings have expanded dramatically over the last three years. What’s your education vision?
MW: It will all be Shakespeare related. I worked for Kentucky Shakespeare in the hey-day of the education department, when Boy Meets Girl Meets Shakespeare was the flagship show. Many of us [Louisville actors] were in that show – three interactive scenes that aren’t performance-y. Keeping Shakespeare active for the students. A focus on the text. That is what excites me.
Cast & Crew of SBB's 2013 production of Richard III
with director Matt Wallace.

JH: What’s going to happen with Shakespeare Behind Bars? Would you like to see Kentucky Shakespeare and SBB connected again?
MW: When SBB separated in September of 2010 and when I was able to focus most of my energy on growing the organization – we’ve expanded to 12 programs – I saw that it is a very specialized kind of work. I spoke with Curt [Tofteland – founder of SBB] and we decided to keep it a separate organization. I will still remain involved and I will direct next year’s performance of Much Ado About Nothing. SBB is very important to me. I told the guys, “I think I’m going to need this more than you will.” They are one of my artistic homes. They ground me and center me.
JH: I was fortunate to work with SBB while it was still a part of the summer season experience for the company. I miss the opportunity for dialogue between the festival actors and the SBB guys – it was inspiring and artistically energizing for me as a young actor. Can this happen in the future?
MW: Heck yeah. The upcoming Hamlet education tour is a possibility for Kentucky Shakespeare to perform for at-risk populations and prisons in addition to schools. This is one way we can serve the SBB guys, our students, and our community. Since we are dreaming today, I would love to see this production performed in some parks, say on Saturdays –
JH: That’s fantastic! Park performances are hot right now – making theater accessible to more people. I’m focusing on street performance in my advanced class at Walden Theatre this semester. How can we make this happen?
MW: We’ve got great local talent. We’ve got the actors. We just need money. Just the pesky money. That’s no big deal, right? I feel like if we are true to our mission of providing FREE Shakespeare, we will get the right people on board to fund projects like this. I’d love to be funding these future dreams right now, but there is the immediate obstacle of cleaning up what’s left after canceling a week of a run. Anyone who knows me knows I’m bringing honesty and integrity to this. I’m not going to overspend. We’re going to do quality work on a budget.
JH: How do you prove to people that Shakespeare is cool (and worth funding) in 2013?
MW: If you think Shakespeare is old and boring, then you haven’t seen the right company do it. He’s the greatest writer that ever lived. His themes have resonated with us for 450 years. His works can be accessible without dumbing them down. They can be relevant without being simplistic. Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard – not read. Say the words out loud and you will feel what you are supposed to feel. It’s visceral.
JH: Aside from asking your wife Tina Jo to marry you, what is your most memorable moment on the Central Park stage?
MW: That gives me the chills. A great memory is when we did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead [2002]. It was the first non-Shakespeare that Kentucky Shakespeare ever did. We started out in a grave onstage, and so Tina and I were in there –

Matt Wallace and Tina Jo Wallace in Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead
, Kentucky Shakespeare, 2002
JH: You and Tina were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
MW: Yes! In both of the plays. It was the same cast in Hamlet. We did it in rep. It was brilliant. So here we are lying down, waiting to pop out of this grave and say our lines, and I’ll never forget sitting up and looking right at a thousand people. You’ve seen the park when it’s full. People sitting on blankets in the grass. I remember it knocking the breath out of me. That mixture of fear and excitement – when there are no empty benches. I want to see that again and I will see that again.
JH: Will you act in the park again?
MW: Maybe someday. I’m not interested in it right now. My focus this year is inviting the community back to the park. Come back to the park! Because it’s yours. It’s ours.

