Brand new look. Same great taste.
Applause! Cary Youth Theatre
Cary Arts Center
May 17 - 19, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
May 26, 2019
Mom & Son Rating System:
👍 Thumbs Up
Mom Says: THUMBS UP 👍
When a youth production is advertised as being “Monty Pythonesque,” there is good reason to be skeptical. Monty Python’s brand of humor is visual, physical, smart, and most importantly, absurd. Surprisingly, The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood from Applause! Youth Theatre has all of that, thanks to clever writing and even better direction. The play takes the familiar characters and storyline--Robin Hood still steals from the rich to give to the poor and tries to win Lady Marian’s hand, rescuing her from the clutches of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John--and makes it a fourth-wall-breaking farce.
The ace up Applause’s sleeve is William Kalland, our titular hero. This is Kalland’s sixth Applause! production, so frequent audiences may know what to expect: he is a star. Kalland’s Robin is made from the same mold as Cary Elwes in Mel Brooks's film Robin Hood: Men In Tights: a swashbuckling egomaniac who is somehow as stupid as he is charming. Most importantly, Kalland commits fully to the role. He doesn’t hold back and embraces every joke and pratfall.
The show is meticulously directed by Ben Slate, and his vision is aided greatly by having a relatively mature cast. Although the show is often performed by elementary and middle school-aged groups, all of the leads in this production are in high school. A frequent challenge of great youth training programs is losing those actors to more competitive opportunities as they gain experience. Somehow, Applause! seems to have held on to many talented participants, even those about to graduate high school.
Felice Kho (Town’s Guy) is our narrator and audience surrogate; she has strong stage presence and shows range: at various times deadpan, informative, annoyed, and enthusiastic. Kathryn Szypulski (Lady Marian) has a knack for physical comedy and biting insults, and Zoe Wright hilariously chews the scenery as her Lady in Waiting. Wright is the perfect “funny best friend in a romantic comedy.” Connor Ferguson’s Mick Jagger-ish accent seems out of place, but his Sheriff of Nottingham is a worthy adversary for Robin. Garrett Bulger (Prince John) was given a strange and challenging task: Prince John is present on stage but wears a sock puppet (complete with cape and crown!), delivering all of his lines through the sock puppet to the various characters on stage. Bulger succeeds, even using the puppet to “observe” the action onstage.
A few ensemble members also make memorable appearances: Leiyla Brent as the less-than-merry Donna (who is hired to join the Merry Men anyway) and Sylas Rood, an incredibly game Little John, whom the Merry Men often use as furniture.
Applause! is making a name for itself with far-above-average technical and design elements. The “Technical Director” is an unseen character in the show and is frequently called on by the actors to create flashbacks, change scenes, and fade out various characters. This plays to the production’s strengths, and Technical Supervisor Cailen Waddell makes all of that stage magic occur on command, along with Lighting Coordinator Ryann Norris and Scenery/Props Coordinator Tony Pender.
Costume Coordinator Maura Stewart is also a significant asset to the design team, showing great attention to detail. The costumes for the “Fawning Ladies” were particularly lovely, in coordinating pastels with matching handkerchiefs and hair pieces. The Merry Men looked appropriately ragtag, but all of the costume pieces felt deliberate; too often, youth productions rely on actors bringing in an assortment of pieces from home, which leaves productions looking slapped together.
The weakest element of the show’s writing is how it treats its women. None of the female characters have any agency: Lady Marian is a prize to be won in the tournament, her Lady in Waiting has a running gag in which she laments her life of service, and the Fawning Ladies literally do nothing but follow Prince John around. One would think a show less than 20 years old would at the very least let Marian save herself from captivity, if not Robin Hood as well. Entire scenes pass without a single female character speaking. Town’s Guy is cast with a female in this production, but he is written as male. Robin briefly mentions that both men and women are welcome to apply to be Merry Men; “we’re an Equal Opportunity Organization and do not discriminate,” he says, but the show seems to.
