Durham Performing Arts Center
March 11 - 17, 2019
by Dustin K. Britt
March 15, 2019
RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)
Content Warning: suicide, mental illness
In some stories the ends justify the means. In others it does not. The 2016 Broadway Mega Musical Dear Evan Hansen pretends to.
Much like this critic was, Evan Hansen, our protagonist, is a teenager riddled with acute, chronic anxiety, which may or may not stem from other unnamed diagnoses. The creators insist that Evan is merely an “outsider” with no specific medical diagnosis. This is, of course, as ludicrous as the authors of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggesting that its lead character does not have autism.
To escape a moment of understandable panic, the well-meaning Evan lies to the parents of a suicide victim, a troubled classmate named Connor. The lie: Connor was not the militant teenage stoner everyone thought he was; he was a devoted and compassionate friend to the outcast Evan.
The lie is innocuous enough, perhaps even helpful, but the transformative untruth about Connor’s nature spreads like wildfire. Evan continues to fan the flames and Connor becomes a superstar martyr. Things quickly spin out of control, earning Evan a surrogate family, national attention, and a couple of close acquaintances (he even Gets the Girl).
Bookwriter Steven Levenson (Showtime’s Masters of Sex and FX’s upcoming Fosse/Verdon) covers a breadth of dramatic themes: deceit, marital discord, megalomania, suicide, bullying, paternal abandonment, and a full-blown (and expertly acted) public anxiety attack, to name a few. But this is a Broadway musical. We rest easy that truth will out and ample catharsis will be provided. We’ll have a cry (or twenty), sing a song, and hike back to the parking deck, holding tightly our teenage sons.
He potently highlights themes of social media FUBARs, WASPy classism, and the challenges of single parenting. Coupled with a melodramatic score by megastar composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, La La Land, The Greatest Showman), the emotional overload is almost unbearable for both characters and spectators.
And then the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Evan admits the truth, albeit on a need-to-know basis. Evan’s mother and Connor’s family are understandably, though momentarily, shocked by the revelation. We have a good cry and wham, bam, everybody recovers in a matter of minutes. No harm, no foul. But all’s well that ends well and spring is in bloom because things are, the show claims, better for the community.
This unsatisfying deus ex machina demands that all the characters--and the audience--forgive and forget the manner in which they have manipulated, dishonored, and even monetized the suicide of a child with mental illness: one who has already been stereotyped and maligned by his author as a Stoner Kid and a Potential School Shooter and, as his sister suggests, A Psychopath.
These plot offenses are no fault of the production team or its brilliant troupe of actors. The tightly-connected company of thespians is as unguarded and devoted to honest emotion as any I’ve seen on stage. Music director Austin Cook elicits vocal power and tight harmonies from the ensemble, which includes the marvelously precise and empathetic Ben Levi Ross (Evan), an earnest Jessica Phillips (his hard-working mother, Heidi), and well-balanced Maggie McKenna (his love interest, Zoe).
A delightfully animated Jared Goldsmith (as horned-up nerd Jared Kleinman) provides some welcome comic relief, but the capable Phoebe Koyabe (the sole person of color amid a milky-white cast) has quite a hill to climb as Evan’s classmate: Machiavellian harpy Alana Beck--evidently written by a man petrified by assertive women. Alana makes Hermione Granger seem like Shirley Temple.
Christiane Noll’s passionate, raw performance as Connor’s mom Cynthia is a masterpiece while Marrick Smith, as Connor himself, finds an adequate balance between the Connor We Knew and the Connor We Hoped For, though his opening night vocals were not as solid as his castmates’. Aaron Lazar does what he can as the clichéd Detached Father, Larry Murphy. His banal baseball bonding scene with Evan (I’ll be your dad because yours ran off and you’ll be my son because mine is dead) left me gagging.
Michael Greif (Rent, Grey Gardens)) provides kinetic direction, with rapid shifts in time and space thanks to floating set pieces by David Korins (Hamilton, War Paint) and sharp lighting by Japhy Weidman (The Visit). Peter Nigrini’s (The SpongeBob Musical) stimulating but overused projections tend to distract and confound and Nevin Steinberg (Hamilton, Bright Star, Cinderella) keeps the vocals at often ear-piercing levels. This likely evened-out after opening night.
But striking performances, nimble staging, and an acceptable score cannot overcome the play’s thoughtless and disrespectful stance on mental illness. Michael Greif has taken an enormous step backwards, having already directed the truthful and reflective mental illness-focused Next to Normal.
When Evan is semi-adopted by the late Connor’s family, it appears to cure him of his anxiety, considering that he stops taking his psych meds without discussion or withdrawal. “I’m proud of you” his mom tells him, because, to her, going without meds is a brave step toward Normalcy. It’s the laziest possible way to show the audience that Evan is having a relative decrease in anxiety.
If some TLC from Connor’s family has led to such miraculous improvement in Evan, it must have been his single mom’s work schedule that caused the anxiety. Having some positive social interactions seems to have done the trick as well, suggesting that Evan’s anxiety is purely circumstantial and not related to any illness or disorder.
Moreover, the play (and therefore the audience) gives Evan a free pass to wreak havoc because he is not neurotypical: an insulting notion that those of us with mental illness are pitifully incapable of decision-making and require special accommodation for any and all behaviors. Only the blunt Jared calls Evan out: “Connor being dead, that’s pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened to you, isn’t it?”
Pretending that the distressed and freshly-interred Connor was in fact a perfectly “normal” kid seems enough to dismiss his obvious agony, eschewing any meaningful evaluation of why he killed himself and what we could have done to help him.
We’re sad when we think our dead kid was just an asshole. But once Evan’s revelation reveals that Connor was a Good Boy, we can now heap the love, praise, and attention Connor finally deserves. When Connor was just a bully, the community ignored it. When he was just a potential school shooter, his parents wrote it off. When he was just suffering from an obvious emotional disability, it was chalked up to Teen Angst and marijuana.
A child has killed himself. All of our closure and catharsis has been completed fabricated and we know it.
