THE GAME’S AFOOT: Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem for the Holidays

THE GAME’S AFOOT: Holmes for the Holidays

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: November 30, 2018 – January 6, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

Ken Ludwig’s hilarious whodunit, The Game’s Afoot, continues the comedic theme of this season’s holiday shows. (See my reviews of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas November 30, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol November 25, and Who’s Holiday November 18). Debra Clinton directs this murderous farce that has more twists and turns than a roller coaster, a task that must have been made easier by her stellar cast of characters, most of whom are no strangers to the Hanover Tavern stage.

Scott Wichmann stars as Broadway actor William Gillette (a real life actor who made a name for himself playing Sherlock Holmes on Broadway). There’s a play within a play, and life imitates art as Gillette is shot by an unknown assailant while taking his bows at the end of his show. Recuperating at his palatial Connecticut mansion (also real, and now known as Gillette Castle State Park, in Lyme, CT), Gillette invites his friends and fellow cast members to spend the Christmas holidays with him and his mother, Martha (Catherine Shaffner).

Gillette, however, has an ulterior motive. Having blurred the line between his own life and that of the character he portrayed for two decades, he fancies himself a sleuth and sets out to uncover the identify of his mystery assailant – and solve a few other mysteries along the way. Mayhem and misdirection ensue, and Clinton keeps things moving at a fast pace. There is physical comedy and lines that depend on split second timing are delivered flawlessly. There are plenty of clues and possible motives, so it’s not a complete surprise when we find out “whodunit,” but the ride is so much fun that the end is not the focal point.

Wichmann makes Gillette, who tends to be pompous, a bit more endearing, but there’s no mistaking who is the star here. Shaffner is hilarious as his mother, who always has a flask close at hand. Joe Pabst plays the role of Gillette’s best friend, Felix and his bumbling attempts at subterfuge are a highlight of the show. Donna Marie Miller is the villain here – a vengeful theatre critic named Daria Chase who has dirt on everyone and knows how to use it.  However, I was taken aback when she had a meltdown and demanded to be left alone – in Gillette’s house. Umm, that’s now how things work. . .

Meg Carnahan and Caleb Wade play the newlywed couple Aggie Wheeler and Simon Bright and Lisa Kotula is Felix’s wife, Madge whose big scene involves a seance. All have secrets that come to light when a strange detective, Inspector Goring, arrives to investigate a murder that may or may not have happened. Audra Honaker makes the role of Goring most interesting, alternately staring off into space or spouting off lines from Shakespeare. Given that the characters are all actors, there is much grandstanding, with each trying to outdo the other with dramatic delivery of drama and poetry.

The play’s isolated location and limited pool of suspects give this all the major requirements of the locked-room mystery genre, and Terrie Powers’ set attempts to capture the spirit of the genre as well. Derek Dumais and B.J. Wilkinson apparently had great fun with the sound and light design, creating lightning (it must have been a thundersnow storm) and thumps, bumps, and mysterious knocks and Sue Griffin’s costumes are in keeping with the period and the holiday spirit.

If this sounds a bit vague, some of the best moments and funniest situations cannot be mentioned here without spoiling it for those who have yet to see it. What I can say is that there are multiple doors and a secret room, as well as a wall full of weapons, which may or may not be loaded.  There are plots and subplots, motives and alibis, and even false confessions. Everyone is a suspect except the butler, because he was given the night off, it being Christmas Eve and all.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten.

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A DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS CHRISTMAS: A Trailer Park Carol

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS CHRISTMAS: The Tiny Town Tackles the Nativity

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: November 30 – December 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $23 Adults; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

The citizens of the tiny town of Doublewide, Texas, population 10, are back and so is the fun. A Doublewide, Texas Christmas, written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, is written, directed, and played strictly for laughs. There is no hidden agenda, no deep message, just plain old stupid fun, filled with Texas stereotypes, exaggerated hair and costumes, and a set that looks like a cross section of a dilapidated doublewide trailer park home.

Picking up where Doublewide, Texas left off last June, the town, under the leadership of Mayor Joveeta Crumpler is eagerly awaiting their incorporation papers from the country board, but there are complications. The county is making one more attempt to annex Doublewide, and then there are the added twists of revenge and reunion.

