CINDERELLA: Not Your Childhood Bedtime Story

CINDERELLA: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Musical Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: November 29, 2019 – January 5, 2020

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

Don’t expect a traditional Cinderella from this production with music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrica by Oscar Hammerstein, II, and book by Douglas Carter Beane. Originally written for television, Cinderella aired live on CBS in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the title role. Beane wrote a new book for the 2013 Broadway adaptation that includes some plot twists and introduces new characters – adding hilarity as well as a new political and social slant that makes the plot more interesting for adults without sacrificing the wide-eyed fascination and delight of younger audience members.

SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the details of the adaptation, STOP! Skip to the final two paragraphs, then read the rest after seeing the show.

In this version, Cinderella’s father has died, leaving her at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Susan Sanford plays the role of Madame, the selfish and self-centered stepmother. She is, being Susan Sanford, deliciously droll and completely over the top. Madame is so committed to being mean that she has a mini-meltdown when Cinderella says something kind to her at the prince’s ball while playing a game called Ridicule (imagine a mix of musical chairs and Words Against Humanity).

Audra Honaker plays Charlotte, the less favored sister – and Madame takes every opportunity to make sure she knows it. Honaker plays the role with a gravelly voice and a crude attitude (imagine a young Rosie O’Donnell, before she fell out of favor) pulling up her ballgown, removing one shoe, and sitting on the palace steps in the female version of manspreading. She goes for the physical humor and hits the mark nearly every time.

Havy Nguyen plays the favored and more conventionally attractive sister, Gabrielle. Gabrielle is more refined, not as loud, and kinder. Surprisingly, Gabrielle is sympathetic to Cinderella’s plight, and the two form a sisterly bond, sharing secrets and commiserating over their common oppression by Madame’s heavy-handed control.

Gabrielle isn’t really interested in the prince, because she is in love with Jean-Michel, a new character, played by Durron Marquis Tyre. Jean-Michel is a social activist, holding court in the marketplace and shouting outside the palace gates, trying to get the attention of Prince Topher (Edward L. Simon) to convince him to help the poor and disenfranchised citizen who are being evicted and losing their homes and land. Tyre’s character is a rabble-rouser in the marketplace, but shy and somewhat tongue-tied around Gabrielle. For their first date, he plans to take her to a soup kitchen to feed the poor.

Speaking of the poor. . .Prominent among the town’s characters is Marie, a beggar woman who is described as crazy but harmless. Of course, she turns out to be Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Katrinah Carol Lewis brings glamour and a larger-than-life presence to this role. With her magic wand and the help of some theatrical smoke, she transforms Cinderella from rags to riches, a pumpkin into a carriage, some mice into horses, and a fox and a racoon into a coachman and footman. The most amazing bit of magic, however, is the transformation of Marie’s beggar’s rags into a gown worthy of a fairy godmother, and Cinderella’s ragged dress into a ballgown – twice! A magic wand, some theatrical smoke, a few twirls under the special lighting effects, and the transformations happen in seconds right before our eyes. It’s the magician’s quick dress change trick, and it never fails to amaze me. (There were occasionally a few hints when a hem shifted, revealing an under layer – but this still didn’t spoil the fun, just as when, about five minutes into the show, Prince Topher apparently fell short in tossing his rope to topple a giant, and we caught a stage hand crawling out to retrieve the errant lasso.) Unless I missed it, I didn’t see any credit given for magic or special effects.

No, I didn’t forget the leading lady and her Prince Charming – or rather, Prince Topher. (The Town Crier’s recitation of the Prince’s ten or twelve formal names is another amusing running joke.) Quynh-My Luu and Edward L. Simon are both new to Virginia Rep.  Luu makes a lovely Cinderella, with a strong voice and a likeable personality. She doesn’t overdo the kindness, maintaining a balance between humility and empowerment. Simon didn’t make as strong an impression as I thought a prince should. When we first meet him, he has just turned twenty-one and is in search of himself before taking the throne. Like Cinderella, both his parents have died, and he has been raised by Lord Chancellor Sebastian, who has also been running – and corrupting – the government while waiting for his young charge to come of age. Jay O. Millman is a somewhat stronger and more forceful presence than his prince, which seems unfortunate.

In this version, Cinderella doesn’t lose her shoe when rushing home from the ball, but deliberately leaves it on the palace steps a few days later, after attending a banquet the prince holds in order to lure her back to the palace. In both cases, Cinderella has a midnight curfew. She misses the first by a few minutes, leading to a humorous chase where the footman and coachman partially transform, revealing furry tails sticking out from their livery uniforms before they fully return to their furry four-footed selves.