Applause! enjoyed a strong 20th anniversary season. If they can maintain the high quality of their technical and design elements and continue to have talented actors return into their later teen years, their productions will continue to impress. -- Rachel Kasten
Son Says: THUMBS UP 👍
I really liked The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood. It’s not my favorite show, but I think it’s my second favorite.
My favorite part of the show was when Robin Hood was in jail, and they played “Baby Shark.” I really wanted to sing along. They played it to annoy him, but all the kids love that song. The jail was called the Dungeon of Demise. I liked the set for the dungeon because there was a rainbow and flames painted on it.
At one point, Robin Hood is practicing his archery. He is really good in daytime but not at night. At nighttime, the arrow goes all over the place. It was hilarious when one of the Merry Men says he always wanted to get his ear pierced after one of Robin Hood’s arrows pokes his ear. I liked when the Town’s Guy and the Merry Men were waving to the Technical Director, and I loved how the Technical Director made them teleport! They would go from one scene to another. It was also funny that they had to scatter before they teleported.
One thing I didn’t think was funny was the character of Donna. The Merry Men were excited about everything, but not her. All of the other Merry Men would cheer, and then she would cheer after them. It kind of sounded like she was copying them.
I didn’t really like the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince John in the show because they were mean, but I thought the actors (Connor Ferguson and Garrett Bulger) were great. The characters were also a little dumb. They made a bowling tournament so that Robin Hood couldn’t win. He came in disguise, and It was weird that the Prince and the Sheriff couldn’t guess that it was Robin Hood, because he had a bow and arrow on the back of his bowling shirt. And since they didn’t recognize him, they made the tournament an archery one again, and he won.
I really liked Prince John’s crown, and I liked that his puppet was wearing a matching crown! I wish he had puppets on both hands, and I wish the Sheriff had puppets too! The Fawning Ladies could have cheerleading puppets. All of the bad guys in the play would have puppets.
I think you should watch the next show from Applause! because they are all so good. I liked both Charlotte’s Web and The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood, so I am sure I will like the next show too. -- Emory Kasten
Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio
Spring 2019 Musical Theatre Workshop
May 17-19, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
May 20, 2019
Mom & Son Rating System:
👍 Thumbs Up
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
This year, Disney is celebrating 25 years of Disney musicals on Broadway. The success of Beauty and the Beast brought forth a number of musicals based on animated films from the “Disney Renaissance” (1989-1999), including The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid. The lull in Disney blockbusters through the 2000s left theatre producers dry until a little movie called Frozen.
As a film, Frozen broke records as the highest-grossing animated film of all time, so it is no surprise that its Broadway dreams were fast-tracked--as was licensing of the simplified Disney’s Frozen Jr. for schools and youth theaters. Sonorous Road smartly jumped on getting the rights to the show for its Musical Theatre Workshop and is giving its Triangle premiere. Director Michelle Murray Wells was visibly nervous in front of a sold-out opening night crowd, explaining that the show requires dozens of scene changes and “is challenging, both musically and magically.”
As it turns out, there was little for her to be nervous about. The audience clearly loved the show, and the cast (aged 11 to 17) performed with confidence and enthusiasm. Wells wisely opted to rely on publisher-provided projections to handle the scene changes. The story follows the movie, with a few minor changes. For example, unlike the film, Sven the reindeer can occasionally talk. But as Sven, Lily Grace Roberts does exaggerated expressions so well, it was funnier when Sven didn’t speak.
The most significant addition to the stage production are five new songs. With 17 songs in 75 minutes, the show certainly never drags. None of the new songs are terribly catchy or narratively necessary, but “Hygge” (apparently Danish for “comfort”) was a crowd-pleaser; a big Broadway-style dance number complete with kickline.
As for the Jr. magic, well, it was never going to march the immersive, high-tech projections, enormous scenic changes, and costume wizardry (watch this!) of the Broadway smash, but it didn’t matter much. This cast is talented, and the show is exceptionally well-rehearsed; no forgotten lines here.