The show wants very much to be about the Journey to Find One’s Voice. And there is an audience that relishes that journey. They find themselves represented in the characters, they see larger truths so rarely addressed in musicals, and they may be moved by the score. These are perfectly justifiable reasons to love the show.
I myself was overcome with emotion, riveted by tremendous performances and sharp dialogue.
But as I began to engage my mind as well as my heart I find that the superficially beautiful Dear Evan Hansen is actually pandering to our desperate need for closure, without regard for truth or meaningful reflection. We get to the ending that we want. But at what cost? Here, mental illness is a gimmick and a sick kid’s corpse is little more than a MacGuffin.
Despite the pop psychology buzzing around Dear Evan Hansen, the show proves to be about mental illness as much as Les Misérables is about tuberculosis.
Photo: Ben Levi Ross as 'Evan Hansen,' Aaron Lazar as 'Larry Murphy,' Christiane Noll as 'Cynthia Murphy' and Maggie McKenna as 'Zoe Murphy' in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy. 2018.
Raleigh Little Theatre
Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre
March 8 - 24, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
March 13, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
If I look tired, it’s not from Daylight Savings Time; it’s because I’ve just gotten back from a trip to Jamaica. At least that’s how I feel after seeing a performance of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at Raleigh Little Theatre. Three Little Birds lives and breathes the island and stars Ziggy (Jireh Ijeoma), a young boy whose fear of hurricanes keeps him glued to the weather report on television instead of enjoying the outdoors with friends. Not that Ziggy has many friends besides his pet, Doctor Bird (Benaiah Barnes), and Nansi (Seanna Osborne), a girl on the island with a love of adventure--and Ziggy.
Eventually, Ziggy is coaxed outside and the theatrical experience is immersive. Director Deb Royals-Mizerk and the production staff make excellent use of the black box Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre: Scenic Designer Jeannine Borzello manages to create a stage that functions as a busy market, Ziggy’s home, and several different spots on the island without the need for scene changes, and Lighting Designer Ryann Norris fills the small space with lush greens, blues, and purples in leafy patterns. Using the small catwalk/balcony above the stage as a place for the birds to sing from above was another great touch.
Bob Marley’s songbook provides the soundtrack, which poses a few issues: 1) As with most jukebox musicals, the songs add nothing to the actual narrative, 2) Marley’s songs sound quite similar, which doesn’t allow for much emotional variation, and 3) the music is deceptively simple; very few voices sound great singing it. The production is able to overcome much of this because the music functions as a character itself; it is the rhythm of the island and the characters interact with that rhythm instead of just singing the songs. The music is also elevated considerably by the voice of Benaiah Barnes, the only cast member who is able to improve upon the source material. Barnes is poised to break out as a star any minute.
Much of the show rests on the shoulders of its two main stars: Jireh Ijeoma (a 7th grader) and Seanna Osborne (a 5th grader). The two are so good that I forgot that I was watching children. Ijeoma displays great dramatic range and Osborne shows off hilarious comedic timing and strong dancing skills. The choreography is one of the highlights of the show and choreographers Chanda Branch and Aya Wallace infuse every movement with joy. They make particularly good use of the wooden swing hung from the ceiling.
The cast is excellent and many are making their RLT debuts, including Hadley Ayers, siblings Kyla, Leah, and Noah Guilford, Darius M. Hooks and his daughter Rayne D. Hooks, Jireh Ijeoma, Verlene Oates, Seanna Osborne, Salima Thomas, and Alyssa Wise. I never want to hear another Triangle director complain that they “can’t find” black actors to be in their shows. Instead, figure out why these talented performers aren’t showing up to your auditions.
It would be exceptionally difficult to discuss Three Little Birds without praising Costume Designer Jeremy Clos, who rose to the challenge of creating costumes to represent birds from different parts of Jamaica’s history, from a gorgeous peacock to Spanish Conquistador Birds with armor, and, of course, Colonizer birds, with Maria K. Barber getting a brief but hilarious turn as the Great Grandmother British Bird.
The costume of the evil spirit Duppy (JaJaun Cofield, who strikes the right balance of menacing and silly; perfect for a family show) was a particular triumph, with a skeleton-like beak and a collection of dreadlocks stolen from unsuspecting children. Cofield is also masterful at engaging with the audience, as are Wallace and Branch, who lend their dancing and expressive faces as part of the main bird trio. While the Duppy storyline provides most of the urgency of the story--he is attempting to steal Ziggy’s strong, beautiful dreadlocks--the references to various Jamaican superstitions around him are a bit difficult to follow.
Three Little Birds easily holds the attention of a wide age range of theatre-goers and at less than 60 minutes, you won’t even have to worry about young children getting restless. Unlike many youth-oriented shows, there is plenty here for parents and grandparents, too, especially if you’re a Marley fan. Take a staycation to Jamaica for an afternoon, and don’t forget to wear red underwear (it’s a Duppy thing).
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
When we walked into the theatre to see Three Little Birds, I thought we were in the same place we saw Goblin Market [staged at Burning Coal as part of last summer’s Women’s Theatre Festival]. Both of the theatres are small with seats on three sides and there were lots of fun things on stage, like a swing and a bike. I wish I could go on both of them.
They made it seem like the birds were perched in the trees. I wish the lighting was brighter, because sometimes it was hard to see. Every bird’s costume is good, except for the Cousin Chinese Bird because she didn’t have a beak. I especially loved Doctor Bird’s costume; it had a beautiful beak and green feathers. The songs are great, and my favorite was “One Love.” They even sang it in lots of different languages. I like the beat of the island!
The story is a little confusing, but there is a bad bird named Duppy trying to steal hair from Ziggy. Ziggy was scared of everything and didn’t like to go outside, but he did have three bird friends. He also had a friend named Nansi. She was my favorite character, because she’s a trickster. Plus Nansi is a cool name. Nansi and Ziggy kissed, and I liked that! Nansi has a pet spider, and Ziggy calls it disgusting. That’s really funny because the spider is named Little Ziggy!
