Annual "Britt's Picks" Best-of List - Facebook Live - December 17 at 8:00 PM
Walltown Children’s Theatre
December 7 - December 15, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
December 9, 2018
RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Tiny Engine Theatre is back after a two-year hiatus. Since its exemplary staging of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in 2016 I have longed for the small company’s return.
After a world premiere at Virginia Theological Seminary in November, the company brings its first original play, Lady Misrule, back home to Durham. A frequent renter of the late great Common Ground Theatre, Tiny Engine is presenting its latest work at Durham’s Walltown Children’s Theatre. Written and directed by Tiny Engine co-founder Paul Sapp, this “Christmas Noir” follows a bereaved father on his journey to the North Pole as he attempts to unravel the mystery of his daughter’s death.
The nine-member company includes a trio (the “Elfsemble”) responsible for populating the play’s universe with supporting characters. A dynamic Emily Levinstone stands out, differentiating her many characters quite successfully, with support from costume designer Erin M. West. Nick Popio proves an amusing one-person circus while Jessica Fleming is in charge of subtlety.
Faye Goodwin makes adequate use Walltown’s expansive and deep stage with simple but clear scenic elements. Sadly, much of the staging feels miles away from the audience.
Noelle Barnard Azarelo struts aggressively across that open space as venomous elf Kiki. Unlike most, Azarelo embraces the absurdity of the play and leans-in. Nearly as brazen are Laurel Ullman as the commanding Connie and Kurt Benrud as an unsettingly un-jolly ole’ Saint Nick. David Berberian tackles the wide emotional range of the grieving, addled Stephen Wurth.
The play works best when focusing on character relationships in lengthier dialogue scenes. Unfortunately Sapp interrupts his own work every couple of minutes with a pace-destroying scenic transition that could be avoided with more efficient staging. Stage manager Claire King certainly stays on her toes.
The web of plots, subplots, and sideplots are as tangled as a wad of Christmas lights that never quite get straightened out. It is Sapp's revised Christmas mythology that really draws us in and should be the play's core, but his twists on tradition are more decorative than integral. Judson Hurd’s sound effects do most of the heavy lifting in regard to establishing locale, with some support from Erin Bell’s lighting, which puts Walltown’s limited grid to good use.
But even with indefatigable actors and resourceful designers the production struggles to soar, weighed down by a puzzle-like script with too many pieces missing. Though decidedly unique and sufficiently intriguing, from top to bottom we struggle to figure out what this play is. Too goofy for noir, too and too dark for comedy, an obviously capable writer-director is flirts with a story but never asks it to dance.
Photo by Erin Bell/Bull City Photography.
Murphey School Auditorium
November 29 - December 16, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
December 7, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
Irish playwright Conor McPherson (Shining City, The Seafarer, The Night Alive) enjoys haunting his characters, routinely tormenting them with ex-lovers, absent friends, and actual ghosts. 1997’s The Weir is no exception. In a warm pub, safe from icy winds, a quintet of mysterious characters drink many a pint and tell many a story of spirits, fairies, and rat-a-tat-tatting on cottage window sills.
Elizabeth Newton’s parade of alcoholic paraphernalia populates Tom Burch’s set, supported by the detailed artistry of Meredith Riggan and bestrewn with Irish heritage (e.g. a Guinness mirror, a pair of soccer jerseys, and a framed photograph of JFK). Chris Popowich indicates emotional shifts with effective, if sometimes heavy handed, lighting transitions.
The play is at its most successful when director Jerome Davis embraces stillness. In a monologue-heavy play in an intimate space, the human face is the doorway to the story. Too much running about prevents us from connecting with those faces as often as we should.
Though well-performed, McPherson’s characters lack dimension and keep a canyon-wide emotional distance between each other and--unfortunately--the audience.
A gregarious Simon Kaplan gives the production the majority of its energy. He must have a stiff spine to carry this play on his back for three weeks. There is little David Dossey can do with a character as unstimulating as Finbar, but Jordan Wolfe has an easy time with lovable barman Brendan.
McPherson hides his hand for far too long, saving anything remotely engaging for the play’s final quarter: stories from Lucius Robinson’s fascinatingly stoic Jim and Emily Rieder’s honest and understated Valerie. We hang on their words as the characters speak comparatively little in the play. This pair of monologues are tightly written and their delivery is well-controlled and eerily still. We hang on these words like no others in the 90 minute piece. But just when McPherson gets some plates spinning, he wanders off--ending the play just moments after if finally began.
Photo by David Rauch.
nRaleigh Little Theatre
Cantey V. Sutton Theatre
November 30 - December 16, 2018
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
December 3, 2018
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: THUMBS UP 👍
Do you believe in fairies? Before you answer, you may want to see Raleigh Little Theatre’s latest incarnation of Cinderella. This update to the classic fairy tale was packed with enough talent, music, humor, and lush costumes and scenery to transport the whole family to the royal ball.