Three actors have returned in their same roles: Crystal Oakley as the beleaguered and frumpy Joveeta, Jeanie Goodyear as Joveeta’s barfly mother, Caprice Crumpler, and Wally Jones as the once crotchety Haywood Sloggett.

Other roles were recast, with Laura McFarland-Bukalski as the hilariously droll Big Ethel Satterwhite and Lisa Way Piper as Georgia Dean Rudd, manager of the local Bronco Betty’s Buffeteria. Lorin Hope Turner now plays the millennial flower child Lark Barken, and Hunter Mass, who simultaneously serves as Assistant Stage Manager is Norwayne “Baby” Crumpler. New characters include Rebekah Spence as Haywood’s vengeful sister Patsy Sloggett Price and Michael Edward McClain as the long lost Harley Dobbs, who is Haywood’s estranged son and Lark’s unknown father. If this all sounds like a soap opera, I am sure that was the intention.

Highlights include Big Ethel’s scenes with the residents of the Stairway to Heaven Retirement Village at the beginning of each act, and Caprice’s overly inflated pretensions of celebrity as the spokesperson for the local funeral home. This time there is only one commercial recording scene, and Caprice is called upon to use her celebrity to entice new residents to move to Doublewide within the week – a condition of approving the town’s incorporation papers.  Big Ethel must lecture the retirees on their extra-curricular activities, having found yet another pair of boxer briefs and a peek-a-boo nightie hooked in the bushes on the retirement village grounds.

“Baby” was not required to wear a dress or heels this time, but he did don a pink frilly apron while preparing a sweet potato casserole and the town entered a Battle of the Mangers competition with the patriotic theme of “Nativity at the Alamo.” Plot twists and turns involve Patsy’s narcissistic need to get revenge on a competitor from her former town, which she was forced to leave in disgrace, a family of belligerent raccoons, a celebrity yam, a budding attraction between Caprice and Haywood, and a Christmas wish that Lark’s father, who is also Haywood’s son and Georgia Dean’s long lost true love, might be found and enticed to return home for the holidays.

It was interesting to see the evolution of Haywood from crotchety old man to loving family member, but I think there was more comedic value in the role of villain. Patsy partially filled this much-needed role, and Spence embraced ownership of this role; she even threw in an evil laugh or two for good measure.

Crystal Oakley had to be mic’d on opening night as she was just getting over a case of laryngitis. Her character, Joveeta, was plagued by back pain, so Oakley, a real trooper, was beleaguered on two fronts. Other cast members were also hit with illnesses and accidents, requiring last minute and behind the scenes adjustments. Considering all that CAT Theatre has had to go through this year, starting with the uncertainty of whether they would, in fact, be able to have a season due to the looming possibility of losing their long-time home, it is nothing less than amazing that opening night went as smoothly as it did and this cast and crew, including Mike Fletcher who directed both Doublewides on the CAT stage, deserve an extra round of applause for pulling this off without any obvious signs, other than Oakley’s microphone.

Mike Fletcher’s pacing kept the laughs coming, although I found the actor’s blocking was sometimes awkward, making me aware that they were directed to face the audience. Scott Bergman’s set included dilapidated, mismatched furniture in a cut-away of a doublewide trailer with the standard wood panel walls, insulation showing, a Santa on the roof, and a plethora a blinking Christmas lights framing the entire set. Sheila Russ’s costumes ranged from Joveeta’s frumpy sweaters and slacks to Caprice’s holiday print leggings and wildly curled wig. It’s Texas, so almost everyone wore cowboy boots. And since it was Christmas, Buddy Bishop and Mike Fletcher’s sound design included songs from the traditional to the silly, such as “White Trash Christmas.” People who enjoyed Doublewide, Texas or Always a Bridesmaid, by these same authors, or those who enjoy the 1970s style sitcom genre, will feel right at home with A Doublewide, Texas Christmas, as will anyone who just wants an excuse to laugh steadily over a two hour period.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Jeremy Bustin Photography (photos to come)

Doublewide TX Christmas

Doublewide TX Christmas.2
Lisa Way Piper, Crystal Oakley, and Lorin Hope Turner

A 1940s RADIO CHRISTMAS CAROL: Tradition With a Delightful Twist

A 1940s RADIO CHRISTMAS CAROL: An Un-classic Classic

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: November 17, 2018 – January 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $57 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

If you like both holiday traditions as well as comedy, then A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol is the holiday show for you. Author Walton Jones, composer David Wohl, and lyricist Faye Greenberg have taken the traditional Dickens tale and set it to music in a shabby radio station in Newark, NJ in the early 1940s. The audience has a role too – as the live studio audience that interacts with the cast who pass out souvenir programs and instruct us in how to respond to the APPLAUSE and LAUGH signs.