There were lots of things the did to try to keep Duppy away, like wearing red underwear. That didn’t work! Duppy throws mangoes at everybody to make them upset. But Nansi does her best trick to trick Duppy: using her spider. She is the hero! If Duppy tried to attack me, I’d karate chop him, push him out of the door, and then lock it.
I really liked Three Little Birds. I think kids who aren’t white would really like it, because there are lots of brown children in the show, and it has a lot of unique culture. I’ve never seen a show like this before.
Photo by Jeannine Borzello.
India Williams as Cedella and Jireh Ijeoma as Ziggy in Bob Marley's Three Little Birds.
Applause! Cary Youth Theatre
Cary Arts Center
February 22 - 24, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
February 28, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
“I don’t want food. I want love. I want a friend.” - Wilbur, Charlotte’s Web
Charlotte’s Web is a story about the things we do for our friends, not because of what we gain, but because of who we love. It is rare that you can enjoy such wholesome entertainment as a family, and even rarer that a story published a generation ago still holds up without being “problematic.”
Applause! Cary Youth Theatre’s very first production 20 years ago was Charlotte’s Web, and it is a testament to both the show itself and the production team that it still resonates just as much with today’s audiences. Director Lyman Collins easily could have coasted on the extreme cuteness of his very young cast. Instead, he took a large group of mostly elementary school-aged actors (some of whom had never been in a play before) and gifted them the experience and memory of a show they can be proud of.
It is obvious that the Town of Cary has invested meaningful resources into Applause!, which have been used to create a set and costumes that are thankfully not rummaged from parents’ closets. The technical aspects of the production were a cut above what one would expect from a youth production. Tony Pender and Lana Stam’s changing set pieces filled the stage nicely: a beautiful white house (the Arable family home), an enormous wooden barn (it took multiple crew members to push it on stage and a couple of tries to get it on its mark), and fairgrounds with colorful booths and a ferris wheel seat dangling from the ceiling.
This adaptation sticks closely to the novel: when a litter of piglets arrives on the Arable family farm, the runt is nearly slaughtered before young Fern Arable begs her father to let her keep the piglet as a pet. She names the piglet Wilbur and raises him until he is sent to her uncle’s farm. Wilbur is lonely in his new home but soon befriends the other animals, including a spider named Charlotte. As Wilbur gets larger, he is horrified to learn that he will be slaughtered. Charlotte comes up with a plan to save him by spinning words (like “Some Pig”) into her web. The entire town believes he is a miracle pig (why they aren’t more excited about the spider we never know) and Wilbur is saved.
Lauren Polak and Rachel Barfield wisely opted to do away with traditional animal costumes and instead put a creative spin on Easter Best in the deep south. The Goose (Gabriella Almony) and Gander (Logan Hunt), for example, wore coordinating white ensembles with a few feathers inserted into a headband and hat, respectively. Wilbur (Jacob Wilhelmi) looked dashing in a pink button-down shirt, pink pants, suspenders, and a backwards pink baseball cap. Charlotte (Alice Yun) had a lovely glittering web headpiece.
Everyone was polished yet seemed comfortable, which is good since Wilhelmi was really put through his paces: running, rolling, and generally enjoying his time on stage. He delivered his dialogue with confidence and displayed excellent comedic timing. Other rising stars in the cast include: Georgia Howard as a sheep with attitude; Rhiannon Teague, who displayed a surprisingly maternal touch as Mrs. Arable; Boone Filipiak, who won over the entire audience as Fern’s adorable and annoying younger brother, Avery; and the strong Greek chorus of the show, Reagan Kovac, Sophia Mixon, and Emma Guo. Alice Yun (Charlotte) displayed convincing empathy, but unfortunately she was forced to deliver many of her lines facing the back of the stage into her spider web.
There are a few very small things I can nitpick: The words on the spider web--a key plot point--were nearly unreadable. It would have worked better to cast actual adults as Mr. & Mrs. Arable and Mr. & Mrs. Zuckerman. It was occasionally hard to hear the actors (though the amount of dialogue these kids memorized was astounding). But the sold-out crowd made it clear that Cary is hungry for this kind of family-friendly entertainment. While Charlotte’s Web only ran for one weekend, I highly recommend that families with young children see the next Applause! production, The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood, coming in May.
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
At the beginning of the play, there was a house with a porch and a window and cool-looking designs. There wasn’t a web, and I thought there would be since it is called Charlotte’s Web. The web came later. All of the sets were so good. The main character was a pig named Wilbur and I loved his costume. One of the funniest parts was when Wilbur fainted and got back up. He fainted twice!
Wilbur went to a new farm and I like that the animals were being friendly to each other. They were going to eat Wilbur, but Charlotte saved his life by writing all sorts of nice words about him in her web. Charlotte kept changing the words on her web to protect Wilbur. The people thought that maybe Wilbur was making the web. They thought it was a miracle! They went to a fair and I wish I could go, too. There were rides and games.
At the end, Charlotte laid her eggs. She was very sad because she knew she was going to die of old age before they were born. It was nice that Wilbur saved the egg sac and took care of the eggs. I love that he was treating Charlotte’s kids like his own. Wilbur hung his medal from the fair where Charlotte’s web used to be to remind him of her. I love that, too. The only thing I didn’t like is that they were trying to eat Wilbur and Charlotte died.
I liked reading the program and seeing that there were so many kids my age. There were four 1st graders in the show, which is the same age as me. It was cool that children also got to be narrators and tell the audience what was going on. I thought the older kids did a really good job playing grown-ups.
My mom bought the book Charlotte’s Web, and I am excited to read it now that I’ve seen the play. I think you should go to this show because it is funny, interesting, and good.
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
Stewart Theatre, NC State University
February 20 - 24, 2019
by Dustin K. Britt
February 27, 2019
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
In director Mia Self’s new Cabaret, a company of twenty-six student performers strut and stride across the semicircular Stewart Theatre stage, capably maneuvering Tara Z. Mullins’s energetic, manageable choreography.
