by Dustin K. Britt
August 29, 2018
Cantey V. Sutton Theatre
August 17 - September 9
(includes a 4-performance extension)
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
The 2006 musical Sister Act does not replicate its source material: the 1992 film by Paul M. Rudnick (credited as Joseph Howard). It is more homage than adaptation. But in atypical fashion, this new version’s many alterations do not hinder a transference of the film’s perpetual enjoyability.
Alan Menken’s tunes cannot begin to replace the film’s motown soundtrack--his usual catchiness is dropped at the theatre’s exit--but the all-new songs serve their purpose while the curtain is up. Flavors of his Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast are notable and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are obvious and easy.
The book, penned by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, suckles on the Broadway Musical plot structure that we all know (and often love). I'm disappointed by the misshapen addition of a central romantic relationship, which neither the lead character or the play requires. But as predictable as the story is, its execution here still engages.
Director-choreographer Nancy Rich drives the show with proper speed: preventing boredom without inducing whiplash. Rich is a master of swaying, Temptations-like moves, which are on display here, particularly in the charming--if imprecise--”When I Find My Baby.” Her aptitude for physical comedy and sharply-timed presentation are evident, aside from one “ act two bathroom break” scene/song: “Bless Our Show.” This is largely the authors’ fault, as the scene is unnecessary and too reminiscent of famous song during which another musical nun comforts her anxious pupils at bedtime.
Michael Santangelo’s orchestra is in-sync, and the cast are almost always on pitch. The nun chorus is sometimes quiet, but this is Menken’s fault, placing the majority of their parts well into head-voice territory.
Somebody buy sound designer Todd Houseknecht a drink, because this is one of the finest band-vocal mixes I’ve heard in any local theatre, thanks in large part to Kristen Stinnett’s nimble live mixing. No mic drops, feedback, inaudible dialogue or absent instruments. A grateful nation cheers.
Thomas Mauney’s swiftly-changing set maximizes RLT’s distinctive fly system, and aside from some shaky (pun intended) appearances and disappearances, the set is put to good use, populated by Marie Berry’s props. However, the bar’s dozens of empty liquor bottles were distracting, as were the baby blue curtains that evoked an emergency room.
The authors’ choice to move this story to the 1970s is a pointless one, but it does allow Vicki Olson the chance to do some more fine work, particularly with Deloris’s garish, glittery lounge singer dress. Elizabeth Grimes Droessler lights the shadowy convent, the flashy disco-era nightclub, and the moody bar with equal believability. Stage manager Dan Eckert ably keeps the show on track.
The story belongs to Deloris van Cartier, an unsophisticated wannabe club singer hiding out in a convent before testifying against a murderer. This production truly belongs to our Deloris, Tyanna West, who commands the Sutton Theatre with sparkling charisma, a robust voice, and split-second comic timing. Her performance is sure to prove a memorable one.
Alison Lawrence is a wry Mother Superior, contrasting West’s broadness, and Tony Hefner is well-cast as the unpredictable Monsignor O’Hara. The promising Averi Zimmermann tackles Sister Mary Robert with intriguing dramatic and vocal nuance. Young Zimmermann is an actor to watch. And to cast.
The impressive nun ensemble includes an impressively controlled Kathy Day as the sober Sister Mary Lazarus, a buoyant Kimberly Genna Bryant as Sister Mary Patrick, and a sharp Morrisa Nagel as the peculiar Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours. Charles Robson continues to submit evidence of his comedic chops as a Mr. Bean-esque acolyte--silent and fascinated by everything.
Beyond the convent walls is an eccentric array of secular citizens: a subtly sinister JaJuan Cofield as villainous Curtis, skilled backup singers LaToya Smith and Germona Sharp, and an astonishing Orlando Parker, Jr. as the clownish TJ.
Benaiah Barnes’s star turn as Philly cop Eddie is endearing, sensual, and unselfconscious. His voice soars and he presents the campiest of moments with sincerity. Thanks to his lusty performance, Droessler’s dramatic lighting, and the ensemble’s execution of Rich’s striking staging, “I Could Be That Guy” proves this production’s shining moment.