The fictional radio station WOV broadcasts from the Hotel Aberdeen. The live show is subject to interruptions from loud plumbing, a rowdy crowd of Shriners who are celebrating their annual Christmas parade with an after-party in the same hotel, and frequent phone calls from the mother of the youngest member of the cast. In addition, there is a special guest, a seasoned movie actor and Broadway veteran, William St. Claire (Bill Blair) who has been brought in to play the role of Scrooge. In addition to his increasingly worrisome quirks – such as bringing a huge trunk full of costumes for a radio broadcast and ignoring cues – St. Claire has some personal issues that lead to an on-air breakdown forcing the rest of the cast to improvise an ending. An odd assortment of characters from detectives to seductresses are tossed into the mix resulting in comedic mayhem.

Lucky for them and for us, the ensemble – both the scripted one and the one that was cast on the Swift Creek stage – is more than capable of handling this unexpected development. This is truly an ensemble piece that is no stronger than its weakest link – and there was no weak link. PJ Llewellyn as Fritz Canigliaro took every opportunity to draw attention to his shoes; apparently Fritz had been a Florsheim salesman in the recent past. Kenneth Putnam was endearingly annoying as Charles “Cholly” Butts, a baker with an intense love for his own product. John Mincks was convincing as the teen-aged Jackie Sparks, whose mother kept calling to check on him; he also has an adorable crush on Sally. Tara Callahan Carroll had the role of the company comedienne, Margie O’Brien, and Elisabeth Ashby played Judith Davenport, a serious actress who caught the attention of all the men, while declaring that she already had two kids and two exes and didn’t want more of either. Mike White held down the role of the struggling company’s director, Clifton Feddington.

Director Tom Width, who also designed the set, has also shared his love of the radio play and the studios in which they were performed. He has filled the stage with all sorts of mysterious and enticing objects that are used to create the many special effects that were necessary to create the magic of radio. There are bells and blocks, locks and boards, a sheet of aluminum, mallets and sticks, and gadgets and gizmos, and even a carafe of celery stalks (one of my favorites). These items are controlled by Isadore “Buzz” Crenshaw, the “sound effectician” who unexpectedly announces that he has recently enlisted, with the capable assistance of Sally Simpson, a young woman who spends her days working for an aviation company. These two roles are in the capable hands of Gordon Graham and Claire M. Gates. This is the 1940s, and the War play an important and ever-present role.

There were lots of 1940s references, such as cigarette commercials, statements from doctors recommending certain brands of cigarettes, and many references to the war. The show’s sponsors included brands such as BVD underwear, Ovaltine drink mix, and Lucky Strike cigarettes. (Nostalgia break: I still remember when cigarettes were advertised on the radio and television. Even little kids knew that LSMFT stood for the slogan “Lucks Strike means fine tobacco.” The last cigarette commercial aired in 1970, but prior to that time, I can remember going to the corner store to pick up a pack of cigarettes for my grandmother.) The script also incorporates a lot of double entendre and snappy word play, including lines such as “All the boys at school loved my little Fannie, too.” Fannie, of course was the name of the speaker’s little sister.

The 1940s radio show device makes this stand out from all other Christmas shows. The laughs come easily and frequently. The cast was well-chosen, and the direction is well-paced, although the second act did seem to drag just a little bit. The music is lively and occurs in short bursts. Unlike musicals where people suddenly break into song for no apparent reason, the songs are naturally woven into the radio show format.  Musical direction is by Shellie Johnson; lighting by Joe Doran; technical direction by Jason “Blue” Herbert;  and costumes by Maura Lynch Cravey.