New interpretations of the 53-year-old musical are always welcome. Self’s staging is energetic and appealing, though it offers very few surprises for the initiated. Notoriously disturbing ending, including the reveal of the leading Emcee’s pink-triangle-labeled fate, is a director’s dream: Bookwriter Joe Masteroff provides a framework, but the reigns abnormally loose. Productions have gone in myriad directions: electrocuting the Emcee, forcing the audience to face a giant distorted mirror, and even shoving the entire shrieking ensemble into a gas chamber.
Given the nation’s recent resurgence of publicly-displayed Nazism and racist terrorism, this production’s ending should have been particularly provocative and germane. The cast’s sinking to the floor--implying as mass of dead bodies--is certainly tragic, but pulls a much-anticipated punch.
Jennifer Sherrod paints the Kit Kat Klub with tantalizing lighting, making resourceful use of TheatreFest 2018’s enormous bulb-bordered gold frame--quintessential Cabaret. Jayme Mellema clearly delineates the worlds of the Kit Kat Klub, Fräulein Schneider’s hotel, and the crumbling Berlin beyond.
With Self’s Klub scenes in front of that golden frame and the hotel scenes behind it, the metaphorical cultural images of the Cabaret emerge from the painting while the real Berliners of 1931 are trapped within it and protected by it. Or perhaps it is a mirror. As the Emcee crosses across universes, Self demands we consider which side is the prime reality and which is the lie. And on which side do we live?
A highly skilled dancer and vocalist, the too-youthful Ryan Vasconcello favors contemporary drag queen flair over the typical sinister Vaudevillian Emcee. As Sally Bowles, MacKenzie Scheid topples towers with her vocal performance and we buy her sexy and sarcastic moments, but she undersells the necessary anguish for the final scenes and titular song.
Zoe Barham is a subtle and sympathetic Fräulein Schneider, gliding easily between sweet connections with David Schnatter’s adorable Herr Schultz and the sour disconnections with Lewis’s imposing Nazi, Ernst Ludwig. Jessica Hamm is an amusing Fräulein Kost and Riley Stephenson is an approachable, though underplayed, Cliff Bradshaw. Heather J. Strickland’s fight choreography lands most of its punches, thanks to Bradshaw’s physical commitment.
Most of the troupe paint the broad strokes of their respective dialects but often miss the details (those pesky German ending R’s, for example). Dialect captain Isaiah Lewis is well-chosen; his formal German accent is delivered perfectly.
John Kander’s jazzy score explodes from the pit as Musical Director Catherine Hamner’s eight-member band plays with zeal. We are gifted with notable contributions from the reeds (Steve Rose and Erik Riggs) and Ashton Milliken’s punctilious percussion. Kevin Wright’s crystalline sound mix balances the Klub’s “beautiful” orchestra with the robust vocal stylings of Ryan Vasconcellos’s Emcee, MacKenzie Scheid’s Sally Bowles, and--in a brief appearance--Riki Dows’s androgynous Chanteuse.
Costume, hair, and makeup goddess Laura J. Parker advances her reputation with a parade of striking silhouettes and convincing fabrics. The Emcee’s troublingly sexy schoolboy outfit and Sally’s uncharacteristically bright colors are the only noticeable fumbles.
Christopher Isherwood presented the stories of Sally Bowles et al. in 1939’s Goodbye to Berlin. As World War II began, he paused to reflect on its impetus and its symptoms. Not for the first time, savage extremists executed an unchecked attack on a target minority.
John Van Druten’s 1951 stage adaptation, retitled I am a Camera, and subsequent 1955 film coincided with the birth of the American civil rights movement. The 1966 musical Cabaret arrived at the movement’s climax. Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation released as the Equal Rights Amendment was heading to congress. The 1987 Broadway revival went into rehearsals just as ACT UP was marching on Wall Street and in the first months of the 1998 revival the fight over gay marriage heated up and Matthew Shepard was murdered.
Cabaret seems to always pop up when the extremists get a wild hair up their ass. Ideally, each new staging would be a look toward the past--at who we used to be and must never be again. But that has never been the case. Given the ongoing horrors of the past two years, any new, conscientious production of Cabaret serves as both a comment and a provocation. Despite its flaws, University Theatre’s staging is a much-needed one.
Photo by Connor Smith.
Raleigh Little Theatre
Cantey V. Sutton Theatre
February 15 - March 3, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
February 24, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
For some parents, suffering through stage shows of popular kids’ shows or books (Paw Patrol Live!, anyone?) is a rite of passage. It’s one of those things we do because we love our kids and want them to experience the thrill of seeing beloved characters brought to life. I expected Raleigh Little Theatre’s Junie B. Jones, The Musical, based on the popular series of books by Barbara Park, to be the same. I was pleasantly surprised.
While the book and music for Junie B. Jones aren’t exactly Pulitzer-worthy, the 65-minute runtime flew by. The show begins with Junie B.’s first day of 1st grade and wisely speeds through a number of familiar vignettes of 1st grade experiences, punctuating each one with a song in a different musical style. Director Kathleen Rudolph has pulled off an impressive feat: putting together a show for and starring young people that feels just as polished as RLT’s more mature offerings.
Jenna Davenport stars as the titular Junie B., and she certainly is a star. Davenport fully inhabits her role and understands the responsibility she has to her young audience. Her vocal belt is excellent (particularly in “Time To Make A Drawing”), but she seems hesitant to use it and too often falls into her head voice. Davenport’s physicality is a joy to watch; she uses her entire body for every movement. Susan Hill’s choreography nails the slinky-like bounciness of a six-year-old. The entire cast exhibited the heightened energy typical of entertainment marketed to children, but one rarely sees it in young performers. Kudos all around for the excellent guidance that Rudolph, Hill, and Assistant Director Matthew Hurley must have provided.