Friday’s performance was before a full house, and there were many children of all ages present. From my vantage point in the last row of the orchestra, I was able to glance, from time to time, at some of the young people, who seemed to be thoroughly engaged. (The production starts at 7:00pm, rather than 8:00pm, and runs just under 90 minutes.) Some of the smaller ones sat on a parent’s lap or, if they had an aisle seat, hung over the armrest; VaRep might consider investing in a few booster seats for occasions like this.

During intermission, one friend mentioned that it took her some time to get used to an Asian Cinderella, as she was used to a Disney version with blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t hear anyone else say anything about the “color-blind” casting, with white, black, and Asian actors portraying fictitious characters, but then, I wasn’t focused on that aspect of the performance.

There are nearly 30 musical numbers in this two-act show. Among my favorites are “The Prince is Giving a Ball” in Act I and  the quartet by Ella/Cinderella, Charlotte, Gabrielle, and Madame in Act II. I also enjoyed Matthew Couvillon’s choreography, with strong roots in both ballet and social dancing. Brian Barker’s scenic design is surprisingly constrained: a stand of thick trunked trees and a full moon for the outdoor scenes, the edge of a cottage for Cinderella’s house, a few wagons and far stands for the town square, and a wide, elegant balcony and stairway for the palace. BJ Wilkinson’s lighting doesn’t hold back on glitz and glitter, and Anthony Smith is the musical director of a small orchestra with a big sound. (Thankfully, the orchestra is in the pit and there are no holes for the dancers to tiptoe cautiously around.) Laine Satterfield’s direction kept things moving along at a rapid clip; there were no lulls for the younger audience members to get bored or distracted, or to allow the adults to notice the passage of time. I didn’t do any research prior to the show, so I didn’t know how funny it was going to be. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a delightful family show that unapologetically includes a message about treating all people well without becoming too preachy or pedantic.

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 not available at the time this review was written.

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TIMES SQUARE ANGEL: Another Christmas Miracle

TIMES SQUARE ANGEL: A Hard-Boiled Holiday Fantasy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: November 13 – December 21, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

In the Richmond Triangle Players’ annual tradition of presenting a non-traditional holiday play, Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel, first produced by RTP in 1998, is running through December 21. Busch himself recorded the voice of the unseen narrator, and while we’re talking about unseen actors, Susan Sanford is the voice of God.

There is little or nothing traditional about Times Square Angel. Set in New York in the 1940s – complete with projections of vintage video, Times Square Angel recalls and parodies such Christmas classics as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. The two-act play, directed by Melissa Rayford, is hilarious, and there were several notable performances among a cast in which most played multiple roles. But overall, I was disappointed that this production did not seem to hit the highs or maintain its momentum.

Desiree Dabney and Mara Barrett played two irreverent and gossipy angels, and Dabney quickly won over the audience with her wide range of facial expressions and her sassy demeanor. Michael Hawke was luminous as Helen Sterhan, a former star who has fallen into an alcoholic stupor from which she may never escape. Jeff Clevenger also added some nicely timed comic moments as the owner or manager of Club Intime. Along with leading lady Wette Midler, known primarily as a local drag queen artist, Hawke’s and Midler’s characters wore the best of Alex Valentin’s costume designs, and Joel Furtick was responsible for the near flawless hair/wigs and makeup.

Irish O’Flanagan, the tough-as-nails, self-centered redheaded headliner of a second-rate club, is given a second chance at life, under the guidance of Albert a former magician and now a reluctant angel played by Jeffrey Cole. Wette Midler was strong and confident the role of Irish, the most prominent of the characters who appeared not to have been assigned on the basis of gender. For example, the newsboy Jimmy was played by Mara Barrett, and both Midler and Hawke played women.

Angel Albert guides Irish on a tour of her past, present, and future, learning along the way that he can stop time and perform other supernatural feats. Each scene is filled with clichés, one-liners, and campy wit. I laughed a lot, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Times Square Angel is a lot like a bowl of Jell-O that hasn’t been allowed to set long enough.

