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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Quickies! And For Once, Success!

ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE, Media Theatre, State and Monroe, Media, Pa. through April 1 — Vocally, Jenny Lee Stern channels Patsy Cline. The clean, heartfelt sounds register. Physically, I kept seeing Judy Garland and began hoping Stern, a known chameleon from her “Forbidden Broadway” days, one day aims to portray that diva plus ultra. Some book scenes don’t play as cleanly as in other productions I’ve seen, and the tempo seems to drag here and there. Deborah Lynn Meier is fine as Patsy’s fan and friend, Louise, but she intrudes too much and too unnecessarily at times. In general, this is a good show that provides some excellent songs and a lot of entertainment. The night I was at the Media, the theater paid tribute to veterans. It was a heartwarming ceremony, and it was a honor to shake the hand of WWII medal winner, Walter Kolimaga. Grade: B

 

CROWNS, McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Road, in Princeton, N.J., through April 1 — Richer and more to the point than its premiere staging earlier this century, Regina Taylor’s piece is an entertaining and telling musical about traditions among African-American women, and Africans in general, and how they are handed down from generation to generation, even when a current generation, read today’s, is reluctant. Taylor gives in a bit to city ills and excesses being cured by a dose of home roots in the country, but the visit to the rural, religious South is worth the journey. For us and the primary character, Yolanda, played with depth and variety by Gabrielle Beckford. Hats, or crowns, are symbols of the African tradition of women adorning their hair with fabric and accessories. The parade of chapeaux is not as extensive as I’d have liked (although the McCarter house left lobby features a great display), but the story, meaning, and pride those hats symbolize is wonderfully told. Music runs from fine original pieces to the traditional. The cast is uniformly good, but the Latice Crawford takes you to a vaulted spiritual plane when she launched into “His Eye on the Sparrow.” Let me tell you, you believe!!! You also feel some spirit from Dianne McIntyre’s terrific dances. Grade: A-

 

FROZEN, Isis Productions at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, through April 1 — Neill Hartley’s ensemble for this play of forgiveness, redemption, and moving on by Bryony Lavery, makes the most of all the emotion and thoughtfulness Lavery invests in it. A simple, meaning everyday and unpretentious, woman seeks to face her daughter’s rapist and murderer, a serial offender finally in jail for life, in order to confront him and his crime and to offer her pardon of sorts so she can continue her life with what she figures to be less obsession. Allen Radway is as good as a “LockUp” interviewee in letting us see the mind of a predator. Remorse is reserved more for living in a cage than for damaging lives in addition to ending some, but Radway shows signs of revelation even as he blusters or finds bits of joy in relating his criminal exploits. Renee Richman-Weisband grows her performance. You don’t totally understand why you’re meeting her character, Nancy, but as that character becomes more resolved to have her day in the presence of her enemy, Richman-Weisband makes you feel for Nancy, the pain she has endured, and the pain she will endure. There’s a great plain-spokenness to the character, and Richman-Weisband captures it. Kirsten Quinn continues to do some of the best and most consistent work in the region as an academic who studied serial killers and becomes go-between that brings the killer, his victim’s survivor, and HMS prison system together. Quinn is especially good at showing the smug rule-following ways of the social worker, then flouting them when she sees they don’t work in every situation. Grade: B+

 