We meet Junie B.’s classmates, including Herb (a confident Matthew Bain, with an impressively mature singing voice), who sees past Junie B.’s angry/scared exterior to befriend her on the first day of school. She introduces herself by stomping on his foot, then proceeds to bully a child on the bus, neither of which have any consequences. What made Junie B. so upset? Her kindergarten best friend, Lucille (Callie Colvard), has decided to adopt two new best friends, twins Camille (Claire Fellows) and Chenille (Leah Bason). The trio introduce themselves through the aptly-titled “Lucille, Camille, Chenille,” and they nail the vocal stylings and dance moves of 1950s-era girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas. Colvard is a force. She stays in character in every scene, giving Lucille defined vocal inflections and hand movements. She manages to take a character who could be the typical “mean girl” and give her dimension.
Another familiar milestone is Junie B.’s horror at discovering she needs glasses, which features an excellent nightmare gag of her classmates briefly becoming a horde of zombies. This glasses-wearing writer was thrilled that no one actually made fun of Junie B’s new specs, and in fact, she was complimented on them. There is an extended bit involving Junie B. helping out in the lunchroom that falls a bit flat, mostly because 1st graders don’t generally have that kind of autonomy. Rylee Davis gives her all as lunch lady Mrs. Gutzman, but she looked too young next to the other actors (she only has five or six years on Davenport). The other adult actors in the show (Troy A. Jelley and Paula Andrews as Junie B.’s supportive but not-strict-enough parents and Dan Bain as her kind but exhausted teacher) do just enough with their roles - they know this isn’t really about them and don’t try to steal the spotlight.
The production was deceptively simple from a technical standpoint, but that means that everything went extremely smoothly. Dennis R. Berfield’s set design was outstanding, with a giant version of Junie B.’s journal that opened to reveal the primary-colored world of elementary school. One of the biggest obstacles in working with young performers is often projection, but Darylene Hecht’s musical direction in combination with Todd Houseknecht’s sound design made this a non-issue.
There were two things that did take away from my experience of the show, and neither of which is the fault of either the cast or production staff: First, the family in the row behind me chose to break out a full meal midway through the show (again, it’s only an hour!), using the lights from phones to pass items around the row and distracting from the action on stage. Parents: theatre etiquette is important even at children’s shows; more so because you are laying the foundation for how your kids will treat the performing arts.
Second, the show’s final song ends with Junie B. singing, “I could never choose the bestest thing....” followed by Herb entering and taking her hand, then Junie B. swooning “...until now!” Is it really necessary to imply anything romantic between two 1st graders? Can’t they just be platonic friends? Still, this is minor given that the rest of the play is quite entertaining and a mostly realistic depiction of childhood.
I genuinely enjoyed this production, and not just as a parent, but as a theatregoer. If you have children under the age of 10 or so and you can get tickets (which are selling out fast), you won’t regret seeing Junie B. Jones, The Musical. You’ll probably be humming “Top Secret Personal Beeswax” all the way home.
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
I read a lot of the Junie B. Jones books before. Junie B. is mean and rude, and so I only kind of like the books. Junie B. is a lot nicer in the play. I have been excited about seeing this play for months, ever since I found out we got to review it! I never knew that you could have a play with characters and stories from books you read in school. Almost everything in the show came straight from the books, and it is cool that they mixed different books together.
Junie B. Jones, The Musical is the story of the first week of 1st grade for Junie B. Jones (Jenna Davenport). She is a 1st grader like me, and she likes to play soccer, which I like too. In the play, Junie B. is having trouble at school, and May (Laura Lillian Baggett) was so rude to her. She was staring at Junie B.’s work and saying it wasn’t right. Then Junie B got glasses. They were purple, and I loved them! Everyone had really great costumes (designed by Jenny Mitchell).
Junie B. had a lot of friends in kindergarten, but not everyone stayed her friend in 1st grade. Lucille (Callie Colvard) was mean because she was saying it’s better to have friends whose names rhyme. What actually makes a good friend is being nice, helping them when they need it, and never letting them down. One of my favorite characters was Herb (Matthew Bain) because he was so friendly. I also like Junie B. because she asked for help politely, and she said it was okay for Herb to sit with her on the bus.
Junie B. hurt her foot before her kickball tournament and was sad. I broke my wrist on the monkey bars, so I understand. Her teacher (Dan Bain) was nice, because he told June B. it was okay not to play in the tournament. Her parents (Troy A. Jelley and Paula Andrews) comforted her and helped her learn to juggle so she could be in the halftime show. You can’t really learn to juggle in four days though.
I wish that they could use a real baby to play Ollie, Junie B’s baby brother. I thought maybe it was a doll, and I asked to make sure, and I saw it after the show to make sure it was a doll. That is the only thing I would change in the whole show. All the songs are good, and my favorite was “Top Secret Personal Beeswax.” I hope there is another show with more Junie B. stories so that I can see that one too! I have seen at least eight musicals, and this is my favorite show I’ve ever seen!
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio
February 15 - March 3, 2019
by Dustin K. Britt
February 18, 2019
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
There is nothing so disgusting as a teenage boy.
I know. I was one of them. And now I’ve spent the last decade trying to educate them.
In the classroom, locker room, and on the field, most teenage cisgender boys talk about their genitals as if describing the weather. They call each other the most horrific of names and punch each other joyfully in the ‘nads to communicate affection. No homo. This is all perfectly normalized. It is not only tolerated, it is expected.
So what are the girls doing while all this buffoonery is going on?
Athletic teen girls in fiction (read: cheerleaders) are usually air-headed, petty backstabbers who feed on gossip and slut-shaming. That is usually as deep as it goes. Thanks to a crippling lack of respect for and interest in women’s sports, almost no female-led sports films have entered the mainstream consciousness aside from A League of Their Own and Bring it On.
In The Wolves, playwright Sarah DeLappe seeks to level the playing field by turning the camera and showing us how the other side lives. Known for violently hunting in packs of around eight, establishing territory, protecting the weak among them, and following an alpha, DeLappe’s fictional soccer team, The Wolves, is aptly-named.
The script itself is baffling. The text bounces back and forth across the pages like a game of, well, soccer. Only the bravest (or most insane) of directors would dare touch it. Director Michelle Murray Wells is just brave (and a little crazy) enough to grapple with it and shape it into something spectacular. Movement director Heather J. Strickland serves as a worthy co-captain. What is soccer other than a combination of fighting and dancing: Strickland’s specialties. Scenes ebb and flow with ease thanks to palate-cleansing musical cues (provided by Shelley Snapp) and Rebekah Meekins's capable stage management.
