Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Review of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" at Media Theater, published in the News of Delaware County, 3-14-07

A friend and I sat at a bar one night, nursing drinks (not really) while the jukebox played mostly country music. Ever the wit, my friend remarked upon the simplicity and content of the lyrics, saying that he could easily pen a better country song; all he had to do was include references to his dog, engine blocks, life on the farm, and the girl who got away.

Well, it turns out, that in both our arrogance and condescension, we were extremely self-deluded. Country musicians really sing lyrics about catfish, farmer’s tans, drunken night fishing, and of course, the girl who got away (in this case, Dolly Parton). At least that’s what I learned at the Media Theater’s most recent production, a musical review fittingly called “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

However, like any style of music, fantastic performers can make even the mundane memorable. And Media has assembled an incredibly talented cast of six singer-musician-actors that do just that.

The action (I can’t say plot) takes place in two spectacularly reproduced settings, a roadside diner and gas station, separated on stage by a stretch of Highway 57. Here we meet the four Pump Boys: Ed (Chris Blisset), Jim (Blake Braswell), Jackson (Seth Morgan), and LM (Brad Simmons), and the two waitresses of the title, Prudie (Sarah Gliko) and Rhetta Cupp (Meaghan Kyle).

In a series of skits and vignettes, the review follows them through the course of a day (it’s not really clear) from the introductory “Highway 57” to “Closing Time.” Along the way, we hear highlights like Simmons soulful “Serve Yourself” (with his own clever piano improvisations), Gliko’s heartfelt “The Best Man” (where she serenades a lucky audience member), and the consistently beautiful harmonizing of the four men—whether singing a capella or with the instruments (that they’re also playing). As banal as the lyrics may be (there really is a song about catfish), I couldn’t help tapping my feet, the energy of the cast was that infectious.

The show only loses the humor of what little script does exist, as director Tim Haney foregoes a straightforward presentation of the musical in favor of racier substitutions. This is most evident in how he openly plays the double entendres (“boys at the gas station can’t get enough of my pie”), and doesn’t do enough to make songs like “Farmer’s Tan” and “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” ridiculous enough. And some of the jokes get completely lost, as in Braswell’s story of milking a cow that inadvertently ate their marijuana plants, which is glossed over in between numbers. While Blisset’s dorky gas station attendant sneaks some laughs back in, the persistent lack of humor creates a number of dead spots in the show.

Otherwise, the set, rock-concert lighting, and costumes (think shirts with names stitched on front), all contribute to a highly energetic production of a play that is not without a certain charm. If you like country music even a little, this remarkable cast will make your entire evening worthwhile, even if they are only singing about fixing a Winnebago in time to date that girl from the Woolworth’s across the way. And no, those aren’t the lyrics my friend and I wrote; we’re not quite so clever as that.

Review of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at People's Light, published in the Philadelphia Theater Review

You enter the theater and walk into a seaside realm of ocean noises, multicolored tiled floors and marble arches, a mysterious piano player (playing excellent original music), and brilliantly costumed players already moving about, inhabiting a world inside of ours.

What land is this? Why, Illyria; where director Abigail Adams has indeed created a magnificent world for People’s Light’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And Shakespeare’s comedy, telling the story of mistaken identity, love unrequited and love found, contains some of his most poetic and clever language.

But as Shakespeare’s fool cautions in the play, “A sentence is but a soft glove to a good wit; how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.”

Which becomes the problem with the staging of this entire play. Where the play calls for lover’s charm, the actors are fussy (Mary Elizabeth Scalen’s Olivia), exasperating (Miriam Hyman’s Viola), or lifeless (Christopher Patrick Mullen’s Orsino). When the text requires an engaging wit or lively humor, the delivery is inconsistent (Jason Ma’s Feste and Lenny Haas’ Aguecheek), or absent (Graham Smith’s Toby), and only Mark Lazar’s Fabian and Elizabeth Webster Duke’s Maria (the most minor of these roles) succeed at all.