While suitable for all ages, I think A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol will hold a special appeal to those old enough to still remember when cigarettes were advertised on television. But for many, the best part is getting to see how all those special effects were created.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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WHO’S HOLIDAY: A Christmas Parody for Adults Only

Who’s Holiday!: The Story Dr. Seuss Didn’t Want You to See

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: November 14 – December 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

Who’s Holiday! is an irreverent, adult Christmas story. This one-woman show told by a grown-up Cindy Lou Who takes the audience on a rip-roaring sleigh ride that provides eye-opening details about Cindy Lou Who and her pal the Grinch.

Cindy Lou has outgrown her cute pink pajamas in favor of a bright red shirtwaist dress with multicolored trim which is turn gives way to a green corset with a sparkly red skirt. Both are worn with glittery gold stilettos and a curly blond wig. Thank Ruth Hedberg for the festively tacky costume design.

Cindy Lou has only recently returned home after a rather long stint away. She now lives in a trailer left to her by her late uncle, and it’s parked on Mount Crumpit, apparently not far from the Grinch’s old lair. The sparsely furnished interior feature lots of green accents – and there’s a reason for the Wicked poster on the wall – but T. Ross Aitken’s design seemed surprisingly spacious for a trailer.

And where, exactly is the old green Grinch, and how has he fared over these past years? Well, to tell you that would give away most of the plot. It’s not for nothing that this play is subtitled “The Story Dr. Seuss Didn’t Want You to See!” Apparently, in 2016, Dr. Seuss Enterprises took playwright Matthew Lombardo to court for copyright violation, but Lombardo successfully countersued claiming parody is protected under “fair use” laws and the play opened off-Broadway in 2017.

Kids would not recognize this Cindy Lou Who, played by the talented and versatile Kimberly Jones Clark, most recently seen as Margery in Hand to God co-produced by TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre. I’m not trying to say Clark is making a habit of playing dysfunctional middle-aged women, but lately she has done it extremely well. Middle-aged Cindy Lou starts off greeting the audience, including a shout-out to “the queer in the rear.” She tests the waters of offensiveness with gays and lesbians, as well as Jews, and at one point asks if the word “ghetto” is offensive, but quickly dismisses that suggestion with a flippant, “it gets worse.”

Cindy Lou scrounges a Tramadol from the floor and washes it down with liquor. She takes a hit from a bong and describes some parts of the Grinch that most of us never thought of – and hope never to see – in great detail. Who’s Christmas! is hilarious and also quite dark (and I’m not sure if this is the intent of author Matthew Lombardo, director Dexter Ramey, star Kimberly Jones Clark, or a combination of the three): it deals with drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, bestiality, animal cruelty, murder, and prison culture. Along the way, Jones grabs a handheld microphone and throws in a totally unexpected rap, a deadpan execution of “Merry Little Christmas,” which invited audience participation, and – my personal favorite – a rather skillful rendition of “Blue Christmas.”

There are laughs aplenty; the audience seemed well-pleased, and Clark did an excellent job holding down this zany one-woman show. It just wasn’t my cup of tea – I laughed, I enjoyed it, but it isn’t my favorite adult Christmas show. Maybe I was hoping it would be more like Christmas on the Rocks whose grown up Ralphie, Cindy Lou Who, Charlie Brown, and other characters simultaneously tore and warmed my heartstrings.

Who’s Holiday! runs just about an hour, with no intermission, and is followed by a holiday cabaret with Joshua Worsham on piano and Georgia Roger Farmer and/or Shannon Gibson Brown. I didn’t stay for the cabaret, but it seems like a great deal – an unexpected after party!

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos from RTP Facebook page

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LIVIN’ FAT: Living Large

LIVIN’ FAT: The Return of Good Times

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, RVA 23227

Performances: November 8-17, 2018 with performances at 8:00 pm November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17; 10:00 am November 14 and 4:00 pm November 17.

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com or https://livinfat.brownpapertickets.com/

If Livin’ Fat, the current production by the Heritage Ensemble Theatre at the Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center has the look and feel of a 1970s era sitcom, there is a good reason. It was written by Judi Ann Mason, whose work includes Good Times, Sanford and Son, and A Different World, as well as the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Director dl Hopkins remained true to the sitcom genre, using snappy pacing and staging that made the audience feel as if we were, at times, peering into the Carter family’s living room through an invisible screen. Characters even approached the edge of the stage to look out the window, and often crossed one another precariously close to the edge of the stage.