Under Kaitlin Rider’s lighting and on Lance Hebert’s indoor soccer turf, a pack of 9 female actors spend nearly an entire 90 minutes in warm-up and drill mode. They stretch, the shuffle, they kick, they run. Their athletic movement is nearly ceaseless but, under Strickland’s carefully-considered movement direction, it never distracts the actors or the audience from the task at hand: find out what teenage girls are talking and thinking about when nobody’s around.
The result is an enthralling series of often interwoven and simultaneous conversations. DeLappe’s conversational rhythms, conducted by Wells, require a vigilant audience. One group discusses genocide while the other talks about tampons. With so much movement and dialogue going on, Wells thankfully ensures that her actors never overplay a word. Truth wins out in every scene and showboating is not permitted. But that isn’t to say there are not stand-outs.
A robust Samantha A. Matthews plays the position of the vicious and vulgar #7 while local newcomer Supriya Jaya performs flawlessly the play’s sympathetic outcast, #46. Less presumptuous than Matthews’s #7 is Shawn Morgenlander’s catty but controlled #14. Sierra Smith (#00, the goalie) stands out from the pack with a shockingly orange uniform (thanks to designer Alex LaGrand and coordinator Elena Mulligan) and communicates novels worth of subtext in a nearly silent role.
Kimmy Fiorentino delivers her most mature and balanced performance to date as strict team captain #25 while a sympathetic Ivy Evers is the naive #2. Harper Cleland easily tackles the play’s most dynamic role: the moody and unpredictable #8. As serious #11, Elise Kimple gives the production’s most understated and grounded performance, contrasting with Pimpila Violette’s perfectly hyperactive #13. Benji Jones provides another tear-inducing performance in her brief appearance as Soccer Mom.
The boys have had their turn. Revenge of the Nerds, Scream, and American Pie proved that you need only stitch a letter onto a jacket to create a dumb, crude, nameless jock boy. But DeLappe’s heroines are infinitely more complex and make for truly riveting storytelling.
Photo by Areon Mobasher.
Meredith College Theatre
February 13-17, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
February 18, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Shrug 🤷
Annie Get Your Gun is the kind of classic musical that vaguely exists in the public memory (“The one about Annie Oakley, right?”), but that few people seem to have actually seen live.
Meredith College Theatre’s recent production, directed by Catherine Rodgers, doesn’t make much of a case in its favor. MCT’s Annie Get Your Gun is wildly inconsistent (in both the writing and performance), with a first half that drags and a second half that makes you wistful for what the show could have been. The production seems to justify its existence primarily as a star vehicle for Anna Brescia (Annie Oakley). Brescia is magnificent. Her voice is powerful; she never misses a note, in spite of an orchestra that occasionally seemed to playing an entirely different score. She is charismatic, funny, and earnest, and it would be a shame that she has to carry so much of the show on her shoulders if she wasn’t so darn great. And if her jazzy “Moonshine Lullaby” is any indication, she can play a multitude of roles.
The story is unnecessarily complicated, but basically: Annie Oakley, an illiterate sharpshooter who cares for her three young sisters (played hilariously and with total commitment by Claudia Solis, Emily Spain, and Betsy Jones), enters into a shooting contest against Frank Butler (a swaggering, confident Aydan Hansen). Surprising everyone, Annie can’t seem to miss a target, and Buffalo Bill (Jody Mitchell, who I’m fairly certain was created in a lab solely to play this role) brings her on as Frank’s assistant in his touring Wild West Show. When Buffalo Bill and his road manager, Charlie Davenport (Davis Leonard, perfectly cast as comic relief and the emcee of the show-within-a-show), plot to give Annie top billing in order to outsell a competing Wild West Show, Frank packs up his toys and leaves his fellow performers--and a budding romance with Annie--behind, like a misogynistic fourth grader.
The script gives very little indication of what Annie sees in Frank, other than swooning at the first sight of his admittedly very handsome face. He is jealous of her talent and only seems to take an interest in her when she conforms to his idea of femininity. Hansen struggles with belting out some of his high notes (most notably in the big opener “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” which lacked energy from the ensemble as a whole) but comes alive when playing against Brescia, as in “An Old Fashioned Wedding” and “Anything You Can Do.”
Our leading love interests are mostly devoid of chemistry, in stark contrast to the infectious teenage couple, Winnie Tate (an absolutely adorable Christina Grube) and Tommy Keeler (an energetic Jacob Sen). Winnie and Tommy’s reckless, PDA-filled young love is believably directed and performed. While their first duet, “I’ll Share It All With You,” was painfully out of tune (again, the orchestra didn’t help here), they more than made up for it with their second act “Who Do You Love, I Hope,” which was sweeter than a basket of puppies.
Winnie’s older sister, Dolly (an impeccable Hannah Davis Johns, who gives everything she can to a two-dimensional role), disapproves of the relationship because Tommy is half-Indian. Dolly’s racism is painted as a character flaw that no one expressly challenges. MCT thankfully chose to stage the 1999 revival version of Annie Get Your Gun, which went to great lengths to reconsider its racism; still, the jokes about “redskins” and “Indian givers” are cringe worthy, even when delivered by actors playing Native Americans. Sitting Bull (James Poslusny) refers unironically to “the great white father,” and Poslusny struggles with how to delicately approach the character’s broken English.
The production is excellent technically. Michael Allen’s set design is understated but feels authentic, with various movable wooden pieces and lanterns lining the front of the stage. The only quibble is with the various international flags displayed along with the Big Top tent, as some of the designs are anachronistic. Mackenzie Ulibarri’s lighting design artfully uses warm colors to mimic natural light, and the cues were well-executed. Becky Bailey’s costumes are beautiful, with the minor exceptions of a distracting red cowboy hat on one of Annie’s sisters, and Frank, who is inexplicably dressed like a modern-day Austin hipster. Cindy Carbone’s choreography manages to make everyone look great. Unfortunately, the ensemble is underused throughout. No one really gets a chance to shine, though Tyrone Kiaku is expressive and fun to watch.