Matt will host a story-sharing BBQ in Central Park in honor of Kentucky Shakespeare’s past and present employees and volunteers next month. (If you are a past employee or volunteer and haven't yet been contacted and would like to attend, please send your email address to
Saturday in the Park will return this year on October 19 and feature FREE performances from Kentucky Shakespeare and students of the Youth Performing Arts School and Walden Theatre, among others. Please check the Kentucky Shakespeare website for updated information:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Social, Political and Personal Themes Connect in the Work of Three Artists at Metro Hall

Struggle and Triumph

Curated by Slade Stumbo, featuring the work of Joyce Garner, Mark Priest & Jordan Lance Morgan

Reviewed by Kaylyn Taylor.

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Kaylyn Taylor. All rights reserved.

Since September of 2013, the Louisville Visual Arts Association (LVAA), the Louisville Commission on Public Art and the Mayor’s office have collaborated to present the Metro Hall Rotunda Art Project. This “rotating series of art exhibits, each one curated by local artists…is specifically for the public spaces of Metro Hall” and is “one of several efforts to make Metro Hall a true gathering place for the community.” (Curtis Tate, "Struggle and Triumph,” curated by Slade Stumbo, features the paintings of local artists Joyce Garner, Mark Priest and Jordan Lance Morgan. It is the third exhibition of the Metro Hall Rotunda Art Project and will be on display through November 1, 2013.

Joyce Garner, Local Politics, 2013.

On the first floor of Metro Hall, Garner’s brightly colored works from her extensive series “The Election” are displayed. Six of her seven canvases selected for this exhibit are carnival and circus themed. The canvases, ranging in size from 30”X36” to 84”x54”, are filled from edge to edge with color and images, creating a flattened, busy space. The figures are curvilinear loose images that float in the picture plane. The colors and forms suggest Peter Max meets Chagall and Picasso, creating a fantastic explosion of information, mirroring the overwhelming glut of information that floods daily life during election season.

With an almost neon color palette, and the iconography of carnivals and circuses, Garner conveys the frenetic, intense energy of our country’s election process from the primary elections, represented by a carousel, to the final election results, as seen in “Sittin’ Pretty.” The carousel is an effective commentary on the cyclical and showy aspects of the election process. As in circuses and carnivals, the candidates perform crowd-pleasing acrobatics composed of promises and offer elixirs to cure our societal ills. “Belly Flop” reminds that sometimes there are failures, and they are fantastic when magnified by the media. The canvas “Sittin’ Pretty” shows a single carousel horse with its rider perched atop a sphere of fruit galore: the Victor. Out of the chaos and frenzy one endures to the end. Garner’s canvas “Local Politics” is an array of Louisville landmarks and events, ranging from cardinal birds to the Twin Spires, from the Orchestra to Louisville’s cityscape. These familiar images are set against a background of the American flag, reminding that the local and the national are closely knit.

Located at the top of the grand staircase leading from the second floor rotunda is Mark Priest’s “Drop Him, Catch Him.” This large canvas (8’x4’7”) depicts the attempted escape of the recaptured runaway slave Charles Nalle. Nalle is shown hanging precariously from a second story window of a brick building. The viewer’s perspective is looking down from slightly above Nalle’s eye level. Below him a crowd gathers, and inside the room from which he is escaping, authoritative figures dominate the area. The composition captures the drama of the story. The viewer is on par with Nalle and his plight. Through the use of exaggerated facial expressions and fluid lines, the multiple facets of the scene are explained. Clearly the man behind Nalle intends to capture him. The crowd gathering below is grotesque in its fascination. The woman in the room behind Nalle is defeated. A lone pigeon tugs at Nalle’s pant leg, delineating the delicacy of his chances of freedom. The color palette is earthy but bright, leaving the action clear and dramatic. The central figure of Nalle is strong but vulnerable. Priest places the viewer directly in the experience of being oppressed, and we are forced to consider how that feels. 

Mark Priest, Drop Him, Catch Him, 2013.

Continuing up the staircases, on either side are additional Priest paintings. On one side are two paintings from his Harriet Tubman series: “Leverton Safe-House” and “The Wait.” These are psychological pieces. In both, the focus is on the upper torso and face of two men and Harriet Tubman attempting an escape from slavery. Again, the clarity of the earthy color palette draws the viewer in. There is no lurking in shadows and skulking about. The intention of these people to escape is evident, yet their cautious, dubious facial expressions reveal their vulnerability. We are eye level with these people, and are one of them.