The Fairy Godmother, known as FG, plays a much larger role in this version, which allows us to spend time with the Fairy Helpers, played by the entertaining duo of Chelsea Cullen and Miranda Millang-Valdivia. The Helpers had some of the best dialogue in the show, including an extremely relatable attempt to meet Hermione Granger.
When FG herself, Lauren Bamford, waves her wand, you believe she’s been practicing magic her whole life. Bamford has a commanding presence that served the show well. Her singing is powerful and confident, though the ambitious choreography in “Hi Diddle Dee” may have been a bit too much for the breath control of any experienced performer. I would have loved to see Bamford gifted a song that really let her belt, or at least to duet with Lauren Knott’s Cinderella.
Knott brought a steadiness and confidence to Cinderella that is rarely seen. Her voice is lovely, but Music Director Joanna Li’s “What’s to Become of Me?” wasn’t the best vehicle for it. The script gave her a couple of opportunities to stand up for herself, but it should have allowed her to tell more of her own story, rather than relying on exposition through FG and the Helpers.
Cinderella and Prince Charming have a memorable meet-cute, bonding over a fantasy trilogy at a book cart. Unfortunately, Lauren Knott and Christian Mucci (Prince Charming) lack any chemistry at all. Mucci has all of the ingredients to be a capable performer, but a more mature actor was sorely needed here. Charming’s father, the nearly-blind King Darling III, was played gamely by TJ Rogers, who seemed much more comfortable when he was interacting directly with the audience.
The true breakout star of the show was Elizabeth M. Quesada’s Stepmother. From the moment her New Yawk accent filled the room, she commanded the stage. Quesada was gifted with the best costume in a show full of Vicki Olson’s beautifully detailed gowns - velvet leopard print has never looked so good - with an open skirt and leggings that let her infuse the character with a hilariously over-the-top sensuality. However, I question the timeliness of the choice to make the gold-digging villain of the show in the image of a famously Jewish character, Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, Yiddish and all. The optics of the Jewish evil doer who just might ruin Christmas is, well, not great.
The show’s musical highlight was “At Christmas Be Merry,” thanks to Jess Barbour’s professional-looking choreography and a strong ensemble. At times, it seemed the stage was too full, which hindered the cast’s ability to move fully. My eye was particularly drawn to the magnetic Charleigh Smith, who has mastered the art of silent reactions in group scenes.
There were a few opening weekend technical missteps: Several sound cues were late, and the cast badly needed to be mic’d, even in RLT’s small auditorium. The projector briefly sported a computer error message. Props were left waiting in the wings and still visible from the audience. Some of the men’s makeup at the ball was overdone to the point that it made the stepsisters almost look normal.
None of these things took away from the illusion of true fairy magic, however. The cast did a wonderful job pulling off FG’s “freezing” effect. Thomas Mauney’s sets were a storybook come to life, and scene changes were effortless, especially the magical transition from Cinderella’s house to her garden. Cinderella's instantaneous gown transformation had the children in the audience appropriately hoodwinked. Unless it was real magic, after all…
Since the show is sure to repeated next year, I humbly suggest retiring Timothy Cherry and M. Dennis Poole as the stepsisters and finding humor in the characters of Gertrude and Henrietta beyond “men in dresses are funny.” There was also a glaring lack of diversity in the main cast. Still, Mike McGee did strong work all-around in his Cinderella directing debut, and I hope he returns to the helm next year. My family will certainly be back to see it.
- Rachel Kasten, mom
Son Says: THUMBS UP 👍
Even before the show started, I thought the pictures on the screen were cool. I call the pumpkin carriage the “marriage carriage,” because I already know that Cinderella and the Prince get married at the end. There was a big clock above the stage, and sometimes it changed into other things. When they are in the throne room, the clock changes to a crown with hearts and once it looked like spinning gears. I really liked that.
This show had real magic, and I want to find out how they did it! Everything the Fairy Godmother did was amazing. When she waved her magic wand, there were lights and sounds. She could make people freeze and play tricks on them. But the best magic she did was when she waved her wand and used actual magic to change Cinderella’s dress. How did the Fairy Godmother learn real magic? Maybe when it was dark, Cinderella turned her dress inside out. I want to ask them how to do it.
I liked so many things, so here are some of them:
The only thing I didn’t like was that they made the King so he couldn’t see. The guards had to push him around. I wouldn’t like that if it was me, because pushing isn’t nice. Also, he had two guards AND two pages. That seems like a lot. Why does he need so many people?
I was really surprised because, before the show started, I thought I’d give it a thumbs down or a shrug. But I definitely give it a thumbs up. It’s not my favorite show I’ve ever seen because it wasn’t hilarious, but I would see it again if I could.