MCT provides free tickets to all shows, which paid off with a packed house, ranging from families with young kids to senior citizens. But the show’s length, pacing, and the enforced rule of no food in the building - even in the lobby during intermission - did contribute to significant attrition going into the second act. Still, you can’t find a cheaper family outing. Even with a show as uneven as this one, MCT continues to provide the possibility of spotting future Broadway star performers and designers before they make it big.
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
Annie Get Your Gun was very good. The show started late, and I was bored waiting for it to start. I loved looking at all the decorations on the stage though. The costumes made the actors look like real cowboys, and everyone had beautiful voices. It actually looked AND sounded like they were shooting guns. I’m not sure if the guns were real. They shot at balloons, and they popped, and I want to know how they could do that without anyone getting hurt. They must have practiced a lot.
I really liked the three little kids; they were always running everywhere all the time and making so much noise. My mom said that’s what I do too. “Anything You Can Do” was my favorite song because they kept challenging each other with high pitched voices and soft voices. It was so funny.
If I could play a character, I would play Frank, so I could challenge Annie to a shooting contest. He can lift his leg up and shoot, and Annie couldn’t do that. He also stuck his butt out and shot the gun through his legs! I want to try that! I don’t understand why Frank was upset at Annie for being better than him. No one is the best at everything. They should have discussed it with each other before Frank left. Annie could have followed Frank, but he still would have been mad, so they should have just asked each other what they wanted. They could take turns being the best at different things.
I would give the show a thumbs up but the rules of the theatre a thumbs down. I wish they would let you eat inside, because sometimes it’s freezing outside, and I had to stand in the rain to eat my snack.
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
CHAPEL HILL, NC
January 17, 2019
by Al Riggs
February 17, 2019
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Walking into The PIT on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill a good five minutes before Doors Time was kind of an experience of its own. My associate (heretofore nameless and known as Nameless) and I watched the last few minutes of an improv class wind down with wrap-up notes and the announcement that a “tribute to Tom Waits” would be coming up next for anyone wanting to stick around. There were some scattered laughs at the notion of a tribute to Tom Waits--an amazingly skilled songwriter and performer who performs blues and piano ballads the way a rider mower obliterates a front lawn, lately miscast as a cartoonish old geezer with a pork pie hat and a “bad” voice by the uninitiated and rude- but Nameless and I were here for that purpose. The improv class ended and suddenly a flurry of people brandishing drum kits and keyboards and guitars and accordions took over the stage, frantically setting things up for the night to come.
We love Tom Waits, and I’d imagine the people who showed up to watch other people perform his songs love him as well. We also like to think we understand Tom Waits, which nobody does. Dude is an enigma wrapped in whiskey-stained Naugahyde. But, like the aforementioned uninitiated, we understand the superficial facsimile of Tom Waits. Close your eyes and listen to any of his songs at random; you probably have an image of what he looks like before you even pull up a photo. Now look at a photo. You’re imagination is probably closer to the real thing than you thought.
So it was a surprise to my associate and I that we found ourselves starting out the evening rolling our eyes ever so slightly at what we were promised was cabaret (a very, very loaded term) and what was delivered as a tribute act. Which is fine! It just wasn’t what pops into the mind when you hear the word “cabaret”; no real connective tissue between the three (very fine) bands that performed, only a few inklings of character popping up in the different performances. Nothing about the evening felt like I was seeing cabaret, but this is a picked nit as the rest of the evening was quite enjoyable.
As the first band The Nighthawks ended a lackluster five song set of early period Waits balladry- with some technical mic issues and jokes about Beyoncé that didn’t land or make sense--the quick changeover to band 2, The Raindogs, finally kicked things into gear. The addition of woodblocks and off-kilter piano lines and the truly transformative performances of Dale Wolf (doing an appropriately battle-scarred “Time”) and Jessica Flemming (snaking her way through the New Years Eve nightmare of “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore”) seemed to change the entire tone of the evening. A lot of this has to do with song choice; Waits’ early bar-hopper ballad material--before being influenced by personal and creative partner Kathleen Brennan and Captain Beefheart--does not really lend itself to bigger, character based performances that ended up dominating the majority of the evening.
Third band Bone Machine rounded everything off with the loudest and tightest arrangements and featured the most lively performances of the evening from Juliana Finch (channeling Sally Bowles’s "come hither but stay back" attitude in “Walk Away”) and Dana Marks (dressed to the nines as a demented door-to-door evangelist and doing more acting than singing during “Jesus Gonna Be Here”). It was these performances in the second and third bands that seemed to ring truest to Waits’s kitchen sink spirit.
It is obvious to anyone with ears that Tom Waits is not a traditional singer by most measures, but he made more than simple concessions for that with an electrifying stage presence that at least two-thirds of the Little Green Pig cast was capable of not only paying tribute to but channeling in spades.
The Justice Theatre Project
Umstead Park United Church of Christ
February 8 - 24, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
February 12, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
“The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious and exceedingly diverse,” John Wesley Powell wrote during his 1869 expedition down the Colorado River.
The same description--diverse elements uniting to create a beautiful whole--could also be applied to The Justice Theater Project’s production of Men on Boats, which is based on Powell’s journals.
Much of history is written by white men about white men. Thus, their stories are performed by white men. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus creates her own form of affirmative action through her casting notes: “The characters in Men On Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not.” Like Hamilton, Men on Boats tells the “story of America then told by America now.”
Director Jules Odendahl-James has put together one of the most diverse casts I have seen recently on a Triangle stage, not only racially and ethnically, but notably in body diversity. What a joy it is to see women and nonbinary actors of varying shapes and sizes moving together through Denise Cerniglia’s precise, strenuous choreography. Odendahl-James has opted to do away not only with the men, but also the boats, relying on the cast’s physicality to depict moving through the water. This mostly works, particularly when the actors scream through waterfalls or mime carrying the boats over land.