The fourth of Priest’s paintings, “ Bailey’s Escape on the Choptank,” is also from his Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad series. It depicts the escape of Josiah Baliey from slavery by boat. In this painting, he and three other figures are navigating rough waters. Josiah is in the foreground, pointing ahead, while two other figures steer the boat. The fourth figure dramatically swoons over the boat’s side. The viewer is set a bit farther back from the action than in Priest’s other works, but the drama holds. Through the strong use of diagonal composition the energy of the piece is unbalanced yet purposeful. Priest creates vivid snapshots of action that is unresolved, thus compelling the narrative forward. We are privy to the humans involved in dire circumstances, and we are asked, again, to reflect on what this moment must have been like.

Located on the third floor are a series of six portraits by Jordan Lance Morgan.  Three of these represent specific members of the armed services: one is a self- portrait, and the remaining two are of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.  The historical figures are rendered in oil on linen, while the rest are oil on panel. Compared to Priest and Garner, Morgan’s works are small in scale, ranging in size from approximately 12”x18” to 24”X18”. However, the impact of these works is no less.

Jordan Lance Morgan, Portrait of Sargent
Major Thomas B. Crump (USMC), 2013.

Morgan states, “While my paintings reflect a desire for realism, my main concern is to emphasize the tension between the illusion of volume and the flat picture plane...”(  

In his portraits of contemporary military personnel Morgan places superb realist renditions of persons against a flat, image-filled background. The portrait work effectively brakes the two dimensional plane, and the viewer is tempted to reach out and touch the figure. Adding to the interest and sophistication of the renderings is the iconography that surrounds the figures. Medieval knights, Biblical references, skull and crossbones, and Freemason’s square and compass lend mysterious clues to the significance of the individual. These symbols are painted in an illustrative, rather than realist, manner. The juxtaposition of these two styles speaks to Morgan’s skills and vision. The figurative work moves beyond the picture plane, not because of the background, but in spite of it. We are offered realism with its accompanying story in a single image.

“Martyrdom Of the Master,” oil on panel, again juxtaposes realism with illustration, to a Francis Bacon kind of effect. The figure represents the artist as the architect of the Temple of Solomon. The body of the artist is nude, and essential organs are exposed, while the Temple is in mid construction. This is a visual puzzle in a surrealist vein, rendered beautifully.

Morgan’s historical portraits are compositionally similar to his other pieces. The upper torso and head are the focus of the work and are rendered realistically. However, while the backgrounds are flat, they are mostly tonal studies, with just a few Masonic symbols and Roman numerals to offer clues about the subjects themselves. There is a double entendre, as both George Washington and Ben Franklin are historical figures and symbols of America. 

As an ensemble, the works of these three artists relate to each other through the “Struggles and Triumphs” that are being told. While other areas of the world struggle to establish a thriving democracy, Garner’s “Election Series” comments upon the struggles and victories inherent in the process of a vibrant democracy in action. Priest’s compelling exploration of the human spirit in the face of oppression speaks to individual victories, as well as the triumph of this country to remain united. Garner’s portraits offer insights into the founders of this democracy, and stories of individuals who now protect this hard earned union.

Struggle and Triumph
Joyce Garner, Mark Priest & Jordan Lance Morgan

Through November 1, 2013

Louisville Metro Hall
601 Jefferson Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Theatre [502] Attempts a Thriller in "Edgewise"

Casandre Elyse Medel, Ian Weber & Michael Mayes in Edgewise.
Photo – Theatre[502].


By Eliza Clark
Directed by Mike Brooks

A review by Carlos-Manuel

Entire contents copyright © 2013 Carlos-Manuel. All rights reserved.

Since its inception, Theatre [502] has challenged audiences to question everything, from its existence in the universe and the meaning of life to our purpose in the world and the cause and effect of our actions. This is one of the many reasons I like Theatre [502]. They are not afraid to challenge our intellect, our fears, our convictions and beliefs. The company dares to go where most theatre companies dare not.