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: John MacLellan

 

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Richmond drag performer Wette Midler, stars as Irish O’Flanagan, a hard-boiled dame in need of a Christmas miracle, in Richmond Triangle Players production of Charles Busch’s play “Times Square Angel” running through Dec 21 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre in Scott’s Addition. Back row: Nora Ogunleye, Mara Barrett, Jeff Clevenger and Jonel Jones.Tickets at http://www.rtriangle.org. Photo by John MacLellan.
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Richmond drag performer Wette Midler, stars as Irish O’Flanagan, a hard-boiled dame in need of a Christmas miracle, along with Nora Ogunleye as her confidante Peona, in Richmond Triangle Players production of Charles Busch’s play “Times Square Angel” running through Dec 21 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre in Scott’s Addition. Tickets at http://www.rtriangle.org. Photo by John MacLellan. Thanks!
Angel1
Jeffrey Cole as Albert, an angel given one last chance to retain his place in heaven by intervening in the life of chanteuse Irish O’Flanagan, in Richmond Triangle Players production of Charles Busch’s play “Times Square Angel” running through Dec 21 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre in Scott’s Addition. Tickets at http://www.rtriangle.org. Photo by John MacLellan.

 

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THE LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA: 18 Years Strong

THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2019

A Dance Review and Related Thoughts by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 10-13, 2019

Ticket Prices Were: $10 – $20

Info: (804) 356- 3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

This won’t be the first time I’ve said that The Latin Ballet of Virginia’s annual production of The Legend of the Poinsettia has become, for many, a new or alternative holiday tradition. But this year I had the pleasure of introducing the production to ten people, children and adults, who had never before seen it. Everyone I had a chance to speak to during intermission or after the show was enthralled by the variety and range of the dancing, the colorful costumes, and the energy of the music and dancing. One mother said she had a hard time following the story, which is told in Spanish and English, mostly Spanish, but I suggested she read her program later – it explains pretty much everything, much like the synopsis of an opera.

This year the fickle Richmond winter weather caused some concern, with a wintry mix of snow, sleet, and rain predicted around the time of the two Saturday performances and the Sunday matinee. The company generously offered to allow people who had made reservations for Sunday afternoon to exchange their tickets for one of the two Saturday performances. The Saturday matinee seemed to be a full house, and snow flurries were swirling around the parking lot of the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen as we made our way out after the show and the cast prepared for the evening show.  As of this writing, the weather seemed to be kind enough to allow the Sunday matinee to go on as planned.

The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (with Rebeca Dora Barragán and Emery Velasquez alternating in the role), who, after the sudden death of her mother, with whom she was weaving a colorful blanket, finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day. January 6 is Three King’s Day or Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, which celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. So, for those who did not take down their Christmas trees on January 1, just say you were waiting to celebrate Epiphany! It is also the story of “the true spirit of giving,” as well as a cultural history of how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas.

The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly, multi-cultural, multi-generational festival featuring the dances, music, and costumes of Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant, with Micas de Aguinalda or Christmas Masses and nine days of posadas leading up to Christmas, with reenactments of the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph), Colombia (King’s birthplace, which also celebrates the nine nights before Christmas with las novenas including songs, prayers, and nativity scenes), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs that blend the Spanish and African cultures), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), Puerto Rico (home of the Christmas parrandas or musical festivities) and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas). A blend of solemn candle lighting and prayers with festive singing and dancing is the common thread that ties together the many cultures and traditions, concluding with the miracle of the poinsettia plant, represented by dancers in red and green.

This year’s cast included new and familiar faces. Young Marisol Betancourt Sotolongo has appeared in all eighteen productions. Antonio Hidalgo Paz, of Spain, and artistic director of Flamenco Vivo, has become a staple figure, partnering King in a flamenco duet and taking on the role of Papa. Frances Wessells, Professor Emerita of VCUDance appeared in her recurring role as Abuelita/the grandmother. She was greeted with cheers of “go Frances, go Frances,” in deference to her still performing at the age of 99! One of my students was most impressed by the energy or “hype” of the men: Roberto Whitaker, Jay Williams, Glen Lewis, Nicolás Guillen Betancourt Sotolongo, and DeShon Rollins.

There are daytime school productions and a weekend of family shows, but if you missed them all, keep your eyes open for next year’s production. It’s a must see.

 

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 Latin Ballet Facebook page.

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: A Creatively Inclusive Take on a Classic

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Classic Meet Inclusion

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Whistle Stop Theatre Company at The Hanover Arts & Activity Center, 500 South Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005

Performances: December 1, 7, 14 & 15, 2018

Ticket Price: $10

Info: https://whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com/ or email whistletoptheatre@gmail.com with any questions or concerns. The Whistle Stop Theatre Company does not have a phone number.