Faye Goodwin plays Major Powell with exactly the right amount of gravitas, fervor for adventure, and unshakable (oftentimes reckless) optimism. She also fully commits to Powell’s missing arm (a Civil War injury), deftly performing every task with one hand. Mara Thomas’s Dunn is a worthy foil and frequently serves as a surrogate for the audience. Marleigh Purgar McDonald shines as the crew’s youngest member. She has been a staple of Triangle area stages for so long, it’s easy to forget she’s only a sophomore in high school.
Sarah Koop delivers not just one but two winning monologues, one as British scaredy-cat Goodman and one as Mr. Asa, who closes the show imagining himself as a hero rescuing Powell’s crew. Paige Purgar’s Hawkins is the real hero we need, always focusing on the food as the expedition’s cook.
Odendahl-James has assembled a high-caliber ensemble who seem to trust each other implicitly: a sign of excellent direction and morale. The entire cast has perfected the art of reacting and acting even in quiet moments (see Candace Hescock’s seasickness or Koop picking fish bones out of her teeth during a meal). Unfortunately, many of the characters lack enough backstory or meaningful dialogue to truly stand out.
Johanna Burwell and Ariel Griffin Smith come alive during a brief, humorous stint as indigenous residents of the canyon but have little to do in their primary roles. One can imagine a slightly more entertaining play with the natives serving as muses, narrating the white man’s misadventures.
Juan Isler’s sound design is excellent, with perfectly timed rushes of water and ambient wildlife noises. A well-deserved tip of the hat to Katy Koop and Quinn Mishra for their expert board operation and stage management. Sonya Drum’s props are spot-on, though it was unclear why certain items had physical props and others were mimed.
All of the actors look at home in Emily Johns’s costumes, which is important given the physical nature of the show, but they lack any cohesiveness of historical period. Lighting designer Jenni Mann Becker dazzles, creating rich red canyon walls and waterfalls of varying shades of blue out of (almost) thin air.
Sonya Drum does impressive work constructing a towering set in a limited space, but Odendahl-James inexplicably chooses to place the story within a partially constructed museum exhibit. There is no mention of this within the show itself, nor any attempt to bookend it with the conceit of being “a night at the museum brought to life” (according the the advertising). The concept misses the mark but thankfully doesn’t take away from the show.
Although not explicitly marketed to younger audiences (My son and co-writer Emory Kasten was the youngest audience member by 20 years, easily), I highly recommend making a family outing to see this show with your teens or pre-teens. Note that there are numerous instances of swearing, so parents of the under-ten crowd be wary, but there is no other worrisome content.
The show is, at its heart, an adventure story, with plenty of action and humor for any teen who thinks theatre is boring. Emory was literally on the edge of his seat the entire 90 minutes. You’ll get the bonus of exposing them to diverse voices and even learning a bit of history, too. High school social studies teachers out there: consider offering extra credit for this one: JTP’s Men on Boats should be experienced by as many students of history as possible.
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
I would call this show Women on Non-Boats, because there weren’t any men or any boats. I’d give it two thumbs up instead of just one. Bradley (Marleigh Purgar McDonald) was my favorite character because he was a kid. He wore a Union soldier hat, but he was too young to fight in the war. The costumes actually looked like what people wear on an adventure. It was hilarious when he went overboard! That was my favorite part.
The set looked like a waterfall and a cliff, and it was cool how they made it really look like a waterfall with the lights. I also liked the sounds of the water. I loved when everyone was going down the waterfall and they were scared. No characters died even though people fell into the water. It was funny to watch them splashing around, but everyone was saved.
Men on Boats is a little bit like the T.V. show The Octonauts: everyone on the journey has a job, like captain or cook. Also in Octonauts, sometimes the submarines get stuck in the rocks and have to be rescued by other subs; the same thing happens in Men on Boats when boats get stuck and other boats have to pull them out.
I noticed that a lot of the characters smoke, which I don’t like because it’s not healthy. I also did not like when they talked about going pee. I loved Old Shady’s “Tin Fish” song (sung by Jessica Flemming).
I didn’t take as many notes during this show as I did for other shows because I was paying really close attention to what was happening. Other kids might not like this show because there are a lot of grown-up words, but I loved it.
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
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, Pedal Fuzz, and Triangle Arts & Entertainment. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @dkbritt85
Rachel Kasten, a North Carolina resident, believes that access to live theatre strengthens communities. She is happy to be back home in Raleigh after a whirlwind decade of living and performing in Ohio, Florida, and British Columbia. She was a professional background actor for 7 months in Vancouver and thinks it’s an experience everyone should have, but only once, and not in the snow. Although she has been frequently typecast as a witch or wicked stepmother (Cinderella, Macbeth, Into the Woods, Shrek...seriously, a lot of witches), she actually thinks she’s an okay mom. Most recently, Rachel discovered that she enjoys producing even more than being on stage, when she produced These Shining Lives for the Women’s Theatre Festival. Outside of theatre, she serves as a Graduate Program Coordinator at N.C. State and is an active participant in dismantling white supremacy. Rachel is looking forward to sharing something she loves with the person she loves the most.
Emory Kasten, Rachel's son, is 6 years old and in 1st grade. He loves musicals because they have singing and dancing, which are two of his favorite things. He takes jazz and tumbling at Triangle Academy of Dance so that he can perform in Newsies someday. Emory is also a proud Cub Scout. His favorite show is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat because it’s weird, colorful, and silly, like him. Emory wants to see more plays because sometimes they’re really funny.
P.S. He wants everyone to know that his favorite animal is the red fox.
Al Riggs, a North Carolina native, is a musician currently based out of Durham, NC. They have recorded and performed with members of Megafaun, The Mountain Goats, and recently released their latest record GODKILLER on local label Suah Sounds. They have written music criticism and festival coverage for Pedal Fuzz (Winston-Salem, NC) and Rezonatr (Raleigh, NC). You can find them on Twitter @alRiggsMusicOk