Another thing I like about Theatre [502] is that, so far, the acting tends to be some of the best around town. That also goes for the artistic values of their productions and for the professionalism the members of the company show at every event. But as the saying goes, “Not everything that shines is gold.”

Edgewise by Eliza Clark is the company’s second play in their third season, and like the plays before this one, it is loaded with philosophical and ethical questions.

The story revolves around three teenagers who work at a fast food burger joint in New Jersey and the decisions they have to make in order to survive in a United States that is under siege by “the enemy,” which in this case seems to be every person who isn’t a patriot.

The entire story takes place within the burger joint: behind the counter and the storage room. This is important to note because the environment outside the building is supposed to be chaotic and unsafe due to the non-stop airstrikes and the many shootings. In other words, New Jersey is an actual battlefield. And here lies my problem, first with the script, then with the production.

The playwright places three teenagers in the middle of a battlefield crisis, where the only “safe space” seems to be the burger joint itself, and the outside world seems to be a constant threat; having a bloody, injured man – who could be the enemy – showing up at the restaurant raises the stakes in the story. Immediately, the alpha of the three teenagers (a funny Michael Mayes as Ruckus) takes matters into his hands and decides the stranger (Eli Keel as Louis) is an untrustworthy individual and must be dealt with. While I was able to accept Ruckus’s decision, I just couldn’t believe, as much as I tried, that the other two teenagers would follow along with the plan, especially when nothing is truly forcing them (although they state otherwise) to stay. Still, I tried to suspend my disbelief as much as possible to go alone with the story. Yet, at the end, I couldn’t buy the product.

Then I realized why. It was the direction (naturalistic) and the lack of truly understanding what it really means to be in the middle of danger that kept me from buying into the play’s premise. I’m not sure if any of the actors or the director have ever been in a true battlefield or in a place where you have to run and hide because riots are happening left and right and you fear for your life, or in a town/country where unexpected gunfire happens as you are walking down the street. I don’t think the actors have ever been in such situations and I pretty much doubt the director has ever experience such realities, except in movies and video games. And if they have, they forgot to recall the horror, the fear, and the constant uneasiness of knowing that you might get unexpectedly shot or captured. Trust me, that uneasiness, and fear, and incertitude makes you a very nervous individual, trusting no one, especially those around you. And in my case, it also takes years of counseling to overcome such traumas.

I bring this up because the playwright’s desire to place the teenagers in such a situation, although seemingly a good idea, at times fails because some of the story’s inconsistences. Emma (Casandre Elyse Medel), for example, makes an attempt to go home but never does because “she is being forced” by Ruckus to stay. Yet, there is really no true evidence (physical or emotional) to support this intimidation. Perhaps the playwright’s intentions were to use the outside forces to keep Emma in the burger joint but it never really feels that the character is ever in danger. Besides, a few times Emma and Marco (Ian Weber) go to their cars, which are parked outside, and several costumers used the drive-thru to order their meals, indicating the fact that life outside the restaurant isn’t really that dangerous. Still, there are airstrikes happening throughout the day, injured people being tortured, unexpected guests becoming a threat, and at least two teenagers capable of killing each other if necessary. Yet, with all these factors surrounding the story and the characters, it all felt completely artificial.

Don’t get me wrong. The actors did a fantastic job, especially Michael Mayes as Ruckus. Ian Weber, as Marco, truly portrays the internal angst of an introvert/insecure teenager; and Casandra Elyse Medel stood her ground as the worried but easy-to-manipulate female in the cast. Then there was the work of Eli Keel as Louis and JohnBen Lacy as Paul, both presenting characters that brought some uneasiness to the situation.

Yet, as mentioned before, it was the directing that bothered me the most. Because while the actors knew their characters inside out (and I’m sure thanks to the director working with them), the blocking and line delivery were perfect, I cannot help but feel that the immediacy of danger, the tension felt in threatening situations, and the fear of being trapped was never truly palpable. To me that has to do with a tone that was too relaxed or naturalistic, if you will, rather than filled with intensity and fear.