Though the writing and composing are merely existent. Raleigh Little Theatre’s production gives life to both--elevating Sister Act it to something hugely entertaining.
Photo by Elly McClanahan.
by Dustin K. Britt
August 21, 2018
August 10 - 26
RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)
It’s Only a Play, Terrence McNally’s 1982 comedy--revived successfully on Broadway in 2014--has always been one enormous middle finger to the theatrical elite and their egocentric and self-destructive rituals. With decades in the business as his ammo, McNally hunts stunt-cast starlets, airheaded producers, unstable directors, and the New York Times. The script, though riddled with cliche and jargon, is a witty one.
The cast of Theatre in the Park’s current production earns more laughs than the playwright himself, thanks to a parade of impeccably-timed barbs. Rob Jenkins (as TV actor James Wicker) starts strong with a pitch perfect one-sided phone call worthy of its own one act play. Brian Westbrook (as burgeoning playwright Peter Austin) keeps us grounded with a performance as heartbreaking as it is side-splitting. An animated Lynda Clark (as Hollywood trainwreck Virginia Noyes) and an adorable Page Purgar (as malapropic producer Julia Budder) take some bold, worthwhile risks, while a winning Justin Brent Johnson (as gay coat check boy Gus P. Head) stands in awe of them all.
Larry Evans is given the thankless role of McNally’s straw man: much-loathed critic Ira Drew. Even a skilled actor like Evans cannot bring much depth to such an underdeveloped character. Nobody can accuse Ira David Wood IV of not making big choices as an actor, and this show is no exception. Whether these big choices are the right choices is another question entirely. As frazzled director Frank Finger, Wood brings ample energy and comic timing to the stage. But he cannot help himself but pull focus from the rest of the cast--and from the play--at every possible turn, with any number of pointless background (or foreground) antics.
Nathaniel Conti’s set is elegant and lush without distracting the eye, supported by Kenny Hertling’s practical lighting fixtures. Christine McInnis’s costumes are sophisticated, if sometimes improperly fitted, and Lucas Barrick’s many sound cues mostly hit their marks.
As the Sunday matinee unfolded before me, it seemed to have a four-star review in its near future: the cast are mostly nailing it, the set looks fantastic, director Jesse R. Gephart has established an impeccable rhythm, and McNally’s text is getting big laughs.
And then Theatre in the Park got in its own way, continuing a decades-long tradition of favoring in-jokes and self-congratulation over storytelling. These winks play well for the season members, playwrights be damned. Whether adding a contemporary political jab to 2010’s November, mocking the Durham Performing Arts Center in 2011’s Noises Off!, or inserting entire speeches into 2014’s The Coarse Acting Show, Theatre in the Park has always been fairly shameless.
For some inexplicable reason, director Gephart chose to transform an important scene from It’s Only a Play into a parody of a scene from Hand to God, directed (quite well) by Ira David Wood IV this spring. The insertion of a full-blown sock puppet vs. human fight (nearly identical to one staged in Hand to God) would be laughable were it not so wantonly lazy, self-indulgent, and narcissistic. Such an amateurish stunt would never be considered, much less performed, by any other theatre company--or middle school--in town.
And yes, the bit got laughs. But such a dramatic adjustment is untrue to the character, disruptive to the scene, dismissive of the author, and almost certainly in violation of the company’s contract with publisher Dramatists Play Service. Interestingly, Theatre in the Park is a member of "Playwrights Welcome," wherein they honor professional playwrights with free tickets to shows.
This is a tight, smart, and entertaining production--one worth seeing if you are looking for a few hearty laughs. See it and enjoy it. But we as patrons must always hold our community of artists to the highest standard. A theatre that disrespects its material should be challenged, no matter how commonplace the practice has become inside that building. The name above the door is not above reproach.
by Dustin K. Britt
August 15, 2018
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
August 8 - 19
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
Between homoerotic ensemble plays Love! Valour! Compassion! and Corpus Christi, gay playwright Terrence NcNally took a brief detour into the land of historical fiction with Master Class, in which, for two and a half hours, we are students of the aging soprano, Maria Callas. McNally doesn’t stray too far from gay territory, though, as Callas’s pain and panache rivaled that of gay icons Judy Garland, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford.