As Anna, Elizabeth Snapp excels at physical comedy and is believably motivated by love and naivete. Her real-life sister, Ellie Snapp, plays Elsa. Through either the magic of good casting or great acting (or both), Anna is bouncy, frenetic, and warm, while Elsa holds herself like a royal: cautious, poised, and icy (sorry for the pun). “Let It Go” is daunting for the most capable of singers, but Ellie Snapp rises to the challenge, seizing her moment in the spotlight. Elsa’s brief taste of freedom--and embracing of her powers--is a joy to watch.
Elizabeth Britt is a perfect, commanding Hans (credit to Wells for not being queasy about casting a young woman in this role--the love interest for Anna), and she spars well with Noah Rhodes’s exasperated Weaselton. Kristoff isn’t given much to do in the script, but Joshua Sheppard is a capable actor and a generous scene partner. As Olaf, Aliza Schrage is instantly likable and knows her way around a punchline. The ensemble is particularly strong for a student production, surely aided by Shelley Snapp’s music direction. Special mentions go to Sophia Milvae (Young Anna), who could easily carry a show by herself, as well as another sister pair, Abigail and Isabella Kenoyer--skilled dancers who raise the professional quality of the production significantly.
Perhaps Wells was overwhelmed pulling triple duty as Director, Costume Designer, and Lighting Designer, but if you were trying to figure out where or when the story is set--based on the clothing--good luck (according to Disney, the kingdom of Arendelle is Norwegian-inspired, and Frozen takes place in the mid-1800s). Some of the actors sport Medieval gowns straight from the nearest Renaissance Faire, while others look like they just stepped off the set of Oklahoma! The character of Oaken (the shopkeeper who leads “Hygge”) wears lederhosen, which aren’t even of Scandinavian origin. Elsa’s second act corset and sparkly silver heels are the one costuming highlight.
Disney fans young and old went nuts over Sonorous Road’s Frozen Jr. Even non-Frozen fans were surely entertained, though the script doesn’t do a great job of standing on its own. Going forward, I hope Sonorous will actively recruit a more diverse cast of workshop students. Sure, it’s not too strange for a show set in Norway to have a glaringly white cast (although Broadway’s Kristoff is black), but with Sonorous Road’s The Lion King Experience: Kids Edition coming this summer, audiences--and this reviewer--could be less forgiving. Still, Sonorous Road’s student productions keep getting better; they’re going to give other local youth programs some stiff competition. -- Rachel Kasten
Son Says: THUMBS UP 👍
I don’t like the movie Frozen, so I wasn’t sure I would love the play. I thought I would like it, but maybe not love it. But this is the best show I have ever seen! I wanted to see the whole thing all over again as soon as it finished.
In the story, Queen Elsa is just a regular girl that has powers, but everyone is scared of her because she froze the whole place. It’s weird how Olaf is a snowman who likes summer. He doesn’t know he would melt. My favorite character was Princess Anna because she always did fun things. For example, she danced and was silly during my favorite song, “Hygge.” “Hygge” is anything fun and great. During the song, they keep saying which things are “hygge” or are “not hygge.”
When Anna was being silly, Kristoff looked bored, which is so funny. He just wanted to keep going up the mountain. He said that winter all the time is “not hygge.” Near the end, Anna got frozen into a whole block of ice. She didn’t move, and she actually looked frozen.
I liked some of the costumes, but not all of them. Sven’s reindeer costume was great. I really liked Hans’s sword; I have one just like it. I loved that it looked like magic when Elsa threw off her dress and changed costumes during “Let It Go.” I did not like the troll costumes; they were kind of creepy looking.
In the movie, Sven can’t talk, but here he can? And why does he walk on two legs instead of four? In the movie, there is a giant evil snowman named Marshmallow. I wish they had a character like that in the play.