Still, the audience laughed and so did I. And there were even some people who jumped out of their seats or covered their eyes when hearing or witnessing some of the characters’ actions. But like in an action flick, those were just the results of the special effects, which in this production seem to be what the director relied on because, as he states in the program, “These are characters that are immediately recognizable and relatable, even if their circumstances and choices are not” – hence, my issue with both the script and the production.

As I watched Edgewise, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another play with a similar premise, Death and the Maiden by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman. In this play, like in Edgewise, we don’t really know who is telling the truth, who is a liar, and who is victim or enemy. Yet, unlike Edgewise, the characters’ situations and their gruesome actions are right in your face, with no apology, placing the audience in an unnerving situation and likely to make anyone feel angry and helpless. That tension and fear is exactly what was missing from this production. Instead, we are presented with a clearly calculated production that feels like a sanitized experiment where the actors could go “all the way” but dare not to because it could be too real for an American audience.  


August 16, 17, 19, 22, 23, 24
8 p.m.

Theatre [502]
At The Clifton Center
2117 Payne Street
Louisvile, KY 40206

CenterStage Brings "A New Brain" to Entertaining, Resonant Life

Rusty Henle, Frank Goodloe, Jeremy Moon, Jennifer Poliskie, AW Johnson,
Jason Cooper, Jordan Price, Lauren McCombs, Stephen G. Smith, Tymika Prince,
Angie Renae Hopperton and Jennifer Pennington in A New Brain. Photo – CenterStage.

A New Brain
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Directed by John R Leffert

A review by Kate Barry
Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

CenterStage is producing a little bit of everything for their current theater season, mostly crowd pleasers like Legally Blonde and The Sound of Music, and I imagine there is a lot of energy going into each highly anticipated production. Right now, their current effort is A New Brain, a semi-autobiographical musical fantasy depicting a man’s struggle with a rare illness. Even though it is a slightly obscure musical, there’s no doubt that it will be entertaining and fun.

As Gordon, a man who is overcome by a rare disease, Jordan Price provides a lead who is relatable as well as funny. This is a character modeled after the author’s own life, and Price manages to carry this responsibility with charisma. Whether he is belting from a hospital bed or dancing with the rest of his ensemble, Price provides a strong lead, from his first moments of pounding a keyboard to the meandering of a dazed coma. He brings out all the frustration and nerves of a suffering patient and gives it everything he’s got.

Other key players within the production range from waitresses, hospital staff, close friends and lovers. Providing the most memorable of these random players is Jason Cooper as the temperamental Mr. Bungee, who is decked out in an outlandish frog costume. Pessimistic and cynical, Cooper brings lots of laughs as he taunts Gordon throughout his illness-driven hallucinations. Lauren McCombs and Anthony Johnson are a riot as Nancy D and Richard, the two nurses who tend to Gordon’s every need. Johnson shines in shimmering sequence during “Eating Myself Up Alive,” a glitzy soulful number in the midst of Gordon’s coma, while Ms. McCombs provides little moments of comedy with her high-pitched soprano. Tymika Prince as the random homeless woman provides moments of gusto as she looks for change both literally and figuratively.

Choreography and staging for this show was particularly campy as actors whirl hospital beds and each other around the stage. The play strengthens as Gordon slips into his coma from brain surgery. Prefaced by the emotional number “Throw It Out,” sung with strong burst of energy by Jennifer Pennington as Gordon’s mother, the play begins to take on a different shape. Stephen T. Smith as Roger, Gordon’s lover, provides a solo for “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe.” A song about loss and mourning what is beyond our control, the lyrics take on a completely different meaning with recent events in the theatre community.

In view of such losses, this is a really important musical to be performed right now. I encourage every colleague, peer and member of the theater community who is grieving to see this play. With A New Brain, CenterStage has crafted a production dedicated to show the lighter side of illness and how we can overcome it and gain inspiration from it.