The holiday season, spanning Halloween through New Year’s Day (or even through Three Kings Day in January) is often seen as a time for traditions. Families get together and reminisce, pull out old photos, resurrect games and decorations and recipes from previous generations. For some, it means an annual trip to see The Nutcracker or a marathon showing of A Christmas Story (which is now considered politically incorrect).

Richmond’s theater community has many holiday offerings, ranging from the adults-only Who’s Holiday with a grown-up Cindy Lou Who at RTP to the wacky whodunit The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays at Hanover Tavern and the trailer park trashiness of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas at CAT. There’s also A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and the very intense A Doll’s House (which is not a Christmas story but does have a Christmas tree in it) at The Basement. (My apologies if I omitted any shows from this informal and unofficial list!)

For family oriented entertainment, there’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins at VaRep at Willow Lawn, which my 4- and 10-year-old grandsons enjoyed. On Friday, December 14, 2018, I made my way out to Ashland, VA (aka “the Center of the Universe”) for my first experience with the Whistle Stop Theatre Company, whose director, Louise Ricks, has fashioned an inclusive version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Match Girl. Like many classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Andersen’s story is rather gruesome and graphic in the details of a young girl selling matches to help support her family. It’s cold, and she has only a thin wrap and a pair of slippers that belonged to her late grandmother are a poor substitute for boots or proper shoes. Even these are taken from her and she has no luck selling matches to the hurried and preoccupied townspeople who brush past her as she called out New Year’s greetings. In the end, she dies. Before the end, however, she strikes her matches to provide a bit of comfort for herself and her only friend – a cat named Gerda. “You’re not mangy,” The Little Match Girl assures her companion, “You’re. . .unkempt!” The glow of the fire illuminates her dying visions.

But Ricks has taken these moments and expanded them to include tales from other cultures, providing levity, insight, empathy, morality, hope, and cultural inclusion. There’s “The Uninvited Guest” (Jewish folktale for Hanukkah), “Babushka” (a Russian tale about the Three Wise Men), and “Uwungalama” (a South African folktale about a magical tree that provides unending fruit). So, there’s acknowledgement of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and even Three Kings Day, all in one play that runs about 45 minutes.

Set in the round, using only a square platform and three black boxes, The Little Match Girl intimate and as much a night of storytelling as it is theater. The cast consists of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic ensemble of nine, most of whom play multiple roles. Sweet and natural, Ziona Tucker plays The Little Match Girl, with Caroline Beals as Gerda, her cat. Caroline’s gestures and mewls are perfectly on point.

Shalandis Wheeler Smith played the Wind, a Thief, a Venomous Snake, an Elderly Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Marcos Martinez is a Passerby, an Elderly Person, the African King, and one of the Three Kings. Annie Zanetti, one of my personal favorites for her generous caricatures, accents, and unrelenting commitment to her characters, played the Mother, the Wide, a Townsperson, and Babushka. She was also spirit of The Little Match Girl’s Grandmother who welcomed her into heaven. Walter Riddle was the Wind, a Thief, a Beggar, and a Townsperson, while Justin Sisk was a Sales Person, Father, Husband, Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Finally, Prudence Reynolds was The Child and Sarah Rose Wilkinson played guitar – the only accompaniment.

Great theater? No. Prudence, at one point kept looking towards the door. I assume a family member or friend had just entered. Given the minimal set and props, the ensemble had to mime such details as a dinner table and the gifts of the Wise Men. It was difficult to tell exactly what sort of work Babushka was performing, we just knew it was all-consuming and had Zanetti winding her bottom like a Jamaican dancehall girl.

One young audience member, presumably one not acclimated to live theater, at one point broke out into uncontrollable laughter. Zanetti handled this beautifully, including the young lady and her friends in an interactive search for “the Newborn King,” An inviting family-friendly experience? Yes, and well worth the trip to the unfamiliar territory of Ashland! Not only is this a welcoming environment for families with children of all ages, the program began with a gentle introduction to theater etiquette, and can be enjoyed by audience members from ages 3 and up on age-appropriate levels of understanding. In keeping with the outreach and communication, on Friday audience members who arrived early on Friday were able to take photos with The Snow Queen (Ricks), and on Saturday there are holiday crafts before the 3:00pm show.

 

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: Louise Ricks & Whistle Stop Theatre Company

Little Match Girl 6
Marcos Martinez, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Ziona Tucker, and Walter Riddle
Little Match Girl 4
Annie Zanetti and Prudence Reynolds
Little Match Girl 5
Ziona Tucker and Caroline Beales
Little Match Girl 2
Ziona Tucker

 

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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