If I could, I would see Frozen Jr. again at Sonorous Road. Of all the plays I have seen, this is the very best one. -- Emory Kasten
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
Durham Performing Arts Center
May 13, 2019
★★★★1/2 by Dustin K. Britt
May 14, 2019
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Eddie Izzard now identifies herself using she/her/hers pronouns. In May of 2019, when this article was written, she used he/him/his pronouns publicly, which is reflected in the article -- January 2021.]
Even at age 57, international stand-up superstar Eddie Izzard has legs like Tina Turner. And he isn’t afraid to show them off. He thanks his marathon of marathons: three years ago he ran 27 marathons in 27 days across a sweltering South Africa. Those 707.4 miles have given him the confidence to strut before a worshipful crowd in fitting and often revealing ensembles.
But this is not drag. His style has never been campy glam (see: Elton John) or comically loony (see: Phyllis Diller) and the dated term “cross-dressing” does not and should not come into play. The transgender-identifying Brit is often quoted as saying “They’re not women’s clothes. They’re my clothes. I bought them.” He is just as likely to appear in a smart suit from the men's department with full facial hair.
As Netflix continues to launch and bolster comic careers, queer representation is still sadly lacking. Izzard does not book himself as a Trans Comic--emphasizing normalcy over rarity and declining to conflate sexuality with gender. Izzard first spoke about his gender nonconformity more than 30 years ago. But after years of proclaiming himself an Executive Transvestite (another dated term) he recently began using the term Transgender. The press is always fussy about Izzard’s non-conforming fashion choices. What they omit is just how damn good he always looks.
After the interval (intermission for us yanks), at his DPAC show, Izzard switches from Catholic school rebel (a blue criss-cross pleated skirt with knee-high boots below and leather jacket above) to an all-black Fosse-eque “them fatale”: black hose, the shortest of shorts, a snug blazer, cherry red lipstick, hot pink nails, and red stilettos so chic that Christian Louboutin would gag. His modest, blond part cut screams Julie Andrews (with added volume), keeping him fit and tidy.
Upon his Act Two reentry, and when the audience’s roars and whistles finally die down, he proudly proclaims, in a Vogue-ready pose, “for the second half I just stand here like this.” One hopes that his upcoming run for Member of Parliament in the U.K. will earn such strong public adoration.
While toasters, helicopters, monarchs, and guys named Kenny still dominate the content, Wunderbar is more autobiographical and intimate than his previous tours. With material perhaps taken from his 2017 memoir, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, the show spends much of its second half recounting experiences from years past and, even more atypically, allowing some genuine emotion to shine through while discussing the recent loss of his 90-year-old father. Tales of personal embarrassment (vomiting in his own face during a long swim) stand alongside more characteristic scenes of talking dinosaurs and apes.
Complaints of misadvertsing (at a small show, Izzard repeated material while the venue promoted it as a 100% all new show) put his career on the line some years back. The public does not understand comic touring--transitioning out old material while testing new material for the inevitable recorded special is the way it works. At least if you want a strong show. Somehow we demand that musicians just Play the Hits, but naively expect 100% new content from comics. The enthusiastic majority of Izzard’s fans relish appearances by his cast of characters and topics from years past--akin to Stephen King fans reveling in continuing references to the fictional town of Castle Rock.
But some elements in Wunderbar are too echoing to be surprising. The Big Bang, World War II, Neanderthal conversations, cake batter appreciation, and powered boats are still funny topics, but are less exciting than the entirely original, extended pieces (a 10-minute reenactment of an angry dog’s thought process, the stomach-turning death of a bloated William the Conqueror, or the origins of Batman, Batgiraffe, and Batbat). Wunderbar contains more noticeably “written” jokes (pun-filled Dad Jokes, mainly) which dampen Izzard’s trademark Monty Pythonesque stream-of-consciousness wanderings.
Luckily, he only mentions the president two or three times, but occasional pointed and urgent political references are out-of-character for Izzard and feel manufactured, if not pandering to his progressive audience. It's his closing statement--a call to action where humans, not an absent deity, are responsible for our fate--that hits home. As he has said before, World War II was God's test to come to Earth, save his people, and prove his existence. And he failed. It is--and always has been--up to us.