A New Brain

August 15-25, 2013

Center Stage at JCC
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Remembering Bob Zielinski (1939-2013)

by Michael Drury, Artistic Director of Pandora Productions
Entire contents copyright © 2013 by Michael Drury. All rights reserved.

I'm not sure if every writer feels this way when asked to write a remembrance or eulogy for someone who has passed, but I find that my heart is full but words are in short supply.

Bob Zielinski was no stranger to Louisville Metro audiences, having performed with Little Colonel Players, Shelby County Community Theatre, Bunbury Theatre and others, not to mention that he also quietly worked behind the scenes at many of these same local theatres.

I had known Bob for years even before he came to work for Pandora because his daughter Julie had done several shows for us in our early years. Pandora was not only one of the companies for which Bob acted, he also served as a board member, box office manager (with wife Betty), stage manager, props gatherer, gun expert and advertising sales rep. He went at each one of these tasks as if it was a career choice for him. Bob didn't do anything half way. I don't know if he was always a stickler for detail or that was a learned trait from his years in the military.

Bob appeared on the Pandora stage in several productions including a middle-aged man undergoing gender reassignment transition in Looking For Normal, a Baptist Minister in Southern Baptist Sissies, and an older Doctor suspicious of the gay tendencies of a colleague in Arrangement For Two Violas. In all three of these examples he was able to share the stage with his wife and (I suspect) Best Friend, Betty. Although he never shared the Pandora stage with her, his daughter Julie has also been on stage with Pandora, making his presence here, as with many other companies, a family affair. I remember reading in his bio for one (or more) of the programs for our productions that he cited sharing the stage with Betty at Pandora and with Julie at Bunbury as the great joys of his life.

While serving his term on the board for Pandora, Bob was instrumental in the evolution of the company, pounding the pavement to sell advertising for the program, now grown into a beautiful 32-page color booklet due, in part, to his tenacity, or working to convince a company that Pandora was a worthy organization that deserved sponsorship-level support. I always knew that I could count on Bob to give his opinion, which is why I recruited him for our board. I like a healthy debate, and Bob was certainly happy to oblige!

Bob Zielinski's influence will be felt and missed as we move forward without him.

Funeral services for Bob Zielinski will be held this Monday, August 18 at noon.

Kentucky Veterans Cemetery Central
2501 North Dixie Blvd.
Radcliffe, KY 40160

Remembering Bryce Blair (1988-2013)

Bryce as The Cowardly Lion in the YMCA of So. Indiana
production of The Wizard of Oz, with Jeremy O'Brien.

by Keith Waits

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

I barely knew Bryce Blair, and I feel all the poorer for it. I had seen much of his more recent work – musical performances which featured his mellifulous tenor – but I missed him in The Wizard of Oz, where his Cowardly Lion left such an impression that people were still talking about it. It is not hard to imagine such a memorable turn in that role from the young actor, whose generous spirit and quality of childlike innocence would seem a perfect fit for Dorothy’s furry companion who finds his courage when he needs it most.

His physical presence expressed his personality to a tee, and the cliché of “big teddy bear of a guy” was never more apt. As an actor, he knew to underplay the physical things because less is always more when you are the big guy. As a director, he was interested in life-affirming material that inspired without being cloying. He wanted so badly to direct that he would not let challenging venues stand in the way of producing the show he wanted.

On Tuesday Bryce lost an all-too-rapid (less than three months) fight with cancer, and as news of his passing traveled through the theatre community that afternoon, Facebook hosted numerous heartfelt memories: how supportive he was to fellow actors, the words joy and laughter were commonly used, and more than a few spoke of “the best hugs ever!” As images from so many different shows filled status updates, it continues to shock me as to how much work he had logged before slipping away from us at the profanely premature age of 25.