What’s even more remarkable about Livin’ Fat is that Mason (1955-2009) wrote it when she was a 19-year-old drama student at Grambling State University and it earned her the Norman Lear Award for comedy writing. Given that distinguished history – and the strong cast – I’m upset that I did not, could not love this production.

Livin’ Fat takes place in the “front room” of the Carter family home in the Black Quarter of an unnamed southern town. Yes, that’s what my grandmother called our living room, too. The room is spotless but shabby, and on the wall behind the sofa is the obligatory triptych: Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Big Mama (Sharalyn Garrard) is a disillusioned widow, given to snappy comebacks. She also has a surprising affinity for the young people in her life and often sides with her grandchildren much to the chagrin of her daughter. Mama (Andrea Shantell Dunnaville) has a direct line to God and can quote scripture for any situation. She is equally yoked to husband Calvin (Arthur Muhammad), who works two jobs to support his family and is a stalwart deacon at their church. The parents’ faith and the family’s future are tested when their son, David, comes into an unexpected windfall.

David (Akiel Baldwin) is a college graduate who, upon returning home, could find no other work than as a janitor at a bank. A fate would have it, one day while working at the bank, the bank gets robbed and no one noticed that a bundle of money was dropped on the floor where it found its way into David’s dust rag. Later references to the “dust” in his pocket, therefore, have two meanings – the “dust” from his cleaning rag and an old slang term for being so poor there is “nothing but dust” in your pockets.

Garrard is consistently funny, tossing off sarcasm like breathing, waving her wig in the air, referring to her television set as if it were her lover, eating ex-lax chocolate laxatives like candy to soothe her unnamed “condition,” and being contrary just for sport. Dunnaville takes broad comedy to extremes, often to the point of making her character a caricature. On the positive side, her projection and diction are excellent, and we never have any trouble understanding her, even when her daughter Candy (Imani Banks) is blasting music from her bedroom. Muhammad’s portrayal of the father is the most moderate, contained, and realistic of any of the play’s six characters. He is, therefore, a positive role-model and a model black father. Candy is the least developed of the characters in the family, yet Banks takes advantage of every moment on stage. She is the cute but annoying little sister, given to exaggeration, and does not know the meaning of giving up. When sent to her room, she silently reappears in the background, listening to what the grown-ups don’t want her to hear.

As David, Baldwin must walk a delicate line. College educated – and probably the first in his family to attend college – he is expected to do better than his parents’ generation yet must show respect while living in their home. He does not complain about his menial job, but he talks of his dreams with his best friend. For the most part, Baldwin achieves this balance with aplomb, with the assistance of his side-kick Boo (Marsalis McKeever). Boo, who has not gone to college and seems to have no plan at all for his life, is David’s ride-or-die friend who stands out for two characteristics: when he comes into some money, he spends it all on loud clothes; and he speaks out of the side of his mouth, as if he has marbles in his mouth, making it difficult to clearly hear anything he says.

As appealing as these characters are, and as much as they made me laugh, I found the overall production uneven and underwhelming. The juxtaposition of Dunnaville’s broad sitcom comedy with Muhammad’s more conservative portrayal, Dunnaville’s over-enunciation in contrast to McKeever’s muffled utterances, the frequent (and utterly accurate) use of the word “nigger,” (I hate the euphemism, “n-word”), and author Mason and director Hopkins’ adherence to the sitcom genre just didn’t connect for me. After the show, my constant companion and theater date suggested that (a) I wasn’t really black and (b) Livin’ Large would really, really appeal to older black churchgoers (except, perhaps for that word I mentioned above) and potential black theatergoers who don’t go to the theater because they don’t see enough representations of themselves and their lives onstage.

There is, after all a moral dilemma – a foundational element of good storytelling: should David be allowed to keep the “found” money or should he return it? Has he, in fact, committed a crime? Calvin, the head of the household, takes the question to God, and after a period of prayer, the family abides by his decision. To find out what he decided, and how the play ends, I suggest you go see Livin’ Fat for yourself. (Dates and times are listed above.)