- Emory Kasten, son
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
North Carolina Theatre Presents Lythgoe Family Panto
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
November 29 - December 2, 2018
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
December 1, 2018
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: SHRUG 🤷
Walking into Duke Energy Center for the matinee of Aladdin and His Winter Wish made one thing clear: this show is not for theatre snobs. Giddy children in plastic tiaras made popsicle stick reindeer in the lobby, while Christmas music blared over the speakers in the theatre. The audience practiced cheering and booing, led by NC Theatre CEO Elizabeth Doran wearing a hot pink evening gown. An energetic Jonathan Meza, MVP of this hardworking cast, played MC throughout.
The show opened inexplicably with a Bollywood number set to “Jai Ho.” While the song perhaps fits thematically with the rags-to-riches story due to its association with Slumdog Millionaire, it also established early on that the setting wasn’t so much Arabian peninsula as the entire Asian continent (there was also a slightly macabre scene involving a sarcophagus, so your guess of the exact setting is as good as mine).
Aladdin and His Winter Wish is essentially a Disney theme park stage show on magic mushrooms. It is filled with impressive talent and many “wow” special effect moments but probably won’t leave a lasting impression. Mario Mosley’s choreography was exciting and made great use of a talented ensemble of adults and teens. Special shoutouts go to the acrobatic Eric Dawkins as well as Joshua Messmore, a standout talent in the kids ensemble.
Lighting designer Chris Wilcox clearly had a blast with this production and did a nice job separating Abanazar’s hypnotic asides with the Sultan. The story has been updated by Kris Lythgoe with references to Snapchat, March Madness, and an enjoyable bit with a Bird scooter, but it is glaringly old-school when it comes to gender equity. Far too much of the show took place without a single woman on stage (no, Jeff Sumner’s Edna Turnblad-esque Widow Twankey doesn’t count), and the female characters lack agency so completely that none of them even have names.
This Dance Moms fan was excited to see Nia Sioux as the Princess (See? No name!), but even with nothing to do but get shuffled between her father and her suitors, Sioux was an obvious weak link. Her acting and singing were both subpar (her one solo song, Ariana Grande’s “The Way,” made me grateful that I could barely hear her vocals), and the show didn’t utilize her dancing talents. By contrast, Vanessa Nichole’s Spirit of the Ring exuded power and charisma even though the role limited her to being ordered around by her Master, the villain Abanazar.
Josh Adamson’s Abanazar was electric every time he took the stage. His big solo, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” was unexpectedly gorgeous. Ty Taylor (Genie) deserves a star vehicle, or at least to be immediately cast as Donkey in the next production of Shrek. We only got a hint of his singing chops here, but I would have watched an hour of him singing and dancing with Jason Gotay (Aladdin). This is Gotay’s third time bringing an animated prince to the stage (The Little Mermaid and The Prince of Egypt), and the thing is: he’s too good for this. Get this man back to Broadway as soon as possible. Gotay’s chemistry with Jonathan Meza (Aladdin’s brother, Wishee Washee) was also enjoyable.
I would be remiss not to at least mention the other of bit of stunt casting of Barry Pearl (Grease) as the Sultan. The many Grease references certainly didn’t mean anything to the children and the audience, and most of their parents are too young to care. Worse though is that Pearl struggled to remember his lines and generally phoned in the role.
The production was plagued with sound issues. The orchestra frequently overpowered even the most experienced vocalists, and the microphones often made the actors sound hollow, surprising in a professional production. However, the visuals were stunning and the content is non-objectionable (other than an unnecessary “joke” about schizophrenia). The musical numbers are fun, the actors are game, and the children in the audience were enthralled. If you go, just know that the show is for them more than it is for you. Perhaps I’m just too much of a theatre snob to appreciate it.
- Rachel Kasten, mom
Son Says: THUMBS UP 👍
I wish the show hadn’t started with Christmas music because it was annoying. The first Act was kind of boring, and I really wish that Aladdin had a monkey like in the Disney movie. The only animals in the whole show were two camel puppets who were onstage for just a minute. So my advice is more animals! I liked the scene in the Cave of Wonder, especially the way the lights and the sound made it seem like the cave was opening and closing. I didn’t like that they kept threatening to behead people.
The magic carpet scene was amazing. It really looked like there were stars in the sky and the carpet was flying through the air. I can’t believe they made it snow in the audience at the end of the show either. That was so cool! I’m glad that Abanazar became good at the end instead of dying. That way, no one died in the show. Abanazar and the Genie both made jokes about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, too. My favorite character was Aladdin because he was brave, handsome, and had a great voice. I also loved Wishee Washee because he was funny. He went inside a washing machine and shrunk, he shook his butt a lot, and he told jokes.
You should go see Aladdin and His Winter Wish because it has a lot of great actors and singers with nice costumes. It will make you laugh, and you get to shout “boo” at the bad guys as loud as you can. My mom never lets me scream like that, so it was pretty special.
- Emory Kasten, son
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.