Still, a journey into the Izzardverse is always an eagerly anticipated one, whether waiting for a new DVD release or praying he'll grace us with his physical presence. It has been six years since he strutted into DPAC on the Force Majeure tour and we’ve been watching the clock since. There is a reason he is selling out clubs, theaters, and even stadiums across the globe: his uniqueness is unparalleled. No comic is as fashionable, explosively funny, and intelligent as Eddie Izzard. Appropriately named, Wunderbar is once again a breathtaking visit to a history lecture where the class clown is the professor himself.
Pittsboro Youth Theatre
Sweet Bee Theater
May 11-13, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
May 13, 2019
Mom & Son Rating System:
👍 Thumbs Up
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
You know the story: young girl in a blue and white dress is transported to a magical world, where she meets talking animals and other companions and faces off against an evil villainess trying to destroy her. Through sheer gumption, she saves the day, then is transported back home, unsure if it was all a dream. Of course, I’m talking about Alice in Wonderland. Or was it Dorothy in Oz? In Pittsboro Youth Theater’s Dorothy Meets Alice or The Wizard of Wonderland, the characters are just as confused.
PYT’s no-audition, everyone-gets-a-part model focuses on teaching children ages 7-12 the foundations of acting for the stage. That could result in a cute mess of a play that can only be appreciated by parents and loved ones, but thankfully that is not the case with the delightful Dorothy Meets Alice. Savannah Stober stars as Judson, a young boy (the character is written as male) who puts off writing his book report so long that all he has to work with is watching the first half hour The Wizard of Oz (before his dad turns off Netflix, of course) and a few pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before he falls asleep. He is then transported to a chaotic dream world combining the two stories.
Leighton Jacques is the feistiest Dorothy I’ve ever seen, and she is a perfect contrast to Fiona Tiegreen, a steady, confident Alice. This trio - Stober, Jacques, and Tiegreen - carry most of the show. They manage to memorize a great deal of dialogue and deliver it like pros; remarkably, I could actually hear and understand all of it. Stober plays up Judson’s overconfidence and is just the right kind of annoying kid we all know. Tiegreen even shows off a decent British accent and gives an impressive recitation of Jabberwocky.
The play is surprisingly funny, even for adults, and there are hints throughout of a more biting, satirical script just under the surface (think Into the Woods). Lila Paukovich and Kendall Waters play the self-aware Wicked Witch and Queen of Hearts, with an enjoyable showdown before ultimately teaming up. As one of them asks: “What other occupations would allow us to be such awful jerks?”
Working with a small space (which was packed), PYT frames the stage with trees and a painted backdrop evoking both stories, lit with red lights on the path to Wonderland and green pointing the way to Oz. The biggest weak point was the overuse of sound effects. There was near-constant music and sound, including trains and helicopters (why?), chiming clocks, and music that didn’t quite fit the mood. PYT would be wise to let their young cast shine without throwing too much else in. Speaking of throwing, the highlight of the show may have been Lily McMahon casually tossing stuffed monkeys over the heads of the cast to announce the Wicked Witch’s arrival.
Pittsboro Youth Theater deserves credit for an exciting, quirky slate of shows: next week, their teen program performs a one-hour version of The Hobbit. While their upcoming summer productions are the expected Disney collection (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, etc), PYT has an opportunity to carve out a niche in local theatre if it can continue offering surprising picks such as this one.
Son Says: THUMBS UP 👍
I was really excited about this show, even though I’ve never seen the The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland movies all the way through. When we sat in the theater, there were trees that looked real. They were just part of the set, but it was like a real forest. On the right was a sign for Wonderland, and on the left was a sign for Oz; there were red lights for Wonderland and green lights for Oz. They made my hands look different colors.