*HUMAN RITES, InterAct Theatre, at the Drake, 15th and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, through April 15 — Seth Rozin pleasantly surprises by showing how popular perceptions, so popular they trigger activism and movements, are sometimes not true to actuality. He chooses the controversial subject of ritual female circumcision is Africa and the Middle East and does the necessary, separates points of the issue into separate parts, spoken about with fervor from separate camps. The conversations are sometimes overdone but also fascinating. Rozin captures the kneejerk compulsion to conform, especially when it involves siding with international thought advocates consider it heresy to dispute. He shows academic politics and academic interests. Sometimes honorable, often smarmy. Best of all, he poses an unexpected moral dilemma by having one of three characters ask for secrecy and privacy for a custom she says is meant to be so. The discussions are fun to watch, and it’s especially gratifying to see the most certain attitude, one its bearer considers unassailable, burst to bits in a way that questions all rigid acceptance and orthodoxy. Rozin leaves a lot for his audience to consider, but the defines the battlefield well and provocatively. You don’t have to endure the cant, preachiness, and reflexive political correctness that mitigates, if not poisons, so much new work. It’s good to see InterAct so a little rogue. Kimberly S. Fairbanks is having a great season, coming off of a moving performance in Wilma’s “Passing Strange” to this portrayal of a woman who has gained position and power against odds but who represents intellectual stereotype and belief and only she and people who agree with her can be right. Research that doesn’t come to the prescribed popular opinion is anathema to her. Peer review and other evidence is worthless if it doesn’t match her pre-supposed ideas. The researcher can also be self-serving. The graduate student who becomes an enlightener and arbitrator of sorts is the most admirable character, but even she makes a request that might be better ignored than honored. Truth, “Human Rites” says, has become self-serving. Rozin has put a great discussion on stage, has effectively avoided polemic, and really, as InterAct prides itself of doing, gives his audience the opportunity to think. Fairbanks is impressive as the dean who wants to scuttle research and keep complaining students safe from perceived offense. Lynnette R. Freeman, who is not seen enough but is missed when she’s gone and welcome when she returns, shows moxie and a reverence for the real as the light-shedding graduate student. Joe Guzmán artfully states his case at the researching anthropology professor. A discussion of method between pure and social science also garners attention. A romantic plot device never hinders but at times gets tiresome. Colin McIlvane’s set is perfect. You can enjoy a day in it. Grade: A

 

*I WILL NOT GO GENTLY, People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pa., through April 15 — I don’t know whether Jennifer Childs has been honing and perfecting her one-person look at middle age as the near-50 examine themselves, get examined by their teenage selves and daughter, and take a peek at old age, or if the crisper, cleaner production of values at People’s Light provide advantage Plays & Players and Act II couldn’t, but this third time seeing Childs in the piece is the charm. I’ve gone from a fan and admirer to an enthusiastic supporter who believes Childs, her play, and Harriet Power’s production should make a fourth stop, to Broadway. Childs has been remarkable from the beginning playing a passel of characters ranging from a 47ish rock star making a comeback after 15 years absence to a 90-year-old making her standup comedy debut. Acting is finally matched by sensibility. Childs’s script doesn’t seem to have changed significantly from its 1812 premiere in 2016, yet it came across as more cohesive, more cleverly structured, and totally to the point. Hitting points was the weakening spot in previous outings. I found some parts labored and too much effort given to providing a point of view. At People’s Light, I saw a total package I think is brilliant, chocked with insight, consistently witty, and filled with accurate and important notions about age. Hey, I am not saying the other two outings were less involving or impressive. I’m saying maybe I am more in tune with all Childs is doing and expressing. Maybe I had to catch up to “I Will Not Gently” and have finally done it. All of Childs’s character creations are perceptive and on the mark. Her British rock star, Sierra Mist, has several clichéd traits, but those, including her less than Mayfair London accent, help establish her as interesting and lead to a woman who knows what she’s about and is going to get it. An insomniac podcaster asks many prime questions. Her and Childs’s mind wander into funny but familiar directions. In fact, whether playing Sierra, the podcaster, or the 90-year-old comic, Childs’s musings are both funny and in keeping with what is on many minds. A motivational speaker is a stitch, and the insomniac’s teenager, surrounded by a sea of tablets, laptops, mobiles, and similar devices, each of them tuned to someone else — The “hello” sequence is a hoot. — is an inspired creation. Childs knows the world and proves it. She also knows about aging, ambition, and daring to do the new. Songs by Childs and Christopher Colucci are often fun. I wish we heard more in their entirety. At least we get the seminal “Jack in My Box” on television as an epilogue. Miss this at your peril, even if “I Will Not Go Gently” seemed destined to have a local regional theater tour. Grade: A

 