Livin’ Fat: written by Judi Ann Mason; directed by dl Hopkins; with lighting by Geno Brantley; sound by dl Hopkins (a nice 70s playlist); costumes (character and period appropriate) by LaWanda Raines; set by Margarette Joyner; carpentry by Vinnie Gonzalez; photography by Pamela Archer-Shaw; and videography by Dewey Collins.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Link to WRIC interview with director dl Hopkins and Sharalyn Garrard (Big Mama): https://www.wric.com/community/-livin-fat-hits-the-stage-in-rva/1576260858

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

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MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: A Holiday Heartwarmer

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: When Dreams Come True

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: October 27 – December 30, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, and the book for the musical is by Robert Kauzlaric with music and lyrics by George Howe. It is a book unfamiliar to me, my daughter, and my two grandsons, but after spending Sunday afternoon at the Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn it will likely find it way onto our bookshelves this coming holiday season. It has comedy, adventure, and penguins.

Richard Popper is a house painter and decorator of modest means; he and his wife Florence live on a strict budget that does not allow for the travel and adventures Mr. Popper dreams of. He is especially fond of Antarctic exploration and penguins. Of course, there’s more to the story. Imagine their surprise when the Poppers hear on the radio that Mr. Popper’s favorite explorer, Admiral Drake, has received Mr. Popper’s fan letter and is responding with a surprise. Soon a large crate is delivered to the Popper’s Stillwater, Minnesota home and inside is a genuine Gentoo penguin from Antartica that quickly becomes a part of the Popper’s little family. (In the book, it seems the Poppers were British and have two children, but in the musical the live in the USA and their only children are the feathered kind.)

The Popper’s household soon expands, as their male penguin, Captain Cook, eventually grows lonely, and an aquarium that Mr. Popper contacts for help has a lonely female penguin, Greta, that they generously ship to the Popper’s residence. The next thing you know, there are ten penguin chicks and the poor Poppers have to figure out how to keep all these penguin bellies full of fresh fish and frozen shrimp. Their solution – Popper’s Performing Penguins – leads to more hilarity and the gradual realization that touring on the vaudeville circuit is no way for a family of birds to live.

Yes, I said vaudeville. Mr. Popper’s Penguins was written in 1938 and vaudeville as well as references to the WPA (the federal government’s New Deal Administration program called the Works Progress Administration from 1935-1939, when it was renamed the Work Projects Administration), along with Mrs. Popper’s job search and the family’s focus on finances will likely go over the heads of the young audience members as well as most of their parents. Let’s face it, I’m a grandmother, and this was before my time, too. I only know about these things because I teach dance history! My daughter did ask what WPA was, but neither grandson seemed to notice or care.

All the shenanigans are skillfully handled by director Josh Chenard, with musical direction by Jason Marks and choreography by Wes Seals. A cast of five talented actors play all the roles – some thirteen different characters, with Derrick Jacques as Mr. Popper and Renee McGowan as Mrs. Popper. Keaton Hillman Emma-Claire Polich, (both ensemble) and Eve Marie Tuck (swing) play all the other characters. Both Kingston (age 10) and his mom Soleil were impressed by Keaton Hillman who changed characters, costumes and accents with the dexterity of a magician, and manipulated the Captain Cook penguin puppet as well.

Yes, the two adult penguins were large puppets (credit Kylie Clark with the puppet design – something Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre does so well) while the 10 penguin chicks were smaller, stuffed versions. Emmitt (age 4) was enthralled by the penguins. He spent most of the hour (no intermission) perched on the edge of his seat, his eyes wide open so as not to miss anything. He did tear his eyes away from the stage to lean in and ask his mom, “Can I have a pet penguin?” He made a second earnest plea out in the parking lot, adding that the penguin could live in the refrigerator.

With about six musical numbers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins moved at a fairly rapid pace – but never felt rushed. Jaques and McGowan carried most of the story, and their voices are strong and clear, making it easy for attendees of all ages to understand the lyrics. Jeanne Nugent’s costumes are lovely – especially the women’s wide-legged pants that remind me of Ms. Celie’s pants from The Color Purple. Mrs. Popper’s apron, Mr. Popper’s bow tie, and painter’s coveralls, and the props used by the various characters (a wooden dog, a hat with the gray hair attached, Mr. Popper’s painter’s ladder and pipe) are all overly exaggerated, almost cartoonish.