Visitation for Bryce Blair will be held this Friday, August 16, from 3 to 8 p.m. at Weathers Funeral Home in Salem.
Weathers Funeral Home
106 S. Shelby Street
Salem, IN 47167
A "Celebration of Life" for Bryce Blair will be held this Sunday, August 18, at 4 p.m., at Clarksville Little Theatre.
Clarksville Little Theatre
301 E. Montgomery Avenue
Clarksville, IN 47129

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hard Work and Training Pave the Way to Broadway: Interview with Adam Brown

Adam Brown greetings fans after a performance of Once. Photo – Lana Lindsey.

By Keith Waits

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

I first saw Adam Brown, when he was about 16, at Walden Theatre in Sonny's House of Spies. He played a middle-aged, closeted gay man who, in a pivotal scene, reveals some hard truths to the title character. I remember thinking that the production would not have necessarily been better served by an age-appropriate casting choice, so true and honest was the performance. Later his abilities were further recognized and nurtured when in 2007 he placed first overall in the English Speaking Union's National Shakespeare Competition and studied for a summer in London.

Six years, a degree from DePaul University, and a season working in Chicago later, the Youth Performing Arts School alumnus seems to be making good on the promise of that early work, having recently taken over the role of Eamon in the Broadway production of Once, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2011. Recently we talked with Adam about the experience.

Arts-Louisville:  Just over a year ago, you were finishing your undergrad degree, and now you are in one of the hottest shows on Broadway. How does THAT feel?
Adam Brown:  It's a whirlwind. To have trained as long as I have, and to have worked as hard as I have for as long as I have, it's a humbling and jaw-dropping payoff. The show itself has a very special place in my heart. Having been a longtime fan of the movie, and a pretty avid Glen Hansard fan, I knew many of the songs from the show already and would play them with my friend busking on the streets of Chicago. Now, to not only make my Broadway debut, but to be able to play these songs in particular every night and tell this beautiful story, I consider myself very, very blessed.

A-L:  How did you get the job?
Adam:  I originally auditioned for the national tour in November of last year in Chicago. Although the audition went really well and I got very positive feedback in the room from the casting director, I didn't hear heads or tails from them for months after, so naturally I figured nothing would come of it. Then, in May of this year, the casting director, Jim Carnahan, invited me back in to read the same sides and play another song of my choice. Then he had me come back the next day to read for him and three of his associates. I felt great about the callback and left. About a week later they invited me to a final callback in New York for four swing parts in the touring company. Two days later they called again and said that they were also going to consider me for the Broadway company. They sent me four different sides for each of the characters, plus six songs on five different instruments to learn for the callback. In New York, I had three different callbacks: music, dance/movement and finally acting. I went into a studio space in midtown and met with the associate director and associate music director and played two songs on the guitar, one on piano, one on bass, one on drums and another on the ukulele. Next, I went to a dance studio and met with the associate choreographer and did a group callback. The next day I came in and read for the entire creative team, played two songs on the guitar, read only two of the four sides I prepared, worked with the original director on the Eamon character scene, and then went to the airport to wait for my flight back to Chicago. While I was sitting in the terminal, my agent called and said, "Go home, pack up your things, you move to New York on Monday:  you're in the Broadway production of Once." I couldn't actually believe what he had said, so I made him repeat it a few times before it sunk in.

A-L:  You had been working steadily in Chicago and to some acclaim, having been nominated for a Joseph Jefferson award. What had been your plan to reach the Big Time before the Once audition?
Adam:  Chicago is a really special place. The work that goes on there, from huge houses like Steppenwolf and Lookingglass all the way down to the non-equity storefront shows, have such passion and heart. It's truly about the art of theatre and storytelling and less about egos or who was in what last season. As such, a lot of work that happens in Chicago makes its way to New York and Los Angeles. I knew that New York was a goal on the horizon for me, and my plan was to simply remain true to myself and dedicate myself to shows I felt passionate about, and that one day the stars would align and the show would be picked up, or a producer or director would see something I was in and I would move up from there. It happens a lot in Chicago.

