PINOCCHIO: Bright and Shining Son

Pinocchio: The Nose Knows

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis (with input from Emmitt, Kingston & Soleil)

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

Performances: Mach 29 – May 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

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

The third production of the Virginia Rep Children’s season at Willow Lawn is the children’s classic Pinocchio. I’m glad I usually take children with me to these shows, because our perspectives are often vastly different.

First, a disclaimer. I am truly glad that Pinocchio is played by a real person, Bridget Sindelar, who last appeared on this stage as Ginny/Little Blue in The Little Engine That Could. I find articulated marionettes creepy – almost as creepy as ventriloquist dummies. Sindelar adopted a herky jerky walk, like a windup toy about to wind down, with uplifted elbows to mimic the posture of a marionette.

Sunday afternoon found a nearly full house for this show, with book, lyrics, and direction by Bruce Craig Miller, who will soon start his new job as head of the Chesterfield Cultural Arts Foundation. Running a little under one hour with no intermission, Pinocchio is recommended for ages 4 and up, and that seems about right. There were a few criers in the audience, but most of the young attendees were enthralled. My 4-year-old grandson Emmitt was fully attentive. As always, he is especially fond of the musical numbers. His favorite was “The Eating Song.”

When asked which characters he liked the most, his first response was the Blue Fairy (played by Renee McGowan) but then he changed it to Pinocchio. He also did not hesitate to let his mom know that he did not like the scene where Pinocchio got tied up with a noose. (It might have been around that time that he moved from his seat to her lap.) The set, by Terrie Powers, also caught his attention, “It looks like a real city,” he said in unsolicited awe shortly after we took our seats.

Kingston, at 10, is the more seasoned theater-goer, but he liked the entire show, especially Tevin Davis as the Fox and Eve Marie Tuck as the Cat. He did not have any problem with the rope scene or even with what I saw as totally improbable, illogical, and unsubstantiated scenes and events. Their mom, Soleil, who between the ages of 7-17 spent more time on stages than in theater seats, acknowledged the inconsistencies, but was most struck that this version of Pinocchio reminded her of the book of classic fairy tales her father and I had bought for her and her siblings. One scene she reminisced about was the scene where Pinocchio and his father Geppetto are reunit4ed in the belly of a giant dogfish – a scenario I did not remember at all. So, thank you, family, for your input. I appreciate your perspectives, but do not fully agree.

From my perspective, I found Bridget Sindelar charming as Pinocchio, but I was repelled by Pinocchio’s bratty behavior. I, too, was enamored of Tevin Davis’s Fox, a rakish character who seemed to have adopted some of the mannerisms of a 1970s Blaxploitation movie pimp. Geppetto, played by Landon Dufrene, seemed underdeveloped, as was the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio. The jump from freshly carved puppet to a runaway puppet to real boy was sudden and lacking in explanation. Okay, I know it’s a fairy tale, so logic isn’t required, but still, it seemed to me as if chunks of the story were missing. This is why I think it’s helpful to attend a children’s show with children – especially if I’m going to write about it. They weren’t bothered by, in fact didn’t even notice, any of the things I found lacking or distracting.

Over all, Miller kept the pacing swift but smooth; the time passed quickly. The cast performed with energy and enthusiasm, often making light contact with the audience, asking a question or pointing to a child or two to include them in the decision making process. I liked the opening, with the actors switching between English and Italian to set the scene – but they dropped that after the opening scene. The costumes by Marcia Miller Halley were quite well done and enhanced the fairy tale atmosphere while complementing Powers’ colorful little village set design.

Pinocchio delighted its intended audience and is largely devoid of the double entendre that so many playwrights cleverly insert into children’s plays, apparently in an attempt to keep the attention of the accompanying adults. Like most good children’s tales, there is an underlying lesson or two. In this case, the messages that are woven throughout are about telling the truth and not being afraid to grow up.

 

Sensory Friendly Performances

A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

 

Audio Described Performances

In collaboration with Virginia Voice, Virginia Rep is pleased to offer Audio Described performances, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. In addition to live audio description during performances, patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered on Sunday, April 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. Please see the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

 

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

 

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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BRIGHT STAR: A Bluegrass Musical

BRIGHT STAR: If You Knew My Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 23 – May 11, 2019

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

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

Bright Star is a refreshingly different kind of musical with a lively bluegrass score. Written and composed by Steve Martin (yes, THAT Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell (a singer-songwriter who is married to singer-songwriter Paul Simon), Bright Star was preceded by Martin and Brickell’s Grammy Award winning bluegrass album, “Love Has Come for You” (2013).