My favorite character was Judson because he came up with plans for how to fix all of the problems. He was not a fairy tale character; he was a regular kid. My favorite part was when the Cowardly Lion ripped off his tail to give to Judson and said “ouch!” That was hilarious. I really liked how the Queen of Hearts and the Wicked Witch became friends, because they were making a secret evil plan. It was so evil!
There were only a few things I didn’t like: There were red flowers painted on the set, and they did not explain why there were red flowers or show the Queen of Hearts’s servants painting the white flowers red. There was a character who wore a tool belt with paint brushes, but she never painted anything. I also wish there was a real Jabberwock that everyone could defeat together. Last, I wish Dorothy found Toto. She was looking for him, and we could hear him barking, but she didn’t find him.
I really liked Dorothy Meets Alice, so I hope I can see more shows at Pittsboro Youth Theater.
April 26 - May 12
★★★1/2 by Naveed Moeed
May 13, 2019
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
“How could you believe in a God that could allow something like this to even happen?” declares the protagonist, Charles Whitmore, in Jason Odell Williams’s Church and State. Never ones to shy away from such bold messages, NRACT has brought home Williams’s play, one about a fictional modern-day Republican Senator from NC who suffers tragedy and epiphany.
The backdrop of the play is a shooting at a school where the Senator’s sons are in attendance. The catalyst for the action are some off-the-cuff comments, made to a Christian-right blogger during the funeral of two children involved. The social media storm which ensues and envelopes the characters propels Williams’s tragicomic narrative on one of the most divisive issues of our time. Wherever you lie on the spectrum of the gun debate in the USA, this play has your voice somewhere inside. Wherever you are in relation to organized religion, you will find something relevant in this message. As Sara, the Senator’s wife, tells us: Talking about God is one thing, but you can’t take on the second amendment.
Charles and firebrand wife Sara, well played by Brian Yandle and Melanie Simmons, rollercoaster through anger, stoicism and poignancy. Yandle handles this ride admirably with a keen politician’s polish. His performance is both well-studied and nuanced; showing both “political distance” and humanity in varying degrees. Simmons is more than impressive as Sara. From drunken lush to somber foreboding, she superbly draws us along Sara’s journey through to its heartfelt conclusion. Liz Webb, playing campaign manager Alex Klein, is an excellent foil to both, providing wit and sense in good measure. The versatile and charming Christian O’Neal plays a variety of key roles which neatly identify him as us, the unwitting audience, caught in the midst of the action.
Williams’s sharply-paced Sorkin-esque dialog has no fear when it comes to characters talking over each other, metaphorically or otherwise. Reminiscent of The West Wing and House of Cards, Williams uses Klein’s interaction with the Whitmores to insert the political invective we have become so accustomed to when politicians choose to take on religion or firearms. Dueling viewpoints are punctuated with appropriate devices such as TV broadcasts and the social media response, which alter how the characters behave within the twin pillars of “political image” and “moral value”.
The initial comedy of the Whitmores’ situation is ground down by the increasing calamity of their situation. Eventually the poignant Lennon lyric, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”, becomes all too real for some of the characters. Some may leave this play thinking that the same has become all too real for themselves.
While it debuted (2017) off Broadway, this two act, single-set four-hander is set in the “green room” at NC State University. Bringing the play back to NC makes the setting comfortable and familiar. References to Wolfpack, Tar Heels and Burns auditorium provide local theatre-goers with a sense of closeness. More importantly however, during the more dramatic moments, this intimacy gives us a sense of fearful unease. Unlike an audience in New York, who could allow themselves to feel detached from the plight and thoughts of a Senator from NC, the idea that “this could be us” is one that drives very close to our own homes.
Part of this is because we all know people who look and sound like Senator Charles Whitmore. We go out and entertain with the likes of Sara Whitmore. We went to school with go-getters like Alice Klein. Combined with the currency of the current debate around gun violence, NRACT’s production in particular really drives home the message. A little too much perhaps.