Taking this theme about as far as it could go, Chris Raintree’s set includes larger than life library books that open up to reveal entire rooms. “Atkinson’s Kitchen Companion” houses the Popper’s kitchen while their living room is housed within a tome entitled “432 Proudfoot Avenue” and the admiral’s ship is docked inside a book on Antarctic exploration. The production is visually stimulating but not over stimulating.

There’s also lots of word play. Captain Cook and Greta’s brood are given the names of famous explorers, such as Ferdinand, Columbus, and Magellan. There’s also Isabella and Victoria, who wears a tiara. Finally, but not least, there is all the alliteration! Mr. Popper’s Penguins alliterates just about every “p” word you can think of, and when they run out of “p” words they alliterate other letters of the alphabet.

Recommended for ages 4 and up, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a family-friendly production that is perfect for the younger members of the audience and is being offered as an alternative or addition to holiday staples, such as The Nutcracker. Unlike many productions of past seasons, there is none of the double entendre and innuendo that seemed to be intended for the adults. Here, the focus is all on the pleasure of the kids, and Kingston and Emmitt would give this production a combined two thumbs up.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Eve Marie Tuck, Derrick Jaques, Renée McGowan, Keaton Hillman, Emma-Claire Polich. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

GUTENBERG! The Musical! (with two exclamation points!!)

GUTENBERG! The Musical! (Really)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 12 – November 3, 2018, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $32 Adults; $27 Seniors; $22 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

 

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a play-within-a-play written by Anthony King and Scott Brown who present their comedic farce as a backer’s audition of an historical fiction about the German printer Johannes Gutenberg. Got that? Stay with me, because it doesn’t get any simpler.

Chris Hester and Paul S. Major play the authors Doug Simon and Bud Davenport, who are pitching their musical in hopes of finding someone to back them in a Broadway run. The show is hyped as big, splashy, and better than all others of its genre. But they have no actors, just a few props and a collection of baseball hats with the names of all the characters (e.g., Drunk #1, Drunk #2, Mother, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, Old Black Narrator). Doug and Bud switch hats as they rotate through the characters, sometimes stacking them for efficiency, or wearing one on their head and one on each hand to simulate crowd scenes. They string hats on a line, held up with the assistance of two audience members, and are even able to create a chorus line. Musical numbers from honkytonk to rock ‘n roll and romantic ballads are interspersed with puns, explanations of musical theater terminology, such as the definition of a metaphor, an example of a charm song, and a running gag recurring line involving dirty thatched roofing.

Early in the play the authors admit that their “research” consisted of a brief Google search, the result of which was that there is very little known about the life and times of Johann Gutenberg. So. . .they decided to just make up stuff, hence the historical fiction. Among the things they made up is the name of Gutenberg’s fictitious love interest, Helvetica and, apparently, the name of the town, Schlimer – a word that is suspiciously similar to schleimer, which loosely means “ass-kisser.” There is also a totally unrelated connection to the Holocaust, and several unkind and politically incorrect references to stupidity. Monk, the evil monk, calls Helvetica a “dumb German anti-Semite,” and Helvetica later sings that “history is paved with the hearts of the stupid.” Oh, and Gutenberg starts out as a winemaker, who handily turns his wine press into a printing press, quite forgetting to tell his lovely, love-truck assistant that she can stop tromping on her bucket of grapes.

Hester and Major, of necessity, remain on stage the entire time, and they are accompanied by Charlene (musical director Leilani Fenick). Both are enthusiastic, energetic, and affable, as Jan Guarino’s direction and choreography keep everything moving along at a fast clip. The eighteen or so people in the Sunday matinee audience seemed to have a great time. There was lots of laughter and applause, and a woman I chatted with during intermission made a point of telling me, completely unsolicited, that she was very happy that she could clearly hear and understand all the lyrics – something that is often a problem in musicals.

There’s just one major problem. Rather than humorous, or zany, I just found the whole thing silly. It tries too hard and, at least for me, there was no “aha” moment that made it all worthwhile. I don’t care that it isn’t big and splashy, that there are just two actors, no sets, and no laser lights, but, I’m sorry, Doug and Bud, Gutenberg! The Musical! isn’t better than Cats!!

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page

Gutenberg.1

Gutenberg.2
Paul S. Major and Chris Hester
Gutenberg.3
Chris Hester and Paul S. Davenport