*JULIUS CAESAR, Quintessence Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, in rep through April 28 — Alexander Burns out-Hodges Dan Hodge, in this marvelous and marvelously intriguing production that begins with passages from Joseph Addison and includes from verse by John Masefield prior to taking its audience to Rome and launching into the familiar text of William Shakespeare. Indeed, Quintessence announces the author of its “Julius Caesar” as William Shakespeare and Others. The elisions and amalgamations work. The Addison catches your ear as being different before Mark Antony borrows it during the Shakespearean sequences, and you gain insight into more background than the Feast of Lupercal offers to see the overriding purpose of “Julius Caesar,” a look at patriotism and democracy. I don’t cotton do the late spate of linking classical texts to the Presidency of Donald Trump, but Burns’s production comes near the mark of showing parallels and exploring sentiments on the role of government, kinds of leadership, and who should serve whom in terms of office holders and the populace. Current events are suggested, but you can forget them as you see the arguments and ideas Shakespeare and Addison in particular offer for your thoughts and entertainment. Issues and attitudes, as well as plays, can be classic and contemporary at once. “Julius Caesar,” when done well, is an embodiment of that, and Burn’s piece is done well. Excellent classical actor Michael Gamache brings you into Burn’s mixture strongly with his commanding performance in the non-Shakespearean portions. Clarity prevails, and the political and military exposition Shakespeare supplies but that is usually cut from “Hamlet” “Henry IV,” and others, is done with simplicity but equal skill by Addison. Mainly because he is not trying as hard to make verse as to make points. Do not think I’m knocking Shakespeare or preferring Addison. In this case, the “Roger DeCoverley” writer is not given to or capable of the flights The Bard is, and the plainness of his narrative helps Burns greatly in setting a larger scene. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is informed by the additions and informed deftly and perceptively. We are more ready than ever for the story of Caesar becoming an emperor and Brutus fearing for democracy. Burns and cast creates a healthy tension that draw you into the matters at hand, provide understanding of the conspirators, and shows multiple sides of Caesar, Antony, Brutus, and Caius Cassius. Gamache sets the table. Michael Brusasco as the troubled and noble Brutus makes Burns’s meal a feast. Brusasco lets you see his character’s struggle and the tough decision to purge Caesar in the interest of preserving Rome. He also conveys Brutus’s trait of unyielding willfulness. From whether to kill Mark Antony along with Caesar to letting Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral and sharing military prowess, Cassius, played with sincerity and strength by Mary Tuomanen is right, but you can see, through Brusasco how Brutus prevails, benighted or not. Brett Ashley Robinson doesn’t seem at first to have the cunning or guile of Antony, but once she utters the famous, “Friends, Romans, Countryman, she has you riveted. The antic Antony we see first is replaced by a man of purpose and strategic ability the dilettante Brutus cannot match, even with Cassius’s help. Paul Hebron shows Caesar’s vanity and temper while also conveying his statesmanship and way with a crowd. Burns’s entire ensemble stays true to his vision. Good job all around. Grade: A-

 

NOISES OFF, Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, through April 29 — The chestnut sails in Frank Anzalone’s production, but not consistently. The second act of Michael Frayn’s sturdy comedy is far and away superior to its bookends. Even then, some gambits, such as swinging an ax and miming scenes that look like various forms of copulation, are repeated too often. Despite the ups and downs, and a range of performance levels, Susan Riley Stevens and John P. Connolly showing the way, Frayn and his onstage-backstage hijinks prevail,. The first act improve as Anzalone’s production runs. Its problem is easily fixable. The actors are trying too hard and being too broad in an effort to be funny. A lot seems forced or meant to generate laughs. The downside of that the comic doesn’t register as funny as it might with more subtlety, We see the magicians doing their tricks. They give away the game. Better would be for everyone at the rehearsal we’re watching for a farce called “Nothing On,” to be more natural and relaxed, showing the skill of veteran hands rather than the desperation of one who works overtime to get a joke over. The first act of “Noises Off” sets up a lot, and the exposition is helpful, but you need to see more people going about their business and less show. The second is an immediate improvement. For once thing, size and exaggeration are called for. All is going amok as a troupe tours in a farce, and we witness the unraveling. Even with the repetitions, Anzalone’s pranks work, and the director deserves credit for cooking up some new business I haven’t seen in about 25 “Noises Offs” and carrying them off. How handy to have Ben Dibble aboard when you need someone to do a variety of acrobatics necessitated by having his shoes tied together while he’s onstage and can’t fix them. Why are the shoes tied together? Ah! The cast of “Nothing On” is at war with one another, and one character has crossed the laces in cruel revenge for a possible romantic slight.