The Tony-winning play, written in 1995 and set in the late 1970s, has a timeless quality, helped by a stark set by Chris Bernier, bright lighting by Erich R. Keil, and mid-century fashions designed by Sarah McCabe. It all easily passes for 1977 or 2018, and everything in between. While Callas’s severe wardrobe is well-suited, the ensemble for Sophie (an overly meek but well-sung Alana Sealy) is distractingly ludicrous, somehow dowdy and garish all at once.
Director Ray Dooley has given Judy McLane clearance to stalk her prey (both characters and audience) like a ferocious, rabid dog in black pumps. McLane has the Malicious Jaded Diva bit down, no question, but she lacks sufficient vulnerability in the Traumatized Young Protege flashbacks, showing only tiny flashes of the wounded girl beneath the Dior-clad lioness. Still, she makes quite the impact on precocious tenor Tony (a euphonious Jason Karn) and Sharon (an overstated, gasping Juliana Valente). Her brief exchanges with subdued pianist Manny (Tom Beard) and an apathetic Stagehand (a divinely deadpan Liam Yates) highlight McLane’s--and Callas’s--dry wit.
While each actor is engaging, there is a general lack of nuance. Still, Dooley’s direction is appropriately vibrant, pushing along a play that could otherwise drag its feet. McNally’s concept--an unstable artist presenting a master class in real time--is still one of the most intriguing in 20th century American theatre.
Photo by Jennifer Robertson.
by Dustin K. Britt
August 2, 2018
July 27 - August 5
RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)
The true story of the Radium Girls is not often told. A very indie film, Radium Girls--penned, produced and directed by women--garnered some small festival attention this spring, but you’re unlikely to see it anytime soon. Other than that, the only major fictional work anyone has heard of is Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play These Shining Lives.
Director Jorie Slodki has taken on quite a challenge: telling a story that needs to be told, but via a play that does not tell it well. Marnich’s storyline lacks focus, interrupting the high-stakes narrative (a group of women, who have been taken advantage of, stand up and take action against the men in power) with tedious homelife scenes of the main protagonist. Lydia Nethercutt and Nick Iammatteo work much harder than they should have to, compensating for superfluous material.
Maggie Lea is a stellar, bold Charlotte while Candace Hescock and Dannibeth Farnum help flesh out the quartet as Frances and Pearl, whose lack of attention from their playwright often leaves them out in the cold.
The ArtsCenter continues to prove a problematic space in which to stage theatre: the design elements are sufficient to communicate the story, but scenic designer Mac McCord and lighting designer Karyn Raynor cannot really stretch their wings. Mikki Stith’s costumes are mostly fitting, while Mac McCord’s many props are well-suited to the period. The overwhelming, rarely-used projection screen is a constant reminder that we are not anywhere near the 1920s.
What we want are scenes with the quartet of women, not the peripheral, male-dominated scenes that rarely do much to raise the stakes. We want to experience their triumphant lawsuit win against Radium Dial and Catherine Donohue’s subsequent testimony at the Illinois Industrial Commission. We see the suffering and the gathering of forces and then jump straight to the dying.
Unfortunately Marnich’s text of These Shining Lives feels more like a Wikipedia article than a biography. I really want to know these heroic women. But the author won’t let me. The Women’s Theatre Festival is absolutely right in choosing the Radium Girls as a topic, but should have chosen one of the many talented women in this area to write a new, better play.
Photo by Proctor Photographics.
Dustin K. Britt, a North Carolina native, is a performer, theatre instructor and freelance writer. He has worked in the theatre for more than 20 years and holds a Master of Arts in Education from East Carolina University. Dustin covers concerts, dance, comedy, and theatre in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Cary, Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro, and Apex. His writing has appeared in IndyWeek, Carolina Parent Magazine, and Triangle Arts & Entertainment. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @dkbritt85
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