Based on a true incident – the gruesome story of “The Iron Mountain Baby,” who was tossed from a moving train in 1902 – Bright Star premiered in San Diego in 2014 and had a short run on Broadway in 2016. The toe-tapping score, under the very capable musical direction of Paul Deiss and the alternately heart-warming and heart-rending story of love, loss, forgiveness, and redemption make Bright Star a perfect vehicle for the Swift Creek Mill stage.

Megan Tatum’s choreography, which ranged from a square dance to the Charleston, interjected many enjoyable moments, and Tom Width’s direction kept the cast moving along at a good pace as they moved props and repeatedly skipped from 1945-46 back to 1923-24.

Grey Garrett brought a strong voice and an amiable charm to the lead role of Alice Murphy – a woman definitely ahead of her time – and Jim Morgan brought more depth to the complementary role of Jimmy Ray Dobbs – the man who loved her – than the script seemed to call for.  I also enjoyed Jacqueline O’Connor and Ray Green as Alice’s parents, and took particular notice of Carlen Kernish as Daryl, the adult Ms. Murphy’s assistant, and of Jon Cobb as Daddy Cane.

But not even a solid cast, good acting, and tight direction could help with the patchy structure of the scenes. The program required notes almost like the synopsis that comes with a three-act ballet or an opera in a foreign language to keep up with the 26 scenes in two acts. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes were lovely, especially the mostly pastel and muted shirt-waist and dropped-waist dresses for the women, but they didn’t help distinguish the sometimes rapid changes between decades.

Tom Width also designed the set, a simple, rustic, multi-leveled, indoor/outdoor shell with fences rails and chairs and a table with multiple pre-set tops which the actors rearranged to indicate a home, a porch, an office, a bookshop, and various other locations. From where I sat, front row on the right, Joe Doran’s lighting unfortunately often created a glare that obscured the actors’ faces, but the smaller, decorative lights and the train – with full lighting and sound effects (was this thanks to Jason “Blue” Herbert’s technical direction?) added to the overall charm of this musical – even during moments meant to break your heart.

[On a side note: Tom Width announced that the Swift Creek Mill restaurant’s pickled watermelon rind – a buffet favorite – is now available to take home from the gift shop! Yum.]

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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SWEENEY TODD: A Close Shave

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: February 14 – March 14, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; discounts available for students, seniors, industry

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

TheatreLAB’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a large-scale musical undertaking by a relatively small theater company. And they nailed it!

Director Deejay Gray has outdone himself. The cast, the tone, the pacing, the minimalist industrial set – also designed by Gray – and the intimate setting all work together to create a juicy, gory, bone-chilling evening of theater. I noticed that the program cover says, “TheatreLAB is proud to present Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The ensemble is led by Alexander Sapp as the vengeful barber and Bianca Bryan as Mrs. Lovett, his landlord and owner of the pie shop that finds success only after adding a special secret ingredient to her meat pies. Both are deliciously intense and over the top. Sapp is unrelentingly manic in his quest for vengeance, after having been wrongfully deported to Australia so a corrupt local judge, Turpin, could take advantage of his beautiful young wife. Bryan is positively chilling in her remorseless determination to win the barber’s affections and advance her failing pie business – which she herself describes in song as, “The Worst Pies in Town.”

But the strength of this production does not rest solely on the shoulders of the two leads. William Anderson, as the corrupt Judge Turpin appears in his first scene with his eyes wildly bugged out, and the next time we see him he is ripping pages from his bible and flagellating himself as he tries to talk himself out of his lustful attraction to his beautiful young ward, Johanna – who is actually the daughter of Sweeney Todd, and sees in the pompous Turpin only a father figure. Mallory Keene plays Johanna with a sweet innocence – except when demanding kisses from her true love, Anthony Hope, or grabbing a pistol to shoot her jailer!

Kelsey Cordrey is an interesting sidekick as Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s lackey. Wordlessly, Cordrey conveys contempt for the Judge, and perhaps even envy and a desire to have Johanna for himself.  Then there’s Audra Honaker who does double duty as the mysterious beggar woman and Pirelli, a rival barber. Interestingly, neither of Honaker’s characters are who they first appear to be, but it is the role of Pirelli that infuses some much needed hilarity into this horror story of a musical.