Stevens comes through all three acts with aplomb as an unflappable actress who is privy all of her castmates’ personal lives, troubles, and escapades. Connolly is hilarious as an able theatrical yeoman with a bit of drinking problem. In his part, this drunkard is reliable as they come, but the fear is always he’ll tipple too much to go on, Greg Wood provides a lot of laughs as a sarcastic director. Dibble amazes as he mounts a stairs in jumps, shoes unable to help. Mary Martello anchors the opening scenes but seems to get lost in later shuffle. Lauren Sowa and Daniel Fredrick are the right kind of befuddled and funny as the stage manager and Jack of all trades — carpenter, electrician, front of house manager, and general understudy. Their scene-calling sequence is Act Two, aided by Wood, is a riot. Leonard C. Haas has some fine moments as a run-of-the-mill actor who needs a lot of motivation, most of which Wood’s director has to improvise on the spot. Alanna J. Smith captures the denseness and obtuse clinging to script, even during commotion, of the ingénue, Brooke. Robert Koharchik’s set is a gem. Grade: B-

 

THE PRODUCERS, Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa., through April 1 — To his credit, Danny Rutigliano reminds one of no other Max Bialystock as he does his own magnificent job in that demanding part. In fact, if Rutigliano makes you think of anyone, it’s not Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane, but Danny DeVito because their physiques are so close, Keith Baker does his usual thorough job in getting Mel Brooks’s reliable corker afloat. Thank goodness wrote “The Producers” in the late ’60s and brought the musical to life in 2001. Bad taste and offensiveness abound. Had “The Producers” been new, the protest might have killed this gem. (As usual, spare me the respectable!) Lively comedy takes over the Bristol stage. Rutigliano is the shining centerpiece, but Michael Doherty as Bloom,. Danny Vaccaro at Roger DeBris, and especially Fred Inkley as Franz Liebkind combine with Rutigliano or make their own brand of magic. Baker also gets amazing work from his supporting players. Morgan Reynolds is the best Carmen Ghia I’ve ever seen, being as Flamboyant as he pleases while carrying genuine hauteur and class and making his emotional excesses in several directions plausible offshoots of a complex human character. Luke Bradt and Patrick Ludt stand out in parts that often go unnoticed . Ludt presages the excitement of “Springtime for Hitler” while Bradt turns bit throwaways into full characters. The dazzler is Rutigliano who can gobble the stage with histrionics while coming through with a subtle nuances that are just as funny, Rutigliano does everything well, but his big number, “Betrayed” is a masterful comic aria. Michael Doherty is a great physical comedian who moves skillfully from the callow, scared Leo into a man about who has regular sex at 11 a.m. He does an equally great job with Leo’s tap numbers and Brooks’s ballads, “That Face” and “Till Him.” At least a half dozen parts done by Danny Vaccaro at Bristol Riverside, and he’s revealed as snazzy singer and dancer. Quite a revelation for an audience used to seeing Vaccaro in feet-on-the-ground regular guy parts (the dentist in “little Shop of Horrors notwithstanding). Vaccaro has and provides a good time in :Keep it Gay” and his bravura ‘German Ethel Merman, don’t ya know, Adolf Elizabeth Hitler. Of all Baker’s assembled partners in crime, Fred Inkley turned up Bristol’s lighting by the most watts. Inkley is a committed Liebkind, an undiminished devotee oi Hitler and author of a valentine to him. Inkley goes beyond satire to believable. This man is an enthusiast who knows how to take precautions against people mock him . His robust takeover of Bradt’s uninspired “Haben Sie gehört das deutsches Band?” is a stunner that warrants Max enjoying Franz’s turn and announcement of “That’s our Hitler.” Nicole Benoit dances well as Ulla. Good work is also turned in by Kathryn Brunner and Lauren Kriegel as usherettes, Jo Twiss in several roles, John D. DiFerdinando auditioning “A Wandering Minstrel I,” and Zachary. J. Chiero’s loose-limbed audition as the little wooden boy. Stephen Casey is a million for a million is successful choreography. No credit on Earth can be enough to laud Mel Brooks who put together a rollicking satirical confection that is as timeless as it is exhilarating. He is a lasting genius, this musical joining his movies to show he is as much a craftsman and playmaker as he is a scenarist and film director. Grade: A