A-L:  How would you characterize Broadway audiences from what you have experienced in the past?
Adam:  They are no different from audiences at Actors Theatre. Audiences come to the theatre to be transported, and Broadway houses are no exception. They are enthusiastic and ready for anything. Our audiences come from all over the world. But one of the most beautiful aspects of the theatre is that once the houselights go down and the show starts, race, status, prejudices, everything flies out the window and for two and a half hours, everyone becomes equal. It's magical.

A-L:  Most famous people cite luck as a vital ingredient, but you have been training for this career since you were 9 years old. How important has that training, specifically Walden Theatre and YPAS, been in making you the best casting choice for Eamon?
Adam:  There is no easy answer to that. Bob Dylan said, "An artist should always be trying to reach a place; they should never arrive. When you arrive, you die." My grandfather said, "Learn something new every day." Training is so important. Generally, I agree with Dylan. An artist should always be looking to better themselves and their art. As a lover of the arts as well as an artist, I'm not interested in someone standing onstage or at a gallery somewhere or in a concert and saying, "Here is my perfection." That's not interesting. What's interesting, and I think what separates artists like Dylan from everyone else, is that constant look-around-the-corner-for-what-comes-next gleam you can see in their eyes. Yes, tonight the show went well, but tomorrow, how can we do it better?

Specifically related to Walden, that answer is a book. I don't think I can ever properly repay them for everything I learned there – not just about being a better actor. But how to be a better person. Teachers there not only taught me how to find my light, or make a cue, but how to be selfless onstage and off; how you are never the most important person in the room and there is always someone who you owe for helping you get onstage every night. They taught me to love what I do, and do what I love. To never sacrifice my integrity or my dignity just to be in the spot light. To always, and above all, tell the story. That's what theatre and acting is. It's not about awards or fame or money. It's about the magic of storytelling. As one teacher told me, "That's our job. How cool is that?" I couldn't put the spirit of Walden any better. 

Adam and Alaina Mills, another YPAS grad,
working in NYC. Photo – Lana Lindsey.
YPAS was an incredible experience as well. I'm constantly amazed at how many arts outlets our city provides young people. While Walden rented out theaters around the city, most were smaller houses. YPAS gave me the opportunity to do big budget, big audience shows in their spaces. I did Music Man there, which was a major step out of my comfort zone. I had never really dipped too far into musicals, and that experience definitely allowed me to go into places like Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Once, already having been on big stages and knowing what it took to play to houses that large. My favorite experience there was doing Hamlet my senior year. I honestly don't have the proper words to articulate my gratitude to YPAS for trusting me in that role, or convey the amount of unadulterated fun I had doing the show. Hamlet was one of a handful of theatrical experiences I've had where I've been onstage one night, looked around and thought to myself, "This is what I'm supposed to do with my life." It's the best feeling in the world.

A-L:  What is your advice for young actors looking at a professional career?
Adam:  To be honest with yourself and with those around you. Always be respectful and never be a diva. When in doubt, the right choice in a crowded room of artists is not to speak louder or be showier; usually the right choice is to close your mouth and open your eyes. You will be surprised how much you can learn. Be passionate about your work and take care of the people onstage with you every night – they will do the same in return. Watch movies, read books, see plays. Do something outside of the theatre as well. How can you be a truly well-rounded actor if you're not a well-rounded person as well? I took up music completely out of the mindset of theatre and it turned out to be one of my best assets as an actor. It's funny how many other things like that you find in the theatre. Don't take a job just for the money or for the chance to be in a show. Don't compromise yourself just to say you're an actor. Do plays and musicals that move you personally, that you can get behind and not be ashamed of. Go to Walden.

A-L:  How long do you expect to be in the show? What comes next? What are your long-term ambitions?
Adam:  I've signed on for a year with Once. At the end of that year I could sign another year contract, or move on to something else. As to what comes next, who really knows? The actual getting on Broadway part happened so fast that I haven't really had time to plan too far in the future. My agent back in Chicago has offices in Manhattan, so I will work with them and see what doors can be opened in the city, and see if I can stay in New York for a while. Or there are still a lot of wonderful people and theatre companies I have yet to work with back in Chicago. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be at this point in my life and have more than one option in my future. Time will tell.