Matt Shofner charms as the loyal young apprentice, Tobias (Toby) Ragg. Freed from bondage to the flamboyant and fake Pirelli after Pirelli has a visit with Todd, Toby becomes attached to Mrs. Lovett an performs a touching duet in which he promises that nothing can harm her as long as he’s around. Little does he know. . .

The cast also includes Matt Polson as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who saves the shipwrecked Sweeney Todd and befriends him – pretty much against his will, and two musicians who remain onstage and occasionally get swept up in the action. The violinist is Marissa Resmini, and John-Stuart Fauquet on piano is also the production’s musical director. Michael Jarett designed the lighting, and there are plenty of special effects to cover the bloody throat slitting, indicate the bakeshop ovens are working, or create projections on the rear wall. Gray has covered the rear and side walls in industrial strength plastic, making me wonder, on entering, if perhaps the audience might need bibs, like the ones you get in seafood restaurants, to keep from getting splattered with blood. The audience has to walk through the set to get to their seats – and everyone is encouraged to use the facilities before the first act or wait until intermission. With everyone glued to their seats – partially in fear – I don’t think anyone thought of going to the bathroom during the first act.

Needless to say, with its themes of sexual assault, insanity, murder, corruption, imprisonment, incest, and more, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a part of the 2019 Acts of Faith Festival. And several performances are already sold out, so don’t wait, reserve your tickets now – and if you can, sit in the first row.

Oh, and did I mention that the singing is powerful (I could understand most of the lyrics) and the music sounds like a small orchestra, and not just two musicians? Well, it is (lack of clarity may have been due to musical phrasing, I’m not sure) and it does!

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: Tom Topinka

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ONCE: Not Your Usual Love Story

ONCE: It’s Complicated

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: February 8 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

I may be among the minority of those who never saw – or even heard of – the 2007 movie, Once, on which this musical is based. But that didn’t stop me from becoming totally immersed in Once on VaRep’s November Theatre stage. As a matter of fact, musical seems too narrow a term to encompass this production.

Get to the theater by 7:30 for an 8:00pm show. There are two vendors in the lobby – who later stroll the aisles of the theater for the first 5-10 minutes of the show – selling beer. A jam session starts in the lobby and makes its way down the aisles and onto the stage, sharing the aisles with the incoming audience. It’s all very loud and festive and inclusive – an all-encompassing theatrical experience quite unlike any other. The Irish accents and folk dance enhance the sense of adventure. (I assume the Irish and Czech accents were pretty authentic; after awhile I became some engrossed in the play that it didn’t matter.)

Once is based on the motion picture of the same name, written and directed by John Carney. The music and lyrics for the musical are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, with book by Enda Walsh. For this production, William James Mohney has designed a moody, multi-purpose set that serves as a music shop, a recording studio, a vacuum repair shop as well as the apartment above, and more. A raised stage, a few chairs, a slew of instruments – it’s all very minimal, but the lighting (by Joe Doran), the props, and the movement create the necessary spaces. Indeed, in the final scene, Girl and Guy are physically only a few feet apart, but she is in her apartment in Dublin while he is in New York – and they are singing the same song.

For those who, like me, are not familiar with the story, the two lead characters, who are nameless, are Guy, a talented Irish singer and songwriter whose life has come to a standstill since his girlfriend moved to New York and Girl, an energetic and insightful Czech woman who bursts unexpectedly into his life and encourages him to make music and go after his lost love in New York. But this friendship seems always to be on the verge of romance, and at one point, catching some air and studying the night sky, Girl tells Guy – in Czech – that she loves him. He asks for a translation, but she mutters something about the rain and runs off.

There is magic between the two – Ken Allen Neely and Katherine Fried – both of whom I believe are new to VaRep and the Richmond stage. Their singing flows naturally and is often intimate and romantic, in contrast to the ensemble numbers which are often rousing and more than once set the audience to clapping along. We root for their love, but it is not to be – at least not in the physical sense.

I also tremendously enjoyed Jon Patrick Penick, the owner of the music shop who freely lent Girl the use of a piano and became a part of Guy’s demo band. Penick added a comic touch with his pretense of gruffness and his heart of gold. His unexpected friendship with the capitalist bank manager, Andrew Nielson, added a bit of extra flavor to the second act. Lauren Wright is a powerhouse as Reza, singing, dancing, and seducing Billy with equal enthusiasm.