Good theatre should be evocative and jarring; a dispute that resonates sharply with arguments across Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner tables definitely provides that. An eerily familiar setting compounds it. But there are risks if you dwell too long. In this production, gunshots played close to the stage and the insertion of recent shootings, including UNC Charlotte, into a list read out at one point, seemed to be more than necessary. It drove the point home so hard, that it left you feeling maybe this was the only thing which the creative team were keen to bring across the finish line. This play is important and the deliberations which it engenders are important. Letting the audience mull over the issues without too many jarring moments is also important.
The play is timely; sadly, always timely. This is a production everyone should see. Every state and national Senator, definitely. The run ended this Sunday; we hope you were able to catch it.
Photo courtesy of North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre.
Durham Performing Arts Center
May 7 - 21, 2019
★★★1/2 by Naveed Moeed
May 10, 2019
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
DPAC's Suntrust Broadway series continues to provide a taste of New York with the Tony award-winning jukebox musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The story of the iconic singer-songwriter, who began her career at the equally famous Dimension Records, is reflected in a medley of hits penned by King herself and former husband Gerry Goffin. Additional musical inspiration comes from the intertwined story of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Told with a delicate balance of humor and pathos, the production is flawless in its pacing and direction. Swift transitions, in a practically all-moving set, combined with exquisite choreography are merely the backdrop that allows some stellar performances to come to the fore.
Sarah Bockel, as the eponymous Carole King, has clearly made in-depth study of the character, nuancing her vocal range and performance to reflect King’s journey from a Brooklyn nobody to an artist at the height of her vocal and literary powers. Of significant mention are Jacob Heimer as Barry Mann and Alison Whitehurst as Cynthia Weil. Whitehurst, portrays a feisty Weil whose rivalry and friendship with King propels us into fast- moving, foot-tapping numbers such as “The Locomotion” and the Righteous Brothers classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
For those who may not have heard of Carole King: this author of well over one hundred Billboard 100 hits is the most successful living American singer-songwriter. She has been responsible for hits as diverse as her beloved “You’ve Got a Friend” and the iconic “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”. She and husband Goffin (a troubled relationship, ending in poignant separation in the 70s) are the central plot of the book. Their highs and lows dictate the steady but unremitting pace, which is punctuated with moments of comedy from a highly talented ensemble.
The Beautiful creative team, working with a tried and trusted formula, recreate broadcasts of American Bandstand and The Lawrence Welk Show, with scene and costume changes happen as rapidly as flicking channels on a TV set. Costumes in particular have Houdini-like changes in some cases, with actors disappearing behind one piece of scenery in one outfit and reappearing transformed. All in all, this caps a delightful evening out which fans of popular music will relish and even detractors of musicals will enjoy.
Photo by Joan Marcus. The Drifters. (l to r) Dimitri Joseph Moïse, Deon Releford-Lee*, Nathan Andrew Riley, and Michael Stiggers, Jr.
*Graduate of Fayetteville State University, NC.
W.J. Barefoot Auditorium
April 26 - 28, 2019
★★★★1/2 by Naveed Moeed
May 3, 2019
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Benson Little Theatre, Benson Foundation for the Arts’ community theatre group, continues to delight audiences; this time with the off-Broadway-cum-Hollywood classic Little Shop of Horrors. The peculiar premise of an oversized man-eating alien plant hell-bent on launching an invasion on Earth, complete with sadistic dentists and the sharply contrasted reality of life on Skid Row, has been capturing imaginations for nearly four decades.
The key to making Alan Menken’s (score) and Howard Ashman’s (lyrics/book) bizarre but unique vision work, is not just about drawing the audience into this escapist realm but creating characters and a world so engaging that by the end no one wants to leave. Hayden Tyler (Director) and Stephen Pfeiffer (Music Director) have accomplished this in spades. Much like the famous Hollywood remake, starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, the key is to create your own Audrey (Hannah Marks), Seymour (Greg Hill) and Audrey II (wonderfully voiced by Tyler Dean and expertly puppeteered by Nathan Camp), whose chemistry is unique to the motifs and themes your production--and ultimately your budget--allows. By demonstrating this maturity of thought in their interpretation, Benson Little Theatre’s eleven-actor show, staged in eight weeks, suddenly becomes BIG.