 

SCHOOL OF ROCK — National Tour, The Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, thgough April 1 — “Mediocre” has its definition for a reason. Most things are destined to be average, even things, and musicals, that have managed to stay on Broadway for a couple of years. “School of Rock” is amiable mediocrity. It spins a nice fantasy audiences will root to have happen and enjoy, it does so entertainingly, and it takes good advantage of a stage full of talented children. The touring production, starring Reob Colletti as a rock guitarist masquerading as a substitute teacher at an exclusive Ivy-League prep school, stays on an even keel when it allows things to remain natural. When it pushes or forces comedy, as Colletti does in the first few scenes, the show looks like a confident package that takes its audience for granted. Luckily, such pandering is kept to a minumum. “School for Rock” never grows to be important or anything beyond diverting enough, but it has enough zest and liveliness to keep you going and to prevent you from hating it. In one way, this touring version provides a good lesson in comic performance. Colletti if frequently too broad and too obviously making more of an effort to be funny than accomplishing it. Lexie Dorsett Sharp, who plays the prep school principal who walks and acts like she has an iron rod up her bum at work but can channel her Stevie Nicks when relaxed, shows how style and control works better than antics. Director Laurence Connor has Dorsett Sharp being just as mechanical and audience-baiting as Colletti, yet she pulls everything off in a way is admirable while Colletti is at his beat when his keeps his character direct and focused on a task rather than when he pulls out alleged stops to entertain. Dorsett Sharp has many fine moments. The best may be when book writer Julian Fellowes, yes he of “Downton Abbey,” has her sing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria as part of a music class. The self-satisfaction of Dorsett Sharp’s face tells you all you need to know about the vanity of the principal, whether she indulges in the vanity often or not. “School for Rock” has a standard movie comedy story from this era, and it’s pleasant and engaging enough. It also has a passel of energetic, entertaining children, and while you don’t worry much about them relinquishing academics for rock music or care about their stated problems with their demanding parents, but you do root for them to be great and compete well in the Battle of the Bands Colletti’s teacher is grooming them for. Make no mistake, Colletti’s Dewey is a good musician, a good teacher, and one who is knowledgeable about music and its performance. How can one not enjoy watching a mite like Victor Molden wield a guitar close to his own size and wail out a riff that would do Clapton proud? Theoodora Silverman is truly impressive on the bass, and Theo Mitchell-Penner and Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton give you hope in the future of music as well. Once the hackneyed but effective plot gets into gear, and wanting something for the children kicks in, “School for Rock” is an easy watch that may not dazzle but keeps you involved. Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a lot of criticism, more of it trendy griping that real judgment. “School for Rock” proves that even second-rate Lloyd Webber is better than most of what we get today. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are better than today’s norm as well. Fellowes goes between wit and the easy, almost contemptibly easy, joke. Cheers when he aces a moment. A potch in the tuchas for when he goes cheap (which, in this script, is more often). Connor’s production moves well enough, and the kids do great and create a lot of energy when they have the chance. Oh, I almost forgot the excellent turn by Iara Nemirovsky as the brattiest prep who shows her sense of superiority is deserved. Grade: C

 

  • = Expanded review coming
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