All of the ensemble actors are also part of the orchestra and some are part of Guy’s demo band as well, acting, singing, and playing all the instruments. And they dance. VaRep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw has directed with an easy pace that varies between the frenetic and the reflective, and Shaw’s choreography – which moves the cast even when they aren’t dancing – is organic and fluid. Once is unexpected, unconventional, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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: Jay Paul

Once
Trevor Lindley Craft, Lauren Wright, Will Hart. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Trevor Lindley Craft, J. Michael Zygo, Jon Patrick Penick, Lauren Wright. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Ken Allen Neely and Katherine Fried. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Ken Allen Neely. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Hilary Alexa Caldwell and Christopher Seiler. Photo by Jay Paul.

HUCK & TOM: Rolling on the River

Huck & Tom: And the Mighty Mississippi

A Theater Review (& some other thoughts) by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 25 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

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

The latest production of the Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn is Huck & Tom and the Mighty Mississippi, a collection of short adventures from Mark Twain’s books about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The production is adapted from the works of Mark Twain, with book and lyrics by Peter Howard, and music and lyrics by Ron Barnett. Colorful and lively, with a few pleasant songs, some period costumes (Becky’s is especially pretty), and creative use of crates to change scenes (the cemetery was quite inspired), this production is recommended for ages 6-12 but is probably best suited for the higher end of this age range, through middle school.

James Hendley and Joel White share good chemistry as Tom and Huck, respectively, with Caitlin Sneed bringing balance as Aunt Polly and Rachel Jones as an adorable Becky. Alvan Bolling II rounds out the cast as Jim.

Throughout the show, which runs just under an hour, with no intermission, characters remind one another and the audience that there isn’t enough time to tell the entire story and encourage audience members to check out the books from their libraries to find out the rest of the story. David Tousley’s set, which includes movable fences, a raft, and the aforementioned crates, includes a background of fencing and gigantic books.

I always like the program for the children’s productions. One side is a frameable poster keepsake, and the other contains all the usual program information. This one includes “Five Fun Facts” about the author and his books, such as Mark Twain’s real name, a nautical term named for Twain, Twain’s early jobs, and some facts about the Mississippi River. In keeping with this theme, I will offer five observations about this production.

One. First, let me defer to my panel of experts: Kingston and Nicole, both age 10, and Emmitt, age 4. Emmitt said he liked “everything” but was not able to offer any details. Kingston and Nicole also said they liked everything, but given that they are in double digits, I couldn’t let them get away with that. Nicole then offered that she found it confusing with one actor just fell down on the floor when the narrator said he’d been shot in the leg. An audible “bang,” she and Kingston agreed, would have made it better. When I asked them how they felt about Huck trying to decide whether to turn in Jim for the runaway slave reward and save himself or to help Jim escape to freedom, neither of them was mature enough to have fully grasped the gravity of the situation. Most of the audience was probably in the 4-10 year age range, so I’m not sure many of them grasped the significance of this dilemma.

Two. Throughout the production, young audience members were urged to read the books for themselves. Most if not all raised their hands when they were asked if they liked to read. I wonder how many of the parents present are aware that these beloved classics are among the most frequently banned books in the USA? Mostly because in the original texts there is liberal use of the word “nigger,” as Jim is referred to as Nigger Jim. Is this something you want to discuss with your elementary school child?

Three. Kingston was able to relate to some of the historical references, remembering that they had been covered in his fourth grade SOLs.  So, kudos for making theater both educational and entertaining, and finding connections with what the kids are learning in school.

Four. Emmitt, age 4, is usually completely enthralled by theater, especially if there is music involved. But this time he was ready to leave about halfway through.

Five. Huck & Tom is a colorful, lively production, with lots of visual interest, movement, and energetic performances by its cast of five, and is well-directed by Kikau Alvaro. Based on my experience, it is best suited for children ten or older, and should be accompanied by sort of discussion. This production is a part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, and the suggested faith connection is “growing up,” which is linked to the scripture Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Depending on the age and maturity of the child, and the personal beliefs of the family, there are so many directions this discussion could take.

 

Sensory Friendly Performances

A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

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

Acts of Faith logo

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Rachel Jones. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
James Hendley, center. Alvan Bolling II, Caitlin Sneed, left. Rachel Jones, right. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Alvan Bolling II and Joel White. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Joel White, Alvan Bolling II, Caitlin Sneed, Rachel Jones, and James Hendley. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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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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.