From the moment the curtain parts to reveal the intricately designed set, the attention, dedication, desire for storytelling, and love which has gone into this rendition leap off the stage, grab you by the lapels, and drag you into the carefully orchestrated mayhem of Mushnik's Skid Row flower shop. A note-perfect opening number led by the trio of Crystal (Rebekah Meekins), Ronette (Hannah Stevens), and Chiffon (Baylie Lucas), lulls you almost into a false sense of being in a big stage musical production; not rural community theatre in North Carolina.
Setting their own bar this high did have the unintended effect of amplifying mistakes on the rare occasion they occurred. A hitch with acoustics, a dropped line, or a clumsy set change reminded us that this production is being staged in a town of less than four thousand residents. Which gives us all the more reason to applaud the efforts of Tyler/Pfeiffer in bringing out the full potential of cast and crew. Can’t afford six different set designs? Put all your efforts into one; in this case a boldly colored, highly adaptive and wonderfully detailed design by D.H. Johnson. Your three chorus girls look less than identical? Highlight their differences through a surprisingly wide range of costumes (courtesy of Janet Wilson). Not enough performers to put together an ensemble chorus? Have a one-actor ensemble! In this case superbly executed by the highly versatile Betty Wheeler.
A special mention should go out to prop-master Julz McAllister and puppet designer Hannah Marshbanks. The show utilized over a hundred prop pieces and numerous versions of puppets for the carnivorous plant Audrey II. The latter culminates in a beautifully grotesque monstrosity that takes up a quarter of the stage. It is clear from the attention to detail, that the effort going into the curation and creation of all these elements must have been above and beyond the call of duty. At one point Christopher Ray MacDow’s maniacally sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello DDS, dons an outlandish space-age gas mask; the effect of this intricately designed prop pays off by accentuating the over-the-top nature of the character and the juxtaposition of his cruelty to the damaged innocence of Audrey.
An ever-growing Audrey II provides menace and momentum to the plot and the writer uses this device well, to add both surreal escapism and outlandish hilarity. At its core however, , Little Shop of Horrors, is a tale of poverty and so it is a tale of today. We live in an age where the distance between haves and have-nots is not unlike the 1800s. Seymour and Audrey’s tale is one of desperation. A desperation that drives them to try to exploit an alien evil which, by its very design, ultimately consumes them. It is an allegory for fame and fortune and a parallel of the struggle we all face in trying to crawl out of the well, covering only half the distance with each climb. Desperate to achieve his goals, Seymour sacrifices others. Desperate to achieve ours we isolate our lives, in our bubble and the internet, to the point where we no longer empathize with the “other”.
As an atypical Audrey, Hannah Marks provides a moving portrayal of a simple girl with simple dreams but a powerful inner voice. Marks conveys this well through a strong vocal performance, which serves to highlight one of this production’s key themes: the expendability of innocence. Both her devotion to the abusive Orin and her ultimate sacrifice for Seymour impart this message clearly. Greg Hill’s Seymour similarly convinces us that, beneath the farce and bumbling veneer, there is a genuine descent into madness. Finally, Mushnik (Troy Jelley) provides a superlative portrayal of those of us at the edge of fame, vying for a moment in the spotlight before it consumes us also. A single note, held for nearly twelve measures(!), during the number “Mushnik and Son” provided real depth and resonance to what, in other productions, could end up being a one-dimensional character. You feel his heartfelt desire to be part of Seymour’s ill-fated journey.
Great community theatre not only entertains and tells a story but it does so with a mere fraction of the resources of a professional theatre company. Being able to captivate the audience given your constraints is the aim. Benson Little Theatre did more than reach that goal, and in the process conveyed a message for our times and hopefully encouraged a new generation of storytellers.
Photo courtesy of Benson Foundation for the Arts.