A striking example of all this: the comic subplot of the play revolves around the mistreatment of Olivia’s steward Malvolio (the rare excellent portrayal by Kevin Bergen) by Olivia’s fool (Feste), at the urging of her uncle Toby. Toby’s a drunk, to whom Shakespeare devotes some of the funniest passages of the entire play, whereas Malvolio’s a stiff Puritan, and the foil of all his humor. Yet rather than take advantage of what the text offers, Adams has Smith’s Toby speak his lines either in a drunken (and mildly violent) rampage, or slurred inaudibly out of the side of his mouth, rendering what should be an amiable, revelrous character into a irritating substance abuser. To top it off, his accomplices (Maria, Aguecheek, and Feste) in deceiving Malvolio become little more than his enablers, and it’s a wonder that they’re taken in with him at all.

But not all is rotten in Illyria, and the minor characters (which Adams leaves alone) all play their parts well, particularly Andrew Honeycutt’s endearing Sebastian and the earlier mentioned humor of Lazar and Duke. But their performances aren’t enough to salvage the bulk of the merriment or charm lost by this performance.

I would have loved to enjoy this production. Shakespeare’s play contains everything to recommend it, and yet Adams throws most of that away in exchange for a surface of outstanding production values, leaving behind not only Shakespeare’s humor and charm, but also the un- and underused talents of the cast.

Or to let Shakespeare tell it, when he later has Toby ask of Illyria, “is this a world to hide virtues in?” At People’s Light, unfortunately so.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Review of "Tuesdays with Morrie" at People's Light, published in the News of Delaware County 2-28-07

Before the performance of “Tuesdays with Morrie” (adapted by Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher), the house manager informed the audience that this play garnered the most advance sales in People’s Light and Theater Company’s recent history. Like Albom’s highly successful book (11 million copies in print), tickets are going fast for his play, and People’s Light has already extended their run to accommodate such high demand.

But unless you go to the theater specifically to see good acting, don’t go see this play.

Indeed, the actors deserve a great deal of credit. Not only does Tuesday’s lack a recognizable plot (and in that sense, drama), or motivations, save a man looking to resolve a nagging mid-life crisis and a dying one struggling to remain a “teacher to the last,” but the whole affair is littered with monologues and dialogue so condensed into episodes (of their ‘conversations’) as to appear like a cartoon strip.

David Ingram (as Mitch Albom) and Robert Spencer (Morrie) struggled against all of this, helped along by Stephen Novelli’s unobtrusive direction. Yet their efforts only illustrate the problem: I know I went to the theater, to see a play, on the stage. But Tuesdays with Morrie is one of the most unnatural, affected plays I’ve ever seen.

An example: out of nowhere, Morrie suddenly exclaims, “Without love, we are birds with broken wings.” This is typical, as the whole of the dialogue unfolds inorganically, without logic, as if Albom and Hatcher wanted to take all the best elements of the conversations from the book and squeeze them into 90 minutes of stage time. In a sense, watching the episodes of this play felt like being led through an art exhibition. “Here is the dying man sharing wisdom,” witness also the “mid-life crisis of the man seeking words of meaning.” Moreover, these McNuggets of wisdom (“you are dying too, only slower”) are highly unsatisfying, particularly in this adaptation, where the (forced) question, “Are you trying to be as human as you can be?” seems anything but poignant.

But none of this stopped the play from having its intended effect upon the audience, many of who uttered assent to Morrie’s maudlin assertions and sat weeping in their chairs long after the applause ended.

I don’t actually mind the book, which, enjoyed in solitude may provoke the same, yet private, outpouring of emotions. Nor am I bothered by the more substantial plays in the theatrical canon capable of decimating an audience. Indeed, it’s an effect that draws many (including this author) to the theater.

But I think that this audience, and all those gobbling up these tickets, expected to go to the theater and be moved by an adaptation of a book they loved. In that, they certainly didn’t self-disappoint. However, looking around (uncomfortably), seeing well-dressed and otherwise dignified men and women, facial expressions crumbling under tears—over what anyone but Dr. Phil would rightly regard as an 8th grader’s experiment in melodrama—was a very undignified way to end one’s evening.

At the door on the way out, the ushers politely (obligingly) handed tissues to the patrons. If only on the way in they had offered blinders.